Coming Clean: Clouded history at Nikiski site

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a six-part series.



The regulatory agency history of the Arness Septage Site begins in the late 1970s when James Arness filed to install a septage system on one of the two, 10-acre parcels of land his family owned in the area.

However, state records indicate Arness’ intended purpose for the site has now become clouded because, at the time, “several conflicting reports are given in the files on what responsible parties did or said,” DEC officials wrote.

“The exact degree of the responsible parties’ consent to violations is unlikely to ever be discovered,” a 1992 report reads.

According to a 1989 DEC document on the site, Arness filed an application to install 21 large drilling mud tanks in 1979. Prior to that, a 40-foot pipe and tank septage system was used at the site. Plans indicated the septage dump facility would only receive pumping from septic tanks, but not oily waste.

Shortly after the permit was submitted, an application to modify it to a “special waste” handling site was requested but never approved, according to the state’s investigation.

“The engineers apparently had no firm conception of how oily waste products, drilling mud and water-conditioning sludges would be handled, but proposed the testing of a number of concepts,” investigators wrote.

A DEC regional supervisor at the time wrote to the Kenai District Office and said staff should “violently oppose” the expanded facility and said Arness needed to stop “the current bypassing” of the local office by his engineers.

Officials asked for specific details about the proposal and how it would protect public health, but “the required engineering, physical and chemical data was never submitted,” the investigation alleges. DEC issued a normal septage disposal permit a month later set to expire in 1984, but investigators noted no permits for handling oil waste were issued.

DEC representatives visited the site in December 1979 in response to Arness’ report of an unauthorized dumping, and Arness agreed to restrict site access in response.

According to staff reports, Arness said as many as 300 barrels of oil had been disposed of at the site, however the incident was not reported to DEC until the cleanup was nearly complete.

Between 1983 and 1985, DEC staff made no recorded attempts to investigate the site, and around that time, Arness leased the property to Dave Brown of MAR Enterprises.

In 1982, the Soldotna Fire Department filed a complaint about Brown regarding leaking drums of drag reducing agent from a Pioneer Oilfield Service spill in Fairbanks and the fire hazard the drums posed while stored on property he owned, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents. It is unclear whether the drag reducing agent came from Pioneer or Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, as both companies are mentioned in DEC and EPA paperwork.

Drag reducing agent is a by-product of oil production and is added to crude oil to reduce friction and wear in pipelines. It is considered hazardous to human health, according to the EPA.

As a result of DEC’s actions on Soldotna Fire’s complaint, Brown attempted to move the drums to the Arness site, but access was restricted and the 150 drums were stored at another property, DEC officials wrote. A 1992 DEC report alleges Brown burned the some of the 1,742 gallons of drag reducing agent when he was forced to clean up that property. Brown moved the burn residue to the Arness site, according to documents.

In 1985 the Alaska Health Project filed complaints about the Arness site and the state obtained search warrants. Investigation revealed about 200 barrels of drag reducing agent and waste oil stored on the property, much of which was spilled onto the ground.

Brown submitted cleanup plans, but DEC staff considered those “inadequate,” according to documents. Brown was allowed to burn the remaining drag reducing agent on site in 1985 in the barrels despite DEC concerns it would not burn in compliance with smoke and pollutant regulations.

In November of 1985, DEC filed criminal charges against Brown, but “prosecution is declined, no reason given,” according to the documents.

In 1986, the state informed Arness, Brown and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company that a cleanup was needed, it would proceed with or without their assistance and future legal action to recover the costs of the cleanup would be warranted. In February of that year, Kenai District Office staff visited the site and found an estimated 4,200 gallons of oil-contaminated septage in the two underground disposal systems.

The state prepared bid packages in 1986 attempting to tap a state pot of money to start clean up. However, a state budget crisis began and that account was “frozen.” The EPA’s preliminary assessment was not performed until 1987.

In a 1986 letter, Shannon Turner, state assistant District Attorney, stated she denied prosecution due to the case’s lengthy history and “to now proceed with the prosecution after all these years would appear to be prosecutorial vindictiveness.” She said the state should seek a civil and not criminal resolution.

In 1986, Brown declared bankruptcy and left the state, staff wrote in a 1992 memo. A few months later the state corresponded with the Attorney General’s office, but officials there said filing a lawsuit “would be a lengthy and expensive process with no guaranteed results,” according to records.

“The oil spill reserve account was frozen. The AG’s office was closing the files,” the 1992 report reads.

Later in 1987, DEC staff found that drag reducing agent, boat bilge water, oil platform wash water and fish heads were dumped into the 21-tank system and samples identified materials resembling polymerized linseed oil, saturated aliphatic hydrocarbon grease, arctic low temperature grease and weathered diesel fuel, according to state documents.

James Arness died in 2006, and his sons, Joe Arness and Jim Arness, have been left to tend to the site for their mother, Peggy Arness.

Joe Arness, in a recent interview with the Clarion, said he looks at DEC and wonders why the agency didn’t pursue normal, swift regulation and clean up of the site. The Arness brothers said they remember hearing murmurs of trouble at the site at the time but the two stayed out of their father’s business.

“That whole thing was something that my dad did and he was a pretty active guy and he was out doing his thing,” Joe Arness said.

Jim Arness said he wonders why the companies who made the fluids that were dumped there were not made to pay for the clean up when the man they hired to properly dispose of them neglected that duty.

“Why were they really never a part of this issue?” he said.

“I believe (the site never being fully assessed) had to do more with the internal workings of the DEC than it had to do with who Jim Arness was,” Joe Arness said. “... They didn’t know what to do next. This is the reality that we face right now — by all accounts, engineers, DEC, anyone says, ‘You can’t clean that up, there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

In 1988, DEC staff dug up the septage site. Video of the excavation shows equipment hauling the old containment system — 21 interconnected, perforated tanks and an open-ended, 40-foot-by-4-foot steel pipe — away from the site. As the pipe is pulled up the side of the pit, a black sludge flows out of it. Other portions of the video show subsequent groundwater well installation and sampling.

According to the DEC’s history of the site, EPA stepped away from investigating the location in 1990 by flagging it “No Further Action” required. However, EPA staff said no records were found in files after 1988, and it was working with state officials to correct those records.

The remaining contaminated soils from the site were spread out under a landfarming process that stipulated Arness till the site annually to help deteriorate the wastes naturally. DEC Kenai Office engineer Peter Campbell said landfarming is a typical process to remediate contaminated sites.

That process, Campbell said, is common when resources are limited and if the site were found today, it would likely be treated in the same manner. Oil — the bulk of what was at the Arness site — does not spread through the ground as voraciously as chlorinated solvents. The idea with landfarming, he said, is to take the mass of contaminates, spread them out and allow weathering processes to dilute them over time.


This series will continue Wednesday with a look into the history of the site from excavation to its current state. The first article in this series may be found at

Part 3: Lingering pollutants and 'old wounds'

■ ■ ■

Brian Smith can be reached at

Part 1: What remains out of sight
Part 3: Lingering pollutants and 'old wounds'
Part 4: 'Delays, lack of cooperation and low priority'
Part 5: Water Worries - 'we just don't know'
Part 6: Coming Clean: 'When all the cards were dealt'
Arness excavation video (YouTube)
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