Coming Clean: Lingering pollutants and 'old wounds'

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a six-part series investigating a contaminated site in Nikiski.



The Arness Septage Site in Nikiski sat for years with little attention after it was excavated in the late 1980s and oil and other industry wastes dumped there had been spread out on top of the land in a process called landfarming intended to dilute them.

In 1995, local Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation staff made another attempt to fully clean the site by removing a few drums remaining on the site and installing several groundwater monitoring wells in the area to fully define the contaminate plume left behind.

Records indicate, however, that James Arness, a Nikiski man who had leased the property to the man that dumped the contaminates, at least once hung up the phone on DEC staff and refused to respond to the organization’s letters. In earlier DEC documents, staff wrote Arness believed the organization was at fault for the groundwater contamination at the site.

“He refuses access permission and has taken the slant that DEC’s prior work on the site introduced chlorinated contamination through the cleaning of equipment prior to use,” former DEC supervisor Les Buchholz wrote in a 1994 fax to a supervisor.

“Staff feels Mr. Arness is in the position of knowing if ADEC installs additional monitoring wells, it’s highly probable that more contamination will be found (possibly chlorinated solvents),” Buchholz wrote. “Since he ultimately ends up with the liability, which may be more than the value of the property, he attempts to blame ADEC for the contamination and because of financial liability will not allow further contamination definition.”

Records indicate DEC Kenai District Office staff repeatedly began efforts to install additional water monitoring wells at the site or perform additional mitigation, but those efforts would eventually fizzle.

Paul Horwath, a DEC engineer whose comments in an online DEC database alleging that political influence stopped normal staff processing of the site, wrote in 1995 that Arness wanted to speak with “whoever it is that keeps changing their minds about the DEC’s intended course of action on his property.”

“DEC has historically changed its position a number of times on this project; basically every time Mr. Arness says no,” Horwath wrote.

In February 2004, DEC environmental program manager Jim Frechione wrote Horwath an email about an “interesting discussion” regarding the Arness site he had with Larry Dietrick, DEC’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response Director.

Frechione, who has retired from DEC, said he wanted to see if the state could investigate the site again and what cost recovery options existed.

However, Frechione said Dietrick was “definitely concerned about opening ‘old wounds’ using today’s standards.”

“It is a very big deal; it’s very complex and if you are going to set new standards and open it up, it takes a lot of work and analysis to be able to implement that statewide across 2,700 (contaminated) sites,” Dietrick said in defense of that statement in a November interview with the Peninsula Clarion.

Joe Arness, 61, said he and his brother Jim, 64, are open to and have for several years discussed with DEC installing another water well on the property. But, DEC staff recently told the Arnesses they would like to sample other wells around Nikiski to help determine where another well might be best located.

“We got caught in the middle of this silly thing all the way through it,” Jim Arness said. “One of the DEC guys even said to me, ‘Your dad really got screwed on this deal.’”

Jim Arness said he spoke with DEC staff in 2006 after his father died to see if the land could get a clean bill of health. In respose, DEC said further assessment was needed and asked for him to generate a “work plan,” he said.

“If they agree with the plan then you go ahead and you do whatever the plan might dictate, but when you go through with it, that doesn’t mean anything is complete,” he said. “It still is open. At that point it kind of died out.”

Over the summer, Nikiski resident Myron McGahan started investigating the site’s history when he heard rumors of what happened there. The site is within walking distance of his home, drinking water well and several other area residences and businesses. He said he wanted to build a subdivision on land near the site, but scrubbed those plans after learning of the site.

Nikiski resident Steve Chamberlain, who owns Charlie’s Pizza located near the road that leads to the site, has posted local newspaper articles, photos and DEC documentation of the site’s history on his eatery’s walls.

“I spend a lot of time, when I can get out of the kitchen, I come and point things out to the customers and try and talk to them,” he said. “A lot of them don’t get it and don’t understand what is happening or what could happen.”

Chamberlain said he has seen people read descriptions of what happened and what was dumped at the site on his restaurant’s wall and “turn white.”

“Some of these people who did this, they are still here, they are still alive,” he said. “… The ones that turn white, they know. They know what happened over there.”

DEC’s Dietrick agreed that confirmation work still needed to be done at the site. Follow up work is being completed, he said, between the Arness family and a technical team to get “a lock on the groundwater geology” to confirm if there is any residual contamination migrating out of the site.

“What is coming out is that the site has been ignored or nothing has been done, and that’s not the case,” Dietrick said. “Yeah, the record isn’t perfect, but it is probably not atypical of many other sites here where you are struggling with a (responsible party) to get this done.

“The cost of doing this stuff is huge. … Our (regulations) do address technical and economic feasibility, but that’s a legitimate part of what we have to take into consideration when we impose additional requirements on the responsible party to do work.”

Joe and Jim Arness said they would love to have the site receive a bill of health and “be done with it,” but they cannot on their own afford groundwater wells needed. The two manage the land for their 87-year-old mother Peggy, who officially owns the site.

They said they have received offers on the land from gravel developers and excavators, but Jim Arness said he does not want to sell the land because of the contamination.

“We’d love to sell it, OK, sell it to you for a dollar bill,” Jim Arness said. “Well, maybe that’s even too much, just to be done with it. But, as we understand it, you don’t relieve yourself of liability by changing ownership.”

The pair agreed they want to help DEC in mitigating the site within reason and are more concerned about whether the site’s contaminate plume has spread.

“We certainly don’t want to do something that’s intentionally damaging other people — we have lived here too long for that,” Jim said. “I just laugh at people when they say something like that. But it is frustrating to us because, like Joe said, (it is like) trying to prove a double negative.”


This series will continue Thursday a look into allegations that DEC mismanaged the site and normal regulatory compliance was repeatedly stopped by DEC management despite concerted efforts by local staff. The previous two articles in this series may be found at

Part 4: 'Delays, lack of cooperation and low priority'

■ ■ ■

Brian Smith can be reached at

Part 1: What remains out of sight
Part 2: Clouded history at Nikiski site
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)
Photo Gallery