Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a six-part series investigating a contaminated site in Nikiski.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation staff who attempted to fully assess the Arness Septage Site in Nikiski through the decades were met with, according to a DEC staff email, “delays, lack of cooperation and low priority” in general for mitigating the contaminates left there.
Records indicate progress on the site was dogged by staff shortages and budget freezes. Local DEC staff wrote numerous times they suspected other staffers outside of the area were complicating attempted progress on the site.
“Efforts to properly assess this site were thwarted due to political considerations by politically appointed administrators within ADEC management,” wrote DEC engineer Paul Horwath, in an online state contaminated sites database in early 2012.
DEC management deleted that allegation when the Peninsula Clarion began gathering information on the site in July. DEC management said Horwath’s allegation had no merit and was not relevant to the site’s history.
According to a 1989 DEC document, the attempts of local DEC staff to remedy the situation at the site were complicated due to the number of individuals involved in operating the site and the unrestricted access granted by the property owner in the facility’s early years.
DEC’s role in regulating the contamination at the site — remnants of the hundreds of barrels of drag reducing agent and at least 4,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste, sludge and other pollutants — was limited by staff shortages and budget freezes, records indicate. According to documents, only two field officers were available and other sites in the area were of greater priority due to “impending threats” to public health.
Horwath, who started at the office in 1985 and has watched the history of the Arness site, said DEC was much different than it is now — those were “ugly times,” and public opinion of DEC’s work was not highly viewed, he said.
“We didn’t have the structure, we didn’t have the regulations, we didn’t have the policies to operate under or the guidance documents that we have now,” he said. “So they did what they thought was appropriate in that day and age.”
In December 1990, Anchorage-based DEC staff emailed local DEC staff asking for recommended cases a newly-formed special investigation team should address.
DEC staff suggested two sites, one being the Arness site. Staff wrote that the landfarming method used to mitigate those contaminates was “inadequate” and other methods for dealing with the site were being considered.
“If we decide to dig up the soils again, cost will be over a million dollars by the time everything is tested, retested and finally disposed,” DEC staff wrote in an email. “Long history (back to 1979) of delays, lack of cooperation and low priority in general for this site, but contaminated soils are still there and public opinion might escalate for these kinds of things.”
In the early 1990s, local DEC staff again started discussing the site and met with former DEC Kenai District Office project manager Al Kegler to rehash what was done on the site. An estimate indicated it would cost $57,000 to install three groundwater monitoring wells at the site and $35,000 to remove 56 drums and other stained soils still stored at the site.
“Hey you two hosers, whats shakin? I been hearin’ ugly rumors you might stiff my buddy Jim (Arness) for 35K to move those drums,” Kegler, then a Juneau-based DEC employee, wrote in an email in 1991. Later, Kegler wrote the drums were “harmless.”
Several options were discussed about how to acquire funding for the desired wells and how much financial responsibility Arness would shoulder. One suggestion made by Kegler was named the “political solution” and did not involve drilling new groundwater testing wells even though staff considered new wells to be critical to understanding the contaminates remaining.
“A minimum of two more monitoring wells may be necessary at this site so that groundwater flow direction can be confirmed and so that a legitimate groundwater quality monitoring network can be established,” DEC staff wrote in a 1992 document.
According to an internal 1994 email between local staff members, Kegler “felt all was well except for the requirement for Arness to till the soils and dispose of the drums and for someone to sample the wells.” DEC staff wrote that information and entered it into files “in defense of former (Kenai) project managers” who tried to work on the site, according to documents.
“Lest we be faulted sometime in the future, it is important to again note that the soils which Al (Kegler) ‘landspread’ (4,000 to 40,000 cubic yards) still need to be dealt with,” a DEC staffer wrote. “Recent discussions seem to be forgetting this additional problem.”
“Al was of the position that the site was cleaned up and sufficiently assessed and I never agreed with Al Kegler and I don’t think any other experienced environmental professional would concur with his position,” Horwath said in early July in an interview with the Clarion.
In a follow up email, Horwath wrote that “ADEC public records, particularly from the period of 1987 to 1992, are known to be incomplete” because Kegler “refused to provide the file material that he maintained custody of from his assigned duty station in Juneau.” He wrote that material is now “forever lost” because Kegler died in a boating accident in 2007.
According to Juneau Empire reports, Kegler, then 58, dropped off two female friends on a beach in late September and was attempting to navigate his skiff between two Southeast islands when it capsized either from a rouge wave or from colliding with a rock in the shoal. Friends said they saw Kegler drown in the rough water.
In a 1999 Empire article, sources said Kegler “did a hero’s job” in stopping oil from reaching a fish hatchery during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“He is one of the best people in the country at oil-spill cleanup,” an oil spill consultant said.
Several email records indicate Kegler asked for information on the site after he oversaw its excavation in 1988, but local staff discussed ignoring those requests because of concerns he was attempting to manage the site from outside of his jurisdiction. Horwath indicated at the time that he would refer Kegler to Janice Adair, a DEC supervisor, and if Adair felt Kegler needed to be involved, she would “direct us accordingly.”
Horwath wrote in 1994 that “(Kegler’s) interest is financially protecting Arness” and that his personal feelings toward the site and Arness “run so deep that strangers at our luncheon restaurant meeting had to ask him to control his conduct and language.”
“I don’t need any additional stress caused by involvement in a potentially mismanaged project when required to justify the DEC’s decisions to the citizenry of Nikiski in the future. Al can just go back to Juneau. I live here,” Horwath wrote in an email forwarded to Adair.
Adair wrote back that Kegler was simply offering to help and “nothing more.”
A few weeks after that email exchange, former Kenai District Office manager Les Buchholz forwarded Adair an email containing a letter staff planned to send to Arness drafted by Don Fritz, a staff member assigned to oversee the site.
The letter informed Arness the remaining wastes in the drums would be considered “(hazardous) waste by today’s standards,” Buchholz said. The letter would also inform Arness he would need to dispose of the waste or DEC would step in and bill him for the clean up.
In response to that activity, Adair wrote, “We have gone over this before. I DO NOT WANT ANY SUCH LETTER GOING TO JIM ARNESS, NOR DO I WANT ANY SUCH THING SAID TO JIM ARNESS. Don, there is more here than you have apparently been told. Les, what do we need to do to get our act together?”
Horwath said Adair was a DEC Southcentral regional manager at that time. Previously she was a legislative aide, a special assistant to the commissioner of DEC and eventually became the Director of the Division of Environmental Health, Horwath said, but she is no longer a state employee. Clarion attempts to contact Adair were not successful.
“That would mean it is time to put the brakes on,” Horwath said after being asked about the meaning of Adair’s email. “That’s what it meant. I have recollection of normal processing of this project being stopped by managers at that level within DEC more than one time.”
This series will continue Friday with an article looking into the contamination remaining at the site and what hazard it could present to public health. Previous three articles may be found at www.peninsulaclarion.com.
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Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.