Coming Clean: Water Worries - 'we just don't know'

Photo by M. Scott MoonA section of pipe and other metal remains above the ground at the edge of the land DEC calls the Arness Septic Site last summer. What remains below the ground remains a mystery.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a six-part series investigating history and current status of a contaminated site in Nikiski.



In the decades since the oil wastes dumped at the Arness Septage Site in Nikiski were cleaned up, fears about what impact remaining contaminates may have had on the area’s groundwater have grown.

Although sampling from the one well nearest the site has not turned up contaminate levels that would require a large scale clean-up, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials contend samples from that well can not properly define the extent of what may or may not be in the groundwater at that depth.

The Arness site monitoring well, which is located on Kenai Peninsula Borough property up-gradient of the area’s groundwater flow, was most recently tested in 2004. Testing indicated the plume of contaminates remained “fairly stable over the long haul,” DEC engineer Paul Horwath wrote. Levels of 1,1,1 trichloroethane remaining there were within prior tested ranges, which is typical of such plumes, he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trichloroethane is “largely used as a solvent removing grease from machined metal products, in textile processing and dyeing and in aerosols.” Someone drinking water with the compound for many years could experience problems with their liver, nervous system, or circulatory system, according to the EPA.

The maximum contaminant level goal established by the DEC for the chemical is 0.2 parts per million. The range tested at the Arness site has been between .006 and .019 parts per million, according to records.

In older DEC documents, DEC staffer Brad Hahn wrote that based on his review of the data, the well near the Arness site is “representative” of the level of contamination to be expected in other areas.

“However, that’s a gut feeling based on the relatively low levels of TCA in the soil and regional groundwater flow. I would not like to defend that position at a public hearing!” Hahn wrote in an email.

Horwath wrote an owner of an adjacent property “could consume the 1,1,1 TCA without ever knowing it.”

“Should it happen, it will be difficult for ADEC to explain its lack of performance,” he wrote in an email to DEC officials.

Horwath wrote if the groundwater 135 feet deep is contaminated, then the soil from the groundwater up is also contaminated. In order to properly address the site, Horwath said staff needed to install additional wells down gradient of groundwater and the plume, monitor pollution levels for several years and identify the risk associated with the site.

Based on that risk level, he said staff could then properly evaluate the cost merits of cleaning it up and inform the public so any polluted water is not ingested.

In August and September, DEC staff drew a half-mile radius around the septage site and attempted to sample as many water wells as they were allowed access. Of the 27 in the area, only eight were sampled, said DEC’s Peter Campbell, now project manager for the site. Two wells showed some contamination — but not an apparent link to the contamination from the septage site, Campbell said.

According to an email from Campbell, the Arness well was not retested. DEC staff said retesting the well would be the Arnesses’ responsibility, but if DEC had seen “red flags” as a result of the eight-well sampling “a more aggressive response from the state would have been warranted.”

“Historical sample results have been fairly consistent, and ADEC does not expect to see significant changes at this point,” DEC administrators wrote in an email. “Pending the elevation survey results, it is possible that the Arnesses will be required to install and sample additional monitoring well(s). At that time, the existing well can be sampled with any newly installed monitoring wells.”

Joe Arness, who now manages the site with his brother Jim, worked in early December with an engineer to complete survey work looking at the area’s groundwater aquifers as requested by DEC, he said.

Nikiski residents Myron McGahan and Steve Chamberlain, who both have been outspoken about the site’s history, did not allow the DEC to test their water wells during the sampling effort.

Chamberlain said he was concerned the testing of his well near the eatery he owns — Charlie’s Pizza — would be “biased,” and he felt DEC did not have an answer when he asked what would happen if his water “came up dirty.”

“I asked for protection because my worry is that they will shut me down, that they’ll destroy me because I’ve got a big mouth,” he said.

McGahan said he did not trust the DEC to test his well based on his previous interactions with staff.

“I felt that ADEC wasn’t being truthful with the people out here and as we researched we learned that they really haven’t been fully truthful within their own office, at least in the documentation,” he said.

McGahan said he is worried about what health effects could come from drinking water near the site, has stopped drinking from his property’s water well and started buying bottled water in bulk. He said he has been diagnosed with two stomach diseases, but does not know the causes.

Six groundwater monitoring wells were installed on land cater-cornered to the Arness site. That land and its wells are owned by AIMM Technologies, an industry support company that has proposed building a drilling waste monofill there. That proposal drew attention to the Arness site. Chamberlain and other Nikiski residents grew concerned the site, if approved, might exacerbate the contamination issues by changing how the area’s groundwater moves.

Samples from four of those six AIMM wells showed no signs of chlorinated solvents or hydrocarbons, according to the DEC. The other two wells were drilled in the last few months and have yet to be sampled.

Nikiski State Rep. and House Speaker Mike Chenault said he has heard concerns about the groundwater in the area and would support funding for additional water monitoring wells. However, he would like to see a report before “we just throw money at it,” he said.

“I haven’t seen a report from DEC saying they’d like to put a couple more wells on it, but I have asked DEC to give me a complete rundown of what is going on out there,” he said. “One, why they haven’t addressed the issue until now and two, if they think there needs to be some more wells drilled out there then we need to decide who is going to drill those wells.

“Whether they should be Arness since it is their property and it should be their responsibility, or if there is no one there who can pay the bill, then DEC has an obligation of the citizens of Nikiski that they do what needs to be done to try to control that contaminated site.”

Although Nikiski has a reputation as an oil-polluted area, Campbell said he would not consider the area to be “grossly” contaminated.

“I come from Michigan,” he jested.

“If you include the refineries and Tesoro and all that in Nikiski, we’ve got some problems, some really serious problems,” he said. “But the population center of Nikiski itself? No, it is not too bad.”

Campbell said digging up the contaminated soil at the Arness site and hauling it to a hazardous waste facility would cost at least $500,000 and, short of being an oil company, “those assets aren’t usually available.”

What was done at the Arness site — landfarming — is a typical process used to mitigate such contaminates.

“You are taking that mass and spreading it over a large area, and so you are really significantly diluting the source and allowing it to evaporate and get weathered by the sun,” Campbell said.

The site, if found today, would likely be treated in much the same manner as it was then, he said.

“Hydrocarbons for years went to thermal remediation facilities and that has kind of gone by the wayside,” he said. “There used to be three or four thermal companies around and there is only one or two left. … Hydrocarbons just don’t migrate that far. A lot of the materials that were at the Arness Site were hydrocarbons.”

Chlorinated solvents like 1,1,1 TCA are harder to naturally degrade, and if concentrations are high enough they can remain in the groundwater for a long time, Campbell said.

“If I would have had my way, I probably would have had a liner underneath those materials to really isolate it from further infiltration,” he said. “But, as far as I’m aware, if you put these chlorinated solvents close to the surface and allow weathering to occur they will volatilize and that’s the point of landfarming.”

However, the core of the problem currently is that no one is sure of the direction of the groundwater flow in the area and as such, a maximum level of chlorinated solvents at the site is undetermined, Campbell said.

On the other hand, Campbell said he does not expect a large plume of contaminates in the area because the levels originally tested near the site in the water and soil were not “very high,” he added.

“But, I just don’t think there was enough investigation done at the site to truly characterize it,” he said. “That’s the issue here. We just don’t have enough information at the site. This may not be a grossly contaminated site, is what I am getting at. All the results we have are pretty low, but we just don’t know.”


This series will conclude Sunday. The previous four articles in this series may be found at

Part 6: Coming Clean: 'When all the cards were dealt'

■ ■ ■

Brian Smith can be reached at

Part 1: What remains out of sight
Part 2: Clouded history at Nikiski site
Part 3: Lingering pollutants and 'old wounds'
Part 4: 'Delays, lack of cooperation and low priority'
Part 6: Coming Clean: 'When all the cards were dealt'
Arness excavation video (YouTube)
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