Coming Clean: 'When all the cards were dealt'

Editor’s note: This is the last article in a six-part series investigating contamination at the Arness Septage Site in Nikiski.

 

Myron McGahan’s family has lived in the Nikiski area for three generations. Years ago he acquired 51 acres on which he wanted to develop a housing subdivision — but he says he would not have dared consider such a plan if he knew about the nearby Arness Septage Site and a recent proposal to build a drilling waste monofill near it.

Since hearing about the monofill proposal and the septage site’s history, McGahan has made a habit of combing through stacks of Environmental Protection Agency documents and what Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation information he can find on the site’s history.

“I’m surprised that they have just left this and not really reacted to it properly,” he said sitting in his kitchen in October. “(DEC staff) are stating they are doing everything that they can, but logic and reason dictate they are not doing anything at all.”

McGahan and fellow Nikiski resident Steve Chamberlain have been outspoken critics on the site and its history.

Chamberlain admits he is “very tough” on DEC staffers and said he regularly has phone conversations with high-level staff about the site.

Answers about why DEC’s own staff thinks the site has not been properly assessed are not surrendered — instead, they only listen, he said. What little they do say, Chamberlain said, is “blah, blah stuff.”

“The thing is, by me calling them and getting them riled up, they drop the ball, they get nervous and start doing things they shouldn’t, like deleting (online information),” he said.

In his search for answers, McGahan said he has also become frustrated with DEC staff.

“I’ve seen no help from them up to this point,” McGahan said. “They have not been helpful to the point that they have been accusing. I can’t imagine what Paul Horwath is going through.”

Public concerns about the site were resurrected by an online posting written by Paul Horwath, a DEC engineer based in the Kenai office.

Chamberlain and McGahan both said they feel Horwath is a whistleblower.

Horwath said he wrote the Feb. 8 entry because he was asked to review any local sites that were in limbo and provide an “update action” to explain why progress has not been made.

A copy of the online site chronology obtained on June 29 said Kenai area DEC contaminated sites staff “put forth concerted and repetitive efforts over a decade of years in an effort to complete the assessment of the soil and groundwater contamination remaining at this (site), and no forward progress was allowed by politically appointed ADEC administrators.” Local efforts were “thwarted” by upper management, Horwath wrote.

That language and several other sections of the state’s online chronology report for the Arness site were deleted on July 5 within minutes of inquiries to DEC staff by the Peninsula Clarion about the chronology, the site and its relationship to the proposed drilling waste monofill site.

DEC Program Manager Sally Schlichting apologized for the content and defended her deletion of the material.

“I’m glad you caught it, actually,” said Schlichting, a Juneau-based employee.

When asked if it is her job to investigate what DEC staff concludes, Schlichting said, “Well, this is the first I’ve seen of it.”

“I’m not politically influenced and I’ve never talked to Peggy Arness but there is no evidence that’s happened,” she said. “The buck would stop at the commissioner’s level or the director’s level if that was actually happening.

“That’s why we delete information like that because that’s a staff person that might be making an allegation against the management.”

In July, McGahan sent Larry Dietrick, DEC’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response Director, and a score of other state, borough, DEC and EPA officials a heated email containing a list of pointed questions. McGahan’s concerns surrounded Horwath’s allegations that politically appointed management stopped compliance on the site.

Dietrick, in a response email, wrote that “compliance to close out the Arness Septage site has not been stopped by anyone.” Dietrick also wrote there was “no political agenda” and “no attempt to hide information and no deletion of any documentation.”

In an interview with the Clarion, Dietrick agreed with Schlichting’s reasoning for deleting Horwath’s allegations, adding they were not valid, merely opinion, and when DEC staffers looked for a factual basis for those allegations they didn’t find any — “there was none and there still is none.”

“I’m not aware of anyone who brought in any factual basis for the political conjecture that was included in the database,” he said. “ ... I read the language at the time and the suggestion is that some elected official approached the department and said quit doing work at this site.

“I have absolutely no knowledge of that ever occurring at this site. As a matter of fact, I can’t recall in my history with the department that occurring with any site, let alone other activities.”

Horwath said he was not consulted before the information was eliminated — he was on vacation at the time. He said no one from DEC has formally disciplined him for what he wrote. However, Horwath and Kenai-based DEC staffer Peter Campbell have been constrained in their dealings with the media and were told to refer questions about the Arness site to DEC management, according to an email.

Dietrick also disputed the allegation that the site has been languishing for decades.

“There was, I would say, a very earnest effort on the part of the project manager to get that very work done,” he said. “And so there was no stoppage here of the work. There has never been a stand down on the need to get this confirming sampling done. That’s never occurred that I’m aware of. There has been delays.”

Horwath said, when asked why the Arness site was never addressed properly or put through regularly established DEC processes, “That’s the type of thing that just doesn’t get explained.”

Joe and Jim Arness, who are now managing the site for their elderly mother Peggy, said they are concerned about whether the contamination has spread — they can’t do much else other than attempt to salvage their family’s reputation.

The language deleted by DEC administration in July included comments that Peggy Arness had been the Kenai Chamber of Commerce executive director and served as an aid to former Sen. Ted Stevens, former Gov. Frank Murkowski and U.S. Rep. Don Young.

“It is just offensive,” Joe Arness said about what was inferred, even though his mother did work in those positions.

“(The political allegations are) not true, in anyway is it true. We get placed immediately in the position of trying to prove a negative, and how do you do that? That’s kind of the same thing with the site — we are in the position of trying to prove a negative.”

Jim Arness said he asked DEC to change the name of the site to the “Brown Septage Site” after the man — Dave Brown of MAR Enterprises who dumped the materials on site — hoping to clear his family’s name. DEC staff said that would not be possible, he said.

“We’re big boys — if we’ve got to deal with it, we’ll deal with it,” Jim said. “But it is just not really, in our mind, just hasn’t been fair.”

Joe Arness agreed — the family is “caught in kind of a funny spot” not knowing how to proceed, how to clear their family’s name and reputation and not knowing if what they could do will ever help the site come clean.

“Things were done in the ‘60s and the ‘70s around here that aren’t done now, clearly, and it is unfortunate that we got to hold the card when all the cards were dealt,” he said.

 

The previous five articles in this series, plus additional historical photos, video and supporting documents may be found at www.peninsulaclarion.com.

■ ■ ■

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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 5: Water Worries - 'we just don't know'
Arness excavation video (YouTube)
Photo gallery

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