Spurred by resident concerns about groundwater contamination caused by the area’s oil industry-influenced past, the Kenai Peninsula Borough will soon start to coordinate an environmental assessment of the Nikiski area.
The borough recently received $150,000 from a capital budget reappropriation crafted by State Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. That money has not yet approved by Gov. Sean Parnell, but Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said he expects the money to make the budget.
If approved, Navarre said the funds will go toward aligning and assessing available environmental data in partnership with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, looking at the area’s groundwater resources and attempting to determine how much of a concern area contamination is and whether there needs to be a larger plan in place to address it.
“There’s not really a coordinated plan,” he said. “I don’t know if we can get there for the $150,000, but we are going to get started on figuring out the depth of the potential and whether or not we need to have a longer term plan.”
Navarre said he has heard a number of resident concerns about the groundwater in Nikiski, mainly after the history of a particular contaminated site resurfaced last year. That site, known as the Arness Septage Site, was the subject of a six-part Peninsula Clarion investigation that revealed at least 4,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste, sludge and other pollutants were dumped on the land in the early 1980s.
Local DEC staff said the pollution at the Arness site hasn’t been properly monitored for decades and the extent of the contaminate plume it left behind after it was initially cleaned isn’t defined. The site was brought to light last year during the consideration of a controversial proposal to build a monofill to hold oil industry exploration drilling wastes on property a stone’s throw away.
Although there are groundwater monitoring wells on the proposed monofill site, they — and a well near the Arness site on borough property — are insufficient to determine the area’s groundwater flow and possible contamination levels, DEC staff contends.
Peter Campbell, DEC engineer and project manager for the Arness site, said the DEC is working with Joe and Jim Arness — the sons of the deceased James Arness, who owned the site — on a work plan to fully assess the contamination.
Campbell said DEC’s priorities for the site are groundwater contamination concentration samplings and to determine the groundwater flow in the area with a “minimum” of three water wells.
“In doing that, groundwater concentrations are going to be just as important as the direction of flow in determining what’s going on,” Campbell said. “In other words we have a rough idea of what the source area is and we are going to be looking for concentrations down gradient of that. Those concentrations are going to be just as relevant as the elevations almost.”
Joe Arness said he has hired an engineer and in March submitted a work plan that includes drilling a water sampling well on the site this summer.
“My intent is to drill that well, find out what’s down there, see what kind of information we can get as far as direction of water movement from that well, then re-evaluate the situation and see what to do from there,” he said.
Arness said DEC spent four or five weeks reviewing the work plan and sent it back with a few questions. Arness said he expects to spend $15,000 just between hiring the engineer and drilling the well.
“When you walk around that DEC office they talk about three or four wells on it,” he said. “That’s serious. I think it’s ridiculous, but they hold the cards. I’m not badmouthing them; they’ve been really nice about this.”
Arness said he had not heard of the legislature’s appropriation to the borough for funding, but said he hoped it would be used to help determine the groundwater flow in the area. He said that information could help the Arness family clear its name and close out the site.
“It’s a lot of money basically proving there is no more of a threat than what there appears to be at this moment,” he said. “When I got together with the engineer and he looked at the paperwork on the thing and the history on it, his comment was, ‘Why are we doing anything on this?’ I said, ‘Because of political pressure.’”
Campbell said DEC could find a number of ways to spend the money either on the site or on other contaminated sites in Nikiski, but the department isn’t yet working with the borough.
“They really haven’t made it clear to us what their goals are, so we aren’t requiring them to do anything — this is something they are doing on their own,” he said.
The borough doesn’t yet have a timeline for developing the plan, but Navarre said he wanted to make sure work from DEC, the Arness family and others isn’t duplicated.
“I think it makes sense for the borough to step up ... and help determine how significant of a problem we have in the area,” he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.