An upgrade of the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna likely will be delayed for at least a year because of underground contamination emanating from a former dry cleaner.
Dry cleaning fluid was discovered in the soil and groundwater near the former laundromat at River Terrace Campground after a citizen complained in 1992 about leaky barrels stored at the site. The campground is along the highway by the Kenai River.
Considerable contaminated soil has been excavated and treated. However, a contractor for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said he still finds contamination in monitoring wells by the highway.
"We've got essentially an unknown right underneath and adjacent to our project," said Rob Campbell, project manager for the Statewide Design and Engineering Services Division of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. "With the costs associated with our project and with the cleanup, we're reluctant to proceed with our project."
Campbell said Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster has expressed concern that if the state finds concentrations of dry cleaning fluid when it digs up the highway near the bridge, construction work could grind to a halt.
"Having the main arterial through town torn up for an extended period could be devastating to the local economy," Campbell said.
Lancaster said a second concern is the state's plan to relocate a storm sewer that runs beside the highway and empties into the river. The new storm sewer would discharge instead into a sedimentation basin. Lancaster said the state has proposed putting that on land his wife, Mavis, owns near the city water treatment plant off Kobuk Street.
However, the state has detected traces of dry cleaning fluid in the storm sewer outfall. Lancaster said his wife does not want to sell the land, and he does not want the storm sewer outfall moved until the underground contamination is cleaned up.
"They say the contamination is going into the storm sewer and going into the river. In the next breath, they say they're taking the sewer away from the river and they're going to take it to another part of town," Lancaster said. "That tells me that the contamination is going to another part of town."
Campbell said the department's original plan was for a $16 million project, beginning in the summer of 2001. Plans were to widen the bridge and to repave and upgrade the highway from Fred Meyer to the intersection with Funny River and Kalifornsky Beach roads.
"The big money is in the bridge," Campbell said. "The bridge itself will cost $6 million to $8 million."
The state plans to widen the bridge to accommodate five lanes of traffic, plus walkways for pedestrians and cyclists. It also plans to upgrade the intersection with Kalifornsky Beach and Funny River roads and widen the highway from Kobuk Street to the bridge.
The cleanup at River Terrace has been contentious. The state and campground owners Gary and Judith Hinkle are still battling in court over who should pay the cost. Last summer, a court order granted DEC access to further assess the contamination. DEC hired a contractor to do that and to recommend what additional cleanup, if any, should be done.
Rich Sundet, River Terrace project manager for DEC, said groundwater appears to flow from the former laundromat both toward the highway and toward the river. New wells have detected a pocket of high contamination near the laundromat.
A monitoring well on the River Terrace side of the highway detected groundwater contamination above the state's cleanup threshold. Wells across the highway detected minimal contamination, or none at all.
Sundet said gravel bedding for a utility corridor on the River Terrace side of the highway, for the roadbed itself or for the storm sewer across the highway may be catching groundwater from River Terrace and funneling it toward the river.
The need to clean under the highway should be assessed, he said. However, soil near the highway does not appear to be highly contaminated, so treating groundwater near the former laundromat might be enough to solve any problems in the roadbed.
Sundet said he expects the contractor's report, including cleanup alternatives, in early March. The state will take public comment before finalizing a cleanup plan.
Campbell said the highway project has been split because of the contamination. A $3 million upgrade from Fred Meyer to Kobuk Street will probably begin in the summer of 2001, he said. Work from Kobuk to the intersection with Kalifornsky Beach Road is on hold until DEC hears from its contractor.
"I'd expect the bridge work would be at least a year behind the other project, and it could be more depending on what type of cleanup there is and how long it takes," Campbell said.
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