PCB investigation complicates upgrade

Kenai Lake tested for chemical discharge from Chugach plant

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2000

A Chugach Electric Association spokesman said he will not discuss whether Chugach is discharging cancer-causing chemicals into Kenai Lake until he has the final report from a new environmental study.

State and federal agencies questioned whether Chugach is discharging PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals sometimes used in electrical transformers and capacitors, into the lake after learning that samples from an oil-water separator at the Cooper Lake Hydroelectric Project powerhouse were contaminated.

There is no evidence that PCBs have reached the lake. Chugach ships oily waste from the separator off-site for disposal. However, it discharges water from the separator to a sump that empties into Kenai Lake. The sump has never been tested for PCBs, wrote Ann Rappoport, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a Jan. 11 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Chugach spokesman Phil Steyer said the utility's consultant, Environmental Management Inc., has tested all of the wastewater streams that leave the power plant. He would not say whether EMI detected PCBs. Its final report should be available late this week, he said.

"We are preparing a written response," he said. "That will address Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources letters. We've done quite a bit of additional testing at the plant."

In her letter, Rappoport said Chugach also should test sediments from the bottom of the lake, but Steyer said that was not possible. The lake is covered with ice, and the discharge exits a rock channel to a drop-off hundreds of feet deep. There were questions about how close to the discharge EMI could even find sediments to test. So, Steyer said, the contractor sampled a beach instead.

Gary Liepitz, a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that is unacceptable.

"The point is, if you've got it out there in the lake, you don't go testing somewhere else for it," he said. "You test where your discharge is."

PCBs became an issue after Chugach asked FERC for permission to make a $6.1 million upgrade to the powerhouse to boost generation capacity by about 10 percent. FERC approved it in October but asked Chugach to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Depart-ment of Fish and Game on plans to keep sediments and pollution from the construction project from spilling into Kenai Lake.

During the meetings that followed, Rappoport wrote, Chugach revealed that tests detected PCB concentrations from .912 to 2 parts per million in waste sampled from the oil-water separator. Chugach did not know where the PCBs came from, she wrote, but revealed there are three capacitors at the power plant that contain PCBs. It plans to remove those during the upgrade.

Rappoport said it is important to determine the source of PCBs in the separator, so that work on the powerhouse does not disperse contamination into the environment. If contaminated equipment is set outside in the rain, PCBs could wash into the lake, she wrote. If there is contaminated concrete, breaking it up could spread contamination.

She said the main transformer outside the powerhouse contains nearly 3,000 gallons of oil and questioned whether that contains PCBs. Chugach plans to drain the oil during the upgrade and keep the transformer as a backup.

Rain and snowmelt from around it accumulate in a diked area. Chugach treats the runoff and discharges it into a ditch, Rappoport said. That could percolate through the soil to Kenai Lake, and the discharges apparently have not been tested for PCBs. Steyer said he believes there was a misunderstanding about the fate of water from the diked area, and that will be addressed in EMI's final report. Steyer said the transformer fluids have been tested and contain no more than 1 part per million PCBs.

Liepitz said Chugach periodically dredges the channel that receives the main flow from the turbines. If gravel there is contaminated, he said, dredging it could release PCBs to the lake. Chugach apparently puts the dredge spoils on the access road to the power plant, he said, and runoff from the road could carry any contamination to the lake.

Rappoport recommended an immediate end to discharges from the sump. She recommended testing for the presence of PCBs in the sump water from the separator, lake sediments, sources of oily waste in the powerhouse and the outdoor transformer. Steyer would not say whether discharges from the sump have ceased.

Meanwhile, state and federal biologists reported learning recently that arctic char live in Cooper Lake. Arctic char spawn in the shallows of lakes. Liepitz said biologists worry that if Chugach lowers the lake level during construction at the powerhouse, it may expose their spawning grounds and kill their eggs and fry. Steyer said EMI's final report will address arctic char.

Both Fish and Wildlife and Fish and Game asked FERC to reconsider its approval for the proposed upgrades to the power plant. FERC declined their requests last Thursday.

FERC said the proposed lowering of the lake is similar to what Chugach has done each winter and meets conditions of its current license. The environmental assessment for the powerhouse upgrade concluded that the effects on Dolly Varden char, a similar species, would be minor.

FERC said it agrees that Chugach must address the potential release of PCBs before construction begins. Last week, Liepitz said, FERC sent its own team to test the powerhouse for PCBs.

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