It doesn't take long for thousands of gallons of gasoline to spill into the ground unnoticed. Discovering the leaks and cleaning them up is a far different matter.
Two major fuel spills at Sterling service stations are causing area residents and officials to have major concerns about the possible impact the spills might have on the health of the Kenai River. The spills, located at the former Sterling Zip Mart on Swanson River Road and Cook's Corner on the Sterling Highway were discussed at length last week at the Kenai River Special Management Area board meeting.
The board heard from several interested parties, including representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation -- who say there is minimal, if any, risk to the river from the contamination -- and the owner of one of the contaminated sites who strongly disagrees.
The board first listened to public testimony by Sterling property owner Sam McDowell. McDowell has been involved in litigation to force the state to further clean the Cook's Corner site for several years. He told the board he believes there is substantial contamination left on-site that DEC should be cleaning up.
"The contamination is there. They (DEC) know it's there. This is a very serious issue," McDowell said.
However, DEC said McDowell's concerns are unfounded.
Paul Horwath, a DEC environmental engineer who spoke later in the meeting, said he believes the site is too far from the Kenai River to pose a substantial risk. He noted that the DEC has continued to monitor the site since the original cleanup began in 1990, and that the agency believes the site is under control.
"We don't really have plans in place to clean up the site more than it is now. We will continue to monitor the area," Horwath told the board.
He noted that although the site is located roughly 1,100 feet up-gradient from the Kenai River, the chances of contaminants reaching the river water are very low. He said he's not aware of a contaminant plume of this type spreading nearly that far from the site of the original spill.
The KRSMA board was uneasy with Horwath's assessment.
"I'm concerned with the proximity to the river. I'm not sure we could accept this," said board member Janette Cadieux. "This could be catastrophic."
KRSMA vice president Brett Huber agreed.
"I don't understand why we're saying what's been done is good enough," Huber said.
He then asked Horwath if any in-river monitoring is being done below the site. Horwath said there isn't because DEC had no reason to believe the contamination plume had spread nearly that far.
"There's no reason to believe things will get worse. The size of the plume should decrease," Horwath said.
He said with this type of fuel release, the contaminant plume generally reaches a certain steady-state point, at which natural balancing agents, such as bacteria, cause the plume to stop spreading and then gradually reduce over time.
The Cook's Corner spill isn't the only Sterling fuel release that has people concerned. In fact, the contamination at the Zip Mart site has the potential to become one of the largest private fuel spill cleanups in Alaska history.
Another DEC engineer, Don Fritz, told the board about the state's plans to clean up the site. He said that it is estimated that as much as 100,000 gallons of gasoline were spilled at the site.
"It's the largest fuel release at a retail service station in the state that I'm aware of," Fritz said.
Fritz said DEC is taking over the cleanup effort because Zip Mart's owner is unable to move forward with free product recovery. DEC is in the process of drilling wells to recover as much of the free gasoline in the ground as possible.
The contamination has not appeared in drinking water wells, but concern has arisen about benzene possibly reaching drinking water. In January, DEC sampled wells at six sites near the Zip Mart, and all came up free of benzene. However, Sterling Elementary School, located near the Zip Mart, continues to use bottled water for its drinking water.
Fritz told the board the DEC has been aware of the contamination since the fall of 2001, after the station closed, but that the release may date to as far back as 1994.
Board member Deric Marcorelle was upset with the fact that such a large volume of fuel could have spilled without anyone becoming aware of a release, and that earlier steps had not been taken to address the problem.
"Responsible parties are not acting responsible," Marcorelle said.
Fritz said that although the spill is located about a mile from the river, he did not expect the contamination to reach the waterway. However, he also said the recovery effort would not take place overnight.
"This is gonna be a long process," he said.
Even after the DEC has recovered as much free product as possible, the site will still be far from clean.
"Don't expect a pristine site," said Horwath.
The DEC's assurances that the sites posed little threat did little to ease the board's concerns about the potential risk to the Kenai River. The board moved to send a letter to the DEC and the Environmental Protection Agency requesting further monitoring in the river and asking why more hadn't already been done.
The health of the river is paramount to the board's agenda, and members voiced concern that despite the best assurances from DEC engineers, the contamination sites are a major concern.
"Water quality issues are the biggest issues facing this river today," Huber said.
Sam McDowell agreed. He said he thinks the DEC should be doing more to monitor and clean the sites, and he'll continue to try and force the issue.
"We have a responsibility as Alaska residents to clean this mess up," he said, "I'm not going to quit."
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