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End to delays in River Terrace cleanup urged

Who should mop up toxins?

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2000

Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster says he is tired of the lawsuits and finger-pointing.

It has been eight years since the state first learned of toxic dry-cleaning fluid spilled near the Kenai River in Soldotna.

"I want it cleaned up. It's way past time," he said. "The science is there to clean it up. They need to do that. I don't care who gets sued. I just don't want my residents dying or my fish dying."

The Department of Environ-mental Conservation first heard of the spill at River Terrace RV Park, by the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna, in 1992, when a citizen complained of leaky barrels stored behind the laundromat there. DEC deputy commissioner Kurt Fredriksson said the cleanup now is under way.

DEC, long at odds with RV park owners Judith and Gary Hinkle, assumed control of the cleanup in June 1997. In August 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to oversee emergency excavation of the most contaminated soil. The Hinkles excavated roughly 3,300 cubic yards from an area between the laundromat and the river and treated that on-site.

Meanwhile, DEC kept control of long-term monitoring and assessment. In June 1999, it obtained a court order allowing its contractor, Oasis/Bristol Environmental Services, to assess remaining contamination and propose cleanup alternatives.

Oasis/Bristol released its draft report on March 22. Fredriksson said DEC will take comments until Friday from agencies, the Hinkles and prior owners of the laundromat. DEC will pick a cleanup option by mid-May, take public comment for 30 days, then announce its final plan.

Rich Sundet, project manager for DEC, said he expects a pilot cleanup project to start in August and full-fledged cleanup to begin in September. Oasis/Bristol officials estimate the cleanup could take 15 years and cost several million dollars.

"The scary part is, we have a three-and-a-half-inch-thick document titled 'River Terrace RV Park Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study Report,' and they can't even tell us where the source is," said habitat biologist Gary Liepitz of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We have an upwelling aquifer that's floating this stuff toward the river and the highway."

Until the Oasis/Bristol study, there was no evidence of contamination under the laundromat where the dry cleaner operated from the 1960s to the late 1980s. Sundet said a sewer pipe leaves the building, and there are three dry wells in its floor.

"Any time you see dry wells in a machine shop or a laundromat, it's there for a reason," he said. "People dump something into them. The question arises, did they dump perc (dry-cleaning fluid) into them?"

The Hinkles' contractor, Hart Crowser Inc., drilled through the floor and found nothing, said James Hanlon, the Hinkles' attorney.

"They trenched below the building and found no contamination," he said. "Monitoring wells behind the laundry are clean."

Gary Hinkle challenged the state to prove that any buried pockets of dry-cleaning fluid remain on his land.

"(The DEC) said there's 25,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil left on my property," he said. "Show me a test. They haven't found it. They have a computer model that's saying that."

Sundet said DEC asked Hart Crowser to drill under the laundromat to 15 feet below ground level. Rocks apparently blocked the drill, he said, and Hart Crowser was able to drill only 12 to 18 inches below grade. Rocks also thwarted attempts to drill diagonally from outside the building.

So, DEC asked Oasis/Bristol to install groundwater monitoring wells. One installed between the building and the highway produced the highest concentration of dry-cleaning fluid yet found in groundwater on the Hinkles' land.

DEC also checked soil gases.

"Soil gas borings found high concentrations of perc in front and on the west side of the building," Sundet said. "So our estimation is that there is perc under the building."

However, he said, DEC would not ordinarily bulldoze the building to find the source without the owner's consent.

Sundet said another mystery is the source for continued high concentrations of dry-cleaning fluid in groundwater monitoring well 4A, near the river and the area of the 1997 excavation. DEC officials had hoped for a reduction in groundwater contamination there after the Hinkles excavated the most contaminated soil.

Sundet also said that several samples Hinkle's contractor took from the walls of the excavation contained concentrations of dry-cleaning fluid above the DEC cleanup level.

"But they filled the hole before they did further removal," he said.

Hinkle called a meeting last week during which his consultants denounced the Oasis/Bristol report as more of a legal document than a cleanup plan.

"All the soil at River Terrace has been cleaned up," said Hinkle consultant Tony Kennard. "I think there was one little spot that we missed, but that's like hitting 99 baseballs out of a hundred."

Injecting oxidizers could eliminate the remaining contamination in subsurface water, he said, and if DEC would allow Hinkle to proceed, the cleanup could be done in a year for $200,000.

"The total amount of contamination at this time, which threatens the Kenai River, is estimated to be a little more than two cups. Ladies and gentlemen, that's it," Kennard said, waving a clear gallon jug that contained about two cups of blue fluid.

"If this was (perc), you could go right out there to that bridge, and you could dump it over the bridge, and you'd never find it," he said. "It would never kill a fish. It would never kill a benthic organism. It would never do a thing."

Maps he displayed of the spill omitted the contamination plume Oasis/Bristol found running from the laundromat toward the highway.

Sundet said DEC has detected perc in Kenai River sediments at levels proven harmful to aquatic life. River Terrace sits in a bend in the river where there is little current, particularly during winter and spring, he said. Young salmon and many aquatic insects often shelter between rocks on the bottom.

Liepitz said perc is dangerous and should not be allowed to reach the river. It has been found in the groundwater at River Terrace in concentrations of more than 1,000 times the allowable level for drinking water. In the river itself, DEC has detected perc at about half the drinking water standard.

"It's been found in the river water. It's been found in the sediments," Liepitz said. "I believe we're going to end up up with concentrations that can be lethal. We already have a scarcity of macroinvertebrates, though we don't know why: The insects the fish eat aren't there."

People drink from the river, fish in it and float down it in inner tubes, he said.

"We have a real problem here," he said. "They need to find the source and clean it up."

Lancaster said he was upset after a meeting DEC called Wednesday to explain the Oasis/Bristol report for local officials.

"I fail to understand how you can address a problem when you do not know where the problem is located," he wrote DEC commissioner Michelle Brown on Friday. "I have been told that you were only trying to stop the (perc) from entering the Kenai River and not addressing the source. This does not set well within our community when there are people wandering around in moon suits and we are told there is a definite health hazard!"



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