Dealing with contaminated sites is a complicated, often confusing process.
With a myriad of state agencies, contractors, private landowners and environmental organizations all actively involved in the cleanup process, communication lines between interested parties can be poor or nonexistent. Stakeholders took a step toward opening those communication lines Thursday, when the Kenai Watershed Forum, in conjunction with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Special Management Area, sponsored a community dialogue on contaminated sites.
About 40 people from various groups attended the meeting. The idea behind the six-hour session was to get everyone involved with contaminated sites under the same roof and discussing the issues, said Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.
"It was the first time people actually sat down and talked about the issues. What was really significant was from all sides, everyone agreed we could do something different," Ruffner said.
No concrete action plans or new models were developed during the meeting. Rather, it was a way for everyone involved, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the U.S. Geological Survey, the American Water Resources Association and others, to begin planning a specific Kenai area plan together.
"It gives us somewhere to go. We're trying to learn how to communicate better and trying to bring the various shareholders into the process," said Jim Frechione, section manager of DEC's site remediation program.
Frechione traveled from Anchorage to show the department was serious about restructuring the cleanup process.
Ruffner said he was happy the department was willing to take such a step, especially considering the amount of criticism DEC receives for how it deals with contaminated sites.
"I will give the department credit, it's a hard step to take," he said.
Sam McDowell owns property in Sterling near Cook's Corner, a site known to be contaminated from a gasoline leak. McDowell said he's happy a community dialogue was held. He believes that the more people are involved, the harder the individual agencies and responsible parties will have to work.
"More and more people are going to get involved. At the next meeting it's going to get more and more, and as they get involved, they're going to demand answers. They'll say, 'hey, we want it cleaned up.'"
McDowell said he thinks DEC has not done enough in the past to protect the area's most important natural asset -- the Kenai River.
"Nobody has the right to turn their back on the Kenai River. This is one of the most respected, cherished and loved rivers in the United States. The number one priority is to protect the Kenai River. When residents realize what the threats are to the Kenai River on contaminated sites, it'll really wake 'em up," he said.
One idea discussed at the meeting was developing a specific plan for dealing with contaminated sites on the peninsula.
"We all agreed to sit down and look at a strategy (for the Kenai River) in the future," Ruffner said. He added that a second meeting is planned for July to further discuss the idea.
However, most people at the meeting said improving how contaminated sites are dealt with will be a long process.
"It's going to be painfully slow, and people are going to have to be patient," Ruffner said. "But I'm very encouraged. We can at least try to do better than we have been."
McDowell said he's willing to stick with the fight to protect the Kenai River for as long as it takes.
"Only time will tell. I know one thing, we're not going to give up. You can't just sweep this stuff under the rug," he said.
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