Watershed Forum goes to rescue, transfers fuel oil from rusty drums

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2003

Using a hand pump and barrels borrowed from a local fuel supply company, workers with the Kenai Watershed Forum transferred fuel oil from a pair of rusting 55-gallon drums sitting in a vacant lot in a Kenai neighborhood, a job they say the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation should have done at least three years ago.

According to Robert Ruffner, director of the Watershed Forum, a resident of the residential neighborhood not far from Kenai Central High School called him recently asking for help with the deteriorating drums.

Ruffner said she told him she had notified DEC officials about the drums on several occasions, most recently about three years ago, because she was concerned for the groundwater and nearby drinking wells.

"She called us about two weeks ago to see if there was some way that we could deal with it," Ruffner said. "This is par for the course when people don't get a response for an obvious environmental problem from the DEC. They call our local nonprofit to see if they can't get help."

A DEC official said Thursday that his office often receives calls from concerned citizens regarding drums on neighboring property, but unless those drums are known to be leaking, no laws are being broken and the DEC cannot act.

Gary Folley, an environmental specialist with the Soldotna office, said he would go out to the site and inspect the situation.

The site is on Baker Street just off Colonial Drive a few blocks south of the Kenai Spur Highway.

In this case, Ruffner said, the solution was simple borrow a pump and some new drums and transfer the oil from the rusting containers, one of which apparently had been leaking for some time. It took about a half hour, not including the time involved in acquiring the necessary tools from Alaska Oil Sales on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

The Watershed Forum workers left the oil on site secure in the new drums and did not haul the now-empty drums away.

The nonprofit agency is not prepared to dig up the contaminated earth on which they sat, Ruffner said. However, the workers did dig a hole a meter into the soil and found oily residue at least that deep.

Ruffner said the oil is there ready for DEC to test if necessary.

How long the old drum had been leaking and how much oil has spilled isn't known. That will take more testing, work that may rightfully belong to DEC, Ruffner said. The current owners live out of state and apparently inherited the land. They are likely unaware the oil drums even exist, he said.

Ruffner speculated that had DEC responded three or more years ago, they might have moved the barrels prior to their leaking. Now, a cleanup may prove time consuming and expensive.

Sandra Bilderback has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years. She remembered the property last being occupied about 16 years ago when the owner a family friend had a fifth-wheel trailer there. The fuel oil in the drums may have been used for stove fires, she said.

That owner moved outside 16 years ago and since has died, Bilderback said, adding that she thought the land might have changed hands at least twice since then.

More than three years ago, Bilderback began calling DEC officials Kenai about the drums, she said.

"Three years ago was probably the last time because I didn't find anyone who was interested in coming out," Bilderback said. "Basically, what DEC told me was that we would have to come over and empty the barrels out and haul them away."

Bilderback said she didn't think that was her responsibility, considering the barrels weren't on her property. She said she had not realized until about week ago that at least one had leaked.

After hearing from Bilderback, Ruffner said he called DEC and spoke with Folley.

Folley said he would have to research whether there are records of Bilderback's earlier calls, but said that unless oil or chemical drums are known to be leaking, DEC cannot traipse onto private property to inspect or take action.

"People can store oil if it's not leaking," he said. "There is nothing we can do about it. People have rights and there are privacy issues. As long as they are not breaking any laws they can do that."

He said a report that drums exist doesn't give DEC officials the kind of instant access firefighters responding to a blaze have to enter private property.

DEC may have had a right to go in this case, however. A map provided to Ruffner by the city of Kenai appears to show that the drums were in a city right-of-way, standing between a power line corridor and Baker Street.

"Leaking drums, on the other hand, constitute a spill and regulations call for spills getting cleaned up," Folley said, adding that even then there still may be legal issues that must be resolved before DEC can act.

Folley said he recalled the recent phone call from the Watershed Forum regarding the leaky Baker Street drums, but he was in the middle of a much more serious incident in Port Graham, where a vessel called the American Eagle had run aground and spilled oil into the water.

"We were meaning to get to it," he said.

Folley acknowledged that had a call come in saying the drums were not leaking he probably would not have responded.

"We might not have the resources to go out if it is not leaking and evaluate every one of these things to see if it's a threat," he said. "When we do do a response, we have to be extremely careful about private property. We have to get an owner's permission to go on, otherwise we have to have an inspection warrant."

A small spill on an individual's private property can sometimes be more problematic than a larger spill on property owned by a large company. When Tesoro or Unocal have a spill, he said, they know what has to be done and do it.

At this time, Folley is the DEC official who must respond.

"It's just me. I get the nod," he said. "As soon as I get the chance, I will take a look at it."

DEC has a pot of money from which it can draw funds to hire contractors to clean up so-called "orphan drums."

Just three weeks ago, the fund paid a contractor to extract a drum of what appeared to be fiberglass resin from a ravine in Anchor Point, he said.

Folley said his office would make an attempt to track down the property owner. The owner or owners could get a bill for any cleanup costs.

Folley also said there was no shortage of drums containing waste oil and caches of fuel oil around the peninsula. Four-wheelers often leave them in remote areas for refueling purposes. As long as the drums are safe, there is no problem.

Folley likened the pervasiveness of fuel drums across the peninsula to that of junked cars. Cleaning up either can often amount to a labor-intensive project, he said.

Ruffner acknowledged DEC's difficulties.

"I don't want to come across as against the department," he said. "They do what they can with the resources they have. But, they just can't (do much)."

Ruffner said the lack of funding for such inspections and responses was complicated recently when Ernesta Ballard, commissioner of DEC, acted to withdraw funding to water-quality monitoring programs to focus funds on cleanup operations in already damaged waters listed by the Environmental Pro-tection Agency as "impaired."

"DEC, in their recent decisions, is not interested in these types of preventative measures," he said. "They would rather see the contamination happen, then deal with the consequences once waters are impaired."

Bilderback said she wanted to commend the people from the Watershed Forum for taking the matter seriously and responding to begin a cleanup. She said she thought they'd acted "very professionally."

Besides Ruffner, Ketchikan resident Birch Fisher and Kenai resident Rachael Popp, both doing environmental internships with the forum, assisted in the cleanup effort.

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