DEC confirms soil contamination at oil drum site

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

An inspection of two old oil drums on a vacant lot in Kenai performed Monday by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the soil beneath the drums is contaminated as was reported by members of the Kenai River Watershed Forum last week.

How the soil was oiled is not clear, but Gary Folley of the DEC's Kenai office said that using a field screening instrument, he found a contamination level of 128 parts per million about a foot beneath the surface.

The oil tanks became an issue last week when the head of the Kenai River Watershed Forum, Robert Ruffner, suggested DEC might have prevented the contamination if it had responded three years ago to a call from a nearby resident.

Folley said he could find no record of a call three years ago, but said the bottom line was that the soil is contaminated.

He said he could find no obvious holes in the one drum Ruffner believed might have leaked and that it appeared to be intact, though Folley did not say he tested the drum to determine if there might be pinhole leaks.

It is possible, Folley acknowledged, that the drum had been knocked over at some point. A cap was missing from one of the two access holes on top of that drum.

When Ruffner and two volunteers with the Watershed Forum emptied the contents of the two drums into new drums, the upright and uncapped drum held mostly water, possibly accumulated from rain and condensation.

The other drum appeared not to have leaked. It had no oil soil directly beneath it. When emptied, that drum contained viscous, black oil thought to be old fuel oil.

The contamination in the soil appeared localized, Folley said.

"There is no stressed vegetation around it," he said. "I'd say there is a little bit of contaminated soil right there."

Lynda Giguere, public affairs officer for DEC, said the department's Prevention and Emergency Response Program would attempt to find the responsible parties to complete removal.

Folley said the drums were within an electrical corridor. He said he would try to get Homer Electric Association involved, as well as the city of Kenai.

"It's a matter of establishing who is the responsible party. The hardest thing would be to deal with the owners, because the owners are out of state."

He said he believed the owners of the property are in Arkansas. They may be inheritors of the land and unaware of the problem.

The land has not been occupied for at least 16 years and the drums were apparently left behind when the then owner left.

Folley said the contents of the drums, since transferred to new drums that remain on site, appeared to be fuel oil, but DEC won't make any assumptions about the true contents until an analysis is completed.

Giguere also said a recent policy decision that the state would focus its attention on responding to and cleaning up contaminated waterways listed as "impaired" by the federal Environmental Protec-tion Agency, which necessitated cutting funding for preventative water-quality monitoring efforts, had no connection whatever to the DEC's efforts to respond to reports of leaky oil drums.

Ruffner disagreed, saying the connection is that currently there are volunteers doing water-quality monitoring who are finding these kinds of situations and bringing them to DEC's attention.

"That won't be there anymore," he said, now that monitoring funding has been cut.

Giguere provided information on preventing home heating oil spills that may be of interest to homeowners who have home heating oil tanks.

Every year, according to DEC, the department responds to dozens of fuel oil spills from home heating oil tanks. Homeowners must pay for cleanup costs, which can commonly run from $5,000 to $30,000 and sometimes more. Insurance rarely covers it.

DEC does not regulate heating oil tanks. Gas stations have sophisticated leak prevention and detection systems, but homeowners need to monitor their own tanks to prevent and find leaks.

Leaks are sometimes obvious, as with an above-ground tank. Underground tank leaks can be far more problematic and costly to clean. With the help of one's fuel supplier, accurate records of fuel use may be able to reveal the presence of an underground leak.

Replacing a tank can be expensive, but DEC points out the cost of doing nothing may be far greater.

When spills occur, the soil must be tested by a laboratory to determine the extent of the contamination. The soil must then be removed and treated or sent to an approved landfill. That hole left behind must be filled, requiring the purchase of fill, which can be expensive.

Treatment of deep or extensive contamination could go on for years, and if leaked oil has migrated, a homeowner may be saddled with the costs of cleaning neighboring properties as well, DEC warned.

A past spill can complicate selling property.

For more information, call the Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation at (907) 465-5340, or locally at 262-5210.

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