State wants railroad to dig up contaminated soil

Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State environmental officials want the Alaska Railroad to dig up and remove soil in areas most heavily contaminated by last winter's jet fuel spill at Gold Creek.

In a letter sent to the railroad Tuesday the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says no fuel has been recovered at Gold Creek for a month. It said a fuel vapor extraction system intended to stimulate bacteria to eat the buried hydrocarbons is not operating.

''A non-operating remediation system is unacceptable,'' DEC spill coordinator Leslie Pearson says in the letter to railroad president Bill Sheffield.

Sheffield had not seen the letter Wednesday and wouldn't discuss it until he has, a spokeswoman said. Another railroad spokesman, Ernie Piper, also was out of town and could not be reached.

In April, however, Piper said digging a huge pit and hauling out contaminated soil would be dangerous for workers and could threaten the stability of the track. Instead, the railroad installed the vapor extraction system.

Last week, he and Sheffield said the system was shut down temporarily while equipment was moved into a shelter in preparation for winter.

More than 120,500 gallons of fuel spilled when a train derailed at the remote site on Dec. 22. Seven months later, less than 15 percent of the lost fuel has been recovered, although the railroad has spent about $9 million in the effort.

Pearson said soil tests show contamination as much as 40 feet deep in some places. But the most heavily contaminated dirt goes down only about 20 feet at the heart of the spill, in an area where surface water accumulates. As long as that saturated ground remains on the site, the risk exists that water will percolate down and sweep contaminants into the Susitna River, she said.

''Something needs to be done,'' Pearson said. ''We need to get that site stabilized.''

Pearson and other DEC officials planned to meet with the railroad's cleanup contractor at Gold Creek today. She said the agency will consider alternatives if the railroad comes up with good ideas.

''Personally, I think that heavily contaminated soil needs to get out of there,'' she said. ''We have to listen to what they've got to say, but based on the soil borings, there's a definite indication that some of that stuff should come out.''

The DEC also told railroad officials to submit a new schedule for the cleanup by next Thursday, including specific milestones for goals such as removal of soil and debris, a surface water runoff plan, and chemical analyses of surface and ground water.

''If an acceptable schedule is not submitted, the (DEC) will establish the operational schedule with milestones to be met by the (railroad),'' the letter says.

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