State wants railroad to dig up contaminated soil

Posted: Friday, July 28, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State environmental officials reached an agreement with the Alaska Railroad that doesn't require workers to dig up and remove contaminated soil at the site of last winter's huge jet fuel spill at Gold Creek, the railroad said Thursday.

State officials met with the contractor working at the spill site and agreed on an addendum to the work plan that doesn't include mass excavation, according to railroad officials. The meeting came after a letter to the railroad Tuesday from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation saying that no fuel had been recovered at Gold Creek for a month.

It said a fuel vapor extraction system intended to stimulate bacteria to eat the buried hydrocarbons was not operating.

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

Sheffield said in a statement after the meeting Thursday that ''it was a good and productive meeting. We've agreed on the technical issues and will continue with the soil vapor extraction system as planned.''

In April, Ernie Piper, the railroad's vice president for safety and environmental compliance, 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.''

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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