Like restless spirits rising from the grave, a 20-year-old fuel spill has come back to haunt residents of the village of Nanwalek.
A maintenance crew from the Kenai Peninsula Borough found the remains of the spill when it came to the village in May to work on playground equipment at Nanwalek School.
While digging to put in new sand around the playground's "Big Toy," the crew smelled diesel fuel, which was mixed with soil less than one foot below the surface.
The spilled fuel dates back to 1979, said Tom Evans, environmental specialist for the Nanwalek IRA Council. There were several large storage tanks located behind the school that held diesel fuel for the school's generator. On this occasion, a valve was left open on one of the tanks, spilling 5,000 gallons of fuel, which pooled up on the playground. Evans was in 11th grade at the school that year and remembers the spill.
"The snow was saturated with diesel fuel, but they said it was OK and let us play in it," he said. "Back then, no one knew there were any harmful effects from exposure to diesel fuel."
Some of the children reported headaches and nausea afterward, but there may have been more serious effects.
"Since then, there have been several people in Nanwalek who have died from cancer and leukemia," Evans said. "They were all students or school staff at the time of the spill. We can't prove that there's any connection, but people suspect that had something to do with it."
Nancy Yeaton, natural resource specialist for the Nan-walek IRA Council, was a cook at the school in 1979. She said smaller spills had occurred at the school before that.
"Those tanks have been leaking since 1965," she said. "When the storage tank was being filled, sometimes the janitors forgot to shut it off, and it would overflow. People in the community didn't say anything about it, because we were ignorant of the effects."
The borough switched the school's fuel source from diesel to propane after the spill.
A cleanup of the 1979 spill was organized in 1980, Yeaton said. She flew to a borough meeting and spoke to then-mayor Don Gilman. The borough sent in a crew and also hired area people to help remove the spilled fuel, using absorbent pads.
"They just got what was on the surface," Yeaton said.
The rest soaked into the ground, and Yeaton worries it may have contaminated the wetlands and lagoon behind the school, too.
"Many children eat the fish and berries and mussels from this area," she said. "Now I have to tell my grandchildren not to eat anything from there, even though I did it for years. The DEC keeps telling us it's safe, but would they come in and eat this, day in and day out?"
The borough and the state Department of Environmental Conservation sent representatives to Nanwalek on June 29 to test the spill area. They took four soil samples from the playground. One was negative, but the other three showed various levels of diesel fuel contamination.
"They were all below DEC requirements for ingestion or inhalation," said Robert Bright, planning director for the borough. Further tests will be done Friday, in a site characterization study, with the DEC and an independent contractor who has not been named yet.
"We don't really have any idea what analysis will tell us," Bright said. "But we'll follow any recommendations for remediation. We're anxious to push it along and get the results in before school starts."
A full report is expected in October, and any action to be taken will happen after that.
Meanwhile, parents in Nan-walek are doubtful about sending their children back to school.
"We want this cleaned up, but we just keep getting a lot of lightheartedness about it from the borough," Yeaton said. "The comment was made, 'Well, you've been living with this for 20 years, what's the hurry?' If this had happened in Kenai or Soldotna, it would have been taken care of right away."
"The parents are up in arms about it," Evans said. "The different types of hydrocarbons in diesel fuel are very harmful. We don't want our kids exposed to it."
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