River sheen poses subterranean mystery

Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2001

It's back.

Sunday evening it rained, and when it did, Soldotna residents near the Kenai River noticed the sheen and smell of petroleum products on the water. The incident is a replay of reports during a Sept. 4 rainstorm.

Tracy Schmitt, who lives on Riverside, said her family noticed contaminants in the river about 7:10 p.m. They were surprised the smell was so strong.

"We could smell it coming up from the river. My husband said it smelled like diesel," she said.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are linking the sheen with a Sept. 3 fuel spill caused by an absent-minded motorist at the Tesoro To-Go Mart gas station on the Sterling Highway. A driver filled a vehicle with diesel, realized it was the wrong fuel and attempted to dump it on the ground. About 23 or 24 gallons were involved.

This week's excavation at the station is unrelated. Tesoro is conducting a scheduled upgrade of its underground tanks, which were not leaking, according to DEC.

Gary Folley, an environmental specialist with the DEC, said the sheen on the river remains puzzling.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's all the same sheen," he said Monday afternoon.

During the investigation earlier this month, he and officials from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which oversees storm drains, concluded that any contamination from the gas station would connect with the new catchment basin installed this summer at the river end of Binkley Street.

However, that preliminary information proved inaccurate, Folley said.

He inspected the site with a project engineer with a copy of the plans and they concluded that the drains by the gas station did indeed lead to the storm drain that leaked fuel into the river near the Sterling Highway bridge.

On Sept. 7, DOT and DEC removed the grate and cleaned out the catch trap in the storm sewer down from the station.

"We removed about 50 gallons of oily water that had a strong diesel smell," Folley said.

They also checked under other manholes and believed they had taken care of the problem. Sunday's return of the sheen was an unpleasant surprise, he said.

"So I took samples," he said.

"I still believe it is that diesel fuel, but I'm a bit perturbed that it is still bleeding off the outfall."

Folley plans to confer again with DOT to see if there are other parts of the storm drain system they can access and clean out to prevent more fuel from getting into the waterway. DOT plans to pack the two manholes closest to the river outfall with absorbent boom, he said.

Meanwhile, DEC continues to investigate the original Sept. 3 diesel spill. The motorist responsible may face legal penalties, he said.

For the time being, the river sheen remains his rainy-day project.

"I will definitely be checking the storm drain outfall next time it rains," he said.

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