Efforts to remove fuel from beneath Sterling are moving forward, though not everyone is convinced the state is doing enough to protect the Kenai River -- and Sterling residents -- from petroleum contamination.
Two major Sterling contamination sites were of particular interest to the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board at its meeting Thursday.
Jim Frechione, site manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, gave the board an overview of DEC's cleanup efforts at the Sterling Zip Mart and Cook's Corner Tesoro.
The report was similar to others the DEC has presented at past board meetings regarding the sites.
Frechione told the board that DEC was moving forward with efforts to recover thousands of gallons of free gasoline and diesel fuel still trapped beneath the Zip Mart site. However, the DEC is still trying to determine exactly how much fuel is in the ground, as well as how far it has spread.
"This is a site that sort of caught us off guard," Frechione said. "We still haven't fully reached the extent of the dissolved phase there."
Frechione told the board that 11,000 gallons of fuel have been recovered so far. When asked whether the site had contaminated drinking water, Frechione said there were concerns.
"We had dissolved phase (contaminants) within a certain range of the (Sterling Elementary) school that we don't feel comfortable with," he said.
He said because of that, the DEC was working with the borough to find another water source.
Frechione also noted that a well at a private business, B and D Auto and Denny's Auto Body has tested positive for petroleum contamination as a result of the Zip Mart spill. Additionally, the contaminated aquifer is used by a number of other private home and business wells the DEC also is concerned about.
The DEC plans to continue drilling monitoring wells in order to find out just how big the problem around the Zip Mart is.
Meanwhile, little is being done at the Cook's Tesoro site, as the DEC still claims the site does not pose a risk to drinking water or the river. However, Frechione admitted significant contamination remains underground.
"There's still elevated levels of contamination both on and off site," he said.
Frechione told the board that DEC was continuing to monitor the extent of the contamination through a series of monitoring wells. However, he also stated the site may need to be reevaluated by someone other than the state.
"The state would still consider a third-party review," he said.
A review of the site is needed, say Sterling residents, because the Cook's site was never adequately cleaned in 1990, when a leaky underground storage tank was removed.
"That site is not clean. They know it's not clean," said Sam McDowell, a Sterling property owner who testified at the meeting.
McDowell has long been lobbying to have the Cook's contamination cleaned up. He believes the state is being lax in its duty to protect the health of the river, which is less than a quarter mile downhill from the site.
David Nyman, an engineer with Restoration Science Engineering in Anchorage, has closely examined the site. He believes the state is legally obligated to do more work on the site because free product -- pure gasoline -- still remains in the groundwater. He stated he was the one, not DEC, who requested a federal review of the site.
"It was me that asked the (Environmental Protection Agency) to look at the site," Nyman said.
He criticized the DEC for its handling of the contamination.
"I don't think Jim has all the information on the Sterling Tesoro site," Nyman said, saying he believes contaminants are likely spreading further than the DEC claims. "They don't understand the hydrogeology" of the area.
"My biggest concern is for human health," he told the board. "Where is the (DEC) plan to protect the 15 to 20 drinking water users down gradient? It's very serious."
Board members also were critical of the state's response to earlier requests to monitor the Kenai River for possible contamination from the Cook's site.
At its May 16 meeting, the board got assurances from Steve Bainbridge, DEC contaminated sites program manager, that the department would begin a monitoring program. That hasn't happened.
"I don't think we got an answer," stated board president Ted Wellman.
"That is a very close site to the Kenai River," said board member Joe Connors, who also lives in Sterling. "I have some major worries about that."
Frechione again assured the board the DEC would examine the river's water quality. However, he also said that although the river has yet to be tested, the DEC does not have any reason to believe contamination will show up.
"We don't feel (contamination is) migrating toward the river," he said.
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