DEC explains handling of contaminated sites

Public ideas sought for future problems

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

Some confusion over how the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation deals with contaminated sites was cleaned up Thursday evening at an event designed to foster better dialogue between the department and the public.

The community forum, co-sponsored by the Kenai Watershed Forum and several other interested organizations, mainly featured discussion between Jim Frechione, site remediation section manager of the DEC's contaminated sites remediation program, and audience members. It was held at the Soldotna Sports Center.

According to the watershed forum's director, Robert Ruffner, the purpose of Frechione's visit was to help the community understand the various steps DEC takes in dealing with environmental contamination.

"The purpose of this meeting today, (is to) see how these sites are dealt with," said Ruffner during his opening remarks.

Following Ruffner's introduction, Frechione proceeded to explain the often lengthy process DEC goes through in handling sites. He explained that certain steps have to be taken as a particular site moves from discovery to closure. Those steps include site characterization, a cleanup decision, a record of decision, cleanup plan, cleanup action and eventually, site closure.

On the Kenai Peninsula, several sites have gotten plenty of DEC attention recently, and Frechione explained that those sites are in various stages of cleanup.

For example, Frechione said a site like the Sterling Zip Mart spill only recently has been discovered. That site currently is being evaluated and an action plan is being formulated. However, Frechione did say work to recover free gasoline product spilled at the site will continue through the winter and next spring, and it should allow the DEC to begin further remediation action.

Several drinking water wells in the area of the spill have been identified as concerns, though only one has shown petroleum contamination.

Frechione said the department has mapped the extent of contamination in the area and plans to sample drinking water wells monthly between now and June.

However, he did note that efforts to fully test wells and further clean the site have been slowed by internal governmental funding issues. He said one reason for funding delays was the timing of the fiscal calendar, which begins July 1. Frechione called the current system, "a stupid way to do things."

Emotions at the meeting were generally subdued, and the meeting mainly focused on how DEC can streamline its process for dealing with contamination. To that end, participants were asked for their opinions on several suggestions on how the sites can better be handled.

This was done through a system where meeting participants placed stickers on large signs posted around the meeting room, ranking their preferences for improvements to the system.

The ideas that garnered the most support were recommendations to establish criteria for water sampling in the Kenai River, a "trigger" system that would allow for independent third-party review of contaminated sites, and financial incentives to property owners that would enable them to move more quickly when problems are discovered.

Ruffner said coming up with new ideas for moving forward, rather than simply reviewing the DEC's past work, was the real purpose of Thursday's meeting.

"Where do I think this is headed?" Ruffner asked. "The potential exists to change the way contaminated sites are managed and taken care of."

Those changes may not come quickly, but Ruffner said forums such as Thursday's should help move the process forward. He said the next such meeting will probably be held sometime in January, when the forum's recommendations will be further explored and possible action directions mapped out.

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