Contaminated sites not forgotten; more work could be done

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2002

Recent appearances at public meetings by officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation indicate the department is making an effort to ensure contaminated sites on the Kenai Peninsula are getting the proper attention.

It's also an indication that the department knows there's more work to be done.

For years, area residents have complained DEC hasn't done enough to make sure pollution near the Kenai River isn't making its way into the river. The Cook's Corner gasoline release site in Sterling and the River Terrace chemical spill in Soldotna are two examples where DEC has come under fire for not taking strong enough steps to make sure pollution is not harming the river's fragile ecosystem.

Both sites are located close to the river, and both have been cited by the public as examples of the department not getting the job done.

A look at the facts in both cases indicates it's not just DEC who should be held responsible for the management (or mismanagement, if you prefer) of these sites.

At River Terrace, DEC has used a relatively new bioremediation process that uses bacteria that feed on toxic substances. However, this technique has not worked quite as well as the department had hoped, possibly because of Alaska's climate, and the department is currently evaluating whether to undertake another round of the process.

At the Cook's Corner site, DEC has removed contaminated soils and installed what it calls "sentinel" wells that should indicate if petroleum contamination is spreading beyond where the existing contamination is known to be. Some residents claim that's not enough, but it's the department's contention that contamination is not spreading and does not pose a risk to drinking water or the river.

The state has already spent millions of dollars on cleanup efforts at these sites. As is often the case with messy contamination sites, the taxpayers have footed much of the bill because the people who were responsible for the contamination were unwilling or unable to fork over such large amounts of money.

DEC is being asked to clean up messes -- caused by a careless few -- at the expense of all Alaskans. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. DEC is, after all, a state agency that relies on state money to fund its numerous cleanup programs. It's not cheap, and sometimes even important sites don't get the attention they deserve.

Budget constraints can't be blamed for all the department's shortcomings. Communication between DEC and the public has been woefully inadequate at times. The failure of the department to keep local residents apprised of cleanup work has eroded public confidence and contributed to a general feeling of distrust toward the department. As was noted earlier, the department now appears to be making an effort to remedy this situation, and attending public meetings is a step in the right direction.

DEC also has alienated peninsula residents by failing to follow through on its promises. One notable example of this is at the Cook's site, where DEC has on several occasions said it would begin to monitor the river downstream from the contamination. This has not happened. This is not only insulting to the residents who genuinely care about the river, but it also gives the appearance that the department has something to hide. State agencies have no business hiding anything from the people they're supposed to serve.

When DEC officials show up at community meetings -- like they did at last week's community forum at the Soldotna Sports Center -- it shows the department is working to correct mistakes made in the past. But even more needs to be done.

Contaminated sites are a messy issue. A combination of negligence, incompetence, greed and poor communication has led to a situation where the public and the government find themselves locked in a battle where both sides claim to be working toward the same common goals.

It's not just DEC's problem. It's everyone's problem. That's why community forums designed to clear the air about what needs to be done are an encouraging sign. DEC needs to hear what areas it needs to improve, and how the public thinks that can be accomplished. For its part, the public needs to understand that the department has a big job to do with limited resources.

Closing our eyes to these contamination problems hasn't made them go away. Opening our ears just might.

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