The dirt: Polluted soil still an issue

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

When Chevron closed its Nikiski plant in 1991, it left behind soil contaminated with spilled gasoline and other petroleum products, a polluted condition that an ongoing wastewater treatment program is attempting to rectify.

But that program, which involves capturing groundwater at the base of the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, is not 100 percent effective and still releases soluble contaminants into the environment, including benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. State environmental officials say the amounts are small and not a threat to human health.

Nevertheless, environmentalists and setnet fishers with sites in the area have expressed concern over the continuing contamination of the inlet's rich fishing areas.

According to Don Fritz, of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Soldotna office, the site first came to the agency's attention in 1987 when gasoline was found seeping from the toe of the bluff. Surveys have shown the site has in excess of 1 million cubic yards of petroleum contaminated soil at the former refinery location, and that a "free product-dissolved phase plume" extends from the former refinery location to the shores of Cook Inlet.

According to Fritz, Chevron's cleanup program has not been entirely successful at intercepting all the groundwater coursing through the site on its way to the sea.

In 2003, DEC staffers observed sheens on the surface water migrating out from a Chevron seawall in front of the groundwater recovery system. Commercial fishers also spotted sheening during the 2003 fishing season. Gravel added in front of the seawall last fall has had the effect of hiding the seepage, Fritz said.

Meryl McGahan, a resident of North Kenai who owns a setnet site near the location, said he first noticed leakage in the late 1980s. Not long after, Chevron actively began addressing the problem. By 1994, it had constructed the existing seawall to help capture the polluted groundwater and deliver it to a treatment tank.

But the contaminated discharge from that treatment effort has fishers concerned. McGahan said he and others who use the beach for setnetting are members of Kenai Wild, a branding program that relies heavily on the marketing value of the relatively pristine Cook Inlet water. Dumping benzene into the sea could ruin that selling point, he said.

"We can't tolerate it," he said. "The majority of our fish are coming right off that beach. It could destroy the fishery. Dilution is not the solution to pollution."

The polluted discharge isn't the only problem, however. At certain tides, McGahan said, the seawall itself has prevented them from accessing their beach sites, and that has an immediate and direct financial impact. McGahan claims he lost money during openings when he could not fish and last year even sent Chevron a $66,000 bill. He hasn't seen any money.

Accessing the beach sometimes requires them to go miles down the shore, he said, adding that, so far, Chevron has ignored their requests for relief.

Chevron came to the peninsula in 1963 and ran its refining plant until it terminated operations in 1991 because, according to a company spokesperson at the time, the refinery was only marginally profitable and facing the added costs associated with the state's new spill preparedness rules.

Chevron spokesperson Mari-elle Boortz said this week that the cleanup program is proving successful at recovering product from the soil and reducing the concentration of pollutants in the soil, she said.

"In 1999, we collected 900 gallons (of petroleum product)," she said. "In 2004, so far, we've collected 14 gallons."

Boortz said seepage was first discovered in 1987 and efforts began soon after to intercept the groundwater before it reached the inlet. By 1994, the current groundwater recovery system was in place, including a seawall and the tanks used to separate the petroleum products from the water. Since 1994, some 2,900 gallons of product have been recovered. Figures were not available for exactly how much had been recovered before 1994.

Chevron has spent more than $20 million so far in the recovery effort, Boortz said. The system costs about $1 million a year to operate, and at the current rate, would take an estimated 20 years to complete the cleanup, she said.

Chevron, however, has spent $5 million over the past two years testing procedures aimed at eliminating the soluble pollutants altogether.

"There are complications," she said. "The groundwater contains naturally occurring iron. It precipitates and plugs things up."

As for the seawall and the problems faced by setnet fishers, Boortz said Chevron is not responsible for the condition of the beach. The cause, she said, was accelerated erosion occurring after periodic dredging operations in the area conducted by another company had ended.

Until late last year, Chevron conducted its cleanup operations under a federal permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permits are geared toward active industrial sites, so EPA informed the company its NPDES permit no longer applied. The responsibility for monitoring the cleanup then fell to the DEC.

The DEC is in the process of issuing a state permit that would cover the contaminants Chevron discharges into the inlet. However, DEC officials have postponed final action on the permit because EPA is reconsidering its decision that the Chevron cleanup operation no longer fell under NPDES permit requirements.

DEC said the state permit would not be issued until EPA had completed its review.

All that's happening now is a change of regulator (from EPA to DEC) and not a change in the cleanup operation's parameters, Boortz said.

That operation essentially amounts to corralling polluted groundwater at the base of the bluff before it enters the inlet and piping it to a containment tank where the liquid calms, allowing assorted hydrocarbons picked up as it coursed beneath the old refinery site to rise to the surface to be skimmed off and trucked away.

The remaining water, however, still contains the soluble mono-aromatic hydrocarbons benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, commonly referred to by the acronym BETX. Benzene accounts for roughly 90 percent of the contamination, consistent with the composition of gasoline.

That tainted fluid is flushed into the inlet through a 500-foot pipe running the length of the KPL Dock and terminating 21 feet below mean lower low water. The average depth at that position is about 43 feet, according to the dock office.

Two diffusers with 4-inch nozzles pointed downward and located 8 feet apart could discharge at a rate of up to 19,700 gallons per day under the state permit.

That volume is considered a minor discharge, said Alan Kukla, an environmental specialist with the industrial wastewater permitting section of the DEC who is working on the permit application.

"It is a lot lower discharge than when the refinery was there and contains a fewer number of pollutants," he said.

According to Kukla, the Alaska water quality standard for benzene is 10 parts per billion. At worst, he said, calculations show benzene concentrations at the end of the pipe would reach 25 times that amount, thus requiring a dilution factor of 25 to bring the resultant level to the state standard.

The state permit's proposed mixing zone would provide the necessary dilution factor so that at the edges of the zone that is, the edge of the plume spreading from the diffusers benzene concentrations would reach the water quality standard or below.

The mixing zone measures about 300 feet in length by 40 feet wide by 10 feet thick and stretches north and south de-pending on the tide. It is de-signed to protect human health, Kukla said.

Pollutants should remain in the water column well beneath the surface, Kukla said. That is, water still polluted beyond state standards for benzene will neither float to the surface nor sink to the seabed as the plume spreads and dilutes the dangerous contents.

The plume is expected never to reach the beach, according to the draft permit.

BETX chemicals are nonconservative pollutants, Kukla added. That is, they don't tend to concentrate in the ecosystem.

"Once released, they disappear. Bacteria eat them. They are volatile and will evaporate," he said.

Not right away, he acknowledged, but within a reasonably short time.

According to Kukla, tests at the Chevron site itself have found untreated groundwater with concentrations ranging from 125 parts per billion down to 62 parts per billion. Again, the mixing zone is expected to dilute the less-contaminated settling tank discharge even further to the required 10 parts per billion.

Paul Horwath, an environmental specialist at DEC's in Soldotna, said he was not aware of any other contaminated site where polluted groundwater was collected and then discharged to the inlet without being treated first to an acceptable water-quality standard.

"It seems strange to me, in my history as an employee of DEC, that we would collect it in order to keep it from emerging into Cook Inlet, and then pipe it there anyhow," he said. "But whether that is appropriate is really the Division of Air and Water Quality's call."

Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, which monitors water quality in the inlet's watershed, said he's disappointed by Chevron's approach to the problem, noting the company Web site defines its corporate responsibility in terms of being good stewards and constructive partners with the communities in which it does business.

"They came into Cook Inlet, picked the low-hanging fruit and made a lot of money and left behind a huge contaminated site," he said. "Now they want to discharge cancer-causing chemicals into setnet fishing areas."

The Chevron site is not being regulated as a federal hazardous waste site, like the nearby Tesoro facility, but is under the state's Contaminated Sites Program, Shavelson said.

"At Tesoro, wastewater is taken off site or re-injected into the ground," he said. "Chevron is doing the bare minimum they need to do to scrape by."

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