Kenai seeks cooperation to lessen river pollution

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2006

Kenai civic leaders on Tuesday were puzzling over why state agencies have known about hydrocarbon pollution in the Kenai River for years and done nothing about it.

Members of the Kenai City Council also wondered how raising the “impaired” label on the water body from Category 3 to Category 5 will make a difference.

Kenai Watershed Forum Executive Director Robert Ruffner offered one possible answer: the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Game don’t work well together.

“Why are we saying you’re in the worst category there is (Category 5), when we’ve done nothing as Category 3?” asked council member Rick Ross.

“We’re saying, ‘You’re the worst river in the world,’” Ross said of announced plans by DEC to categorize the Kenai River as “Category 5 Impaired waterbody.”

The council was considering a resolution supporting efforts to lower the total hydrocarbon levels in the lower Kenai River.

“We’ve known there’s too much gasoline in the river since 1991,” said Ruffner.

“There’s been nothing done to address these problems in 15 years.

“We have strong evidence that 600 gallons of raw gasoline go into the river every day in July,” he said. “I need your help.”

The source of the summertime contamination has been identified as coming from outboard motors on sport fishing boats on the river.

“If this was Tesoro or Agrium or ConocoPhillips, they would be shut down,” said Aaron Morse, a chemist who has worked on industrial contamination, and who owns property near the river.

“These are toxic pollutants,” Morse said.

Former city council member Jim Butler said, “If a company anywhere in Cook Inlet dumps 600 gallons ... forget fines; we’re talking handcuffs.”

Ken Tarbox, who said he is a biologist who has been doing work on the Kenai River for more than 20 years, said, “By sampling sculpins on the bottom of the river in 1991, we found enzymes from hydrocarbons pollution from elevated levels of motor fuels.

“Even at low levels — one part per billion — we’re seeing sub-lethal effects on rainbow trout, which happen to be the same species as salmon,” he said.

The city’s proposed resolution was drafted in response to the DEC’s “2006 Proposed Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report,” which categorizes the lower river as an impaired water body.

City Manager Rick Koch said, “I asked DEC to come and address the council and they said, ‘No.’”

“They were already conducting public hearings,” he said.

The DEC is seeking comments on its integrated report. The deadline is 5 p.m. Dec. 1. Written comments are to be submitted to Drew Grant, P.O. Box 11180, 410 Willoughby Ave., Ste. 303, Juneau, AK 99801.

Jim Rypkema stood up during the council’s public discussion on its resolution, and said, “For the record, I am with DEC. We’re doing the public process for the integrated report.”

Ross asked, “What steps have been taken while we were in Category 3 ... did we not do anything?”

“I can’t answer that,” Rypkema said, adding he has been with the state agency for only six months.

“What does it mean that the (federal Environmental Protection Agency) will step in if the state does nothing?”

“I can’t speculate,” Rypkema said. “I would assume the EPA would take more of a driver’s seat role.”

Council member Joe Moore wanted to know what it would take to have the Kenai River removed from the impaired list once it has been placed on it.

“A work plan would need to be established to reduce the level of hydrocarbons,” said Rypkema, adding that follow-up monitoring would need to show a reduction.

“You do have tools you can use under Category 3,” said Ross.

“For whatever reason, it has not been done,” said Rypkema.

John Landua, who identified himself as a chemist, said, “The professionals believe the data is persistent, consistent and credible.

“I do agree with the impaired status. What the agency has done is they’ve finally taken the right action,” Landua said.

“The right action to take is to support an impaired status and get this thing done,” said Ruffner.

On a vote of 4 to 3, the council approved its resolution supporting efforts to reduce hydrocarbon levels, but stopped short of endorsing the Category 5 impaired designation.

The council encouraged the DEC “to work more cooperatively” with the city of Kenai, the DNR, ADF&G and others to undertake efforts to lower hydrocarbon levels in the lower Kenai River.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@

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