A closed meeting between the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and responsible parties regarding cleanup of Skagway’s ore basin has yielded no plan, but an agreement for all parties to share documentation.
The Aug. 8 meeting was initiated by ADEC and requested the presence of the Municipality of Skagway, the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad, the Alaska Industrial and Export Development Authority, Capstone Mining, and Mineral Services, Inc., parties all responsible for the cleanup of legacy contaminants in the harbor.
John Halverson, a contaminated sites environmental program manager with ADEC, said in a phone interview that Alaska has joint and several liability, which enables the state to recover damages from any of the parties regardless of their share in the problem, and extends to current and past owners and operators.
“All of the parties that were at the meeting today were in the loop as having liability, and that’s one of the ongoing discussion points, how they would divvy up that work, who’s going to actually take the lead and do it,” Halverson said.
Who will take the lead has yet to be determined.
Kara Kusche, also a contaminated sites environmental program manager with ADEC, said while all parties had had some communication with ADEC, it appeared many had not spoken with each other in a long time.
“One of the main milestones coming out of this meeting is that all of the parties are going to share information with each other,” Kusche said.
Much of that information will come from the 60 percent design documents of the halted Gateway Project. Halverson said not all parties had been shown the most recent designs, and while Gateway itself is still suspended, the focus will be on the remediation.
A point of contention between the MOS and AIDEA has been the removal of the Ore Terminal’s ship loader, whether it can stay during the mitigation, and if not, who will pay for its demolition and replacement. Kusche said part of the document sharing will be geared toward answering those questions.
Both Halverson and Kusche agreed the meeting was a good starting point for moving forward with the cleanup, but a deadline has not been established. While the state does have the authority to step in and take matters into their own hands, Halverson said right now they will focus on having continued open dialogue with all responsible parties.
The municipality has discussed remediation prior to the meeting with ADEC and most recently has agreed to reengage with White Pass as a means to clean up the harbor and install a floating dock.
During a Aug. 4 borough assembly meeting, assembly members discussed potential lease terms, including revenue, a floating dock and remediation, and the room was filled with voices from the community.
Gayla Hites referenced a letter from ADEC to White Pass President Marvin Taylor from 1990. The letter thanks White Pass for its clean up throughout town, but addresses concerns within the harbor.
“There are two issues that remain to be discussed. One is the recovery of DEC costs associated with the cleanup,” the letter says. “The other is the contamination of the Skagway Harbor. We want to schedule a time soon to deal with the former. Resolution of the latter is on the agenda for this fiscal year.”
The letter goes on to say that the cleanup of the upland industrial area has been long and complicated, and addresses White Pass as a responsible and responsive company.
“If you reengage White Pass, it really should only be on the matter of the remediation,” Hites said, after addressing the letter. “I’m not going to go into the cancer rate in this town. We all know about it. It needs to be addressed,” she said.
When asked about the letter, Halverson said it was identified as a cleanup back then and isn’t sure why it wasn’t completed 26 years ago.
During the assembly meeting, WP&YR’s Executive Director of Human Resources and Strategic Planning Tyler Rose said he appreciated the community feedback and hoped to avoid a spiral of a worse case outcome when there are so many positives in town.
“A lot of people are concerned about the contamination, as are we,” he said. “I hope that the assembly and perhaps members of the community can look at it that way at the opportunities that are available to us to work together.”
The conversation swirled around remediation, floating docks and a cost-benefit analysis.
Assemblyman Spencer Morgan stated his want for a fair market value study, saying landowners don’t just pick a number out of thin air and say this is what the rent is going to be.
“I look at other properties in the area or somebody else who might have a model like I do, and I look at those models and get the number off that,” he said.
But Assemblyman Dan Henry said there isn’t a similar property to compare it to and reminded everyone that there are a lot of moving parts.
“The remediation alone carries a lot of baggage. We can’t rip out the loader. It belongs to AIDEA on the ground that belongs to White Pass,” he said.
Assemblywoman Angela Grieser asked if all leased properties would be assessed based on their income.
“All of this talk about a cost benefit analysis and all of these things, all of our other properties we get an appraisal, and we do it all the same. So I don’t think it’s fair, or I would need to have a very good reason to say why they should be treated differently,” she said. “We don’t go to Jewell Gardens and say let me see how much they make and then I’ll tell you what your lease payment is going to be.”
Mayor Mark Schaefer said presumably all leases would be done the same.
The assembly also discussed the lack of an agreement and the possibility of waiting until 2023 when White Pass’s lease expires.
“If we can’t come to an agreement, then maybe we wait. But… the cleanup has to be part of the requirement, not what we want to do. It probably can’t wait too terribly long,” Assemblyman Tim Cochran said. We need to get that out that the city is going to maintain ownership, whether we task out an operator, if we operate it, we’re in partnership, and we’ve got to go forward in that respect.”
For now, the contamination remains in the harbor, and ADEC isn’t sure if it’s ongoing. According to ADEC’s Environmental Program Manager Halverson, there wasn’t a sufficient data conclusion as to whether there was an increase in levels, but as part of the agreed upon information sharing, Capstone Mining is going to conduct voluntary water monitoring and will share the results.
“The city and all of us really do have concerns,” Halverson said. “We don’t want to have any ongoing contamination problems.”
But, the contaminants remain and the concentrations are high enough to have an adverse effect on sediment dwelling organisms in the vicinity.
“It has the potential that it could have human health impacts if people are harvesting seafood right now from that immediate area,” he said.
Neither Kusche nor Halverson could say whether ADEC had conducted studies on such seafood, but did say to limit how much is eaten from that area.
“People need to be aware that there is contamination there,” he said.