By DAN FOX
Waterfront stakeholders including the Municipality of Skagway and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad took part in a meeting with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Sept. 5 regarding the contamination in the Ore Terminal Basin.
In the early months of 2018, White Pass-hired consultant Golder Associates presented a risk assessment regarding the Ore Basin. DEC and Golder/White Pass went back and forth with questions and answers during the winter, spring and summer, with DEC finally adopting the risk assessment fairly recently.
Kara Kusche, the DEC project manager presiding over the Skagway issue, said the goal at the Sept. 5 meeting was to talk about next steps in the process.
The Golder report had found that there is lead, zinc and mercury concentration in the sediment of the harbor, mostly concentrated around the Ore Terminal.
“This assessment did conclude that the basin itself is a largely depositional environment, so as sediments are coming in through moving water, they drop out of the water and are forming a natural cap if you want to call it that over some of those contaminated sediments,” Kusche said. “So what we’re finding right now is that there’s more or less a clean cap of sediment towards the surface, and then below that it becomes more contaminated with metal.”
Among other things, the report also looked at the impact on human consumption of seafood and the effect/metal concentration with the shellfish population in the water.
The metals for human consumption of shellfish are exceeding some screening values, Kusche said, but the number of samples collected was also very small. Kusche said given the still-limited information available, further sampling to determine more might be necessary to provide a more comprehensive evaluation on the risk to humans. That ties into the possible next steps for the area.
“At this point in time, we don’t have enough information regarding protecting human health and the environment to close this site – we do need to see something happen regarding next steps,” Kusche said.
One option, Kusche said, is to treat or dredge the affected area to acceptable cleanup levels. Another way is to approach it based on the risk to people, however Kusche pointed out that the Golder risk assessment is based on the current status quo in the harbor, and the assumptions within it “may not remain valid” if there is any dredging or infrastructure work undertaken in the basin.
“DEC has several options which we would find acceptable,” Kusche said. “Obviously in order to leave contamination in place as is, where is, we would need additional information regarding the protection of human health and the environment, particularly related to human consumption, wildlife consumption and any sort of bioaccumaltive affect.”
DEC is also agreeable to dredging or treating the contamination, Kusche said.
“We’re really encouraging the parties right now to talk about how they want to use the harbor now and in the future, and see if they can more or less do a two birds with one stone kind of project,” Kusche said. “Combine infrastructure or dredging projects that they would want to do anyways with the contaminated sites work.”
DEC wants a next step taken on the issue; a letter is being drafted to have Skagway and the interested parties like White Pass submit a work plan to address the next steps in moving the site forward towards cleanup and closure. The parties will have between 60-90 days to submit said work plan.
“There’s that saying, ‘there are many ways to skin a cat,’ and this is certainly one of those scenarios,” Kusche said. “So the parties could propose a multitude of solutions that would all be acceptable ways of protecting human health and the environment.”
Following the Sept. 5 meeting, the Borough Assembly held an hour and a half-long executive session on Sept. 10; the discussion during that session was closed to the public, but after exiting the closed meeting, the assembly passed a motion to send correspondence to White Pass.
“I move we direct staff to write a letter stating that the community of Skagway wants an immediate remediation plan that will include dredging and full removal of contamination from the Ore Basin,” Assembly Member Hanson said. That motion passed 6-0. The letter says that “removing the contamination from the Ore Basin is the right thing to do for the community, and is also an obligation in the current lease.”
White Pass Executive Director of Human Resources & Strategic Planning Tyler Rose said the railroad has reached out to the municipality and other involved parties like the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to try and organize dates to get together for discussions.
“Our assumption is that everyone’s going to want to get together and put together a plan,” Rose said.
On the heels of a number of citizens advocating for the assembly to engage with the new White Pass owners, the assembly had held an earlier public meeting with the railroad’s new leadership team on Aug. 24. At the head of the discussion, Mayor Monica Carlson gave a framework for the evening, saying she wanted the topics covered to focus on the immediate needs of a floating add-on to the Ore Dock, and remediation in the Ore Terminal Basin. White Pass then took the floor, with White Pass President Bob Berto saying the railroad is attempting to get permitting done on the Railroad Dock to accommodate new mooring dolphins, and that the railroad has already begun work on the permitting process regarding a floating component at the Ore Dock.
“We figure we need to get that permitting process going now, regardless of what we do together,” Berto said. Several White Pass and Cruise Lines Agencies of Alaska employees addressed the current and past state of affairs, and the need in the port for infrastructure able to accommodate multiple large cruise ships.
“We’re looking forward to listening to concerns of the city, sitting down to some sort of a working atmosphere where we can roll up our sleeves to deal with what we can do in the port,” Berto said.
Assembly members discussed points like maintenance upgrades needed at the Ore Dock with the White Pass officials, and Assembly Member Tim Cochran even tested the water to see if White Pass would be interested in participating in a vocational education program with the school and community.
Carlson said that cleanup in the harbor is a very important topic for the community, and asked Berto at the meeting if White Pass could “assure the community that will be done.”
“I think I stated that already, that we’re prepared to go to the meeting on the 5th [of September] and we’re prepared to work with DEC and whatever plan they come up with, and we’re going to move forward with that,” Berto said.