By Leigh Armstrong

Members of the Skagway Borough Assembly and residents are calling for a more cohesive remediation plan for the seabed at the ore terminal, taking into account possible contamination underneath the ore loader and pier. 

Representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and environmental consultants Anchor QEA and Golder Associates presented the White Pass & Yukon Route’s proposed work plan at a public meeting at the AB Hall on June 26.

WPYR has submitted to state officials a proposed remediation plan that does not include removing minerals contamination from directly underneath the ore loader at the waterfront.  

In its plan submitted in May, WPYR said “contamination that may be present under the existing ore dock cannot feasibly be accessed for active remedial action.” 

At the town hall meeting, Blair McDonald of Golder Associates said the risk assessment conducted in 2017 did not show a high impact on wildlife from sediments at the ore loader, but said the sample size of wildlife tested did not make the 

results definitive.

Due to in part to the mixing of clean water over time from the Skagway River, contaminant concentrations are declining over time. 

WPYR’s proposed clean-up work focuses on the seafloor area around the loader, where past studies have shown the highest concentration of contaminants.

WPYR’s draft plan sets the start date for ore basin remediation in the winter of 2020-2021, subject to state approval. In its proposal, WPYR said it expects a decision on remediation options in July. 

“(The plan) is a start, but it’s piecemeal. We need AIDEA’s participation to do this right,” Assemblymember Orion Hanson said at the meeting. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), owns the ore terminal, having purchased it from the railroad in 1990.

Mayor Andrew Cremata suggested WPYR look at creating two concurrent work plans, including one that includes removal of the old ore loader and replacement with a more environmentally safe system, which the municipality has been pushing to achieve.

A 2018 report for the railroad determined that there is lead, zinc and mercury contamination in the harbor sediment, mostly concentrated around the ore terminal. WPYR said it would base its clean-up work on past environmental assessments in the harbor. It does not plan to gather new information.

The draft plan’s primary option for contaminant removal is dredging, which would scrape the sediment off the seabed, seal it in containers and ship the material to another state for disposal in an approved landfill. 

Skagway resident asked whether vacuum dredging could be used to more completely remove contaminants. “Leaving that stuff under the docks is unacceptable,” Brown said. 

Vacuum dredging, however, could be difficult because the sediment under the dock is condensed and too heavy to bring up, McDonald said. 

The proposed clean-up would remove 85 percent of the known contamination. Because of the steel pilings supporting the dock and loader, consultants were unable to safely access the area for testing.

Assemblymember Tim Cochran said the area should be tested and suction dredged. “You can still get under the dock. It isn’t inaccessible,” Cochran said. 

The municipality has been advocating removal of the ore loader and replacing it with a container-loading operation that would be cleaner, reducing the risk of spills and contamination, Cremata said in an interview on June 24.  

AIDEA is making plans to repair the existing loader to resume operations when the Yukon Territory Minto Mine, which closed last year, returns to work under a new owner, perhaps as early 2020. 

Cremata said he’s working directly with AIDEA for options for the loader and dock.