By Gretchen Wehmhoff

When Katherine Mosely and Crystal Harris took their dogs for a walk through Seven Pastures on Dec. 24, they noticed a disturbing soot coating their pups’ paws, lower legs and snouts. The snow in the area had an evenly covered soot layer, contrasting with the bright, white snow underneath.

In addition, a smoky haze with a toxic burning smell enveloped the area.

The haze and smell drifted over and into Skagway and Dyea. 

Moseley posted a warning to dog owners on Facebook suggesting they avoid the area and try to use Dawn dish soap to clean their pets.

 Donna Griffard noticed it on Sixth Avenue. “It smelled like plastic or bad wiring, tar … something not right. I looked around our house and neighbors and didn’t see any smoke. Bad smell for sure,” she said in a Facebook comment  in response to Moseley’s post.

Skagway Police Chief Jerry Reddick said they received multiple calls regarding the soot and a smell in the area, more concentrated on the west side of the Skagway River. 

“They just said that they were seeing a lot of black soot around the Seven Pastures area and in the recycling center area. I know we probably got a half a dozen if not a dozen calls,” Reddick said.

Sgt. Ken Cox responded to the calls.

Cox discovered a burn pile on the Hamilton Construction, LLC  property that was still smoldering. He took photos and utilized his body cam footage to accompany a report to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Jeff Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Construction in Skagway, was not able to be reached by deadline

Jason Olds of the DEC Division of Air Quality said his office received the complaint filed from Skagway about the burn and the compliance enforcement officers have been investigating.

Olds says that there is a series of notices and warnings that go out to parties involved in complaints. The first warning is educational, informing the subject of the complaint of the potential or real violation and pointing out the legal ramifications. The expectation is that the subject of the complaint will understand and not repeat the infraction.

If a party in the complaint has already been warned, the process moves along without the preliminary warnings. In this case, Hamilton Construction had been previously warned in January 2023.

Reddick said the DEC has been in contact with Hamilton.

Reddick has been in discussions with city officials regarding progress.

“And, you know, we didn’t see it actively burning, so we couldn’t really call the fire department  to put it out. And we didn’t know who started it. So that’s where the investigation went to the DEC so they can start down that path. The ordinance would be about a $200 ticket, and this seems bigger than a $200 ticket.

The materials being burned were construction materials that included styrofoam and creosote coated items, making it a more severe compliance issue.

Dylan Morrison, program manager for the DEC,  said the investigation is relying on the photos and video sent to them. 

Morrison said their particular investigation is not set up to receive lab samples, mostly due to the necessity to have a secure chain of custody from gathering samples to receiving them. He was aware that locals had taken samples.

Morrison said black smoke is prohibited and the investigators are still gathering information.

He referred people to the DEC Air Quality  website for more information on what is and what is not permitted to burn through their open burn guidelines. Information on how to obtain permits  the link to filing a complaint is also on the site. 

When the investigation is complete, the report will be made public. It is not expected to be soon.