The sun sets over the Klehini River in Haines Sunday, Aug. 6. (Emily Files)

The Haines Borough wants to clean up old contaminated soil outside of town and they’re asking the state for help. The site is at 34 Mile Haines Highway near a salmon stream. It’s unclear how the contamination happened. But  the Haines Borough hopes the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will lead the clean-up efforts.

A hundred and thirty truckloads of contaminated soil has been sitting on a borough parcel since the early 2000s. The soil originated from a site owned by the now-defunct Chilkoot Lumber Company. An unidentified contractor transported the soil to a five-acre parcel it was then leasing from the borough. The contractor intended to incorporate the material into asphalt for the Haines Highway. This was never done, and the pile has been sitting there ever since. 

Anne Marie Palmieri is with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She said the record of the site isn’t clear. 

“Somehow, just from staff turnover at various agencies, the documentation about the pile and whether it was still present, kind of got lost,”said Palmieri. 

She was speaking at a recent meeting with the Haines Borough Planning Commission. The state’s Department of Conservation (DEC) tested the soil and found elevated levels of motor oil and hydraulic and brake fluids. State documents say that the soil does not present a risk to human health, but the contamination is significant enough to warrant clean-up. 

The pile of soil is sitting 300 feet from Big Boulder Creek, near the Klehini River. The Chilkat Indian Village recently requested that the borough clean up the site. 

Andrew Conrad is the borough’s planner. He was contacted by the tribe about the site. 

“They were surveying the borough limits for any potential contaminated sites that may be qualified for clean up under the DEC’s brownfields program,” said Conrad.

Because Chilkoot Lumber Company went out of business, there is no record of who the contractor was and who was leasing the land and brought in the material. But, the borough, as landowner, is responsible for cleaning up the site. 

The borough is hoping the state can assist the municipality through its brownfields program. The program would pay for the clean-up and manage the process. All that is required is that the borough applies and identifies a desired use for the site. The application went out recently, just in time to meet the deadline. Conrad proposed that the parcel be set aside for general and undefined use.

“Our intention is to support uninhibited recreation at this borough pit, because it is currently used by dog walkers, snowmachiners and potentially other recreation that we are not currently aware of,” said Conrad. 

 State records on the site say the Chilkoot Lumber Company initially had a plan to deal with the contamination. It included using liners to prevent the contaminants from spreading, and a system to collect runoff from the pile. They proposed adding fertilizer and planting native vegetation to enhance biodegradation of the petrochemicals. It is unclear how far these measures were implemented, and if they were successful.  

The DEC’s Palmieri says that soil tests near the pile did not indicate contamination of the surrounding area, but  the agency did not test the soil under the pile, to avoid damaging the liner. If DEC accepts the borough’s application, Palmieri says the agency would conduct the work on behalf of the borough.

 “A DEC contractor would work with the borough to identify various clean-up alternatives, and then those would be presented to the public for comments,” said Palmieri. “So, just to let you know that it is a very transparent process, and it also has a large public outreach component.”

Palmieri says those alternatives could include treatment on site, or removing the material and shipping it to a facility in Juneau or the lower 48. 

Some Haines planning commissioners were surprised that the borough was responsible for cleaning a site contaminated by a private entity. They wanted to know if this was likely to come up again.

Borough planner Conrad said it should get better because record keeping has improved.

“We are in a situation in this day and age where written agreements are much more robust, and I just don’t have the records available to answer your question about how we ended up in this situation,” said Conrad. “So just a reassurance that we have policies for land use and the use of borough property in our code as it exists right now, so I do believe we have the safeguards in place to ensure something like this doesn’t happen.”

Alan Jones, who contacted the borough on behalf of the Chilkat Indian Village, said this case is peculiar, but there are other contaminated sites on borough land.

“This pile at 34 Mile is a very weird anomaly,” said Jones. “In just the fact that it’s there in the process, and that it still remains there. But I think it would be fair to say that there are other contaminated sites within or on borough land that are at various degrees of remediation.”

The DEC manages thousands of contaminated sites throughout the state. A search of the agency’s  database lists 50 sites within the Haines Borough. The majority are listed as cleaned up, yet 17 have an active status. This means there is contamination, and the DEC is in the process of assessing, cleaning up, or monitoring the site.

If the state accepts the borough’s application, the clean-up process could start this summer. The DEC will make a decision on the application. Representatives from the DEC’s brownfield program did not immediately respond to questions about when the application will be processed.