Greg Rutkowski of Brice Engineering, a contractor for the U.S. Army, explains a proposal for
a feasibility study for cleanup of PFAS and other contaminants at the old Haines Fuel Terminal
and tank farm on Lutak Road. (Lex Treinn/Chilkat Valley News)
Greg Rutkowski of Brice Engineering, a contractor for the U.S. Army, explains a proposal for a feasibility study for cleanup of PFAS and other contaminants at the old Haines Fuel Terminal and tank farm on Lutak Road. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

The new project manager for the Haines Fuel Terminal clean-up project got stern words from community members frustrated about the Army’s communication over the past seven years at a recent meeting in Haines. 

The Army hadn’t updated Haines residents since 2017, yet delivered  two major reports about environmental contamination to members of the local board just a few days before a Thursday meeting. 

“That is horribly wrong,” Haines resident Jim Studley told U.S. Army project manager Peter Baker at the April 4 Restoration Advisory Board meeting. “Having that information sent out just two or three days before the meeting is not very kind.”

“CIV is exceedingly displeased with the agencies lack of outreach efforts having not advised the Chilkat Indian Village of this meeting as we are a federally recognized tribe,” read Alan Jones, on behalf of Jones Hotch Jr., vice-president of Klukwan’s tribal council. Jones coordinates the tribe’s environmental efforts and joined the RAB during the meeting. 

Baker, who took his position as project manager for the fuel terminal cleanup in 2022, apologized for the poor communication and committed to doing better. 

“I apologize on the Army’s behalf,” he told the dozen or so community members who had come to the public meeting. 

RAB meetings are supposed to be held regularly to update the community and allow members to give guidance about the Army’s clean-up projects. The Army operated the Haines fuel terminal and tank farm on Lutak Road until 1988, and started clean up shortly after that. 

The 2017 RAB meeting revealed diesel fuel contamination at Tanani beach. Since then, results of a major remedial investigation that was released in 2020 revealed areas of contamination around the site. It also contained a 1968 photograph of tanks — presumably with some type of fuel — next to Lutak Road at Tanani Point. Studley said the Army had previously denied there were fuel tanks along the beach, and said the documentation revealed a potential source of contamination. 

The Army also started looking into PFAS contamination in the area and released an assessment in 2023 with seven areas of potential interest. PFAS are long-lasting chemicals that the government says have harmful effects on humans, but the Army didn’t start addressing them until 2019. 

Brice Engineering presented a plan and a proposed timeline for how the PFAS contamination will be addressed. According to the proposed timeline, public comment could happen as soon as 2025, and the clean-up could be done by 2028. Studley said he had doubts about the Army’s ability to stick with the timeline.

“I don’t think it’s realistic based on results they’ve produced in the past,” said Studley. 

Hope for better future communication

Baker gave several reasons for the poor communication over the past seven years. He said while he wasn’t part of previous discussions, he’d spoken with a predecessor who told him several planned meetings hadn’t materialized because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Virtual meetings weren’t held either, which Baker said was due to the Department of Defense’s IT restrictions about using Zoom. 

Baker, who is overseeing 88 other clean-up projects, said he was told when he took his position in 2022 that Haines was due for a visit. Baker said he tried to get a meeting in 2023, but wasn’t able to make it happen within the military bureaucracy. 

“I tried, but there were a lot of moving pieces,” he said. “There were timing issues that weren’t a lot in and of themselves, but added up to it not happening.” 

Baker said he didn’t push hard for a virtual meeting either. This year, he was able to pull the visit together with a completely new set of officials, while the RAB officials stayed the same. Baker pointed to a lack of a relationship with Haines’ RAB representatives as the reason for not sending out previous reports earlier. 

“We weren’t picking up where we left off, we were kind of starting over,” said Baker. 

Studley said despite his frustrations, he was willing to give Baker and the Army a chance. 

“He seems to be pretty sharp, pretty aware, a straight shooter,” said Studley in an interview after the meeting. “I think we have to take him at his word that he’ll get us the information than was done previously.”

Tribal consultation 

Baker said that CIV’s concern about inadequate tribal consultation, while well-meaning, was misinformed about RAB’s responsibilities. CIV said they weren’t told about the Thursday meeting in advance, and didn’t have a member on the RAB board until Alan Jones was nominated. 

RAB boards exist for contaminated sites around the country to serve as a way local communities can learn about and direct clean-up efforts. 

Baker said RABs are the only way that he should interact with a community and that reaching out to CIV individually would have been outside of his responsibility. 

“There is no special communication from me to anybody if they’re not a member of the RAB,” Baker said. “It would be wrong of me to send special communication.”

Still, Fort Wainwright’s tribal liaison Elizabeth Cook said that the Army’s internal policies require tribal consultation if a tribe requests it. She said the Army would consider CIV’s letter an official request for consultation and would work on formulating a response. 

“While there isn’t any environmental restoration program requirement for consultation — there’s no driver there — there is a greater agency policy and guidance driver,” said Cook. “All they have to do is ask.”