An aerial view of the junkyard site four miles south of downtown Wrangell. (Photo courtesy of dec.alaska.gov)

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation announced this week it will spend about $4 million to clean up a former Wrangell junkyard site with high levels of lead contamination.

“Commissioner Larry Hartig of DEC has basically said that they’re going to be spending $3.9 million from the response account of the Oil and Hazardous Substance Release Prevention and Response Fund to perform the emergency cleanup of the junkyard,” said Wrangell Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore.

Rushmore said Wrangell initially got a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to test for contamination at the former site of the Byford junkyard, which is about four miles south of town.

“The assessment came in and said we had very high levels of lead contamination. And the EPA jumped on it and was trying to get some funds, and then the accident in Colorado happened and those funds were diverted and we were told it wasn’t going to happen,” Rushmore said.

The accident Rushmore referred to was when the EPA released waste from the Gold King Mine into a river in Colorado this summer. When federal funds were needed to clean up the mine waste, the state of Alaska took on the Wrangell junkyard cleanup.

According to a DEC memo, the lead level at the former junkyard site is so high that it warrants an emergency cleanup.

The memo states, “The site poses an imminent and substantial exposure risk to human health and the environment due to extremely high concentrations of lead and other contaminants in soil, surface water, and sediment.”

People living near the site could be affected by the high levels of lead in the ground. The EPA was planning to monitor lead levels in the blood of workers performing the cleanup due to the severity of the contamination.

The site was used as a junkyard for a few decades where people dumped cars, batteries, oil and scrap metal. No effort was made to properly store those items.

The City and Borough of Wrangell inherited the junkyard through a property tax foreclosure. The borough cleared debris from the site but did not have the resources to clean up the lead contamination.

The DEC will start the cleanup as soon as possible, and it will involve the excavation, transport and disposal of hazardous waste. The property will be cleaned to residential standards.