The Wrangell Cooperative Association has six months to find $12 million to ship 18,500 cubic yards of lead-contaminated dirt out of Wrangell. If it doesn’t, the state will truck the dirty soil to a local hazardous waste site it said can hold the material safely for hundreds of years.
In Wrangell, dirt is actually interesting. The town and the state have been shaking their heads for several years trying get rid of the soil that used to sit under a former, very dirty salvage yard.
Years ago, the city of Wrangell and the state cleared piles of metal and hazardous waste off the property. But dangerous amounts of lead had already been absorbed into the soil. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimated it would cost $12 million to ship the dirt out of town — that was too much.
Instead, the state wants to put the contaminated dirt on trucks and haul it to a lined rock pit they will turn into a monofill. That’s a landfill with one purpose. Project Manager Sally Schlichting said monofills are used often to store construction debris, like asbestos.
“We’ve chosen the rock pit because it’s sheltered and it has bedrock walls on three sides and it’s set back from the road,” she said.
Schlichting said the pit will also be covered by a liner that is designed to last for at least 1,000 years, while exposed to the elements.
“And then (it) itself will be covered by another 3 feet of material, including a layer of vegetation,” she said.
But Richard Oliver, president of the Wrangell Cooperative Association, is worried the monofill is too close to a treasured natural resource — Pat’s Lake.
“Pat’s Lake is one of the few places on Wrangell where you can drive right up to the lake and jump out with your fishing pole and fish for trout. And we know that the salmon run up there and spawn,” he said.
Oliver is happy the state cleaned up the old junkyard. And he agrees the rock pit would be a perfect place to store the contaminated soil, if it weren’t just a mile from the lake.
“By putting a monofill with lead-contaminated soil so close to it, it’s too much of a risk,” she said.
Schlichting disagrees. She said lead doesn’t move far from where it’s been placed, so it couldn’t travel to Pat’s Lake. But her contractors have taken another precaution. The contaminated soil was treated with a phosphate-based product called Eco-Bond.
“But, with the phosphate which binds to the lead in the soil and renders it more immobile, it is that much more unable to leach or mobilize via water,” she said.
Oliver isn’t convinced.
“We’re not sold on this product because it’s only 15 or so years old and not test-proven in our book. Also the liner hasn’t been around that long either, but (they) expect a thousand-year life out of it,” he said.
WCA doesn’t have the money. So it’s putting its last hopes in a letter-writing campaign. Oliver said it’s sent letters to Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He’s hoping the federal government will help pay the $12 million needed to ship the soil out of Wrangell. He admits their chances don’t look promising.
Schlichting and DEC have agreed to wait about six months before they start rolling trucks up Pat’s Creek Road toward the rock pit. They have the U.S. Forest Service permit they need to use the road and it’ll only take them about a month to finish preparing the monofill.
Schlichting said if, or when, the soil is stored there, the state won’t just forget about it.
“So we’ll be conducting monthly visual inspections once the monofill is constructed and it’s closed,” she said.
The monthly checkups will last at least five years and then continue less frequently after that.
“Because what we want to do is make sure that the vegetation is taking, that the cap is stable, that there’s no intrusion from burrowing animals and trespassing,” she said.
She said the state will also regularly test groundwater near the site to reassure residents that the water isn’t contaminated with lead. If the lead ever gets out, Schlichting said the state will be required to fix the problem or pay to ship the soil out of Wrangell for good.