The Wrangell Borough and local tribe are working together to find a new location for tons of lead-contaminated soil. Almost 20,000 cubic yards of treated soil is slated to be hauled from the old Byford Junkyard to a rock quarry near Pat’s Lake.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation began the cleanup efforts last spring. The state agency treated the soil and plans to place it in what’s called a monofill near Pat’s Creek. Now, the borough and Wrangell Cooperative Association are pushing back on this relocation plan.
“We are coming into this with no knowledge and we are trying to come up to speed on whether we are comfortable with them putting 2,000 dump-truck loads worth of lead-contaminated soil .2 miles from a fish stream,” local Tribal Administrator Esther Ashton
Borough Assembly Member Patty Gilbert agreed. “Actually, the Pat’s Lake site is ideal,” Gilbert said. “It borders on, what, three sides with pure rock… except for the water source.”
The soil has been treated so it won’t seep into nearby material, but it’s still hazardous. The state planned to move it last summer but delayed due to public concern. Assembly member Steve Prysunka said he’s upset with the lack of public process.
“Never did this body get approached by anybody in the state to discuss what was going on,” Prysunka said. “So, that bothers me as a community member and as an assembly member. This is not just a tribe issue; this is also an assembly issue.”
The borough and tribe have sent letters to the state conservation agency asking for other options. The state’s replies are little more than a take it or leave it. In a letter, the agency said there are no other viable sites on city or state land on the island. When the borough asked for a deadline to find other sites, the agency said there’s no time left to consider other spots on the island. And, if the city wants to ship the soil south, it needs to come up with the $8 million cost by next April.
The borough and tribe don’t want to make a formal appeal at this time, but they will push back.
“I would like to delve more into those deadlines because we don’t know why those were imposed specifically,” Ashton said. “And it basically gives no time to come up with alternatives.”
An uncertain road lays ahead for the local governments. The state’s plan is exactly that, a plan to take care of the soil. To dismiss the state’s help would mean a lot of legwork for the tribe and borough, like finding alternative locations and funds on their own.
“One of my concerns is that this pile will end up staying where it is,” Prysunka said.
And that is a race against the clock, because the state says the lining containing the soil has a shelf life of two years. After that, it starts to degrade, making it hazardous or more costly to move.
“I’m all about finding alternatives, but at some point we’re going to have a go, no-go date,”Prysunka said.
The tribe and borough are also going above and beyond the state agency. Ashton says the tribe spoke with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who will then talk with Gov. Bill Walker.
The borough and tribal officials say they will continue to fight the state’s decisions, while keeping the community informed and involved in the process.