Wrangell’s tribe and city have won a year-long fight to protect a fishing stream and popular recreation site. The state had planned to dispose of tons of lead-contaminated soil at a rock pit near Pat’s Creek as soon as possible. But many in the community spoke out against disposal at the contentious site. Legislators took note of those concerns and allocated $5 million to ship the waste entirely off the island.
The Wrangell Cooperative Association never budged from its original position: no disposal near Pat’s Creek. The tribe looked for alternative sites, extra federal funding and outside scientific opinion. All options were on the table, but most did not pan out.
Then, the tribe reached out to elected officials and met with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. And Gov. Bill Walker went to bat for the concerned citizens of Wrangell. He requested $5 million to ship the soil off Wrangell Island. Then, the Senate and House just passed that appropriation in its capital budget.
“I told my children and my daughter Natalia was so happy she said, ‘Mom this means we can go ice skating on Pat’s Lake this winter,'” said Esther Ashton, WCA’s tribal administrator.
The contaminated soil comes from the old Byford Junkyard, where residents dumped dead cars for decades. The lead came from their batteries. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation cleaned up much of the junk and treated the soil with a stabilizing agent.
The state agency proposed placing the soil at the rock pit, which is a thousand feet from the creek. ADEC says it is a more-than-safe option for hundreds of years to come. But DEC’s director Jeff Rogers understands the public’s concern.
“When you have a contaminated site in your backyard it is a passionate local issue. We believe the site at Pat’s Creek to be environmentally viable. But people don’t want it in their backyard and there is a higher cost option and the governor supports that option,” Rogers said.
The city also contacted politicians in support of the off-island option. Wrangell’s representative in the House, Dan Ortiz, voted in favor of the funding during House Finance Committee meetings.
“I felt like I was advocating for what I felt to be the majority opinion in Wrangell,” Ortiz said.
Of course, not everyone in the Southeast city wanted this option.
Brett Woodbury is a local contractor. He has been working with the Department of Environmental Conservation on the cleanup. He says he’s prepared tons material for the rock pit that he might not be paid for. And work for him and his employees has shut down at times, when he could be pursuing other contracts in town.
The state is in the early stages of shifting gears for off-island disposal. Officials are unsure exactly where the waste will go. And it may have to find additional funding later. But the state says one thing is for sure: no disposal near Pat’s Creek.