No 'Responsible Party' in SSSC Spill

Category: Local News
Created on Thursday, 13 January 2022 16:02
Hits: 56

By GARLAND KENNEDY

Sentinel Staff Writer

The precise source of the oil spill that occurred on the former Sheldon Jackson campus in November remains uncertain as state and federal officials wrap up their investigation into the incident. 

“The source of the spill is still undetermined,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Allysia Helton told the Sentinel Monday. “After conducting several assessments in the surrounding area with the EPA and their contractors, we were unable to find significant oil impact or evidence of a large-scale incident.”

With no definitive source, the Coast Guard will categorize the incident as a “mystery spill,” meaning that no local entity will be held liable.

“Without any evidence of a source or responsible party, the federal project, which was opened to fund the response, will be closed out as a ‘mystery spill,’” Helton said. “The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund allows for spill response funding even if a responsible party is not identified... As long as no additional evidence is uncovered identifying a responsible party, there will be no enforcement or liability assigned.”

“In terms of damages incurred, the spill was isolated to the (Sitka Sound Science Center) hatchery raceway, and oil impact was managed by sorbent materials and boom,” Helton said.

On Nov. 18, oil was noticed seeping through a concrete seawall into fresh water near the Sitka Sound Science Center’s hatchery. In the Nov. 19 situation report by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp was listed as a potentially responsible party for the spill, but a later DEC release extended that scope to include the Science Center and state-owned Stratton Library. However, in their third and final release made public on Tuesday, the DEC wrote that because the source of the spill remains uncertain, there is not a potentially responsible party.

In order to prevent future issues, the Science Center conducted repairs on the concrete wall through which the oil initially leaked.

“Because the source of the spill is still a mystery, the recommendation we got from the EPA and the Coast Guard and the Alaska DEC was to kind of patch up our walls and ensure that no oil was going to leak out hopefully in the future,” Science Center operations director Chance Gray told the Sentinel. The wall – an original part of the Sage building built in 1929 – was reinforced with additional concrete, he said.

Gray was glad that no local parties were being held responsible for the spill.

“Fortunately for everyone on this campus, the Coast Guard is calling this a no-fault spill. Because they were not able to determine a definitive source, essentially that trust pays for the cleanup efforts and investigation efforts that went on,” he said.

Sitka Fine Arts Camp executive director Roger Schmidt said he was relieved that neither his organization nor the Science Center was found to be a responsible party.

“It was a very small amount of oil,” he said.

Both SFAC and the Science Center are situated on the former campus of the Sheldon Jackson College.  

“The EPA’s report was a summary of actions taken during the assessment period. Based on a lack of evidence of ongoing discharge and historical research, we suspect that the oil is coming from an isolated incident that occurred on the property before the Science Center operated out of the Sage building. There has been no responsible party identified for the incident,” Helton said.

The Coast Guard plans to monitor the area intermittently to ensure that no future oil discharge occurs.

“At this point in the investigation, we have been unable to determine a source of the incident. The Science Center has secured the spill by pouring additional concrete and sealing the location where the spill was discovered,” Helton added. “They are working with their contractor to reinforce the area under the building to prevent any other oil from escaping into the hatchery area. The Coast Guard will continue to monitor the area periodically for evidence of discharge.”

The land of the old campus has a history of contamination, the DEC noted.

“Records identified a number of potential sources including numerous historic underground tanks located on multiple properties, extensive contaminated soil from an unknown source or sources discovered in 2001 and 2003 at multiple locations on the Sheldon Jackson College (SJC) campus, and subsurface oil contamination documented in 2006 near the SJC Power Plant fuel vault now owned by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp,” DEC’S final update says. “Records dating back to the 1950s also identified a historic marine header that serviced the fuel vault via a three-inch diameter buried fuel line that ran directly across Science Center property, under Lincoln Street, and adjacent to the Stratton Library.”

Analysis conducted by the EPA eliminated the possibility that the recent oil leak emanated from the fuel vault, the agency’s report states.

All told, DEC estimates that about ten gallons of oil leaked, Environmental Program Manager Sarah Moore said. She expressed confidence in the repairs done to the seawall.

“We were particularly concerned with ensuring that oil no longer reaches Sitka Sound, which the repairs successfully addressed. And then the department will be working with some of the property owners going forward to more fully assess some of the historic or potential sources that we identified as part of our research for this spill,” Moore said. She added that test pits dug uphill of the oil discharge detected no widespread contamination.

Test pits closer to the site of the oil spill could not be dug, out of concern for “buried critical infrastructure,” the DEC wrote.

Helton was confident that the seawall repairs undertaken by the Science Center “will prevent any further discharge of oil into the waterway from that location.”

She was appreciative of the support from local entities during the investigation.

“As the investigation is closed and the response activities are wrapped up, we would like to thank everyone from the Science Center, Fine Arts Camp, and Stratton Library and Hanson Maritime,” she said. She asked Sitkans to report any oil spill to the National Response Center by calling 1-(800)-424-8802.

Speaking for the Science Center, Gray expressed appreciation for the effort put into the investigation.

“I think it was a really impressive effort on all sides,” Gray said. “Obviously, the outcome, we’d be feeling better about if we knew where it was coming from, but a lot of work went into this from the Coast Guard and the EPA and the DEC and a lot of work went into it from the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the state and the Science Center. And I think we turned over a lot of stones but unfortunately didn’t find a definitive source, but sometimes that’s how it goes.”