Skagway officials demand action on copper contamination

Photo/Courtesy/Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority

Skagway municipal officials are worried about newly-discovered contamination in the harbor of the Southeast city and are asking the state Department of Environmental Conservation to step up enforcement actions against the owners and operators of the Skagway Ore Terminal, a facility that loads ore trucked from mines in Yukon Territory.

Another state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, owns the ore terminal and operates it through contractors. The main user is Minto Explorations Ltd., a subsidiary of Capstone Mining Corp, operator of a mine in Yukon. A contractor, Mineral Services Inc., or MSI, operates the terminal on behalf of Minto Explorations and AIDEA, the owner.

Skagway officials believe the ore terminal to be the source of new copper contamination showing up in the harbor. Shipments of copper ore concentrates began in 2006 through the Skagway Ore Terminal, which is owned by AIDEA.

A report by the DEC sent to the municipality Aug. 26, which analyzes a harbor coring program, noted increasing levels of copper found in sediments compared with corings done in 2006.

The coring was done last winter by the municipality to support its federal permit applications for a port improvement project

Bruce Wanstall, an official in DEC’s contaminated sites program, said the copper concentrations are above the “Threshold Effect Level,” or TEL, a level that will affect aquatic life, and have increased significantly since the 2006 sampling. A companion analysis of water samples also showed levels of copper, he said.

The borings indicate that the contamination occurs across an area approximately 300 feet by 100 feet.

Wanstall said that while the TEL level of copper is at a level to affect marine life it does not pose a significant threat to human health.  Still, the fact that it may be increasing is a matter of concern, he said.

The recent borings not only confirmed the presence of the copper and that it is increasing. The soils survey by the municipality did not trace the path of the pollution, however.

However, the proposed Gateway Skagway Project, which involves dredging and deepening the harbor, would remove the newly-discovered contamination as well as older contamination of lead and mercury that have accumulated in the harbor, Wanstall said.

About 80 tons of lead and several pounds of mercury are known to be in sediments in Skagway’s harbor from earlier shipments of lead and zinc mineral ore, which have since ceased, from the Faro Mine in Yukon.

AIDEA acknowledged the indications of the copper found in the soils survey, “but not at a level that would be considered hazardous,” said Karsten Rodvik, a spokesman for the authority.

“These trace amounts will be removed when the harbor is dredged. AIDEA is aware of the municipality’s sensitivity and is working with the current tenant to do all we can to protect the harbor and the environment.”

Municipal officials say they are not assured because the ore terminal is not under a permit or DEC regulatory framework.

“Continuing discharge events are still being regularly documented at the Skagway Ore Terminal and continue to highlight the failure of ADEC (the Department of Environmental Conservation to assure that the Skagway Ore Terminal owners and operators comply with existing state laws and regulations,” Skagway city manager Scott Hahn and Chad Gubala, the city’s consultant on the port project, wrote in a toughly-worded Sept. 1 letter to the DEC.

The letter asked DEC to complete its enforcement of Notice of Violations against AIDEA, Capstone and MSI; to consult with the municipality on an independent evaluation of unregulated discharges; to direct the responsible parties to complete “seal capping” of contaminated and exposed soil areas around the ore terminal, and to work with the municipality on establishing, under a permit, an integrated storm water and wastewater management system for the Skagway Ore Terminal upland area.

AIDEA said Mineral Services Inc., the contractor that operates the ore terminal, “has submitted a corrective action plan (to the Notice of Violation) which was approved by the DEC.”

 “Capstone and MSI will conduct a sampling plan in order to establish a baseline,” to confirm that environmental control systems are working as intended, AIDEA said in a July update to the Skagway Ore Terminal project description on its website.

In a separate statement, Rodvik said the DEC’s notice of violation was addressed to MSI, the terminal operator.

“While AIDEA is owner of the facility we require our tenant, Capstone, (owner of Minto Exploration,) and their operator, MSI, to be responsible for all operational and environmental issues,” he said. “AIDEA is engaged in all discussions and recommendations and is providing oversight to assure that DEC is getting the information they need. It is also important to note that Capstone and MSI have been proactive, going beyond DEC requirements. We have complete confidence in their ability.”

The municipality’s ability to exert influence on the issue is complicated by the land ownership and contractual structure at the ore terminal. The municipality owns the land but has leased it to the White Pass Yukon Route Railway as part of a large lease of industrial lands the railroad holds.

The railroad has sub-leased tracts to AIDEA for the ore terminal, and AIDEA has contracted with Mineral Services Inc. for operations. Despite that, strict state liability laws for controlling and cleaning up pollution apply to the owners and operators of industrial facilities, Skagway officials have said. 

Updated: 
09/09/2015 - 1:34pm

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