Sitka’s industrial park has an unexpected trash problem. Winter storms have uncovered a previously unknown landfill at the former mill site, and debris is already spilling into Sawmill Creek.
And another landfill — which everyone already knew about — might be failing.
Sitka’s Gary Paxton Industrial Park was built on top of what used to be the Alaska Pulp Corporation mill, which began production in 1959. When it closed 34 years later, in 1993, many of the mill structures were demolished and removed, a large landfill for waste wood — called “hog fuel” — was capped, and monitoring programs were put in place by both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The site was handed over to the City of Sitka in 1999.
That landfill is now showing signs of trouble. But that’s not all. Park executive director Garry White told the park board that there was another undocumented waste site.
“There’s another landfill that is up by the filter plant, which is up all the way at the top where the bulk water line is,” White explained.
Runoff from this year’s relentless winter storms has washed away soils on the side of the landfill. White showed pictures of a failed creek bank revealing a slice of landfill, and a decades-old accumulation of debris.
There’s only one place for it to go.
“We’re finding that this trash is starting to fall into Sawmill Creek — here it is down at the bottom — you can see metal in the creek already,” said White. “Well, that’s a problem as well.”
The APC Mill employed about 450 Sitkans during its peak. It was a city-within-a-city in some respects, and cities have to put their trash somewhere. What’s in this landfill is a big question mark, however. White told the board that Sitka’s environmental superintendent, Shilo Williams, estimated that it would cost around $135,000 just to assess the site.
Public Works director Michael Harmon agreed that the costs right now were anyone’s guess, and that it presented a big challenge.
“This was not a documented landfill,” Harmon said. “It wasn’t part of the close out. (We) didn’t know it existed, so we do not have documentation on what was put in this landfill, so it will entail much more work potentially in those regards, to test that and get that sorted out, whereas the other landfill is bigger, has bigger infrastructure implications to stabilize than this one, but we know much more about it, and what’s in it and what we’re dealing with.”
That other landfill is wood waste — but it’s not benign. The APC Mill used a chlorine process that produced gleaming sheets of fiberboard on one hand, and a woody byproduct called “hog fuel” on the other.
The excess hog fuel was landfilled along the shore just past the Sawmill Creek highway bridge, on the site where entrepreneurs recently tried unsuccessfully to launch a small farm.
The landfill was capped, and is now overgrown with alders. But White said there’s evidence that the landfill has become unstable.
“Down here there’s a monument, and there’s another monument, and these monuments are making sure that the cap’s not moving,” White said. “Well, unfortunately the cap is moving.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation considered this possibility — that’s why the monuments were established — but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a simple matter to fix. Like the smaller, undocumented landfill on the hillside, the extent of the problem is unknown.
“The short statement is that we need to do a geotechnical study to find out: Is just the cap moving, or is the whole shooting match down to bedrock moving?” he asked. “Which could potentially be a big deal.”
When the park was established, White says an Environmental Contingency Fund was also created to deal with this kind of problem, and it’s got an available balance of just over $640,000.
White recommended that the board ask the assembly to draw $270,000 of that fund in the next fiscal year to assess the park’s landfills.
The work would consume about 42-percent of the available funds in the Environmental Contingency Fund, without necessarily remedying either site.
Board member Mike Johnson asked White the obvious question:
Johnson – What happens when we exhaust the Environmental Contingency Fund? Let’s say we pay for the studies and go ‘Holy cow! It’ll take $1.5 million to clean up.’ Where does that come from?
White – If we exhaust the fund, we’re in trouble. I don’t know.
The park board unanimously approved a motion to have the Sitka Assembly create a 2022 capital budget to study both landfills.