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CCTHITA: Burglars stole $20K worth of items, caused Tuesday fuel leak

Posted: September 25, 2013 - 4:20pm  |  Updated: September 25, 2013 - 11:13pm

The owners of a warehouse that was the site of a diesel spill discovered Tuesday say they were burglarized and are not responsible for the leak which drained an estimated 250 gallons of fuel into the city’s wastewater.

Elias Duran, the property manager for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said Wednesday that someone broke into their warehouse and stole about $20,000 worth of tools, equipment and supplies.

Duran said among of the items the burglars stole or tried to steal was a monitor heater that was connected to a 275-gallon fuel tank. The suspects apparently severed a fuel line in the process, which caused the fuel in the tank to spill onto the floor and down a drain that led directly to the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant, city and state officials said earlier.

Duran said he believes the burglary took place last Thursday evening around 10:30 p.m. after their burglar alarm system sounded. Duran said a staffer checked out the warehouse, which is located behind the Tlingit & Haida Native Lands & Resources office near Donna’s restaurant in the Mendenhall Valley, but didn’t find anything suspicious.

Duran said he believes the burglary took place after the employee re-set the alarm since there is a five minute window where the alarm is deactivated, which allows the person setting the alarm to leave the premises without setting it off again.

The Central Council doesn’t use the warehouse that often, and only discovered the burglary on Tuesday morning when they were informed a wastewater collection crew traced the source of the leak to their warehouse.

Duran said the thieves did some damage: they used a pry-bar to open the door, and they pulled the alarm system panel off the wall. (The council has since installed a new alarm system.) The thieves also backed their truck into the building, as they apparently loaded up the stolen goods. Duran said they left behind tire tracks when they left the scene, which may be helpful in the police investigation.

The Juneau Police Department could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Phone calls went unreturned Tuesday as well.

The Central Council, which is a tribal government that represents Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide and is headquartered in Juneau, purchased the 3,000-square-foot warehouse about 12 years ago. It was formerly a space used for vocational training in construction, and it has been used as a warehouse storage space for the past eight years or so.

Duran said the Central Council is still making an inventory of everything that was stolen. Some of the bigger items include power tools and GPS units.

Despite the fact that burglars may be to blame for the diesel spill, the Alaska Department of Conservation still considers the Central Council the responsible party by default since the spill occurred on their property.

Cheyenne Sanchez, a DEC environment program specialist who is monitoring the site’s clean-up effort, said that’s what the regulations call for when they don’t know who is to blame or if the responsible party cannot be found.

“If someone spills fuel on your front lawn and we didn’t know who it was, technically you’re the one responsible because it’s on your property,” he said, using a hypothetical example. “It’s just how the regulations are.”

Sanchez added that if and when the responsible party is found, then the DEC will obviously list them as the responsible party, which transfers the logistical and financial burden of cleaning up the site to them rather than the property owner. The DEC can also help the property owner to recuperate costs.

It wasn’t known how much the clean up will cost the Central Council, but the clean-up is almost complete, Duran said. The majority of the fuel had already spilled down the drain, and they just had to clean up the residual fuel and deal with the strong odor. The DEC will re-inspect the site on Monday.

The leak disrupted the wastewater treatment process on Tuesday, but it is not likely to have any effect on the environment, Sanchez said. The oil, which is slowly eking from the drain into the wastewater reactors, is being treated with the other thousands of gallons of wastewater, which means it will be aerated and diluted before it is eventually discarded into the Mendenhall River. All 250 gallons is not coming into the reactors at once. Plus, he added, diesel is a “pretty light oil” compared to other oils and absorbs easier. It’s likely that once the wastewater that contains the oil is discarded into the river, people will not even notice a sheen, he said.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s going to be pretty minor when it’s all said and done,” he said.

The DEC’s water quality department will monitor the wastewater once it’s the river.

No environmental damage was reported outside the Central Council’s warehouse since the spill was contained indoors.

The Central Council said it is doing everything it can to comply with DEC’s requirements and to clean up the site out of concern for the environment. But it is a burden, Duran said, and one that they didn’t bring upon themselves.

“This is something we didn’t even realized had happened,” he said. “We are victims here.”

Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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