Harbor dredging plan raises concerns

Several environmental agencies ask for 30 more days to comment

Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A proposal to dredge Douglas Harbor and dump the spoils into Gastineau Channel is creating some concern for federal and state agencies, prompting them to ask for an extended comment period.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation asked for an additional 30 days to comment on the proposal and were granted until Feb. 5. The original deadline had been Jan. 6.

Three of the agencies - FWS, EPA and the state's DEC - also asked for a public hearing.

The city proposes to dredge 30,000 cubic yards of mud from the bottom of the harbor to deepen it during a complete renovation of the facility.

The mud would be dumped in the middle of the channel, outside the harbor entrance in about 100 feet of water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved dumping spoils into the channel location twice before in 1999 and 2002, but this time testing samples showed slightly higher levels of mercury, creating the need for a report on the potential effects to marine life and the food chain.

In a letter on Jan. 6, FWS said the city's report fails to fully address the potential accumulation of mercury in crab and shrimp and the associated risks to residents who eat them.

The channel is a designated habitat and harvest area under the Juneau State Land Plan, according to the state DNR Division of Mining, Land and Water.

"What is the public risk from dumping contaminated dredge spoils within a known habitat and harvest area?" the division wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to the Corps.

The city's consultant wrote in the report that no harmful human effects would likely result from the project, and mercury levels remained within tolerable limits for other organisms.

Regardless, FWS wrote that a public hearing is necessary to consider the risk mercury accumulation in marine organisms poses to humans.

Dumping harbor spoils into the channel could result in the uptake of mercury by Dungeness and king crab, shrimp and halibut - all consumed by humans, FWS said.

While the city studied mercury uptake over a period of 28 days, FWS requested a longer period for crab since studies show the invertebrates accumulate mercury in their bodies over longer periods of time.

In addition, EPA said the city's dredging proposal raises controversial legal issues regarding the appropriate regulatory jurisdiction in Gastineau Channel.

In posting the public notice for comments, the Corps said it wanted feedback about whether the channel should be governed by the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act or the Clean Water Act.

A decision about whether to hold a public hearing has not yet been made, according to Heidi Firstencel, project coordinator in the Corp's Juneau office.

"It's the amount of public interest that determine whether or not we have a hearing," she said.

In addition to the agency comments, the Corps as of Tuesday received less than 10 responses from the general public.

The harbor remodel will cost $5.5 million, including $900,000 for dredging, according to city estimates. The Docks and Harbors Board searched for alternatives to its proposal but they proved much more expensive than dumping spoils in the channel.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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