City faces mercury battle on Douglas Harbor project

Agencies recommend Juneau be denied the permit it needs for project

Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Environmental agencies are lining up to oppose a plan to dredge Douglas Harbor and dump the spoils into Gastineau Channel.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended the city be denied the permit it needs to complete the project.

The city is still participating in the process but if the permit can't be secured, part of the harbor might have to be shut down, Docks and Harbors Director John Stone said.

Hauling the spoils away would be too expensive by at least doubling the project cost, Stone has told city officials.

"Unless we can find some other way to dispose of it that would be acceptable to the agencies that's within our budget, we get to the point of having to give up the project and figure out how to take the harbor out of commission," Stone said.

The presence of mercury in harbor mud is causing the most concern for environmental agencies.

In a Feb. 5 letter, the EPA expressed concern about the accumulation of mercury in fish and shellfish in the channel and the humans and wildlife that eat them.

The agency noted the area is used for sport and subsistence fishing and concluded the project may result in "substantial and unacceptable" impacts on aquatic resources.

A consultant report completed for the city suggests trace levels of mercury might occur naturally in the harbor's soils and would not pose risks to human health.

The National Marine Fisheries Service blasted the report as inadequate and said historic hard rock mining activity likely introduced mercury. The old Treadwell mine upland of the harbor was, for a time, the largest gold mine in the world.

Mercury can be toxic to sea life that eats it, causing growth and developmental problems that can multiply as it passes up the food chain.

Juneau resident Alan Munro, who has collected seaweed and shellfish and used a small skiff to fish in the channel since the 1970s, called the city "wrong-headed" in its decision to choose the least costly option of dumping mud into the channel rather than hauling it away.

"... how is it possible that CBJ can seriously consider befouling a well known and heavily used subsistence and recreational marine environment through the dumping of a highly toxic and dangerous pollutant into Juneau water?" Munro wrote in a Jan. 18 e-mail.

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 outside the harbor entrance in about 100 feet of water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved dumping 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 the report on the potential effects to marine life and the food chain.

The harbor needs to be dredged because glacial rebound has lifted the sea floor several feet since it was built in 1963, making it too shallow for some vessels.

The $5.5 million project includes three new floats, pilings, gangway and electrical and water lines.

Some repairs are pressing for safety reasons, but the city would not likely spend a lot of money on a harbor that is too shallow at low tide, Stone said.

"We could run it for a little bit longer but it's getting pretty unsafe. When it's snowy out (the docks) start going under water," he said.

The project has not drawn only detractors.

The harbor renovation would add to a "revival" in Douglas that includes a new ice rink, beach improvements and a new pavilion, Mayor Bruce Botelho said in a Feb. 5 letter.

Several agencies asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing on the dredging proposal, but the request has not been met.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at

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