When it rains, it pours: Pelican problems grow

City loses power, water systems after wood flume collapses; fish plant at risk

Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The collapse of the city of Pelican's water flume last week is the latest in a flood of bad news to hit this beleaguered fishing port.

Courtesy Of The City Of Pelican
Courtesy Of The City Of Pelican

Pelican Seafoods, the city's first reason for existence, had been closed since last summer and is scheduled for foreclosure Sept. 15.

The problems with the fish plant were compounded last week when 10 inches of rain fell, overflowing the flume and weakening the trestle, said Patricia Phillips, Pelican's mayor.

Collapse of the flume left the 113-population city without water, and forced a switch to backup diesel generators for power.

"When the flume collapsed it interfered with not only water to the hydroelectric turbine, but also water for the community's drinking water, and also for the seafood plant," she said.

The municipal water system is run by the city, while the Pelican Utility District's hydroelectric plant, is owned and operated by Kake Tribal Corp., the village Native corporation for Kake.

Debris entering the water system caused breaks in the aging city water system, compounding the problems, Phillips said.

Pelican Seafoods is owned by would-be seafood entrepreneur Ed Bahrt, who has not operated the plant since last summer. Kake Tribal, its former owner, said Bahrt failed to live up to his purchase contract and has begun foreclosure proceedings.

Kake Tribal Pelican Division General Manager Paula Burgner warned that the plant is now "abandoned" and may be a danger to the community if the plant's refrigeration system fails.

"A severe ammonia leak could be detrimental to the health of all residents in Pelican who live in close proximity to the plant," Burgner wrote in a letter to state emergency officials

The plant needs an adequate supply of water to run the refrigeration compressors, but the crippled city water supply can't handle the volume.

Burgner said utility engineers already have fixed several small leaks, but the little district doesn't have the resources to continue to do that indefinitely, and its engineers aren't certified refrigeration specialists.

Bahrt, contacted by e-mail Tuesday, declined to comment.

Phillips has issued a disaster declaration on behalf of the city, and is seeking a declaration and assistance from the state as well.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, has staff monitoring the situation, said aide Linda Hay.

"We're all kind of putting our heads together on who owns what, what the costs might be and what kind of assistance might be available," she said.

Officials with the Alaska Energy Authority, which was already working with Pelican on a utility upgrade, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs have all been involved in the response.

"If there's an imminent threat we don't need a disaster declaration to act, we can do whatever needs to be done to mitigate the situation, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the DMVA's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Emergency management officials have been working with state environmental responders to determine what needs to be done about the plant, Zidek said.

The city is currently trying to get in place a replacement hydroelectric turbine in operation and temporary bypass water line that will last the winter, while a more permanent system is finished.

Phillips said Pelican has ordered a pump, control panel and associated wiring to operate the interim system, which will likely cost the tiny city $10,000 to $12,000 dollars.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com

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