The Hazmobile that for 11 years plucked batteries, old paint and other hazardous waste from isolated communities from Valdez to Ketchikan has, itself, been plucked.
The Hazmobile, a specially designed van, rode the Alaska ferry system from 1993 until August, collecting hazardous waste. Town leaders lauded the public-private partnership with the state of Alaska.
But now the van, originally purchased by the Southeast Conference with grant money, has a new mission: collecting air samples in Anchorage.
It was moved there by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which ended its approximate $25,000 annual support for the Hazmobile program this summer.
That figure does not include the salary of the DEC employee who traveled with the Hazmobile.
Leaders in Southeast Alaska communities such as Sitka are confused by the sudden loss of the Hazmobile and have begun negotiations with state transportation and environmental officials for its return.
Juneau Public Works Director Joe Buck said it would be terrible if the communities affected had to put the waste into their community dumps.
"That's why the state was doing such a great job, he said, adding, "It's very easy for this stuff to get into the groundwater."
Juneau has its own household hazardous waste program, funded by a $2.80 monthly utility fee. Buck said. The volume of collected waste more than doubled, to 626,030 pounds, in 2004. The waste is shipped to the Lower 48.
Other Southeast Alaska communities say they don't have Juneau's resources.
"We'll go to the Environmental Protection Agency and get a grant if we have to," said Bruce Jones, Petersburg city manager. "We'll see what money they've got lying around."
But even if they get the Hazmobile back, town administrators are worried about who will take on the liability for hazardous waste collection. That was the state's most critical role in the project, said Hugh Bevan, Sitka city administrator.
A state environmental official said Thursday that port communities lost the Hazmobile because of the cost-cutting drive of Gov. Frank Murkowski's Administrative Order 202 and a phenomenon that regulators at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation call "mission creep."
Mission creep is a phenomenon in which state agencies, like the DEC, start up beneficial programs that are outside of their main mission, explained Kristin Ryan, DEC's director of environmental health.
But Sitka's Bevan wonders where Sitkans will put the nasty, polluting stuff that comes out of normal life - like mercury-leaking fluorescent bulb.
Back in the ground? Into the air?
"It seems we are so intent on slashing our budgets that we are slitting our necks," Bevan said. Eliminating the Hazmobile "doesn't do anything positive for the environment," he said.
Bevan said the Hazmobile saved Sitka and other towns from having to bury hazardous waste in Southeast Alaska's sensitive aquifers, or burn the waste in incinerators.
Bevan said he finds it bizarre that DEC "is taking this stance when they are so adamant about protecting air quality and groundwater quality."
DEC's Ryan said that the agency has decided its funding priority needs to be on bringing all of Alaska's dumps into environmental compliance. Only 26 percent are in compliance as permitted "landfills," she said. The rest are illegal dumps, she said.
The port communities "have had this luxury of somebody coming to take (waste) for them," she said, adding that all permitted dumps should be able to take household hazardous waste.
The Southeast Conference hopes to come to the rescue of both the Hazmobile and household hazardous waste collection program.
"We hope to have a solution by early spring," said Southeast Conference executive director Rollo Pool. "Our goal is to keep this as a partnership. It doesn't matter to us if (the Department of Transportation) is more of the lead (rather than DEC)," he said.
Gary Paxton, DOT's Southeast regional director, said, "I stand ready to do whatever I can to help. It's really an important program."
Regarding the Hazmobile's current post in Anchorage, Pool said: "I'd rather somebody was using it rather than it sitting in a warehouse, unused."
The communities that received the household hazardous waste service include: Sitka, Klawock, Craig, Thorne Bay, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Haines, Skagway, Valdez and Cordova.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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