Groups work to create loan fund for land cleanup

State has identified 6,000 polluted sites

Posted: Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A group of economic development organizations and municipalities wants to start a fund for cleaning polluted and contaminated land in Alaska.

The group plans to ask for $3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to create a five-year revolving loan fund that would lend or grant money to public and private landowners for contaminated site cleanups across the state.

Alaska, with its expanses of mountain ranges and uninhabited tundra plains, doesn't immediately evoke images of industrial pollution. But it's there, in both cities and rural villages, often hampering new industry, residential expansion or tourism development, according to the economic development groups.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has identified 6,000 contaminated sites in the state, 1,576 of which are active and have been polluted for decades.

They range from large industrial mines, such as the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, to small but significant leaks, such as the ground contamination from an old fuel tank under Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has drawn up a list of about 150 sites that could qualify as brownfield sites under the proposed program. That number would likely expand if the loan fund program is started, said John Carnahan, DEC's brownfields coordinator.

The EPA defines brownfields as properties that can't be redeveloped or expanded because of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.

Several states already have some form of a brownfields revolving loan fund. The three other states in the EPA region that includes Alaska - Idaho, Oregon and Washington - have funds, according to Tim Brincefield, the EPA's brownfields coordinator for the region.

Now, Alaska municipalities and local governments apply directly to the federal agency for a brownfields assessment or cleanup money in a very competitive process. Just five communities in Alaska have received EPA brownfield money dating to the 1990s.

"There are brownfield dollars that haven't been coming to Alaska. We think Alaskans deserve a kick of that can as well," said John Parker, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.

Parker's group is leading the grant application to the EPA. Also signing on is the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Municipality of Anchorage, Mat-Su Resource Conservation and Development Inc., the Southeast Conference, the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference and the state DEC.

Possible cleanup projects to be paid for with the program could include abandoned canneries, gas stations where fuel has leaked into the water table and waterfront properties on the Kenai River that would be valuable if they weren't contaminated, Parker said.

The $3 million is just a starting point, and is based on a successful application made by Idaho last year, he said.

"It's enough to get the ball rolling. There's always money to go back and freshen up the funds," Parker said.

The application is out for public comment and will be submitted to the EPA on Dec. 14. The group expects to hear back from the EPA by next spring and hopes to start the program by next September.

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