The last round of winter storms continues to keep city crews working 20 hours a day clearing streets and dumping snow into Gastineau Channel. It's mundane work, but because of pollution scooped up with the snow, state environmental policy discourages dumping it in marine waters except in emergencies or as a method of last resort.
The practice of dumping snow into the channel is likely as old as Juneau, but there's no immediate alternative, port director John Stone said.
"Right now, it's the only solution," he said. "My impression is everybody is dumping snow in marine waters in Southeast Alaska. They just can't avoid it."
Stone's board of directors shook up the status quo last winter when it banned snow dumping in Aurora Harbor near the Juneau Yacht Club because of concern about excessive wear on the facility and the possible accumulation of pollution in the site's marine soils.
The ban caught commercial snow removal businesses off guard, and the ensuing flap brought the environmental issues into fuzzy focus.
The roles of government and regulatory agencies when it comes to snow dumping aren't well defined, said William Ashton, a section manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation who covers stormwater and wetlands.
"It's not terribly clear cut," he said. "There's no regulation I can point to that says, 'Thou shalt not...' or, 'Here's how you handle snow disposal in marine waters in Alaska.'"
The policy the department does have discourages dumping snow into bodies of water but is rife with subjective qualifiers.
For example, it states that "Under extraordinary conditions, when all land-based snow disposal options are exhausted, disposal of snow that is not obviously contaminated with road salt, sand, and other pollutants may be allowed in certain water bodies under certain conditions."
The conditions that follow also contain subjective qualifiers.
More precise federal clean water regulations apply to some municipalities, though Juneau is well shy of the 50,000 population threshold that triggers them.
Meanwhile, the city's Public Works department is pursuing a partial solution in line with state and federal environmental goals. The city has applied for a permit through the Army Corps of Engineers to create an upland snow dump in the Mendenhall Valley, said Mike Scott, the city's superintendent of streets.
If approved, construction on the dump would be several years off and require funding from the Juneau Assembly, Scott said. It would serve the valley in day-to-day snow removal, but wouldn't replace channel dumping downtown because it's just too expensive. Hauling costs would more than triple from about $3.85 per cubic yard up to $12 or $14, Scott said. Just hauling snow cost the city about $700,000 during the record winter two years ago, Scott said.
"If we had to haul snow any significant distance, it gets incredibly expensive," Scott said.
To give businesses time to adjust their contracts to reflect different transportation costs, city officials decided this fall to reopen the Aurora Harbor site to commercial snow disposal, but only through this winter.
Concerns about infrastructure wear and pollution could apply to snow dumping anywhere along the channel, but the Aurora Harbor site is unique because it's identified in long-term city plans for future development. Before that happens, the city is obligated to clean up harmful pollutants in the marine soil.
Scott said a plan to shift downtown dumping from the Aurora Harbor tidelands to a less sensitive downtown site, possibly the rock dump off Thane Road, is being explored.
The initial snow dumping ban came after dredging at the downtown Steamship Dock nearly cost the city $1 million extra in clean up costs when pollutants from car exhaust and oil were discovered. The city avoided the cost of shipping the dredge spoil to the Lower 48 by sealing and burying it under the parking lot of the Douglas Marina.
Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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