Transportation department settles with EPA over waste disposal wells

dkelly@adn.comNovember 19, 2013 

Alaska's transportation department has agreed to pay $332,000 for violations of federal pollution laws at state vehicle maintenance stations, officials said Tuesday.

Through a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has also agreed to close 55 motor vehicle waste disposal wells across the state by 2018, and test the sites for contamination. The underground wells, located at often-remote state vehicle repair and maintenance facilities, capture snowmelt and runoff from the vehicles.

The EPA banned underground injection wells in 2000 under the Safe Water Drinking Act. The agency particularly identified vehicle disposal wells as a threat to stores of groundwater, since harmful chemicals like antifreeze or brake fluid can spill into the wastewater runoff, said Anne Christopher, an EPA environmental scientist who works in the underground injection control program in the agency's enforcement office.

About 80 percent of Alaskans depend on groundwater for drinking water, Christopher said. In rural areas, the percentage rises to about 90 percent.

"That's why it's of great concern to us to close the wells," Christopher said.

The EPA required all underground injection wells to be closed by 2005, a deadline missed by the transportation department. With most off the wells situated in remote areas, the department faced hurdles in simply accounting for each one, Christopher said.

Department spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the wells were put in place long before groundwater regulations -- in some cases, in the 1940s or '50s -- in areas with no connection to sewage treatment facilities.

"That was just the thing to do," Woodrow said. "Whether it was right or wrong -- it's been discovered now, obviously, that wasn't the correct way to do it."

The transportation department does not plan to shut down its maintenance stations entirely. Instead, officials will focus on well removal plans and renovation options for each site, which can be a complicated process, Woodrow said. The department is working on well closure plans that will eventually need an EPA stamp of approval.

Woodrow also said the department will need to request state money to take care of the well closures.

Six of the 55 disposal wells have already been closed. Two, at sites in Skagway and Wrangell, were found to have caused contamination, Christopher said. The state has closed off the physical part of those drains, and will be conducting clean-up work.

An estimated 330 vehicle waste disposal sites banned under federal law still exist in Alaska, according to the EPA. The agency is currently working to identify and close every one, officials said.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

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