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Neighborhood fears fueled by lack of oversight at Mat-Su gravel pit, dump

Zaz Hollander

MEADOW LAKES -- B&E Construction operated a gravel pit and debris dump outside Wasilla for years without state or local permits for either.

Now neighbors of the 200-acre B&E parcel on North Pittman Road say the lack of government oversight has left them wondering about what kind of damage might have been done there before officials shut down the dump in April and the gravel pit just this month.

They're especially worried about their drinking water wells given the proximity of the debris dump to the pit and what they see as the potential for contamination to enter their water supply if the gravel operation hits the water table.

"It's an outrage. I've just been thoroughly disgusted with what they've been allowed to do," said Carol Halvorson, who's lived near the site since 2001. "Our well isn't that deep but I wonder what's going to happen to my water. Additionally, what's happening to my property values?"

Company officials are working through the permitting process with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Mat-Su Borough and want the public to know they're not jeopardizing anybody's water.

"We have well logs that prove it," B&E co-owner John Emmi said last week.

FELL THROUGH THE CRACKS

A high ridge of demolition debris rises from the B&E site -- a 300-foot-long, 20-foot-high jumble of jagged boards and Sheetrock, old couches, a few freezers, plastic chairs, black-plastic-covered mounds, and lots of tires. The gravel pit is near the debris but separated by a strip of land.

The DEC learned in April that B&E Construction had been dumping construction and demolition debris at the property for at least six or seven years without the requisite permits, officials there say.

Then on June 13, the borough shut down the gravel pit after a code compliance officer investigating the debris dump discovered the pit, which was supplying a Parks Highway project, didn't have a valid gravel extraction permit.

State and borough officials acknowledge that the gravel pit and growing debris pile at B&E -- owned by prominent Mat-Su developers and businessmen Emmi and Steve Bargabos -- somehow fell through the cracks despite complaints from residents that started eight years ago.

A borough file containing complaints and compliance history got too little attention from busy code compliance officers who average 140 cases each, borough development services manager Alex Strawn said. The physical file may also have gotten combined with other files, Strawn said. The borough is looking into what happened.

"We should have done a better job of enforcing this and we didn't," he said.

RESIDENTS CRY FOUL

Several neighbors of the B&E property say they tried for years to draw the government's attention to the gravel pit that moved in next door and then started hauling in piles of waste.

Kenny Anderson said he notified the state about what he calls the "gravel pit/dump" back in 2011 when B&E started bringing in more debris. The 55-year-old Anderson, a resident of the once-remote subdivision next to the pit for 30 years, said the state told him it was a "clean fill" site and not a problem.

"It's been operating for seven years and nobody's really been monitoring it at all," he said.

Anderson's daughter, Nicolette, is waging a Facebook information campaign, as is the Meadow Lakes Community Council. Nicolette Anderson worries the operation is endangering local drinking water in an area where most residents have relatively shallow wells. She's worried contaminants from the debris could enter the groundwater through the gravel pit, though Emmi said the pit is dry and at least 20 feet from the water table.

The drinking water threat is also an issue for 76-year-old Bill Smith, who owns a 124-acre ranch that borders the gravel pit's northwest perimeter and predates the operation.

Smith said he also tried to get the borough to pay attention to B&E. His chief complaint centers on a berm of trees and dirt pushed up against a thick screen of spruce surrounding the scenic property where he and his wife, Dorie, run four horses. In a claim the company denies, Smith says the expired gravel permit required a 300-foot setback that B&E ignored once the permit expired.

"If they're getting away with something, they figure it's no big deal," he said.

WHAT DISPOSAL SITE?

State and local officials say the pit largely stayed off their radar for years.

Lori Aldrich, DEC's Anchorage-based solid waste regional program manager, said her division has no record of any complaints about dumping.

Aldrich said the state first learned of the site in April only because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tracked debris there from the old North Slope Restaurant in Eagle River.

EPA asked if the disposal site was permitted, Aldrich said. "And we went, 'I don't know anything about a disposal site up there.' "

DEC met with B&E owners at the site on April 23 and issued a notice of violation for illegal disposal of waste without a permit on April 29, she said. B&E has until Monday to submit an "inert monofill" permit application or submit a plan to close the debris site. The company currently faces no enforcement actions.

FILES REVEAL HISTORY

The Mat-Su Borough got involved in the property much earlier, according to an inch-thick file that Strawn pulled out of warehoused archives on Thursday. In 2006, someone complained about noise at a gravel pit operating without a permit, according to a letter in the file. The borough told B&E to get a permit or quit mining gravel.

The company apparently did neither, Strawn said. The borough issued two $500 citations to Bargabos but later voided them after receiving a two-year gravel extraction permit application in 2007, he said. The company later got a one-year extension that expired in 2010.

Another file, the main compliance file on the site, contains additional complaints, Strawn said: One in May 2011 referenced a 30-foot-high pile of debris and the smell of trash at the site and one in June 2013 warned of a possible landfill burying and dumping debris. It does appear that what started as a small pile of debris grew larger in recent years, he said.

No action was taken until April, Strawn said. That's when he got an email about the dump site from Tim Swezey, with the Meadow Lakes Community Council.

Borough code compliance officer Pamela Ness, a former Alaska state trooper, showed up at the site that month and ordered them to get a permit or clean up the debris.

Ness returned to check up on the dump on June 13, checked the company file when she saw trucks running and realized B&E didn't have an active gravel extraction permit. The borough shut down the operation that day and cited the company on June 16; if B&E is found guilty, a judge will decide the penalty, Strawn said.

A CALL FOR ZONING

The gravel pit shutdown came four days into a B&E job supplying Seattle-based Scarsella Bros. Inc. with gravel for the company's $2.9 million Machen Road extension project aimed at relieving Parks Highway congestion. The stop-work order pushed back the project timeline, though borough officials still expect to make an Oct. 31 completion date.

Emmi said he thought the borough's sudden work stoppage at the pit stemmed at least in part from "some jealous people down at the borough, especially those of them that are in code enforcement," and later made it clear he was talking about Ness.

Emmi pointed out that his pit supplied a different borough project last year, so officials had plenty of time to notify the company about any problems before this year's big road project started. Borough officials have said they plan to change the bid procedure for road contracts to make sure they can double-check the permits held by gravel companies.

Emmi and his co-owner, Bargabos, say they were under the impression they had a 10-year permit for gravel extraction that ran through 2017.

He said all of the debris at the site is construction and demolition debris from B&E projects with no household trash, a concern voiced by several nearby residents. Bargabos has said the company was told some years ago that no permit was necessary.

Emmi said the lack of land-use planning in the Mat-Su set up the conflict at the Meadow Lakes property.

"If we were zoned as a gravel pit or an industrial park, that's it, it's over with," Emmi said. "Then people get to say what you can do or what you can't do on your property. ... But you go into the Valley and they make up the rules as they go."

PERMITS NECESSARY

Despite a reputation as a hands-off zone for regulation, the Mat-Su does have a permit process for gravel that requires at least an administrative permit approved by the planning director. B&E filed for one of those this month to remove 100,000 cubic yards by July 2016. Companies planning larger projects fall under a conditional-use permit that takes more time and requires the planning commission to conduct a public hearing and then make a decision. The borough also has an even more rigorous process where big operators can get zoned for an Interim Materials District. B&E hasn't applied for that type of zoning.

The borough and the state also regulate debris dumps. B&E has applied for a borough permit and officials say they planned to meet a Monday state deadline as well. State and borough officials say they will examine any potential threats to groundwater as part of the permitting process.

'MAKE AN EXAMPLE'

A decision on the borough gravel permit is expected July 8, when a public comment period closes. Strawn, who has already seen or received dozens of comments, said the pit generally seemed to meet borough specifications and he expected to approve that permit with some additional conditions.

B&E has also applied for a borough conditional-use permit for a junkyard/refuse area. That process will take longer. "We're going to have some questions for sure," Strawn said.

Several neighbors, however, said they struggle to have faith in the government given the history at the site.

Nicolette Anderson said B&E should have been punished immediately for operating this long without permits but instead are being allowed to go through the permitting process unpunished.

"If you fine them a big fine and actually use your laws, make an example, maybe there will be less of these problems popping up," she said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com