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Neighbors' long fight for safety is against their own city government

Melinda Gant, president of the Government Hill Community Council, and neighbor Steve Gerlek reviewed 27 years of records from the community’s fight against nearby bulk fuel storage tanks on Thursday. (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Melinda Gant, president of the Government Hill Community Council, and neighbor Steve Gerlek reviewed 27 years of records from the community’s fight against nearby bulk fuel storage tanks on Thursday. (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Once again, Government Hill neighbors are fighting a lonely battle for safety against their own city government.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has proposed allowing huge fuel storage tanks near homes, offices, a church and school. The Assembly is poised to pass the ordinance Tuesday.

The city's own study 15 years ago showed a tank fire at that distance would kill residents.

This fight has gone on for 27 years. I was in the middle of it as an Assembly member 20 years ago. My frustration led me to quit politics when I saw how little defense a community had against big money and dirty politics.

I moved out of the neighborhood in 2002 but it is a gem. Some of the houses were built in Anchorage's first year (long before fuel storage facilities). It is Anchorage's most urban residential neighborhood, the kind where folks sometimes socialize in the streets.

Government Hill is also a mixed-income neighborhood. With few wealthy constituents, it's an easy place for the government to dump problems.

The tank farm issue first flared in 1990. The Department of Defense objected to expansion of a pocket park because it would be too close to its jet fuel tanks.

But neighbors could see that the tanks were already closer than that to their homes, a church and other land uses that were just as much at risk.

Fuel storage tanks sit below the Government Hill neighborhood in a view from the Port of Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)
Fuel storage tanks sit below the Government Hill neighborhood in a view from the Port of Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Over the next few years, parents with young children, as I was at the time, researched problems that had been hidden or ignored by government officials.

We ultimately proved the tanks were emitting dangerous quantities of cancer-causing fumes, and forced the state to adopt emission controls already used everywhere else in the U.S.

Sen. Ted Stevens listened better than state or local officials. After inspections showed the government tanks were dangerous, he found the money to remove them.

But tanks near the Port of Anchorage remained close to homes, and oil companies had the right to build more without any public process. As an Assembly member, I asked the city's planning department to draft an ordinance to create a setback for new tanks based on its research of national models.

Their ordinance would create a 1,000-foot setback. On the first night it came up, my Assembly colleagues agreed it was reasonable to keep millions of gallons of gasoline and jet fuel that far from homes and playgrounds.

Then the oil industry started lobbying. Over the following months, they picked off one Assembly vote after another. I backed down to a smaller and smaller setback, and finally no setback, just a conditional-use permit process that would at least give neighbors the right to comment on projects.

The administration of Mayor Rick Mystrom fought hard and killed that compromise. We didn't know how hard until later.

A successful lawsuit by the neighborhood revealed that the city had illegally withheld or destroyed dozens of documents that supported our position.

Key Anchorage Fire Department employees, responsible for inspecting the tanks and responding to a fire, had been silenced. They would have testified that the fire hazard was severe and that the department wasn't ready to fight a tank fire.

After the lawsuit, the city and industry jointly paid for a $100,000 hazard study by outside engineers, Golder and Associates. That study, completed in 2002, shows fire danger zones labeled "fatality exposure" and "injury exposure" reaching well into the neighborhood.

With the study in hand, industry backed off. When the zoning code was rewritten, it included the 1,000-foot setback I had called for years earlier.

Time passed. Personnel changed. Recently, when a company wanted to build new fuel facilities, officials were surprised to find the setback requirement existed.

Describing it as a technical correction, the administration brought forward an ordinance to delete that setback, which is now up for a vote.

The ordinance applies only to Government Hill. In the rest of Anchorage, fire is still considered hot, and storing millions of gallons of gasoline next to homes is still a bad idea.

Land where the port wants the ability to build new tanks came from the federal government courtesy of the neighborhood. It is part of the property where Sen. Stevens removed tanks for the community's safety two decades ago.

I asked Port Director Steve Ribuffo why he wants to build fuel tanks so near homes. He said even with the permission, the port would actually build farther away.

"We know politically that is going to be a nonstarter," Ribuffo said.

I'm not so sure. The port has met little resistance so far. The area's lone Assembly member, Chris Constant, already had to give up on the setback and now hopes only that his colleagues will support a conditional-use permit process.

The city strongly opposes that too, saying it would create too much paperwork for the oil industry.

The solution is simple. Ribuffo and the mayor could commission a study like the Golder and Associates report to say where tanks would be safe and draw the lines accordingly. Community representatives say that is all they want, a scientifically based decision.

Industry uses that process elsewhere. Neighbor Steve Gerlek said it is done on the North Slope, where tanks cannot be built so close to where people sleep. He knows because he is a retired BP engineer.

But in Anchorage, it's easier to steamroll a neighborhood politically than to do your homework. While the Assembly insists on a 1,000-foot setback for marijuana stores, this issue doesn't affect 10 of 11 members, so who cares?

That certainly is the sense you get from reading the administration's memos supporting its hardline position. Even a two-week delay to change the title of the ordinance is described as too burdensome for port business.

Gerlek, part of this fight since 1990, has seen it before.

"From the mayor you get live, work and play and healthy neighborhoods, yet going through this process reminds me we are still a provincial frontier town," he said. "He either doesn't understand these issues or he's a hypocrite."

I agree.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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