On September 10, 2019, Ahtna Natural Resource Technicians were alerted to a seemingly abandoned fuel tank on the Eagle Trail, northwest of the Native Village of Mentasta. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the tank was leaking and had already discharged an unknown amount of fuel to the surrounding environment. There had also been an obvious attempt to cover up the discharged fuel with heavy equipment and available soil. After learning of the fuel spill, the Ahtna, Inc. Land Department immediately contacted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Coast Guard for assistance with locating the responsible party and cleanup of the fuel site.
The entity responsible for the fuel spill was identified as Petra Resources, LLC (Petra), a small gold mining operation with a state mining claim that is reached using the Eagle Trail. The Eagle Trail is a BLM managed 17(b) easement, allowing travel over private lands to access public lands. Petra accepted responsibility for the spill and vowed to clean up the fuel and reclaim the area to its original condition. As soon as Petra made the commitment to clean up the spill, they immediately began to disclaim responsibility by blaming Mentasta residents for vandalizing the tank and causing the spill and claiming that only 10 gallons were released into the environment. Fortunately, the ADEC ignored those claims, choosing instead to focus on Petra as the only culprit.
Beyond the obvious consequences of the release of fuel into the environment, the spill on the Eagle Trail occurred in a precarious location. Bone Creek is an anadromous salmon stream located just to the east and south of the spill site. Fish Creek is another anadromous salmon stream located to the north of the spill site. Fuel entering either of these streams could have potentially disastrous consequences for spawning salmon and other aquatic species residing in the creeks. Additionally, the water sources in the area bear a high-level of health and cultural importance for Mentasta residents, who draw their drinking water from them.
The cleanup of the site began in earnest on October 2, 2019. Nortech, Inc. (Nortech) was hired by Petra to lead the project and develop a work plan. Big Dream Transport was also contracted to excavate and haul out the contaminated material. Work was progressing as planned until excavators took fill from a Native allotment instead of the area assigned for fill extraction. In response, Petra accepted responsibility for the error and promised to reclaim the site to its original condition or financially compensate the owner of the Native allotment. As work continued into October, weather conditions began to deteriorate rapidly in the area, and Eagle Trail was being heavily damaged from the equipment. Consequently, all parties agreed to temporarily postpone work for the safety of those involved in the cleanup and the declining condition of the trail. Work was set to resume as soon as the ground had frozen enough to allow equipment to use the trail. Ahtna learned that work had been called off on January 5, 2020, and no work had been completed between October and January.
The challenges to complete the cleanup increased dramatically in 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions affected all parties. Petra stopped communicating with Nortech, its own third-party consultant. At the same time, ADEC was experiencing staff turnover and was no longer in communication with Ahtna. When communication between Nortech and Petra resumed, Nortech informed Ahtna no work had been conducted all summer. Ahtna responded by setting a date of September 9, 2020, to finish the cleanup or Petra would be faced with legal action. The deadline came and went with no communication from either Petra or Nortech.
After a year of frustration and a meeting with the Mentasta Successor Village Organization (SVO), Ahtna reached out to the Governor’s Office to discuss the lack of involvement, response and communication with the ADEC regarding the fuel spill. Shortly after that discussion, Ahtna management and the Legal department met with ADEC staff and their legal representative, Big Dreams Transport, and the Department of Natural Resources. Results of the meetings were largely unsatisfactory to Ahtna; the only potentially positive outcome was the establishment of an official ADEC deadline of September 30, 2021.
Unfortunately, the September 30 deadline was not met by Petra, and Ahtna will have to take responsibility for the cleanup. Staff from the Land Department and Ahtna Global, LLC visited the site in August to assess the cleanup. As of that site visit, 170 yards of contaminated soil remains to be extracted. Land Department staff is partnering with Ahtna Global to plan for and extract the contaminated soils. Groundwater assessments will also be utilized to test for the presence of contaminants. The entire project is expected to be completed by the end of 2021, pending equipment availability.