Hazardous Waste Disposal in Rural Alaska
It’s not as easy as taking out the trash
Most of us are familiar with how typical garbage disposal works. Whether you have a pick up service to empty your trash barrels or receptacle or you drive to and empty your refuse at a local landfill, if you’re in any of Alaska’s regional urban zones there are plenty of options for trash disposal.
Discarding hazardous waste can be more complicated. In Alaska’s larger cities including Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, and even moderate-size communities such as Ketchikan and Kenai, there are multiple options to rid your property of that old refrigerator, dead batteries, or broken computer monitors.
But what about rural Alaska? How do residents and businesses in small, isolated communities discard hazardous waste materials, and what options are available when it comes to related services?
Sustainable Statewide Backhaul Program
Lawmakers, analysts, and community members agree that there is a definite need to address the logistics involved in removing hazardous waste from rural communities. “There is no safe way to dispose of hazardous waste in the rural Alaskan setting, and backhauling is expensive and logistically difficult for many small communities. A well-coordinated statewide backhaul program will reduce risks to health and the environment, stretch rural Alaska’s limited dollar, and protect subsistence resources,” reports The Backhaul Alaska Program in 2017.
Zender Environmental Health and Research Group is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides environmental program services for isolated, rural populations and Alaska Native Villages statewide. The firm is led by Executive Director Dr. Lynn Zender, who specializes in solid waste management and health risks. Deputy Director Simone Sebalo, MS, has a background in engineering and studies solid waste issues on a daily basis. International management firm Booz Allen Hamilton retained the Zender research team to help plan a coordinated statewide system for recycling hazardous waste from rural Alaska communities. The program—called “Backhaul Alaska”—is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Backhaul Alaska’s website says, “A pilot program for community electronics, lead acid batteries, and fluorescent light bulbs is targeted for summer 2018. The program will develop over the next ten years.”
The idea for a statewide backhaul program (originally coined as “Adopt-A-Barge”) was conceived by US Senator Lisa Murkowski to ensure the backhaul process is affordable.
The Solid Waste Alaska Taskforce (SWAT), which through research and other work is facilitating the launch of Backhaul Alaska, is comprised of several statewide organizations including Kawerak, the State of Alaska’s Solid Waste Program, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and the aforementioned EPA and Zender.
“When it comes to hazardous waste in remote Alaska, the priority materials for backhaul are lead acid batteries [from vehicles like ATVs and snow machines], fluorescent light bulbs and ballasts, and various electronic waste like discarded TVs, computers, laptops, VCRs, and fax machines,” says Sebalo. “Backhauling these materials removes the bulk of mercury and lead from landfills.” She adds that while scrap metal can make for an unattractive landfill, as long as batteries, mercury switches, fluids, and other non-inert items are removed, it doesn’t pose much of a threat to the surrounding environment.
Zender and Sebalo add that waste products like tires are less of a priority in rural Alaska. Though villages have shipped tires out of their communities, it’s not common because of the expense and difficulty of finding an appropriate recycling facility. Tires are toxic when burned and can make a landfill fire burn out of control, but they are easily separable. Adopting strict burning rules and maintaining an organized landfill can minimize the risk of out-of-control fires. Further, electronics, batteries, and lights leach contaminants into the ground, and they are being generated at greater and greater volumes. Zender and Sebalo add there is some market for the component materials that make backhaul possible, even if at a cost.
Backhaul Alaska has a five-prong framework crafted to address the process of reducing hazardous waste in rural Alaska. Those five prongs are logistical coordination of the hazardous waste transportation via plane, barge, truck, and rail; village preparedness, including the tools to backhaul waste such as conex containers, shrink wrap, totes, and lifting equipment; village coordination to include training, supplies, and technical support with designated regional managers; uniformity to minimize inefficiency and federal, state, and local regulatory compliance; and partnership opportunities where charitable businesses, particularly in construction and building trades, can support their communities to modernize and expedite hazardous waste containment and elimination.
According to a March 2017, 105-page report called “Sustainable Statewide Backhaul Program Draft Plan,” researched and compiled by Zender and funded by the EPA, the ten-year plan outlines an initial pilot program including up to 35 villages in rural Alaska that will launch in 2017 and 2018. The model blossoms into a full program of up to 100 villages, with development and marketing phases in the sixth or seventh year encouraging as many as 180 villages to collaborate in efficient waste disposal.
Logistics Complicate Hazardous Waste Disposal
Zender notes that the report and findings center on rural Alaska communities off the road system. Considering the sheer number of small communities and villages, the logistics (and trash) can become overwhelming if not managed properly.
Specifically, the Zender report points out that the Yukon-Kuskokwim region has approximately forty-seven communities that can be served by the recommended hazardous waste removal program, while the Bristol Bay region has as many as twenty-six communities, Norton Sound has fifteen, Northwest Arctic has eleven, the Peninsula region is home to seventeen, and the Interior region has as many as forty communities.
Zender says there is a vital need for solidarity in focus and function. “When the program comes into fruition and operates efficiently, beyond local businesses and entrepreneurial support, federal agencies like SBA, USDA, FAA, USFWA, USPS, and our US senators and congress persons will be integrally involved, as will State of Alaska departments and agencies and the boroughs and local communities affected. This is an enormous and concerted effort to keep Alaskans healthy and safe from environmental hazards.”
The Business of Hazardous Waste
There are a handful of Alaska businesses that participate in waste removal. Although the geography of the state, transportation costs, and logistical barriers create significant challenges for hazardous waste enterprises, these skilled Alaska businesses have found success.
Total Reclaim (TRI) is a Seattle-based environmental services company with satellite branches in Anchorage and Portland, Oregon. TRI was established in Seattle in 1991, mainly as a refrigerant and HVAC recovery and reclaiming facility. It has since expanded services to include recycling electronics, fluorescent lighting, mercury bearing devices, and batteries, among other materials. The Anchorage branch opened in 2005 and currently provides recycling services for communities throughout the state. Jeff Zirkle and Craig Lorch are the founders and owners of TRI. The Seattle facility has approximately eighty employees and the Anchorage branch has five.
“We take hazardous waste removal and disposal seriously,” says TRI Alaska General Manager Jake Sneddon. “The rural dynamic of geography and remote communities make the logistics complicated, but we strive to be comprehensive and efficient, which keeps us busy with clients as a result.”
TRI is mainly a collection and transfer site, but the company also provides consolidation and shipment of electronics, mercury-bearing lamps and devices, industrial batteries, refrigeration appliances, and nonferrous metals. The company handles logistical support for rural communities, including backhaul consultation to ensure safe collection, staging, handling, and packaging practices.
“We can help with the ground support for collection events and various field projects such as cleanups, junk vehicle preparation, and refrigeration recovery, as well as hands-on trainings for refrigerant recovery, recycling backhauls, and vehicular removal,” adds Sneddon.
TRI has received recyclable material from no less than 125 Alaskan communities, notes Sneddon. He says most coastal communities now have the experience to perform their own collections and ship directly to their Seattle facility. Each year TRI performs a number of activities within communities outside of Anchorage. While these are often collection events, the company provides refrigerant recovery certification testing and training, recycling and backhaul training, and junk vehicle preparation education services.
“We partner with a number of other solid waste/recycling companies, nonprofits, and state and federal agencies, often participating in conferences, trainings, and workshops so we’re all on the same page.”
And monetarily, these efforts can add up, he says. The list of materials the company has disposed of from rural Alaskan communities includes TVs, computer monitors, towers and LCD screens, clean panel and lead glass, steel, aluminum, copper and other nonferrous metals, circuit boards, plastics, batteries, light bulbs, refrigerants, various machines with coolants and oils/gases, and non-PCB ballasts. Add together all the communities, diverse populations and products, and suddenly there is a huge spectrum of disposal and safety requirements that must be taken into consideration.
National Response Corporation Alaska
NRC Alaska, formerly known as Emerald Alaska, has been managing liquid and solid wastes for Alaska businesses and communities since 2000. The company has close to one hundred employees in nine locations across the state, including Prudhoe Bay, Fairbanks, Kenai, Palmer, and Anchorage.
Led by Senior Vice President Blake Hillis, NRC Alaska has evolved into a signature source for management of recyclable liquids including used-oil, off spec fuels, spent glycol solutions, and petroleum impacted water in rural Alaska.
“Hazardous waste management issues in Alaska can often be resolved by tailoring elements of an operation to address minimization, recycling, and cost management objectives,” says Paul Nielsen, the company’s director of sales and marketing. “NRC Alaska stands alone in this area by maintaining an experienced, highly-trained staff of environmental professionals who respond to hazardous and non-hazardous materials waste management requests from our clients.”
Nielsen adds that the company’s personnel possess an extensive working knowledge of all aspects of waste management, allowing NRC Alaska to provide complete containerized waste management services in rural Alaska that include hazardous waste transportation and disposal. The company handles non-hazardous waste recycling technology and treatment as well as vacuum truck and tanker services.
“NRC Alaska operates the largest and longest tenured waste treatment and disposal facility in Alaska,” says Nielsen. “From our Anchorage location, we routinely collect, store, transfer, process, and recycle hundreds of regulated and non-regulated waste streams from private sector and public sector government clients in rural communities. We have managed recyclable wastes from Kaktovik to Point Hope including Prudhoe Bay, Barrow, and all villages in the North Slope Borough; Northwestern hub villages of Nome, Kotzebue, and Unalakleet; Southwestern hub villages of Bethel, Dillingham, and King Salmon plus the surrounding Bristol Bay villages; the entire Aleutian chain including the Bering Sea communities north to Gambell and Savoonga; Interior river villages from the Y-K Delta up to Galena and Fort Yukon; and all of the Southcentral Railbelt communities, and Southeastern Alaska.”
NRC operates Household Hazardous Waste Collection programs in several communities, including the Municipality of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and supports other boroughs’ programs including the Matanuska Susitna and Fairbanks North Star Boroughs.
Steve Haavig has been in the household hazardous waste business for twenty-five years in Southeast Alaska. His focus remains the safe and compliant removal of these materials to keep communities in Alaska environmentally safe. Haavig works with Juneau-based environmental consulting company Carson Dorn to remove hazardous household goods from rural communities that include paints, cleansers, acids, bases, pesticides, motor oil, antifreeze, gasoline, and diesel fuel.
Collection occurs at more than fifteen annual events in communities in Southeast Alaska. Items are then shipped to Seattle for recycling or disposal. Haavig says his business’s focus is rural and non-urban communities off the road system like Sitka, Craig, Klawock, Wrangell, Petersburg, Haines, Cordova, and Unalaska. The group also services larger communities like Ketchikan and Valdez. Rural village residents and community members are notified when collection events are scheduled so they can bring in their household hazardous waste materials for disposal.
Haavig explains that collection events typically occur over a weekend, after which drums and containers are filled with disposed of materials and placed on a transport barge headed to Seattle. He notes that businesses can also participate depending on the amount of the waste delivered during an annual cycle. He says the community programs accept residential, business, and even government agency waste.
In terms of weight and amounts, “It depends on the size of the rural community,” says Haavig. “Whereas Ketchikan has over 16,000 people and may bring over 50,000 pounds of household materials, Craig, Alaska, has 2,200 people and may bring 25,000 pounds of disposables.” He adds that the communities served are part of the Southeast Conference, through which Carson Dorn initially was awarded the contract via RFP.
The Future of Hazardous Waste Disposal in Rural Alaska
The combined efforts of Alaska policy makers, the EPA, SWAT, and industry experts are starting to show tangible results. The evolution of safe and efficient hazardous waste removal will continue in a productive way as long as businesses participate and donate to the cause and community leaders inspire their residents and region to join the mission.
Tom Anderson owns a public relations firm and is a freelance writer in Alaska.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.