How Alaska’s Engineering Experts Combat Contamination
Restoring pristine environments one contaminant at a time
Engineering firms offering environmental services in Alaska address a broad spectrum of issues that impact humans and wildlife—managing everything from COVID-19 wipe-downs and toxic mold issues to oil spill prevention planning and soil remediation.
“We all live in the environment. Those environments can be inside or outside. It could be your home. It can be commercial buildings. And the inside environments can get quite dangerous due to mold, asbestos, particulate matter,” says Kirsten Ballard, director of ARCTOS Alaska Services at NORTECH.
“Outside, you can have threats to your drinking water due to oil spills, chemical spills, and so forth. The outside environment is important because you bring your drinking water, maybe your shoes and clothing, inside,” Ballard says, noting that there is also a need to mitigate risk to other natural resources, such as anadromous fish streams, animal breeding grounds, and endangered species.
In the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the environmental services team at the Shannon & Wilson Fairbanks office has been focused on groundwater issues.
“You may have read about quite a few groundwater contamination sites around the state where a lot of it is coming from perfluorinated compounds [PFCs] and from firefighting foam,” says Chris Darrah, the Fairbanks office manager for Shannon & Wilson. “There are a lot of people in the Fairbanks area—and actually statewide—where their drinking water is contaminated, so we’ll help assess that.”
Once a site has been identified as potentially harmful to flora, fauna, or nearby communities, environmental service teams take water and soil samples to identify whether a contaminant exceeds established safety levels.
Environmental firms in Alaska gather data and develop plans to ensure the safety of Alaska’s myriad environments and wildlife.
“We’re more on the assessment, planning, and design side,” Darrah explains. “We’re typically not going to be the ones to show up with a big remediation system. We’ll help design it. We’ll help figure out what is the best way to clean up the drinking water, and then we may subcontract with other firms to actually provide that service.”
To help combat PFC contamination, which is a nationwide issue, Shannon & Wilson is engaging in research and development on the topic.
“These firefighting foam chemicals, they’re tough to treat. And there’s not a lot of information on how to do that,” Darrah says. “So we’ve teamed up with a remediation provider to test their treatment process under actual Alaska field conditions.”
Remediation and Recycling
“We do a lot of large-scale soil removal projects [for the federal government]. The majority of it is old fuel spills and things like that. And, you know, occasionally some PCBs, but the majority of it is related to fuels contamination,” says Greg Jarrell, the Alaska regional director for environmental and engineering services at Ahtna Environmental. “We’ll go in and dig up a bunch of soil and haul it out of state for disposal at a Subtitle C landfill.”
Once contaminated soils have been removed from a site, environmental services firms remediate the area with the goal of returning the landscape as close as possible to how it looked and functioned pre-impact, Jarrell says.
“You’re bringing in fill, you’re providing revegetation services where you’re revegetating with native species,” he says. “Basically, you’re trying to leave the site in as low of an impact state as you can.”
Herminio (Nino) Muniz, a senior program manager with Ahtna Solutions, notes that the team will also put in structures to restore the natural flow of streams and other water channels.
“You’re trying not to leave a depression at a site. Anywhere you leave a depression, it creates a new pond,” Muniz says. “The goal is to try to keep those final grade lines such that the surface area will drain and you’re not creating pools or ponds.”
Remediation teams also need to be aware of an area’s native plant species; to help the Alaska Plant Material Center provides regional lists detailing what percentage of a seed mixture should be comprised of what native species, Jarrell says.
And while regional differences in flora have some influence on environmental restoration plans, logistical issues have a bigger impact when determining how to approach contaminated site clean-up, Muniz says.
“The main factors we consider are climate and the remoteness of the site,” Muniz says. “If we’re doing a haul and dig project at Fort Wainwright, that’s a lot different than doing it out on an island next to Adak, right? Logistics are what’s going to really drive how we look at those differently.”
Once soils have been removed, they need to be disposed of legally. Depending on the contaminant, that requires shipping the contaminated material to the Lower 48 or processing it at a facility in Alaska. There are no facilities to process hazardous waste in Alaska; however, US Ecology, which recently acquired NRC Alaska, operates a number of facilities in the state that are licensed to handle numerous contaminants, US Ecology Senior Vice President of Operations for Alaska Blake Hillis explains.
“The bulk of what is deemed as hazardous waste—that’s more of your paints, solvents, and corrosives—we do not process those here in-state. But we have our own facilities across the United States, and we send those down south to our other facilities that are permitted by the EPA to treat hazardous waste.”
“We offer a thermal soil treatment unit at Moose Creek, which is near Fairbanks. And then we have two treatment facilities in Anchorage,” Hillis says. “They are fluids treatment locations that treat oils, fuels, contaminated water, sludges, and absorbent material.”
The company is permitted to treat and dispose of perfluorinated compounds and hydrocarbon contaminated soils and materials.
“The bulk of what is deemed as hazardous waste—that’s more of your paints, solvents, and corrosives—we do not process those here in-state. But we have our own facilities across the United States, and we send those down south to our other facilities that are permitted by the EPA to treat hazardous waste,” Hillis says.
Depending on the economics, other companies that provide contamination removal services in Alaska will partner with US Ecology to dispose of waste or they will ship it to the Lower 48, Hillis says.
US Ecology also has a state-of-the-art distillation unit that manufactures ASTM-specification glycols, such as antifreeze, from used products.
“We take the waste product and turn it back into new, virgin-equivalent, if you will; products go back out across the state for freeze protection for automotive, heavy equipment, and also fixed facilities,” Hillis says.
He notes that the company’s clients range across several industries.
“We actually do a lot of work with the mining industry, as well as tourism. We service a lot of cruise ships that generate oily waste on the cruise ship—so the tourism is a big one for us,” Hillis says. “Any of your dealerships for automotive or heavy industrial equipment, we service all those throughout the state. It could be anything from a Jiffy Lube to a Caterpillar dealership—everything in between—because we’re the guys that take the waste. We do a lot of recycling in our facilities here in Alaska.”
Spills and Viruses
Though business has been down with the recent drop in oil prices, US Ecology has picked up some work dealing with COVID-19.
“We have been actively doing COVID-19 responses; we’re the guys that go out and disinfect anything from a vehicle to a large facility so that occupants can reoccupy those locations after COVID contamination,” Hillis says, explaining that the service still falls under the large umbrella of environmental services.
The general perception of environmental service firms is that their focus is on cleaning contaminated sites—from soiled soils to oil slicks—but there is also a heavy focus on providing preventative measures to mitigate risk, protect clients, and the environment.
“For a stationary facility, you have a pretty good idea of where the fuel or oil would go—this stuff isn’t rocket science,” Ballard says. “So in addition to setting up prevention measures to prevent us from spilling oil in the first place, we can also put in some pre-planned response measures.”
For example, Ballard says there’s no point in installing oil spill collection devices uphill of a facility—the oil isn’t going to flow that way. She explains that part of the prevention and mitigation planning might be understanding where exactly a team would dig an interceptor trench if there was a spill, as well as where equipment should be stored to allow a team to rapidly respond.
“You’re trying not to leave a depression at a site. Anywhere you leave a depression, it creates a new pond. The goal is to try to keep those final grade lines such that the surface area will drain and you’re not creating pools or ponds.”
“You might decide to pre-create an interceptor trench depending on the sensitivity of the environment in that direction,” Ballard says. “What do you think about winter, summer, spring, or fall? In the wintertime, you probably don’t have a lot of endangered species to worry about, but during the summer breeding season you might have a lot… You need to have all those things lined out and figured out before you begin operations.”
Prevention isn’t cheap, but it’s far cheaper than the costs that come with contaminated groundwater or damages to natural resources and human health, as well as the ensuing, “bruising” legal battles, Ballard says.
“For example, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company runs cleaning PIGs down their pipelines, but they also run what are called smart PIGs,” she says. Smart PIG devices are loaded with instruments that measure and identify cracks, thinning areas, or other anomalies in a pipeline, which are often caused by corrosion.
Though an inspection group at a company is expensive and doesn’t generate revenue, they are vital.
“They help a company maintain a safe, clean operation. Inspection and maintenance is a ‘safety first’ approach that makes an operation safe for people and the environment, a program that also happens to preserve a company’s reputation,” says Ballard.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s important to recognize that. Just like you spend money to change the oil in your car and have the wheels aligned regularly, the car runs great so long as you take those prevention measures outlined in the manual. Oil industry equipment is just as important to maintain in accordance with their ‘owner’s manual’ of industry standards so that you can keep everyone safe [and] lower your response costs and liabilities, with the by-product that just happens to benefit your company’s reputation.”