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Missing 5-ton bag of PCB-laced soil in Bristol Bay raises worries

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
EPA photo

As Bristol Bay swells with the annual influx of seafood industry workers, there is one visitor in particular Dillingham residents would rather see departing.

That’s the 11,000-pound dirt bag that slipped into Nushagak Bay last November and continues to evade detection by cleanup crews.

The soil came from a cleanup site in Port Heiden and contains PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — which have been banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 due to the health hazard they posed.

Some scientists maintain that the environmental threat posed by the bag is nil. What may be in danger is the Nushagak habitat’s reputation for clean, wild food — should public perception of the incident raise doubts.

“It’s pretty low-level PCB,” said Todd Radenbaugh, an environmental studies professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Dillingham Campus. “I’m not concerned about any toxicity from the bag. If the bag broke open and the soil spread throughout the bay it would be so low I don’t think it (would have) any significant negative effects on the bay’s ecosystem.”

But as Bristol Bay gears up to sell millions of pounds of wild salmon on a world market governed as much, or more, by image than scientific facts, the mere suggestion of contamination could threaten fish prices.

“The science says everything is going to be really safe,” Radenbaugh said. “The public perception may not agree with the science.”

The double-lined, Teflon-coated super sack broke through a wooden platform at the Dillingham dock during a barge transfer last November. Alaska Logistics — a Seattle-based barge company — was conducting the bag’s transfer at the time.

The U.S. Air Force is the leading entity in the Port Heiden cleanup and is heading up the retrieval of the soil. After the initial evaluation of the incident, they decided to wait until after winter to look for it. Last week, a diver and sonar attempted to find the sack.

“The sack was not recovered and is not anywhere in the vicinity of where it fell into the water,” wrote Air Force representative Patrick Roth in an email.

“The search started with a diver starting where the sack was dropped and making concentric circles at five-foot intervals out to 25 feet.” Roth added that he was confident in the sonar’s working ability as it detected several other items in the area. “The search continued across the entire city dock, extending out 120 feet in all directions. Nothing else was identified.”

What happened to the bag is anyone’s guess, but Dillingham’s city council is calling for a wider search before crews give up the ghost.

Tim Sands is a Dillingham City Council Member and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s area management biologist for the Nushagak district. He would like to see more effort put into the search.

“Even a whole day’s worth of effort doesn’t really strike me as an effort,” he said.

At this time, some of the country’s environmental regulatory bodies will start to play a larger role, as the DEC and EPA make their own evaluations of what should be done.

While Dillingham officials would like to see the Air Force and Alaska Logistics conduct a better search, Roth wrote in an email, “The next step would likely be to turn the issue over to EPA.”

The EPA representative handling the issue is still evaluating the information.

Another way to mitigate the negative effects of the bag’s presence in Bristol Bay, Sands said, would be to provide sample tests that prove the missing PCBs have not caused harm to the local food chain.

Even if the PCBs were present at a harmful level, Sands said, incoming fish are headed to spawn and not ingesting any- thing floating in the water, including food.

The bag may be intact somewhere farther down the channel, he said. There it could have come open and left its contents to dissipate into the wide mouth of the Nushagak, but it’s not a threat to fish.

“The salmon are safe,” Sands said. “There’s no concern about the safety of eating those fish. I’m going to feed them to my children.”

Radenbaugh suggested a number of methods could speed the process up — first and foremost getting out into the Bay and doing some serious looking with appropriate equipment. Another is accessing the wealth of local knowledge regarding currents and channels to narrow the search area.

He also strongly supports testing the nearby sediments, plankton, etc., in the hopes of easing the hype caused by a toxic presence in the bay. Kind of like a crowded dinner party, the moving parts of Bristol Bay’s massive seafood production and market all come together for a short, intense work season.

Now that it’s mid-June, the guests are arriving. They’re searching for the seafood bounty that arrives annually, hoping one dirt bag doesn’t foul it up for everyone.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheim- buch@reportalaska.net.