By Chris Klint
Channel 2 News
12:35 PM AKST, February 13, 2013
The village of Kwethluk is dealing with petroleum leaks from a nearby sunken barge trapped under frozen ice, which local officials say have tainted a watering hole and forced them to bring in months of drinking water.
Mayor Boris Epchook says local government has spent more than $1,900 since December on about 7,600 gallons of potable water, at a rate of 25 cents per gallon, after the barge Delta Chief went down on the Kwethluk River near its confluence with the Kuskokwim River. That number doesn't include the costs of chemicals and energy used to process the water, or water-testing expenses incurred since the October sinking.
“There was some sort of petroleum product showing up in the traditional watering hole down across from the Kwethluk River,” Epchook said. “The majority of the residents use that water from across the river here.”
According to an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation incident report the Delta Chief, operated by Faulkner Walsh Constructors, was anchored when it began to take on water Oct. 4. A crew aboard a nearby Faulkner Walsh tugboat tried to keep it afloat, but the barge sank at about 9 a.m.
While the Delta Chief’s primary cargo was gravel, with no fuel stored aboard the barge itself, the DEC reported a leakage risk from other machinery it was transporting to Bethel. The gear that sank with the barge had about 200 gallons of diesel fuel in its tanks, as well as lesser quantities of lubricants and hydraulic fluid.
“Three pieces of heavy equipment and a service truck are onboard the submerged barge, and may release petroleum through vents in tanks, reservoirs, and crankcases to the river,” DEC officials wrote.
A minor sheen was reported at the time, prompting Faulkner Walsh crews to place containment boom around the sunken barge. Plans were made to salvage the vessel, but Epchook says they were delayed by early freezing on the river.
Villagers began to report problems with the local water supply in subsequent months, with one telling Channel 2 he became sick for 12 days in January after drinking from the watering hole. While no formal diagnosis linked the case to the sinking, the man said he’d drank from the watering hole before and hadn’t gotten sick.
In the meantime, Epchook says the reports forced government action to protect Kwethluk’s more than 600 residents.
“The city began dispensing (potable) water at no cost to the community residents, whereas the city is recouping all that loss,” Epchook said. “For public health and safety reasons, the city council decided that would be the best course to go.”
The effects of the incident could extend beyond Kwethluk, however. Epchook says thousands of people along the Kwethluk and Kuskokwim rivers depend on salmon which may be affected later this year depending on migration patterns, with more immediate fishing also potentially at risk.
“I'm very concerned because some of the subsistence (activities) that occur are right outside the Kwethluk River here -- during this period is under-ice fishing,” Epchook said.
Kwethluk has asked Faulkner Walsh about covering the cost of supplying water to the village, and the company is considering the request.
Local officials recently met with representatives from DEC and Faulkner Walsh. At the meeting, Faulkner Walsh said it’s drafting plans to salvage the equipment in the next few weeks before river conditions continue to deteriorate.
Epchook says ice on the river may damage the equipment aboard the barge, further dispersing the fuel and other fluids. Although the Delta Chief’s journey ended at Kwethluk, he says the petroleum products could be headed elsewhere.
“Probably dragged downriver, end up somewhere and cause another problem down there along the Kuskokwim River,” Epchook said.
Faulkner Walsh didn’t have immediate comment on the incident when Channel 2 called the company Wednesday.
Steve Russell with the DEC told Channel 2 Wednesday afternoon that the agency remains in contact with Kwethluk locals to assess the severity of the situation.
"DEC had staff in the public meeting on Monday and heard the concerns, and will continue to work with the city and public to try to determine if there is a public health threat from this incident," Russell said.
Channel 2’s Blake Essig contributed information to this story.
Contact Chris Klint
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