Oil spill at Kivalina school halted, but cleanup not complete

Weather, holidays and other factors impacting ability to address situation
Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 9:46 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Northwest Arctic Borough School District said last week that up to 1,900 gallons of heating oil — intended for use by the school in Kivalina — had leaked into the ground. The location of the leak, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, is about 200 feet from the building and even closer to the residence of one of the school’s teachers.

“The Kivalina School had run out of heat on Thursday (Dec. 16), and when they traced it back to the 1,900-gallon tank that provides heating to the school, they discovered it was empty, even though it had just been filled the day before,” said Kimberley Maher, the department’s Northern Region State On-Scene Coordinator.

As of Wednesday, the department said, at least one team had made it out to Kivalina to start an investigation, but wintry weather in the Interior and other factors have hampered efforts tremendously. Maher said the next step is to create a more in-depth plan to hopefully collect as much of the oil as possible, ahead of the spring breakup season.

“The initial emergency response phase has concluded,” Maher said Wednesday. “We’re starting to make plans for delineating where the fuel might’ve gone, and trying to make some plans for prior to breakup to try and recapture it before it emerges during breakup.”

She added that planning for cleanup before breakup is common, and that snow serves as a “really good receptor for fuel.” Any other materials that may have helped absorb it will hopefully be disposed of before breakup, she said. The current estimate for the spill size is now at 1,500 gallons.

“The first thing you try to do is pick up what is available to be picked up,” she explained. “They picked up some contaminated snow, it’s wrapped up in Visqueen to prevent the snow from blowing around and spreading the contamination. But because of the amount of snow and everything being frozen, and making sure that, you know, people aren’t out during winter storms, our biggest concern is the safety of the people.

“We’re trying to make sure what can be done as an initial response is done, but sometimes you just have to make plans for when your efforts are more effective.”

One idea is to create a makeshift trench where the fuel might travel when things melt, she said, as an interception.

The district initially said that a pipe that supplies heating oil to the school was damaged somehow, allowing the oil to seep into the ground, but the department clarified that it was a broken valve that allowed the leak to happen.

“Thursday afternoon and evening, school staff and teachers headed out with a shovel brigade and sort of tried to trace down where along the pipe connecting to the school the fuel had leaked,” Maher said. “They were able to find a broken valve right near the teacher housing.”

The U.S. Coast Guard said early on that the leak had been stopped, and the conservation department said the valve has been fixed and heat fully and presumably permanently restored.

No impacts to human health or wildlife were immediately reported either, although Maher said the agency is taking precautions to ensure that it stays that way. The teacher residing close to the location of the spill is expected to take up a new residence while the investigation and cleanup remain underway.

“The predominant concern right now is if this leaked under teacher housing,” Maher said. “To make sure that’s not turning into vapors and impacting the air quality of the teacher housing. We want to make sure there’s safe air to breathe.”

The main Department of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response site, including situation reports from across Alaska, can be found here. This spill did not have a situation report, Maher said, as not everything makes the spill response list.

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