By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News
Russ Maddox, a local, state, and national clean air and water advocate who works with Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups, recently joined with former Seward resident Father Michael Oleksa to represent Alaska on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Father Oleksa is a much beloved Russian Orthodox Priest and Alaskan storyteller, a leader in the development of cross-cultural education in Alaska, and an esteemed student of Alaska Native languages and cultures who seeks to foster greater understanding across boundaries of race and culture.
The two were part of a diverse coalition of “Clean Air Ambassadors” selected from all 50 states to call the attention of their legislators and key national policy-makers to National Asthma Awareness Month, and specifically to call for the adoption of strong air pollution standards including greater protections from smog, coal ash, carbon and other dangerous air pollutants, and for the protection of the Clean Air Act.
The coalition included representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Nurses Association, Earthjustice, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the National Council for the Churches of Christ in the US, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“Our primary message to Congress and our delegation in particular was to quit blocking progress at EPA. The long awaited coal ash rule has been stalled by Congress for years allowing more innocent folks to be unnecessarily exposed to dangerous toxins,” Maddox said. “We also asked Congress to quit blocking Gina McCarthy’s nomination for EPA administrator. The gist is that many EPA rulemaking processes continue to be blocked by members of Congress, and as long as this gridlock prevails progress on clean air and water and carbon reductions will be stymied”.
Maddox said he felt honored to have been selected to represent Alaska in this arena next to a man with the stature and charisma of Father Oleksa, but also to be a part of such a diverse group of individuals. “I have had the pleasure of lobbying and working with the Gwich’n and faith-based organizations, and youth organizations in the past, but this was by far the most diverse coalition I ever had the honor of working with, and I do feel the administration heard our message loud and clear, and that they agreed.”
Personally, Maddox asked the EPA not to allow another provisional permit for the Aurora Energy coal- fired power plant in Fairbanks, which would allow them to continue to exceed emissions standards. He also asked that EPA not allow another five-year extension for the Fairbanks North Star Borough to reach attainment and comply with federal air quality standards. He is also urging the EPA Environmental Justice Department to review the State’s response to a large area with groundwater contaminated with sulfolane, affecting hundreds of residences near a refinery in North Pole.
Maddox met Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Alaska Congressman Don Young, Senator Mark Begich’s environmental staffer Michael Johnson, EPA Solid Waste Director Mathy Stanislas, EPA Air and Radiation Director Gina McCarthy, EPA Director of Environmental Justice Lisa Garcia, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, and several Senate Energy and Resources Committee minority staffers.
Maddox has served in a volunteer capacity in many roles; as Advocacy Director for Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, as Fifth Officer of the Sierra Club Council of Club Leader’s Executive Committee, and most recently on the Statewide Advisory Board for Alaska Youth for Environmental Action.
While he may be a well-known, and respected advocate among state and national environmental communities for his advocacy on a variety of contamination and policy issues, Maddox has nevertheless remained a controversial public figure here in Seward. Many town leaders and business people did not appreciate the lawsuits he brought over regulatory requirements, nor their cost in terms of time and effort to fight them in court, and some believe he exaggerates industrial pollution issues in Seward, and brings negative public attention to them.
“Ever since my home was illegally contaminated in 2001, I have been advocating for other innocent victims of chemical trespass across Alaska,” Maddox said. “With my hometown in Alaska being the home of the only operating coal export facility on the west coast of the United States, and being familiar with the challenges this presents, I have been working diligently to help communities in the great Northwest where coal export facilities are proposed avoid a similar fate,” Maddox said.
Maddox feels misjudged locally in regard to RBCA and its allies’ motive for filing a lawsuit to draw attention to industrial pollution into Resurrection Bay and to prevent it from continuing. That lawsuit was repeatedly appealed in the courts by the City of Seward. Many people still misguidedly think it was all about money, he said, but in fact a non-profit cannot legally profit from their work.
RBCA and ACAT eventually received $124,357 in reimbursement for their accrued attorney’s fees for the legal action taken against the City of Seward in 2006 for discharging pollutants into Resurrection Bay from the Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC) without the required National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Claims that boat repair work that had taken place in the Seward Small Boat Harbor also required NPDES permit were not substantiated by the Ninth Circuit Court and were eventually dropped, however, because upon later inspection, the court found that boat repair work was not being done there at the time.
The City still contends that according to their own legal advice, no discharge permit was required, but it now has the permit at SMIC as the court ordered. And now, for the first time, a vessel wash-down pad is being constructed there to catch and contain contaminated runoff from the scraping and cleaning of ship’s hulls. There are also hopes for a similar wash-down pad in the small boat harbor uplands.
Sierra Club and Alaska Community Action on Toxics, which Maddox also volunteers for, are involved in another local lawsuit with Aurora Energy and the Alaska Railroad Corporation alleging they violated the Clean Water Act by allowing coal to fall off of the conveyor belt and enter the water and pile up there over a number of years. Since the lawsuit was filed, the Alaska Railroad Corporation has contributed significant funding toward improvements to the aging transfer facility’s coal conveyor belt, enclosing it better, placing pans to catch falling coal beneath the most troublesome areas, and has also initiated procedures for closing down coal transfer operations during the windiest conditions. It has also improved its own monitoring, and sprays the coal stockpiles more frequently to limit the amount of fugitive (escaping) coal dust.
According to Maddox it’s still not nearly enough, however. Having toured many other coal storage and transfer facilities in the U.S. and Canada, he says that Seward’s is the only one without bag house ventilation systems, that all other coal stockpiles at transfer facilities are constantly wetted to prevent dust to escape, and they are all located in heavy industrial areas, isolated from populated areas and residences.
“It just seems logical to me that being situated so close to campuses and bunkhouses and public areas that we should have the best available technologies for containment,” he said.
Prompted by public questions about coal dust, and the City’s hopes for a definitive answer, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation conducted an Ambient Air study in Seward that concluded last year. It found that there was “no cause for concern” regarding our ambient air quality due to the lack of weight and size levels of particulate matter discovered in the air monitors filters atop five buildings spread across town.
But Maddox, and fellow environmental advocates did not agree with those findings. They launched their own citizen’s-monitoring study of the air quality. The DEC study only collected PM10s on predetermined days regardless of weather conditions, and never analyzed their filter’s contents to determine their sources, they argued. “No one ever said we had an air problem,” Maddox said. “We have been hearing for years that we have a coal dust problem so that is what we targeted in our own (citizen’s monitoring) project. We ran our monitors on dry windy days, and we situated our monitors in the small boat harbor, where the coal dust concerns are. The study we designed also measured PM 2.5s (smaller sized particles) and analyzed every filter for content.
The data from that recently completed one year project is being compiled and peer reviewed. A report on its findings will be released soon.