State agency investigates open burn of Small Boat Harbor dock

Heidi Zemach for Seward City News -

Burn pile Jan 17Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Air Quality is investigating what occurred during an open burn when Orion Marine Services Contractors LLC (DBA West Construction)  burned the old Small Boat Harbor D-float dock and other materials on behalf of the City of Seward without a black-smoke burn permit.

The burn, which took place on the north east (side of) private Alaska Railroad Corporation property in Seward January 9th-11th generated some dark smoke on all three days which brought concerned citizen’s questions and complaints to DEC and the local fire department contending that the smoke was coming from hazardous materials, unhealthy to residents, and that the proper permitting procedures were not followed for what was being burned.

Photographs taken of the burn piles by Seward local Carol Griswold, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance members, and others, along with descriptions of the burn from eyewitnesses in Seward, prompted ADEC officials to take a closer at the advice that the agency had earlier given to Orion Marine Services concerning the project.

The generation of “black smoke” from DEC’s perspective is generally understood as an indicator that chemical substances are being burned, and is therefore rarely allowed if there are alternatives.

Burn smokeTwo months ago, DEC received an application from the contractor for an open burn permit with black smoke approval, said Jim Baumgartner with DEC’s Division of Air Quality. The company said it intended to burn “Materials from the demolition of float systems in the Seward Small Boat Harbor, dunnage, wood, brush etc. Additional materials to be burned during the burn event are from the landowner (ARRC), which are the same type of dunnage described in this summary.”

It did not say anything about burning treated wood, or possibly other hazardous substances, such as railroad ties or creosote-treated posts, he added.

Baumgartner accepted the blame for signing the original letter to the contractor without specifically requiring removal of all treated wood before burning. Had he read the application more carefully, as he did after local citizens complained, he would have realized that with burning dock demolition debris, there would likely be treated wood involved, resulting in black smoke, he said.

“I don’t think our reviewer really understood that, because the application doesn’t mention that,” Baumgartner said. DEC does not authorize such potentially hazardous burns when alternative disposal options exist.

In its application to DEC, in the Alternative Disposal category, the contractor said it could: “Load and haul to the landfill for disposal; this would take heavy equipment loaders as well as dump trucks and loaders and would take operators to run them. Costs for equipment, fuel, manpower and dump fees are exorbitant. Not to mention that the space that the materials would consume at the local landfill would be rather large.”

DEC subsequently informed the contractor that they would not be issuing a DEC black-smoke permit, provided that they separate out the rubber, styrofoam, and other materials that would generate black smoke.

But Friday, January 10th, following the citizen’s complaints, and seeing photographs of the burn taking place, the DEC inspector called the contractor back on Friday afternoon to inform them that they should stop burning unless they had a black smoke permit. The contractor agreed to do so, and told the inspector they would take the remaining waste to the local transfer facility, Baumgartner said.

The burn was in fact halted on Friday afternoon, but it was reignited and continued to burn again on Saturday, with an extension to the City of Seward’s burn permit, said Seward Volunteer Fire Department’s deputy fire chief Robert Mathis. His comment was echoed by the contractor’s foreman, John Bruce. Both said they stopped the fire Friday afternoon as a courtesy to residents due to an inversion that was moving the smoke toward downtown Seward. The fire department only received two official complaints about the burn, and two inquiries regarding the fire, Mathis said.



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Seward Fire Chief Eddie Athey issued West Construction an open burn permit for the fire, after receiving a copy of the letter that DEC had written to them concerning burn permits, said Deputy Seward Fire Chief Robert Mathis. The contractor used the term “old rail docks,” to describe what would be burned, he said.

Athey also inspected the materials in the burn piles prior to the burn, and monitored it during visits on several separate occasions, Mathis said. He visually examined the first burn, and the color of smoke being generated, and reported that it was a good, efficient burn, and that there wasn’t black smoke present, except during its initial start-up, and once more the first time the pile was mixed, Mathis said. Most of the time it was mostly a brown-white color, indicating a typical wood burn, according to the fire chief.

The City of Seward Burn Permit has a checklist of seven conditions that must be met by an applicant. The first one specifies “no black smoke (the burning of rubber tires and stumps etc…” It does not specifically mention treated wood. Another condition of the Seward open burn permit limits the size of an open burn pile to 10’ x 20’. Others are that the fire must be watched at all times; three complaints from the public would terminate the permit; any pollution or liability resulting from the burn is the responsibility of the individual signing the permit, and burning will cease if high winds develop. It was signed by West Construction’s foreman Bruce, and dated for Jan 9th ending Jan 10th. Saturday, January 11th was added later.

Prior to the fire, the company had separated out all of the treated wood, along with any plastics, wire and styrofoam used to keep the dock afloat, said Sterling Shearer, Orion Marine Construction’s on-site project manager and project engineer for the $2 million demolition and new harbor dock replacement project. The gangplank portion, which was treated wood, and the cement that went with it were given away to private parties who owned waterfront property to be recycled and reused, he said. The contractor also gave away some of the floats that were still in decent shape. The rest of the material deemed hazardous was taken to the nearby Alaska Transfer facility in Seward.

“We hauled at least 20 runs to the dump and disposed of those materials,” Shearer said. “Some of the wood went to the transfer facility;  rails off the gangway, anything that looked like it had any type of chemicals on it. We didn’t want to chance it.” DEC was very helpful, and the company saw the guidelines of their open burn policy, explaining how to follow them, he said: I gave a detailed description of what I intended to burn, so everyone was very aware of what was going on.”

Shearer contends it was fine to burn the rest of the old dock, however.

“A lot of the wood was not treated from what I understand,” Shearer said. “I’m sure that’s why it needs replacement.” It was easy to tell the difference between wood that has been treated, and wood that hasn’t, he said, giving the example of the black color of a creosote-treated telephone pole, and what it feels like to run ones hand along one, and the sticky residue that remains. The contractors separating the wood used that informal criteria to determine what material could be burned and what couldn’t.

Due to the long-lasting persistent chemicals typically used to treat wood (including harbor docks, telephone poles, railroad ties) DEC makes no distinction between wood that was treated 50 years ago, and wood treated more recently. The agency also doesn’t distinguish between whether wood has been treated with Creosote, or other typical chemical treatments such as chromated copper arsenate; and pentachlorophenol, all three of which are considered persistent and highly toxic. The DEC also recommends not to burn any treated wood in open fires, stoves, fireplaces, or residential boilers because toxic chemicals may be produced as part of the smoke and ashes.

“Yes, there’s times that there would be black smoke,” said Bruce, the contractor’s foreman, describing the burn he witnessed. “Every once in a while there would be some Styrofoam in there that caught fire, and it would shoot out black smoke. I don’t think I ever saw any noxious black smoke. But little bits of things get in there, and you try to get it all, but you can miss some. You do the best you can do,” he added. Now that the burn is over and done with, he doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about.

“The burn generated black smoke for three days,” Carol Griswold said. “They did not have a black smoke permit, just an application,” she added. “There was no detailed description of the materials burned in the application; there was no mention of burning treated wood.” She wonders why the contractor would have applied for a black smoke permit from DEC if they didn’t think they needed one. “My photos clearly show that treated wood, including railroad ties and creosote posts were burned, and generated clouds of black smoke.”

“Burning treated wood released irritating, toxic fumes and nasty particulates into the air and nearby wetlands and bay; the toxic ash left on the ground will wash into the surrounding wetlands, a salmon stream, and the bay. The city does not allow even a clean wood waste burn at the Transfer Facility when a cruise ship is in port; why should the citizens of Seward and the environment be subjected to this blatant, un-permitted, and unnecessary contamination?” she said.

The city’s contract with Orion specifies that after hauling the dock away,  all liability regarding it is responsibility of the contractor, not the city. The city plans to eventually have three additional docks in the Small Boat Harbor of the same vintage removed when funding permits, including C, B and A docks.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you Seward City News and Heidi for this story. Good reporting!

  2. “The contractors separating the wood used that informal criteria to determine what material could be burned and what couldn’t.”

    Kind of like how Carol Griswald and those behind this story use their own, informal method of discerning the perceived color of said material in a few photos to determine what could be burned and what couldn’t? Aside from the humorous attempt at journalism displayed in this story, I’d say that’s about as “informal” as it gets. Also, it was never affirmed that the stated method they used to distinguish between the treated and non-treated wood was the only “criteria to determine what material could be burned and what couldn’t,” it was merely mentioned as one example for doing so. To presume otherwise is just fallacious, unethical reporting. Shame on the Seward City News for even publishing this glib attempt at sensationalism.

    • Personally I’m glad there is perhaps a forum for a differing opinion or point of view in this community. If for no other reason than that we question what is going on in our local government and whether our officials are being good stewards of our resources. That is just an example of being a good citizen.

      • Being a good citizen at what expense, though? The unsubstantiated slandering of a company’s perfectly legitimate actions? There’s a huge difference between “questioning what is going on in our local government” and publishing a sensationalized story that frames a controversial narrative in attempt to drive up the amount of times it gets clicked on.

        • Somehow I knew there would be this kind of response. I won’t respond after this statement because I know what kind of personal attacks that are coming here. But historically everyone in this town knows that Carol has no other agenda than seeing that all of the inhabitants of Seward have a healthy place to live. Her honor and appreciation of our natural resources can not be questioned. The only reason she would complain is because there was a reason to complain.

  3. bickpentameter says:

    I agree with summer. I’d grateful that our industry/tourism town has watchdogs like Carol Griswold and others. She has merely asked questions and pointed out discrepancies and possible wrongdoing. That’s good for our community. Its good to safeguard our air and water. What is the advantage to defending those who pollute?

    • It’s funny: You both ostensibly encourage the questioning and public discourse concerning community issues; however, when I suggest applying such questioning to the other side of the issue, or Carol Griswold’s side, you both immediately balk and inexplicably grant her immunity from such inquiries. Sadly, I sincerely doubt either of you can recognize the hypocrisy in doing so.

  4. It is hard to believe that any Seward resident would not readily be on the side of practices that keep the city’s air and water clean. Although I don’t believe the contractor erred in the black smoke incident. The EPA administrators admit to oversights; to the extent there was no questioning the possibility that marine application wood materials from another era would have toxic preservatives. That said, Seward residents have been victimized by the cavalier attitudes of industrial ‘players’ in the community, from the 4th of July Shipyard runoff; to chronic coal dust problems in the face of the constant blasting north winter winds. We moved to Seward for a year, to get away from the noise of Girdwood after thirty-two years. We’ve always loved Seward, but have given up and moved out due to poor air quality, mostly due to coal dust and residential coal burners.

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