City of Seward

Black smoke report raises more questions


Open burn continues Jan 11, 2014 on Alaska Railroad Corporation property. Heidi Zemach photo.
Open burn continues for third day Jan 11, 2014 on Alaska Railroad Corporation property. Heidi Zemach photo.

Heidi Zemach for Seward City News –

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, Seward City Manager Jim Hunt described the results of his own internal investigation into the controversial three-day burn of materials that produced black smoke from January 9-11on Alaska Railroad property. Citizen’s photographs and video taken throughout the three-day burn show creosote-treated timbers and poles, and what also appears to be railroad ties in flames, generating clouds of black smoke.

Hunt revealed that a Parks and Recreation employee, after talking to Seward Fire Chief Eddie Athey, was directed by his department to take some treated timbers to the burn site at the Alaska Railroad property. Hunt said the worker did not talk to anyone at the railroad burn site. He noted that the action taken was “unbeknownst to me.”

“Some of the black smoke emitted from the fire was likely due to the city material placed on the pile, however, we cannot determine what the bulk of the pile was comprised of,” Hunt read in his statement to council.

City Electric Department Manager John Foutz had asked the contractor about the possibility of adding treated materials to the burn, but was informed that the burn was limited, whereby he took the materials to the Seward Transfer Facility, Hunt said.

Hunt did not discuss the quantity of city treated timbers delivered to the site, why the Parks and Rec director decided to add treated wood to the burn pile without his knowledge, why the fire chief authorized it, or why the contractor and railroad officials, discovering the treated wood, proceeded to burn it.

Hunt concluded, “I received a letter from the DEC describing its burn policies, and have sent them to the department heads for reeducation. At no time in the future shall material be sent to a burn without the full approval of the fire chief.”

Hunt’s investigation also failed to address several concerns raised by DEC and local residents who criticized the illegal open black smoke burn. Why did the contractor and AK RR applicants fail to mention treated wood was present in the application to DEC for a black smoke burn permit? After DEC’s response said there was no need for a black smoke permit based on the materials description, why didn’t the contractor seek clarification in the two months between the application and the burn? Why did the city fire department and police dispatch assure the public that they had received a DEC black smoke burn permit when they did not?

The other burn permit, the City of Seward Burn Permit, was signed by the contractor and Fire Chief. The permit specifically prohibits burning any materials that could create black smoke, requires that the burn pile be no larger than 10 by 20 feet, and states that three complaints of smoke to the City would result in the termination of the permit. Not only did the burn produce black smoke on all three days, but the two piles greatly exceeded the maximum size, and more than three people called, e-mailed, and left messages at the city’s fire and police department during the course of the burn. Hunt’s investigation report did not address why the city fire chief did not ensure compliance with all of the conditions of the burn permit.


DEC’s Division of Air Quality Air Permits Program issued a Compliance Letter to Orion Marine Contractors on January 24th, listing violations to state air regulations occurring from the burn, including two regulations prohibiting black smoke, and one concerning enforcement. The DEC compliance letter “puts the contractor on notice of what’s expected, and makes them aware that they did not have an approval to make black smoke in this case,” Baumgartner told Seward City News.

“We have evidence that they burned material that would make black smoke, and we have evidence that they made black smoke, however we’re not taking them (Orion) to court at this time. Of course time will tell if we need to at some further point,” Baumgartner added.

The letter also reminded the contractor that Baumgartner had phoned them on January 10th and told them to immediately shut the burn down, as a black smoke burn had not been permitted by ADEC. But the next day, the agency learned from local residents, the burn was continued, with the permission of Seward Fire Chief Athey.

DEC officials asked Orion to review its Air Quality Control regulations concerning the prohibition of black smoke while conducting an open burn, and put the company on notice that in the future it expects and requests the company to comply with all such regulations, and to responsibly clean up and dispose of its burn residue (ash) in an appropriate licensed landfill.

The state agency also forwarded that letter to Seward City Manager Hunt and Athey, along with a wealth of written materials on its open burn policies, and why the agency generally wouldn’t allow certain materials, including treated wood or creosote, to be burned.

The city burn permit states that City code 9.15.145 holds the city and fire chief harmless and free from all liabilities, claims, demands, suits, judgments and actions of any nature whatsoever arising out of issuing the burn permit. In its contract with Orion Construction, the city also is indemnified from any regulations that may be broken, or legal action taken resulting from the demolition and disposal of its old dock.

But the story doesn’t end with the burn. There’s also a story about what happened to the contaminated ash.

On January 21, the contractor was allowed by the Seward Transfer Facility staff to deliver 60 cubic yards, about 20-24 tons, of contaminated ash from the black smoke burn to the local, unlined landfill. Alerted by concerned citizens, the Kenai Peninsula Solid Waste Division staff examined the site the next day. About 35 CY’s had already been co-mingled with other debris as part of routine operations. On January 23, based on the visual observation and odor, the contractor was ordered to move the remaining ash back to the AKRR yard burn site, and have it tested. The 10-12 tons of ash and debris was then left on the ground, without any liner or cover, subjected to dispersal into the environment.

The test results determined that the material was indeed contaminated, and must be deposited in a lined landfill to keep it from leaching into the water table or dispersing into the air. The Borough approved the materials for disposal in the lined cell at the Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna, designated for hazardous materials.

Dave Squires, the retired Seward fire chief, was the only council member to comment on the controversial open burn at Monday’s meeting.

“On the burn issue, I hope everybody realizes that employees do the best they can to adhere to regulations,” he said. “I do have a bit of concerns about DEC’s inability to enforce their own regulations, and I’m hoping that people in the city are looking outside city limits and what’s going on there for open-burning.”



  1. Readers:
    Chief Athey DID NOT authorize or direct a Parks and Rec employee to place treated timbers on the pile of not yet burning material. I DID NOT state the “Parks and Rec Director told the employee to do it in my report. . The contractor did have a legal burn permit. The fire DID NOT emit black smoke on all three days. DEC has not sent me questions that are unanswered. I encourage the author of this article and others to read what was submitted to council last Monday night. The speculation in this article something else. I am not going to hide anything and I will share what I know.

  2. This article is not based on speculation. The City Manager’s report states that the Parks and Rec employee talked to the fire chief before depositing the treated timber, as directed by the department head.

    The contractor, according to DEC, did not have a permit for a black smoke burn and the city burn permit does not a allow black smoke burn. There should not have been even one day of black smoke. Photos document black smoke for three days.

    This is what the City Manager said at the February 10th Council Meeting. The audio is available on the city website, and the laydown of his report is available at city hall through a request for public documents.

    “At the last meeting I promised to have a report on the burn. I apologize I couldn’t get it to you earlier, I got the final information just last Friday. I’ll just quickly read this. On January 9th the permitted burn occurred on the Alaska Railroad property.”

    “John Foutz, our electric utility manager, contacted the contractor who was permitted for the burn, and addressed the possibility of burning some treated lumber and timber. He was told the permit was limited, and it could not be burned. Mr. Foutz had the timber delivered to the transfer station. At some point, unbeknownst to me, or our department, a Parks and Rec employee, after speaking with Chief Athey, was directed by his department to take some treated timber to the burn site. He deposited the material in the pile of debris and left. He didn’t speak to anyone at the site.”

    “So the black smoke emitted from the fire was likely due to city material placed on the pile. However, we cannot determine what the bulk of the pile was comprised of. I received a letter from DEC describing burn policies and I have sent them to department heads for reeducation, and at no time in the future, shall material be sent to the burn without full approval of Fire Chief Athey.”

    The questions raised in this article deserve answers, not denials.

    From start to finish, it is clear that in addition to the “reeducation” mentioned by City Manager Hunt, existing DEC, City, and KPB Solid Waste Department policies and procedures must be revised and clarified, and communication between departments and agencies improved to ensure that an unpermitted black smoke burn never happens again.

    Carol Griswold