Valley of Smoke

Air quality challenged by residents' burns

The smoke from one home’s wood-burning stove moves across the entire valley in this December photo. - Dimitra Lavrakas

By DIMITRA LAVRAKAS
Though Skagway’s name in Tlingit means “windy place,” this fall it failed many times to move air out of the valley.
Inversions, periods when air stagnated over town, held smoke from fireplaces and wood burning stoves to 15 feet off ground level. Smoke choked off visibility at one end of Broadway, enveloped the school, and spread from one open burn all the way from the north end of town to Taiya Inlet.
While using fireplaces and wood burning stoves to keep warm is a long tradition in town as well as the rest of America, exactly what is being burned here is fast becoming a health issue.
This fall, Skagway Medical Clinic Medical director Kendall Simm said the staff was seeing more respiratory cases than usual.
“There’s lots of pneumonia right now,” said Simm in December. There’s been five cases over the last two weeks. When you look at how low our population is that’s pretty significant.”
A two-year pilot study on local lichens by Elaine Furbish, former resource director for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, found that Skagway lichens had higher levels of sulfur and cadmium, copper, iron, lead, nickel, and zinc.
“Lichens really absorb compounds from the air,” explained Furbish in a NPS press release. “This makes them useful as ‘bioindicators’ of air quality. We compared levels of elements in lichen tissues from the Skagway area to baseline levels for Southeast Alaska and to air pollution indication thresholds for the greater Pacific Northwest region. We consistently found that Skagway area lichens had high levels of sulfur and some metals. This means our lichens are showing signs of air pollution.”
Identification of specific sources of the pollution was beyond the scope of the study, Furbush said.
Skagway Fire Chief Martin Beckner has been trying to educate the public on how and what to burn.
“All you can do is hope that people who come in and get literature, read it and follow it,” Beckner said.
He said all open burns must have a burn permit. Burn barrels must also have a permit as well as comply with the state Department of Envrionmental Conservation guidelines. He’s been putting up fliers about it all over town (see Burn Guidelines box).
“Calm is when I want it,” he says about optimum conditions for burns. “Inversion layers are a problem obviously.”
Beckner said while his department doesn’t enforce the rules, he would go and check out a burn and substantiate it for a state department if there’s a blatant violation.
Ann Lawton, environmental specialist with DEC, said complaints about air pollution may be phoned in anonymously to the toll-free number 800-770-8818 or a more direct number, 907-269-3066.
While the limitations of what can be burned in the open is more strict than what is burned in a fireplace or wood burning stove, state officials say common sense should be used. If it’s illegal for an open burn, why would anyone burn it in their homes, they reason.
Nothing in life is free
One material that has been used for over a century here is the creosote-treated railroad ties that are easily available for the taking. Treated telephone poles are also burned.
“Creosote is a poisonous substance and could cause a lot of serious health problems,” said John Pavitt, air coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency in Alaska. “People who think they’re getting free wood are setting themselves up for health problems.”
The Web site for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says creosote is the name for a variety of products of wood creosote, coal tar creosote, coal tar and coal tar pitch. The products are a mixture of many chemicals created by burning beech and other woods, coal, or from the resin of the creosote bush.
It all sounds like it comes from a natural product, but ATSDR cautions that even handling creosote treated wood has been associated with increased risk of contracting cancer – in particular, cancer of the scrotum and skin cancer.
Lawton said DEC has been in discussion with the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for “quite some time,” about the best way for the company to dispose of its railroad ties.
Burning of any treated or coated wood is not recommended as they are considered hazardous waste by the EPA and industrial solid waste by DEC, and must go through a rigorous and lengthy reclamation of shredding, chemical treatment and bioremediation.
“When you take a piece of wood and treat it, you’re going out of your way to make it toxic,” said Glenn Miller, program manager for DEC’s solid waste division in Juneau.
WP&YR President Fred McCorriston said the project to get rid of old ties will likely take place over the next few years by using a chipper and sending the chips out. Burning them, he said, “is not an option.”
White Pass’ McCorriston is at a loss of how to stop people from taking railroad ties from the railroad’s yard and burning them in their homes.
“If there was any way to keep people from dumping or removing material,” McCorriston said from Seattle. “We have signs posted.”
Telephone poles and pressure-treated wood used for decking and other outdoor uses are usually treated with chromium and/or arsenic. Arsenic has been identified as a health hazard to people who use or come in contact with pressure treated wood, which has a greenish tint from the treatment
Family Circle Magazine has an article in its February issue dealing with pressure-treated wood that details real-life cases of people whose health has been affected. One person was partially paralyzed, another family was poisoned when they burned wood scraps in their wood burning stove, and one worker lost nearly half his blood in a vomiting episode after making park benches with the treated wood.
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke
Chris Ellis, whose daughter Jestine has allergies, said she called DEC several years ago to ask them to come and monitor the air in Skagway, but her call was never returned.
Ellis lives on the north end of town. Her neighbor to the south, J. Frey, said his stove puts out heavy smoke before it begins to combust properly. “I try not to do it so to annoy people,” Frey said.
Frey, who is an electrician, said he doesn’t burn electrical wires in his fireplace anymore. It was something he did in the past until he realized how unhealthy it was.
On the other side of Frey, is Ellis’ father, Jan Nelson, who uses a wood-burning stove in his shop. He said he burns paper from the house, and scrap lumber. He doesn’t use creosote or treated lumber because creosote can build up on the chimney pipe and cause a chimney fire, and treated lumber residue eats up the metal pipe.
Nelson said he was aware of the health hazards of both types of lumber because when he worked with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, “they had HAZMAT on all that stuff, so we paid attention.”
What to do?
While agencies make their decision whether to monitor the air, residents are faced with the question of how to improve air quality year-round.
A similar seasonal situation existed in Juneau when inversions choked the Mendenhall Valley with wood smoke. The City and Borough of Juneau passed an ordinance that prohibits the use of wood-fired heating devices.
Under state statute, wood-fired heating devices cannot emit black smoke and the smoke cannot exceed 50 percent opacity for more than 15 minutes in any one hour in an area where an air quality advisory has been in effect.
Cruise ship smoke, tour bus and shuttle fumes and diesel train engine exhaust has not been addressed. Although the air quality in the downtown area did improve with the introduction of city transit, replacing the older shuttle buses.
There is no one in town trained to determine when a cruise ship emits an illegal amount of smoke according to state law.
Pavitt said he applied for funds to come to Skagway and conduct a training seminar but was turned down.
State officials say the City of Skagway can put ordinances in place to prohibit the burning of certain materials and limit the time of burns if there is an inversion or north wind that would blow the smoke back over town.
A barrel full of trouble
A companion issue is the use of burn barrels. Although there was a supposed promise to ban them after the incinerator went into operation several years ago, an ordinance proposing a ban was defeated by the City Council.
“There was a hue and cry from the public,” said City Manager Bob Ward. “But I see less burn barrel use from people trying to cut back on the number of garbage pick-ups by burning their entire garbage.”
Ward also doesn’t remember any supposed promise that the incinerator would not operate in a north wind. He said the incinerator burns only once a week. In the winter, he said it would be hard not to burn with a north wind as that’s the predominant direction.
According to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, burn barrels emit acid vapors, carcinogenic tars, and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium and unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide. Some of the same chemicals identified in the lichen study.
The EPA has found the amount of dioxin generated by four families openly burning their trash is equivalent to that of a 200-ton-per-day-capacity municipal solid waste incinerator.
There are alternatives
The city does operate a recycling program that takes glass, tin and aluminum. Car batteries are also taken at the Department of Public Works shop on Fifth Avenue.
The city also takes dry, broken-down cardboard at the incinerator site for free. Cardboard once represented 40 percent of the solid waste going through the incinerator, now it is compacted and shipped out. The volume of cardboard that moves through town is evident in the spring to everybody when the season’s inventory arrives.
And here, in the “Garden City of Alaska,” composting has become something of a religion because gardeners know that good soil has to be made, it’s not naturally available in a valley of glacial till.
“We did away with ours,” said Ellis of her burn barrel. “We recycle and I have a compost pile.
“It’s too bad we can’t have good air especially where we are. We have clean water, why not clean air?”

Going left to right: Broadway looking south is obscured by wood smoke; On an inversion day, smoke a nearby home envelopes the Skagway School. The picture is taken from across the Skagway River. - Dimitra Lavrakas

Skagway burn guidelines
You must have a burn permit for any burning: burn barrel, pile burning or broadcast burning. It’s free and available at the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department.
Burn barrels
• The barrel must be in sound condition, have a screen on top to prevent burning debris from escaping, have holes at the bottom for ventilation, raised off the ground, or on the ground with no grass or vegetation within a 10-foot diameter.
DEC Regulations material ban
• Spill absorbents and contaminated soils that are hazardous waste.
• Pesticides, halogenated organic compounds, cyanic compounds or polyurethane products burned in a way that gives off toxic or acidic gases or particulates.
• Putrescible garbage, animal carcasses, or petroleum-based materials burned in a way that causes odor or black smoke that may have an adverse effect on nearby persons or residences.
• Electrical batteries, all types and sizes.
• All liquid-form paints (e.g. in cans). Wood with lead-based paint may require a permit (call DEC).
• All solvents, except those composed of water and soap/detergent solutions.
• All aerosol cans, except those that do not use chloro- or fluoro- carbon propellants.
• Asbestos or any metals or alloys containing beryllium, chromium, cobalt, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, mercury, lead, or any radioactive wastes.
• Any electrical or electronic lamps or components that contains any of the above metals/alloys (including fluorescent, high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor and metal halide lamps.)
• Any plastics or other materials containing chlorine as an essential component (such as Polyvinyl Chloride - PVC pipe). However, salt (any metal chloride, used for thawing or ion exchange) residue in empty containers contains chlorine as an essential component.
• Tires.
• Treated wood containing compounds such as creosote, napthlate, or tar.

To Report a Burn
If you suspect a violation of proper burning, call the Skagway Fire Department at 983-2450 or call the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s anonymous, toll-free number (800)770-8818. -DL

YTG minister unfazed by terminal’s demise

White Pass also supports AIDEA’s decision to dismantle huge ore storage building

Whitehorse Star & Skagway News
Yukon Government Mines Minister Archie Lang says the removal of the ore terminal building in Skagway may be a blessing, not a hindrance to future mine production decisions in the Yukon.
Lang said the building has been ruled a safety hazard. By tearing it down now, there would be no issue with the structure if and when a mining company in the Yukon or northern B.C. expresses a desire to ship ore out of Skagway again, he said in a Jan. 22 interview.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state agency which owns the building, announced recently it will tear the facility down because it’s deteriorating and has become a liability.
The City of Skagway has said it will be retained as an industrial site should there be any interest in using it again to store and ship concentrates, or for other industrial uses. An example would be storing pipe if a natural gas pipeline is ever built.
Lang said he’s also been assured the equipment required to load ore concentrates onto ships will remain intact.
The Skagway ore terminal was built in 1968 to accommodate the export of lead-zinc concentrates from the Faro mine, which began production in 1969. It also accommodated the shipment of lead-zinc concentrates from the Sa Dena Hes mine south of Watson Lake when it was operating in the early 1990s.
Other Yukon mines, like the United Keno Hill Mines in Elsa and the Cassiar asbestos mine in northern B.C., have also used Skagway as their shipping port.
A proposal by Redfern Resources to open up the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed south of Atlin identifies Skagway at its access to overseas export.
The Yukon Party promised in its fall election campaign to work with Skagway to establish a common-user port facility.
Lang said he was notified of the decision to tear down the facility
as a courtesy. There was never any suggestion nor proposal to partner with the Yukon government to somehow try to save the building, he said.
At the Jan. 16 City Council meeting, following a teleconference earlier that day with AIDEA, City Manager Bob Ward reported that the agency would move forward with tearing down the building. He said while the city would prefer the loader stay up, White Pass would like it removed, but no decision had been made.
“Our business right now is the visitor industry,” said WP&YR vice president Gary Danielson, in an interview this week, explaining that removal of the building is a good thing.
“I think it’s a positive, because right now there is nothing on the (mining) horizon for at least five years, and in the meantime if anything else happens, it would be a perfect staging area.”
Further discussions are planned between the city, AIDEA and White Pass.

Holland America brings back eight ships to fill Thurs. gap

Holland America announced Jan. 23 that eight of its seven-day, northbound Glacier discovery cruises of the MS Statendam and MS Veendam will call on Skagway instead of Haines next summer.
The ships depart Vancouver on June 15, 22 and 29, July 6, August 3, 10, 17 and 24. Holland America Line has also confirmed nine calls of the MS Ryndam to Haines. These will take place on May 21, June 4 and 18, July 2, 16 and 30, Aug. 13 and 27 and Sept. 10. Holland America calls on Haines more than any other major cruise line, the cruise company explained in a press release.
“The eight revised sailings were originally scheduled to visit Skagway,” explained David A. Giersdorf, senior vice president, marketing and sales, for Holland America Line. “However, due to schedule conflicts among cruise lines, we had to move the departures to Haines. These conflicts have been resolved and we are now able to proceed as originally planned.”
Gary Danielson, vice president of White Pass & Yukon Route, which owns the three major cruise ship docks in Skagway, said the move was in the works for some time.
Originally the Diamond Princess was due in Skagway on Thursdays, he said. Holland America also wanted to come here on Thursdays, but there was no space for them, “so they tried the next best option, Haines.”
Then, after the Diamond fire in the Japanese shipyard, White Pass waited to see if Princess would replace it with a ship from Europe. Once that was ruled out, he said, White Pass advised Holland America that Skagway was prepared to accept them.
“The decision took a while but we are extremely pleased they decided to come here,” Danielson said.
Based on double berth occupancy, it could mean an additional 10,128 passengers next summer.
Haines was not left empty-handed.
The full range of Haines shore excursions and attractions will be available on these eight arrivals, the press release said. In order to encourage guests on these revised sailings to book Haines shore excursions, Holland America will be subsidizing the Skagway-Haines high-speed catamaran transfer charge for these eight calls.
“The community in Haines has been exceptionally welcoming to Holland America and our guests,” stated Giersdorf. “We appreciate these efforts and wanted to demonstrate our appreciation in light of the schedule change.”

Klondike Gold Rush NHP announces 2003 fee changes

Beginning with this summer’s visitor season, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park visitors will find several changes in fees for use of national park facilities in and near Skagway.
Overnight hikers on the Chilkoot Trail will now be charged a combined US-Canadian fee. The new US fee is $10, while the Canadian fee remains unchanged at $35 for a total combined fee of about $33 (US) Each agency will offer a 50% discount to children ages 6 years through 15 years.
The National Park Service and Parks Canada have worked cooperatively for years to manage the international Chilkoot Trail and related reservation, permitting, and information services. “Our cooperation on the fee program and jointly operating this historical, international trail further reinforces the relationship that was formalized under the 1998 International Historical Park designation,” said Klondike Gold Rush NHP Superintendent Bruce Noble.
Fees collected by the NPS will cover a portion of the operating, management costs on the American side of the popular 33-mile trail, according to a Jan. 24 press release. Collecting the fee in a single installment was more efficient for the visitor than each agency having independent fee programs, Noble said.
Hikers wishing to reserve their trip in advance will be charged an additional reservation fee of $10 (Canadian) per person. Chilkoot Trail hiker reservations are now being accepted at the toll free reservation number (1-800-661-0486) for the upcoming summer season. The permit fee required to hike overnight on the Chilkoot Trail must be paid in full at the time a reservation is booked, but will be refunded if reservations are canceled at least 30 days prior to the trip departure date. Hikers will continue to receive an orientation briefing and their permits at the trail Center at 2nd and Broadway in Skagway during June, July, and August.
The popular trip ordinarily takes hikers three to five days to complete and hikers use backcountry camp facilities in both countries. The majority begin the trek in Dyea, Alaska, and finish in Bennett, British Columbia, returning to Skagway via White Pass & Yukon Route Railway.
Other changes in recreation use fees at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park include the elimination of the $2 (US) fee for adults touring the historic Moore House in downtown Skagway. Visits to the Moore House, located at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street, will now be free. The Moore House will be open at 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, May 18 through Sept. 13, 2003.
Overnight camping at the NPS campground in Dyea will now cost $5 (US) per site per night, beginning in June and running through August. The Dyea Campground has modest facilities and a total of 26 sites; a few sites are set aside for walk-in or bicycle users only.
Eighty percent of the money collected in fees remains within the Klondike Gold Rush NHP budget to help maintain facilities and enhance programs to benefit the public.
The balance is available to national park units throughout the nation on a competitive basis.

John Mielke appointed to council vacancy

Mayor Tim Bourcy appointed John Mielke, former mayor, to the vacancy created by Councilmember Stan Selmer’s resignation.
Selmer stepped down after the financial crisis at Alaska Power & Telephone, of which he is executive vice president, prevented him from coming back to Skagway for meetings.
Mielke was not present at the Jan. 16 meeting because he didn’t want to influence anyone’s vote, Bourcy said. The vote was unanimous.
“I approached him and said that if he was looking for someone to fill the seat till the next election, I’d do it,” Mielke said later in an interview. “Not to run in next election but to fill in until that happens.”
Mielke said he is mainly interested in what the city budget process will entail, and resolving the flood control issue.
“I actually enjoy it – being the mayor was more stressful and time consuming than council,” he said. Although the amount of reading and researching issues is about the same, the mayor spends more time “doing things.”
Mielke picks up Selmer’s role on the Civic Affairs Committee, PublicWorks, Public Safety, Senior Citizen Task Force, and the Museum Board. – DL

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