HERC testing fails at city council

The Homer City Council voted down a resolution to test for PCBs at the Homer Education and Recreation Complex during their last regular meeting on Feb. 27.

Resolution 23-010 would have awarded a $45,000 contract to hazmat consultant HTRW, LLC out of Anchorage to test the HERC buildings for PCBs, with primary focus on HERC 2, which has been slated for demolition. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are highly carcinogenic man-made chemical compounds that have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects.

All six council members voted “no” on the resolution, killing it for the time being.

Council member Donna Aderhold clarified during the Feb. 27 meeting that voting down the resolution did not mean that the council doesn’t support testing if it’s needed. Before they make that decision, however, the council requires further information and context in order to reevaluate what the next steps are for the HERC, and when those steps might be taken, she said.

Testing proposed

Demolition of the HERC has been an ongoing issue for several years.

A 2019 demolition study, assessing the presence of hazardous materials in the building, identified asbestos and lead but did not test for PCBs, possibly because the EPA does not require testing for PCBs, Resolution 23-010 says.

In August 2022, the council adopted Ordinance 22-45 to appropriate city funds to demolish the HERC 2 building. When the council later submitted an application to the borough to dispose of the hazardous materials at the Central Peninsula landfill in Soldotna, they were told by environmental program manager Daniel Kort and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that they needed to also test for PCBs, according to an agenda item report submitted to the council on Feb. 13.

The council engaged the services of HTRW’s lead consultant, Chris Ottosen, who submitted a proposal to pull samples from HERC 2 and submit them for testing. The council also wanted Ottosen to “take some representative samples at HERC 1 to better inform future decisions about the fate of HERC 1,” according to Resolution 23-010.

Ottosen attended the Committee of the Whole meeting on Feb. 27 to provide insight on the impact that testing for PCBs might have on the planned demolition.

Part of the debate on whether or not to test for PCBs stems from the disparity in relevant regulations by the EPA and the Alaska DEC.

Ottosen reiterated that the EPA does not require sampling building materials for PCBs, explaining further that “even if you did sample for PCBs, under EPA regulations, you can essentially dispose of those at a normal landfill at an unlimited concentration of PBCs.”

The Alaska DEC, however, has recently changed their interpretation of their existing regulations of polluted soil to include buildings, or “any material other than soil that’s placed into a landfill that has another hazardous constituent on it,” Ottosen said.

“It’s important because they do set a one part per million limit on PCBs, in what they will allow landfills to accept,” Ottosen said.

According to the Feb. 13 agenda item report, at the time of the HERC’s construction in the 1950s, more than 55 construction materials commonly contained PCBs, particularly caulking, paint and mastic. PCB-laden materials cannot be disposed of in Alaska, but must be shipped out of state, the report states.

The question arose as to whether, in light of the DEC regulations, it might be better to skip testing and ship the entire HERC building out of state for disposal.

“I don’t have a great answer for that,” Ottosen said. “I have no experience, and I know nobody that has any experience of shipping entire buildings out of Alaska to dispose of them. So it becomes a question of ‘what is the true cost of disposing of a building,’ and I have gotten no input from the DEC on that.

“My recommendation to the city has to be to sample, to satisfy the DEC,” he continued. “I just have a hard time believing it would be more cost-effective to ship the entire building out of state.

Unknown costs

The city won’t know to what extent HERC 2 contains PCBs and what the actual cost of demolition and disposal will be unless the testing is done.

Part of the council’s hesitation to approve Resolution 23-010 stemmed from the current number of unknowns surrounding this project, including the requirements of the DEC versus what the Kenai Peninsula Borough requires for disposal, and the potential for drastically increased demolition and disposal costs, according to discussion at the meeting.

”My impression from reading … is that if we were to test for PCBs in both buildings and dispose of all of the materials in the way that you’re required to dispose of them, … the cost would probably be more than 10 million dollars,” council member Jason Davis said during the Committee of the Whole meeting. “It’s multi-millions of dollars per school in the Lower 48 when [the building is] there, whereas ours has to be shipped Outside.”

As of Feb. 27, testing HERC 1 for PCBs is not formally on Ottosen’s plate. Instead, he told the Committee of the whole that he is focusing on using HERC 2 as the example building for the city to plan for HERC 1, as there have already been so many unknowns.

“I’ll be voting against this right now, or voting to postpone it,” Davis told the Committee of the Whole. “Throwing $45,000 at this one tiny little piece of the picture right now isn’t going to get us anywhere. We need the bigger picture. We need to deal with both buildings.”

“There’s all kinds of red flags going off with me on the potential costs that it’s going to be to demolish this building and the potential future of HERC 1,” Aderhold said during the regular meeting. “It was great to hear from Mr. Ottosen earlier [during the Committee of the Whole meeting]. He provided some really good information, but it … certainly did not clarify things on whether we should move forward with this contract or this task order.”

Public Works director Jan Keiser was expected to weigh in on the issue during the council’s regular meeting, but was unable to due to technical issues.

In the aftermath of the Committee of the Whole meeting, and without input from Keiser, the council discussed whether to postpone voting on the resolution or downvote the resolution, ultimately deciding to vote it down and reevaluate the whole project.

“I think … the landscape has shifted,” council member Rachel Lord said during the regular meeting. “To reorient and understand where we are in the bigger picture … seems savvy.”

The council will hold a work session on March 20 that will provide an update on several fronts, Julie Engebretsen, economic development manager, wrote in an email to Homer News.

There will be a presentation to council, Q&A and opportunities for next steps, as well as discussion of demolition.

The full audio recording for the Feb. 27 Committee of the Whole can be found at cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-committee-whole-256.

Delcenia Cosman can be reached at delcenia.cosman@homernews.com