How erosion can lead to broken structures and contaminated water

The Dept. of Environmental Conservation explains the importance of preventing contamination from structures damaged by contamination.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 4:33 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - As breakup season continues, the erosion caused by ice and changes in water flow have revealed areas at risk of damage. When those areas give out, structure and vehicles sometimes break or fall, leading to contamination.

When land gives out and buildings or vehicles are caught in the mix, fuels, oils and other chemicals can be released onto the land or even into bodies of water. “The concern for contamination would be anything sitting on the land that could get eroded away or any contamination that may already be on the land of something previously had spilled,” said Dr. Kimberley Maher, a scientist with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Various contaminants include heating oil, motor oil, vehicular fuels, cleaning chemicals and even paint. Some structures themselves however can be contaminants if they contain lead or asbestos.

While spills and damage are sometimes unavoidable, the DEC said that prevention is key. This requires property owners or managers to check for erosion and ensure that any movable contaminants are far away from bodies of water. “Sometimes erosion happens in big chunks at a time. So, it could happen very suddenly,” said Maher.

This is especially true as ice melts away revealing erosion that developed over the winter. Areas that are more susceptible to this includes, rivers, creeks and sloughs.

The size of the body of water and the amount of contaminant spilled is also proportionate to the level of risk. “If it’s a big fuel tank on a small little creek, it wouldn’t get very diluted,” Maher said.

While most oils are less dense than water which means that it will pool on top of the water, some other chemicals are water soluble will mix into the water faster. The type and size of contamination also play into the urgency of needing to address the contamination, however it’s not cheap or easy. “If fuel leaves it’s container it just gets a lot more expensive to clean up if it’s recoverable at all,” said Maher. In order to clean a spill, the DEC would have to put out absorbent booms or use a skimmer to recover the contaminant.

Due to the high cost of recovery, the DEC usually works with property owners on prevention. But, they also work with property owners that experience a spill caused by damaged property. “Any fuel spills over a gallon need to be reported to DEC,” said Maher. “Any fuels spills to water also are required to be reported to DEC.”

To report a spill or other event of possible contamination call 907-269-3055.