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State considering plan for submerged dozer

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- State officials were considering a plan to stabilize and remove a bulldozer that submerged in a remote lake in south-central Alaska in May, killing its driver.

Concerns have been raised about the time it's taken to deal with the situation.

Robert Gerlach, a Talkeetna Community Council member, said he flew over the site last week and saw an "oily sheen" rising above the bulldozer, across the lake and into a cove. He said he was surprised to see no boom or other apparent effort to contain any leaked fluids. He said he visited the site later with someone to take photos but it was windy and the sheen didn't really show up in the photos that were taken.

He said the Chase Community Council has been frustrated by what they see as a lack of information from the state on how the situation is being addressed.

The accident happened as crews were moving equipment and machinery to help establish a camp for studies associated with the proposed Susitna-Watana dam. The bulldozer hit an apparently thin spot on the ice on the lake and sank.

Steven Russell, environmental program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, said the company the dozer operator was working for is responsible for the removal of the machine and cleanup. He said his agency has gotten reports of periodic small areas of sheen that DEC and the company, which he identified as Alaska Diversified Services, are monitoring. A message was left for Alaska Diversified Services on Thursday. The company has been cooperating and acting in good faith, he said.

Rick Thompson, south-central regional land manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the company had contracted with the owner of the bulldozer.

Russell said the sheen is believed primarily to be coming from diesel fuel and the amount that's escaped is relatively small — "thousandths of an inch thick" and measured, in total, at "an ounce or two." He said diesel has the potential to be hazardous but also can evaporate quickly in wave action and wind.

However, he said his agency remains concerned about the situation and has required monitoring by the company to alert it to any changes, such as a greater sheen, that would impact the lake and shoreline.

He said some absorbent was used early on. Use of boom now "would probably help a little bit from a visual standpoint but I'm not sure it would be as effective as everybody hoped it would be because we are talking a very intermittent sheen and very small amount," Russell said.

The remoteness of the site has complicated efforts to deal with the submerged machine. Russell estimates the lake is about 40 miles from Talkeetna as the crow flies and about 15 miles from the last road system. It is about 3,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by tundra and an environment that is extremely sensitive and would take "years" to recover if damaged, he said.

The state will not allow the company to "just march in with any heavy equipment and essentially create a new, 15-mile trail," he said.

The machine is also sitting at an angle in a bit deeper water, creating safety concerns for divers who will try to stabilize it and attach lift bags, he said.

The plan the state was considering called for attaching lift bags to try to move the bulldozer to a shallower location, where it could be recovered this winter, when things freeze over again, he said.

Thompson said the original permit required that the ground be frozen and there be enough snow cover to limit any impact on the surrounding area.

He couldn't say how long the approval process would take for the removal plan, noting Thursday that the state was waiting for some additional information.

"We would like to get it all wrapped up as soon as we can, but it is what it is," he said.


Follow Becky Bohrer at https://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.