There is no longer an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation office in Bethel. State officials say they closed the office just before the holidays because of restructuring and budgetary issues.
But the former sole employee of the office says the closure will lower the level of service to the Southwest Alaska and could slow spill response time.
The State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation office of Spill Prevention and Response in Bethel closed December 31st.
Steve Russell is an Environmental Program Manager with the Anchorage DEC.
“There certainly was financial considerations playing a role in the idea of not relocating another person out to the Bethel office and Bob’s departure kind of sped that process,” said Russell
Bob Carlson, the sole employee at the Bethel DEC office, retired just before the office closed. Russel says his office already responds to the Aleutians, Bristol Bay, Kodiak and other communities off the road system, so adding the Y-K Delta isn’t that big of a deal. He says spill prevention and response will now be handled out of Anchorage.
“There are numerous flights a day to Bethel and we can get someone out there pretty quickly,” said Russell.
Carlson says shutting down the Bethel office is a mistake.
“I understand that the state in a financial emergency and we’re going to have to do things differently. I’m hoping that the department will at least train someone or allow someone to become a specialist in these sorts of rural affairs so even if they don’t get out here frequently they can deal intelligently with spills that happen in these small communities,” said Carlson.
Closing the office, Carlson said, will result in a lower level of service for people in the region and a tilting in favor of industry.
“The Department and particularly my program has a diminished view of the importance of Rural Alaska and Western Alaska in terms of needing to serve the communities out here on fairly small spills. They will undoubtedly handle that by phone from Anchorage or the other cities,” said Carlson.
And Carlson says that’s not enough.
“People, when they do have a spill, they don’t know how to clean it up, mostly they don’t, and they need advice. And often they need hands on assistance, you know, on-site assistance and that’s just not going to happen with offices located in Anchorage,” said Carlson.
Carlson had worked at the Bethel DEC office since 1995, shortly after it opened. Recently he’s played a key role in trying to clean up derelict and abandoned barges in the area and in pushing state officials to hold businesses responsible for the barges, accountable.