Bill would make it easier to pass on information about contaminated sites in Alaska

Cleanup personnel wipe oil from well piping on May 4, 2014 where a BP Exploration Alaska pipe ruptured and contaminated nearby tundra. (Photo by Don Fritz/ADEC)

From leaking pipelines and polluted aquifers, to broken septic tanks and abandoned military equipment, there are more than 2,200 open cases of contaminated sites in Alaska. A new bill that that is making its way through the state House, would require full disclosure of contamination on the deed of a property before it can be sold.

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They’re called environmental covenants and Alaska is one of just seven states that doesn’t have laws on the books that make sure contamination is fully disclosed at the time of a property sale.

Kristin Ryan, the spill response director for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has the perfect example of what can happen without environmental covenants: When a gas station in Anchorage closed and the owners pulled their tanks out of the ground, they found that fuel had leaked into the dirt around the foundation of a building on the property. The only way to clean up the dirt, was to remove the foundation of the building.

“So we agreed, and this is very common, we agreed to allow the responsible party to leave the dirt in place,” Ryan said.

The state put a restriction on the property that said if the foundation was ever removed, the dirt would have to be cleaned up. But, then the site was sold several times. And two years ago another person bought the property.

Ryan said the new owner “took the building down, was unaware of the restriction, spread the dirt everywhere and built a Subway restaurant.”

Now, the owner of the restaurant has to deal with clean-up on the property. A covenant could have changed that.

There are disclosure laws in Alaska already, but Ryan said that they aren’t always followed. There’s even an online database where the state keeps detailed logs of the types of contamination and cleanup efforts.

“So the information is out there for people, but who goes and looks at our database when they’re buying property? I mean, it’s not common,” Ryan said. “We talk to realtors and remind them to do that, and title companies and mortgage lenders, but it still isn’t a guarantee that that information is communicated.”

The new law would allow the state to put a covenant right on the deed of the property.

Republican Senate Majority leader Peter Micciche is carrying the bill this session. It’s gotten broad bipartisan support so far, though Micciche says the title puts some people off at first.

“Some people in this building get concerned anytime they see the word environmental in something,” Micciche said. “It takes a few minutes to explain the value. That, in this case, it’s good for everyone.”

So far, opposition to the bill has come primarily from the Department of Defense. The Air Force regional environmental office wrote to Micciche, saying it couldn’t comply with the new law. There are federal laws that don’t allow covenants to be placed on federal land.

Micciche said he was expecting to hear from the federal government.

“We feel they should be held at the same standard,” Micciche said. “And we think it’s important and as you can imagine in this building a note from the feds in opposition to a bill is not always a bad thing. And I don’t say that lightly, it just happens to be the case.”

Other states that have enacted similar bills have found a way around the federal laws. Colorado put an environmental restriction clause in its environmental covenants bill. And Ryan says that it’s a critical addition to Alaska’s bill because most of the state’s open contaminated sites are on federal property.

The bill sailed through its first House committee on Tuesday and is headed into another.

“The only roadblock that I see is time. I know of no opposition. It was 19-1 in the Senate. I expect it to be probably 40-zip in the house. It’s a good bill,” Micciche said.

It looks as though lawmakers will likely extend their stay in Juneau past their Sunday deadline. The environmental covenants bill has a hearing scheduled for Monday, after the conclusion of the 90-day regular session.