Tuntutuliak Resident Speaks Up About Lingering Oil

May 19, 2016

Image from Google Maps

Locals are speaking up about oil spilled during a construction accident in the Tuntutuliak, or Qinaq, River. 

“I’m just now at the river and I see some sort of silver streak going down the channel," said Tuntutuliak resident John White while looking out on the Tuntutuliak River from his porch at what he says is an oil patch on the water.

“About a foot and a half wide. I can’t see because it’s going around the bend. Probably out to the mouth of the Kuskokwim," White said.

KYUK: “Do you think that’s just from someone’s boat though?”

“No, I don’t think it’s just from somebody’s boat," White said. 

White says he encountered the oil last week and has seen it three times since then. White like many in the area is a subsistence fisherman.

KYUK: “And that’s your main food source?”

“Yeah, I hardy buy stuff from the store," White said. 

KYUK: “And do you use that water like some people do as bath water?”

“Yeah, I use the river for bath water,” he said.

The Coast Guard tested the water after an Excavator crashed through the then-frozen river in February and found the water safe. But Petty Officer Amanda Barnett says conditions could have changed since break up with water flowing more freely. She also says no follow-up tests or clean up has been done since the accident.

Petty Officer Barnett says Lee Wilson, the owner and driver of the sunk vehicle, is responsible for both the machine's and for reporting further toxins in the river. Toxins which, if found, could require expensive clean up out of Wilson’s pocket.

“By law we have to afford the responsible party the opportunity to remove it himself,” Barnett said.

Wilson is no longer in Tuntutuliak. Neither are the Coast Guard or the Department of Environmental Conservation, the entities Wilson  would send his reports to.

The Coast Guard has approved Wilson’s plan to remove the vehicle by the end of the month. But Petty Officer Barnett says there’s no plan to remove residual oil, because they haven’t received reports of any.

Jonathan Pavila, Tuntutuliak Tribal Administrator, says the Traditional Council has been receiving reports of such oil from residents since the accident. But Pavila hasn’t formally submitted them to the DEC or the Coast Guard.

Lisa Krebs of the DEC says Pavila submitted an informal report to the agency by phone, which he confirms, during a call on Tuesday that Krebs initiated.

But Krebs says she needs more information before the DEC can investigate further.

In the meantime, John White, the fisherman, says he just wants the whole thing to be over.

“If Lee would come out here and get that thing out of the water," White said, "I’d really appreciate it.”

Wilson could not be reached by phone for comment for this story.