Coast Guard responds to tar-like substance spill on Utqiagvik beach

An Utqiagvik resident reported a tar-like substance spill on Tuesday morning near Simmons Field Beach. (Photo courtesy of North Slope Borough)

Coast Guard officials are enroute to a beach in Utqiagvik in response to a tar-like substance spill.

The spill was reported just past midnight Tuesday morning, when a local resident posted photos to Facebook, said Kimberly Maher, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“A private citizen in Utqiagvik was on the beach and noticed this tank that was on a line of tanks that is on the beach for coastal erosion,” Maher said. “And they noticed some black tar-looking substance oozing out of one of the tanks.”

Maher said officials are still examining the substance in a lab to determine what it is, but DEC suspects it’s black tar or asphalt. In the 1960s, local officials placed 38 2,500-gallon tanks on the Simmons Field Beach in response to coastal erosion from a storm. 

“These tanks, all chained together in a long line, were repurposed and brought down to the beach and placed for erosion control, to help reduce additional erosion in the future,” Maher said.

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Maher said DEC believes that this is a one-time occurrence, where large metal drums were used to protect against erosion. However, she said, similar makeshift coastal protection methods were common.

“In the past people have tried to recycle different types of things in order to do either streambank revetment or coastal erosion type things,” Maher said. “If you’re in the Fairbanks area and you’re floating down the Chena River you’ll definitely see some old vehicles that have been used for bank stabilization. So it was not an uncommon practice in the past.”

So far, one of the tanks has been confirmed to be leaking, but there’s evidence that another four tanks could have leaks as well. Responders observed evidence of corrosion and weathering damage on the tanks.   

The day the spill was reported, North Slope Borough officials began shoveling the spilled substance into a 55-gallon drum and placed sorbent boom around the tanks to try to absorb some of the contaminant. 

Maher said the tanks haven’t been removed from the site, but the area is blocked off as responders continue their investigation. The spill does not appear to be impacting local wildlife. 

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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