Aurora Energy LLC and Corporate Privilege

*This article is pretty long, that’s why it’s broken up into seven parts. The last part explains in detail how Aurora Energy is lying to the public about the toxins they’re exposing the city of Fairbanks to. 


The Origin

When I started writing this article I was seeking the answer to a simple question: Why doesn’t the Chena River, in my hometown of Fairbanks Alaska, not freeze downriver from the Chena Power Plant when the temperature is 50 degrees below zero? The ice is naturally thick enough to easily drive a semi-truck across. Or a dozen semis. Or a thousand. Or for 20,000 people to stand on it and watch the Iditarod sled dog race, as has happened in years past.

Downriver you can now splash a rock into it in the dead of winter. The short answer is that the plant is permitted by the State of Alaska to pump 14,000 gallons per minute, 20,000,000 gallons per day, of warm water discharge into that narrow river. That’s thirty Olympic sized swimming pools each day. And they’re doing a lot worse than that, and they lie about it, and it doesn’t matter because nobody’s watching.

From the time I was born until I hastily left Fairbanks at the age of 18, the Chena River was my backyard. It’s the backbone of the town, a lazy, snaking, murky brown river dotted with houses and flanked by overgrowth and the occasional muddy bank or beaver dam. Depending on rainfall it can stretch over a hundred yards across although it is much narrower in most places. It feeds into the Tanana River a few miles out of town, which feeds into the Yukon, which flows all the way to the Bering Sea. I mostly took it for granted, which upon reflection, was completely appropriate. In the summer boats would travel up and down it, mostly people barhopping the four or five places on the river that offered beer and a small dock to tie off.

My dad bought a used Jet Ski from some redneck guy one summerwhich we docked outside the house and I had an amazing time exploring the river on it. Because it was souped up it didn’t steer when pressed full throttle. I learned this the hard way. As did the guy who sold it to us, the guy who sold it to him, and the guy we sold it to. From my house in the middle of the city to downtown Fairbanks was about five miles, and then another five up to the mouth of the fast moving Tanana, at which point you’d either turn back or become driftwood. Being a man behind the wheel of his own watercraft, while fleeting, was truly awesome.

We stopped trying to swim in the river around junior high, as we decided it wasn’t worth the pain involved. Even when the temperature touched 90 degrees above zero, the water was freezing. We’d flail to a sandbar fifty feet out and climb up on it shivering. We were forcing it. This wasn’t practical. The parents encouraging us were thinking of somewhere else.

For a few days every summer the king salmon would run through on their way to spawn several miles upstream. Hook nosed and fast moving, we were a bit intimidated, as the river would turn from brown to pink. We wouldn’t dare set foot in the water. It was like we were being invaded by an alien species. They were fast! Once I saw a huge three footer caught in some roots on the bank, swimming relentlessly, robotically, dead eyed against the current. I told my mom we should grab it with a net and barbecue it. She disagreed and helped me free it from its trap. It swam with a head of steam, undeterred. Later she said I was right, we should have eaten it. We didn’t know what to do. We aren’t all outdoors people. That’s a misconception.

Around Christmas one year our family was sitting around the house watching TV, when we saw a moose enter our backyard. We would see moose all the time, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Yet, it’s still a moose, so from behind our sliding glass doors we were able to creep up and watch it move about our rather small yard. It then turned to cross the river. Our whimsical expressions turned to horror within a split second as its bony legs began to poke at the ice to test it. Before we knew it, the poor guy had broken through the ice and was submerged in the freezing water. He tried to pull himself out using his front legs, as a person would use his arms, but he was too bottom heavy, and each time his legs tried to grip the ice it broke off more and more and he got deeper and deeper, instinctually trying to continue crossing and not retreat. We called the fire department and they came out with a winch but said there was nothing they could do. They wouldn’t let one of their guys get into the river to put a rope around the moose. It sounded reasonable to me, and I wrote the whole thing off stoically as nature taking its course. Unless your definition of nature includes the coal industry running amok, it turns out I was wrong.

My parents were not especially proud Alaskans, rarely identifying with the pioneer culture, so I don’t know how to hunt. They’d moved to Fairbanks in the mid seventies to find work on the Alyeska Pipeline. They saw Fairbanks from an outsider’s perspective, often distancing themselves from local customs with a wry nod of respect, appreciating the absurdity of the place. A drunk driver leaving the Badger Den would level the stop sign at my school bus stop on our dirt road at least once a month. My mother met this with a roll of the eyes. Once it was replaced, it would again be facing the ground at a 30 degree angle within a week or two. I once drove 200 miles down the Parks Highway checking every road sign and there were bullet holes in every single one. Though my parents moved around, most of the 30 years they lived in Fairbanks were spent within a few miles of the Chena plant. My dad told me about their arrival into town:

“Your mom and I rented this house from a crazy old lady. She was an alcoholic and given to incoherent fits of rage. The house was in bad shape and filthy. Housing was in very short supply at that time, difficult to find, and exorbitant rents were the norm. We rented this place sight unseen in a neighborhood a couple of blocks from the city’s coal fired power plant. This area was characterized by black snow. Soot from the power plant’s chimney was constantly sifting down, covering everything within range with a thick, black coating. The house was, of course, grimy, with carpeting coated with coal soot and so ingrained it was impossible to remove. Kate [my elder sister] was a baby then, and it was impossible for her to be on the floor, which made being a baby much more difficult. That was a horrible place to live, but gave us a roof and four walls while we looked for something better.”

Once when I was about seven I was out running errands with my mom in the freezing ice fog and she took me on a shortcut. It was locally known as the “ice bridge”, and was a place you could drive across the river. It was located between two boat launches, one at Pike’s Landing, a local bar and restaurant, and on the other side, a residential neighborhood.

As we crossed the river I felt a nervous excitement. “Are we going to sink?” She held her hands out, spaced two feet apart. “The ice is this thick,” she said, as we plowed through the existing tire tracks, seemingly floating over the river, saving a whopping four minutes of travel time. We were bored. As a child, the concept of driving over a river was a pure unbridled adrenalin rush.

It became a recurring joke for us each spring when Daily News Miner would report that someone’s truck fell through the ice. Usually it was some drunk trying to avoid the cops. He’d get out of his truck and walk across the ice, leaving his pride and joy to sink (and hopefully be fished out by a tow truck later.) When this happened, it signified the unofficial end of winter. It began to happen earlier and earlier every year.

As I neared graduation, I’d become jaded to the entire town and surrounding wilderness. The extent of my interest in nature was finding a secluded place to drink beer outside with my friends. Sitting around a bonfire, I brought up the ice bridge and realized it was a thing of the past. Nobody really cared.

I asked my mom about it, and she said something about a “thermal plume” that she’d read about in the paper. A natural current. A truly one of a kind geological phenomenon. It sounded implausible, but I let it go because I was focussed on becoming the first below average Alaskan high school athlete to make the NBA.

If it’s your first time meeting someone from Alaska, think about what you’re going to say, then say the opposite and you’ll more likely be right. If you superimposed Alaska onto a map of the contiguous United Sates it would reach from Atlanta to Fargo, with an arm stretching up to northern California. That’s a vast area to remain homogenous. Fairbanks is in the middle, and most people never go to the middle, as there are no orcas, and yes in the summer it’s light all night. But I’ve got one for you, it’s just way dirtier than you’d think!

Driving the streets, Fairbanks is indeed an observably dirty town. As a child, you’d try breaking a black tinged icicle off the house to suck on before a concerned adult batted it out of your hand. Gravel pits, sprawling junkyards, the ubiquitous barbed wire and chain link, beat up pickup trucks, ratchety teens in hoopties throwing makeshift gang signs at intersections. Hooded drifters walking for miles. The garbage dumps. The train tracks running through a blackened corridor in the heart of town, on which railcars deliver uncovered cars of coal (from the Usibelli Coal Mine, a few hours south) to be burned in the five power plants they feed in the Fairbanks area, the only coal plants in all of Alaska. The rail yard is a scene most would associate more with the rust belt than the last frontier. A five minute drive from that blackened soot and you’re on your friend’s porch removed from the whistles of the trains and the trees are completely still and the view stretches for a hundred miles and it’s hard to conceive of what you’ve just seen.

The Chena Power Plant

The Chena Power Plant

The Chena Power Plant itself is rather unassuming, not seeming out of place alongside the ramshackle, industrial chic aesthetic of the town. The closest house is about 150 feet away. A single smokestack belches out something the color of concrete. It was built by the city in 1951, with an addition in 1975, and sold to Aurora Energy LLC in the mid 90’s. Aurora Energy is owned by Usibelli Coal and exists mostly on paper. It serves as an intermediary, which works to limit the liability of Usibelli, which is traded on the NYSE as Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. It is located directly adjacent to the Golden Heart Utilities water plant, which was also formerly owned by the city and provides drinking water to Fairbanks.

It is not a coincidence that the city’s water plant and power plant are located on the same lot, as for much of their history they have shared operations. In fact one of the three public utility water wells that serves Fairbanks is literally located inside the power plant, and according to different sources may or may not have a protective covering to prevent coal ash contamination. According to Golden Heart Utilities, this well stopped being used in 2012, but they could not say whether or not it will be used in the future.

The practice of discharging twenty million gallons into the river started when the power and water plants were privatized by the city in the mid 90’s. Usibelli saw this as an opportunity to become their own best customer and lock up coal as the energy source for the city. Prior to this sale, Fairbanks’ drinking water was used as cooling water for the power plant. To reiterate, all of the town’s drinking had been cycled through a coal fired power plant. This was an efficient operation for two reasons. Firstly, it provided free water to the power plant. Secondly, when the water was cycled through the plant it became heated by a few degrees. This was beneficial to the water utilities as the slightly warmer water was much less vulnerable to freezing and damaging the city’s water mains. In turn, since most people had electric water heaters, the warmer water required less heating, thereby using less electricity, as the power operation was also owned by the city. 

When the utilities were sold off by the city they were bought by separate business entities. The power plant, now called Aurora Energy, asked to be compensated for their service of heating the drinking water they used to cool their plant and providing the warmer water to the water plant. The people who now owned the water plant declined, and the relationship ended. Of course, the plant still needed massive amounts of water to function. (This is why all coal fired power plants are located on bodies of water.) So, the plant simply started dumping their water into the river without a permit.

As the effects of this became apparent, a lawyer named Paul Barrett called the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to see what was up. Paul is a general practice lawyer who has lived near a bar and restaurant called Pike’s Landing, on the Chena River, for 38 years.

After much travail, the DEC informed him the plant had a permit to do this. He let it go at that, but something didn’t sit right. “I thought well, permits generally come with conditions. I’d like to see a copy of their permit, to see if they’re living up to them,” he said. He wrote the DEC several times asking to see the permit and was rigorously ignored. Eventually the DEC admitted that the plant didn’t have a permit. He then took this up with the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency where he was again ignored. He finally persuaded then Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski to write a letter to the EPA asking them to read his initial letter questioning why the plant was allowed to illegally operate and discharge water without a permit. The EPA acknowledged this as fact but refused to act and told Barrett they were “exercising prosecutorial discretion.”

“Basically they told me to go fly a kite,” he said.

The plant continued their illegal operation for several years, but apparently felt vulnerable not having a permit. They applied for one and the EPA moved to grant it. Barrett then informed the EPA that they were required by law to hold a hearing, in Fairbanks, for the permit application.

About fifty people appeared at the hearing. According to Barrett, almost all of them opposed the issuance of the permit. To no surprise of his, the permit was still issued. “That was it, that was in 2002. It was like beating my head against a brick wall because the EPA and DEC were bound and determined to issue the permit no matter what or who opposed it.”

Welcome to America. We just ruined your river.


All the Dude Ever Wanted Was…

I took a trip back home to visit friends this summer and brought my long suffering girlfriend along for the trip. I recommended we stay at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, which is located right next to Pike’s Landing, and the now defunct ice bridge, on the Chena River. We checked in and went to get a beer in the bar. After four Stellas and some guy’s chem trail lecture I was at a loss for things to do, and making matters worse it was raining. Luckily I had an ace up my sleeve.

Pike's Landing deck in the summer.

Pike’s Landing deck, summer.

About a hundred yards across the river from Pike’s is a big Hollywood style sign reading “Love Alaska.” Underneath it sits a putting green flanked by four sand traps. Pike’s will sell you a bucket of ten golf balls for ten bucks. If you hit a ball onto the green, you get a prize of some sort. I was overly excited about the prospect because I’d never done it before and was trying to pretend I like new things. I felt like a tourist!

It was not to be. I was informed by the bartender that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had deemed the golf balls an environmental hazard a few weeks prior. My immediate thought was, what is the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Jesus, are their priorities regarding this river out of whack or what? The power plant melts the thing every winter and you’re worried about golf balls?

I spoke to Jay Ramras, the owner of Pike’s Landing and Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. While I was growing up, Ramras had arguably been Fairbanks’ biggest local celebrity. He was then commonly known as Jaybird, and owned a few takeout restaurants in town named Jaybird’s Wing World. He was famous for his zany local commercials which, in true small town form, he of course starred in, and for dressing up as a chicken in a mascot costume and running around the court during stoppages in high school basketball games to promote his eateries. It’s unclear if this was permitted or simply a rogue operation. He also gained some attention on the national front when he appeared on Good Morning America in the late 90’s.

Ramras, being one of the very few practicing Jewish people in Fairbanks announced that he was going to New York City in hopes of finding a Jewish wife that he could take back to Alaska with him, as there was a shortage of available Jewish women in Fairbanks. The story was just kooky enough to make the rounds on morning news shows. Back then the novelty was even more pronounced, and any fairly boring story or television show which involved Alaska would be readily consumed by the masses. His plan failed, and Jaybird returned to town a single man. He then served three terms in the Alaska House of Representatives and ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor. When I was a Sophomore in high school, Jaybird was 34 years old. He was clearly rich, had what I believed to be a Jheri-curl, and everyone liked him. He is a self-made man, and I still think he’s pretty badass.

I asked Ramras about the golf ball situation. He explained that he’d received a cease and desist letter from the DEC after an environmental activist named Dr. Richard Steiner had filed a complaint with them. Ramras read Steiner’s complaint, mocking it in a haute tone and characterizing Steiner as a pretentious do-gooder meddling in the affairs of a town where he didn’t belong, “Here’s the title of the memo he sent them: ‘Restitution Idea for golfballs into the Chena’, it references ‘public waste discharge of a non biodegradable matter.'”

I asked him how he would characterize the environmental impact of his golf balls versus that of the power plant, but he wasn’t interested in the comparison. “I certainly can speak for the kind of business we used to do ten years ago when the river hard froze,” Ramras said, “they’ve degraded the river and the ice pack on it, we hosted the Iditarod and put 20,000 people out on the river and there was no safety issue. Two years ago in 2014 we had to put it up on land, because the river had been degraded. That’s for snow machiners too, the river became unstable, I don’t know how the DEC picks and choose their response to certain issues. The state of Alaska is going broke, they’ve got such budgetary constraints, to go after a small business guy like me, I don’t get it, I don’t get what good it serves, when there’s warm water discharge up the river.”

(Note: In Alaska a snowmachine is a mechanized vehicle with skis and a track. A snowmobile is a thing you hang above a baby’s crib).

I’d never thought about the fate of the golf balls, but now that I had, it seemed as if there could be some cause for concern. I called Dr. Steiner, a former professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska Anchorage, now working as a highly respected consultant in the field. Steiner explained that he was taking a boat trip through Fairbanks, noticed the golf balls, and shot an email over to the DEC. One of their local reps came out to investigate and the golf balls were soon put on ice because putting plastic into the river is clearly illegal. It should be noted that prior to Dr. Steiner’s singular email, this well known activity had been going on every summer, for over twenty years, without a hitch. That should tell you something about how government agencies operate in Fairbanks. It would be hard to imagine anyone at the Fairbanks offices of the DEC being unaware of this popular tradition. Steiner explained the concern, “Golf balls are nearly neutrally buoyant. If you put one in a glass of water and shake it slightly it will rise to the top of the glass. So the balls make their way from the Chena River bed to the Bering Sea and into the ocean. We have found golfballs in Albatross in the Hawaiian Islands. This should be a wake up call. We should treat our rivers and streams with respect.”

I asked Steiner if the golf balls in the Hawaiian albatross were Alaskan or Hawaiian golf balls and he did not clarify. I had initially assumed the overriding concern was the plastic from the balls leaching into the river. Steiner explained that the main concern was that of obstruction of the fish and that the plastic would be so diluted that it wouldn’t matter. He explained that there were biodegradable golf balls on the market, although they still pose a problem because that’s still a lot of material going into the river. (Ramras explained biodegradable balls were cost prohibitive.) I asked him what threat he thought the golf balls would pose to wildlife versus the Chena Power Plant:

“The DEC has a tough job because people in Fairbanks are pretty anti government and anti environmentalist. They have good people working there. In this case it was easy to shut them down because there was a clear law in place about putting plastic in the river.”

Good point. “I get the feeling the DEC has a cozy relationship with this particular activist,” Ramras said. It could be. Unlike Paul Barrett, they respond to his emails.

People in the environmental field have a keen realization that they’re fighting a losing battle to the interests of industry. That the odds are utterly stacked against them. They either get really angry, or they get zen. Would Steiner have bothered to write the DEC about the power plant’s discharge into the river, or considered it a lost cause? He likely picks his battles and takes validation in small victories. Wherever he is right now, maybe some arctic expedition or bobbing on the high seas, he knows what he’s doing is right. People from Fairbanks inherently feel the need to stick up for each other, and just for a minute I was tempted to share in Jaybird’s animosity toward Steiner. I don’t, but really, if you’ve seen Fairbanks, fucking golf balls?

Like Jaybird, Paul Barrett’s interest in the matter centered on the alteration of the river and its economic impact, although Barrett began to be more and more irritated by the notion that they were getting away with the dumping in front of God and everybody. There aren’t many benefits that come from freezing weather. Can we at least get some goddamned ice? A semblance of a natural habitat?

“For years the ice in front of my house was solid and stable throughout most of the winter,” Barrett said, “except for late fall and early spring, and it was a wintertime recreational playground for snowmachiners and to a lesser extent cross country skiiers, skijorers – it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, it’s people on skis being pulled by dogs – people that do it really enjoy it. Some joggers. The frozen river was probably the most used recreational asset in the Fairbanks area, and it was free, nobody had to maintain it. You’d get a tremendous number of snowmachiners going downtown. The amount of snowmachine traffic when it was frozen, when it used to be frozen in front of my house, was phenomenal. One time I counted, it was sunny Sunday afternoon, and I counted one snowmachine per minute on average went by my house. Now that’s a lot of traffic. And many of those people probably would have, if they had the option to do so, probably would have gone downtown and patronized restaurants and bars and whatever.”

The plant pays no penalties to the business they’re adversely affecting downriver, through thawing, or upriver, by eliminating a corridor through the city. Interestingly, the Chena plant supplies power in the form of steam to many downtown Fairbanks business, all of which are located upriver from the plant and have a frozen icepack outside their doors. The heart of the Fairbanks business lobby is located downtown, as you’d imagine. Barrett says he wrote to the Fairbanks Downtown Association, a business organization, to discuss the issue on multiple occasions and his requests fell on deaf ears. In his opinion this may be a case of not biting the hand that feeds you. “I think people in business in this town recognize there are some sacred cows that you just don’t touch.”

It appears the Fairbanks Daily News Miner feels the same way. “They were loath to report on it,” Barrett said, “the one instance I do remember was when the EPA was finally going to hold the hearing on whether the permit should be issued. The News Miner reported it as a hearing to renew Aurora’s permit. Which was false. There was no permit to renew. And I wrote to the News Miner and said I would like you to make a correction and point out this is not a permit renewal. This is a new permit because there is no pre-existing permit. And they ignored that.”


Red Flags

Coal traveling from the Usibelli Coal Mine to Fairbanks. Note the color of the ground.

Coal traveling from the Usibelli Coal Mine to Fairbanks. Note the color of the ground.

I began my ice bridge research at ground zero, by calling Aurora Energy LLC and asking them why the river ice is disappearing. Unfortunately they have nobody in their offices authorized to answer questions, in fact I believe there is only a receptionist. After several tries, I was directed to someone at the actual power plant named Dave Fish, the on-site environmental manager, who sounded about ninety years old and probably shouldn’t have been talking to me. I cannot confirm his age because when I followed up with Aurora in the coming days and weeks they would literally hang up the phone.

I asked Fish why the river didn’t freeze in the winter. He told me that this was due to a “Naturally occurring thermal plume”, and that the Army Corps of Engineers had done some work on the river that had “affected its currents.” I then spoke with several people at the Corps located nearby in Fort Wainwright who were dumfounded by this assertion. They explained they had put in flood gates many miles upriver in North Pole in 1979, and appeared to think I was a slow kid doing a report. Regardless when I asked if the flood gates were thawing the river they issued me a definitive “No.”

I then spoke with Mike Schmetzer, the general manager of the plant. I asked him why the river doesn’t freeze. He asked who I was working for and I said ‘myself’ and he sounded flustered and said he’d rather not speak to me over the phone, and asked if I could come in person and meet with him. I said I could not, because I live in California, and he asked me to contact the main office. I explained they had sent me to him. He said, “The river hasn’t frozen since the thirties,” which is untrue. I pressed him by asking the question again. He said, “I can see where you’re going with this. If you want to set up a time I can set up a tele-conference with our attorneys. We’d be glad to talk to you.” It turns out they were not glad to talk to me because I emailed and called him and Aurora multiple times to set up a conversation and was ignored. Ignoring people is perhaps the ultimate perk of privilege. These people have a long history of it.

After being repeatedly blown off I contacted Lorali Simon, the Vice President of External Affairs at Usibelli Coal Mine. Usibelli owns Aurora Energy, which owns the plant. My email exchange with her was as follows:

Matt: Hi Lorali, I’m just trying to get an official statement as to the reason the river does not freeze downriver from the Chena Plant.

Lorali: Matt, you mentioned that you had already spoken with officials from Aurora Energy; I do not have a different answer for you.

Matt: So your stance is that the water is not frozen due to a naturally occurring “thermal plume” or that it is related to the plant using water from the river and then discharging it, I have both explanations on record, please clarity. Thanks.

(No Response.)

Matt: Or do you not have a clarification?

Lorali: Both explanations are accurate. Your tone doesn’t lead me to believe that you are interested in being objective or learning the facts, so I seriously doubt there is much left that I can help you with.

Matt: How could both explanations be accurate? Your stance is that it’s a combination, and the plume happens to be located directly downriver from the plant correct?

(No Response)

She’s right. In this instance I was not interested in being objective. To give credence to propaganda in the name of objectivity is irresponsible. We should not strive to reward misinformation by pretending it’s plausible. It only benefits the liars.

I believe this ‘thermal plume’ nonsense remains from pre-internet days when misinformation campaigns were less sophisticated, when a few stories in the Daily News Miner could tide over the public until they forgot about it. I think that’s why Dave Fish is still repeating it. If you actually believe that a natural phenomenon could, in any way, lead to a river naturally covered with two feet of ice to be completely free of ice in 50 below zero weather, you’re an idiot, or a liar. Or, you just work at the power plant.

A typical Fairbanks area ice measurement, in inches, from February 29, 2012 reads: Quartz Lake – 32″, Birch Lake – 37″, Harding Lake – 26″, Salcha River at Richardson Hwy – 32″, Chena Lakes – 29″, Chena River at Nordale Rd – 25″, 48-Mile Pond (Chena Hot Springs Rd) – 27″, Twin Bears Camp – 20″, Chena River at Steese Highway – 19″, Chena River at Pikes Landing – open water, Tanana River at Chena Pump Road – 24.”

To follow up on this, I spoke to Dr. Bernard Coakley, longtime Fairbanks resident and Professor of Applied Geophysics at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. To be up front, Dr. Coakley is not an expert on river behavior, but he is a geologist. “Their explanation would strain credulity. Ask them where that occurs anywhere else, on any other river in the world”, he said. Thanks Professor.

Part IV

Behind The Scenes

Rob Mulford is a former employee of Aurora Energy, who worked as an engineer at the Chena plant for several years. He is currently running as a write-in candidate for United States Senate on an anti-war platform in which he seeks to divest in the military industrial complex, demilitarize police, teach non-violence in schools, and promote labor rights. He’s a Quaker.

He is on record as having witnessed several illegal and irresponsible acts at Aurora, as well as intimidation by management to quash criticism. He says management pushed the plant beyond its capacity, encouraging a rushed environment which endangered employees. While responsible for setting up the plant’s emissions monitoring system, Rob says he saw higher ups manipulating the equipment on the coal stacks to produce more favorable results that minimized reported pollution. As one of the few employees willing to voice his displeasure, Rob quickly found himself vilified. “The plant superintendent wanted me to change the algorithm I had written to monitor the stacks,” he said. “He wanted me to change what I had programmed. After I changed the program to what he wanted, I started looking into it and noticed that the change, logically if you looked at timing diagrams, would cause the operators to be less reliable within a 24 hour period of time and they would write less reports to EPA, because the way they were set up would cut off a portion of those that they would normally see. So I wrote a letter to all the employees to set them back up the way they were and they sent a lawyer up from Seattle [the EPA’s nearest office] and he got in my face and threatened me and all this. And I ended up leaving.”

Rob Mulford quit working at the plant in 2005 but returned in 2013. He says the plant was now pushing production even further and workers couldn’t keep up, and that on any given day inside the plant you could see “Clouds of silica, fly ash powder that would look like clouds, that would drift through the plant.” He says that to expedite production employees would disable safety interlocks. He wrote several memos to his superiors advising that this practice be stopped. A meeting was called, which Mulford recorded, in which Aurora Energy’s CEO Buki Wright encouraged employees to continue to “Push the pedal to the metal.”

In that meeting, Mulford voiced his criticism of the plant manipulating the numbers they reported. He said it was “Just a matter of time” before someone was seriously injured. Ironically this happened as the meeting was taking place. A man’s arms were crushed as he was left hanging from the plant’s machinery for several hours. On another occasion, Mulford witnessed the plant stage manage an inspection from the DEC after a large emission of coal ash exploded in the plant, with management misrepresenting the incident in what he characterized as an “Act of fraud.”

“Someone took a picture of it and called the DEC,” he said. “The DEC gave them a whole day’s notice and said we’re going to come inspect your plant. Even the computer screens were covered with coal dust. The night crew completely washed down the whole facility with firehoses and then they had the coal crew run all the coal overnight through all the bunkers so when DEC came through none of the equipment was operating. It was spotless and shiny. It looked pristine. It was bullshit, so that’s the kind of thing they do on a regular basis. It’s the dishonesty of what they do with their emissions, and the dishonesty with the labor practices. They have a façade of ‘we’re safe.’ They’re not what you call a good corporate citizen. The employees, they’re like soldiers. They do what they’re told to do.”

Because of Rob’s dissent, he says he no longer felt safe in the plant. He feared other employees felt he was threatening their jobs, and that he may become the victim of an unfortunate “accident.” He went to the local media and eventually the Alaska Department of Labor’s division of Occupational Safety and Health. According to Rob, they sent an inspector who “turned out to have an oxycontin problem. He never inspected anything. I gave him all sorts of files and data,” and that was that.

Buki Wright

Buki Wright

Aurora Energy’s CEO is named Buki Wright. I am inherently distrustful of any adult man named Buki. I wanted to ask him about how his company is conducting itself. I called him and emailed him over thirty times and he did not respond. From what I gathered, mostly from Facebook, he’s a Southern bred white guy in his sixties with a wife and several adult children who likes Jesus, football, and is not a big fan of the Obama presidency. He also occasionally plays small parts in local theater productions. I stalked his kids’ Facebook pages, which show them reveling in nature and glorifying their exploits. Hiking, ski trips, fishing. I found it offensive that their college tuition was no doubt paid for by a man committed to lying to the public about ruining a river. I wonder how close he lives to that power plant, how close his kids grew up to it. Money is, far.

I personally resent being ignored by people like Buki Wright, dismissed by people like Lorali Simon, and hung up on by people like Mike Schmetzer. Firstly, I know they don’t have that much going on. This isn’t trying to get your congressman on the phone. They’re being evasive. But what right do they have? I grew up on this river. They’re engaged in disinformation. Are they bad people? Conventional wisdom is, no, they’re just doing their jobs. I think they are, and rationalizing their professional existence would have to prove incredibly challenging. But I don’t get mad when I meet bad people. I get it. I get mad when bad people rub it in your face. These people are so steeped in corporate exceptionalism that they don’t even feel they owe the people an explanation as to why they’re destroying their river. They don’t even care enough to say ‘Fuck you.’

At one time, Rob Mulford said, Aurora Energy purchased a used baghouse, which is a filtering device that removes particulates from the air. It originally came from a power plant in North Carolina and was shipped to another power plant in Montana where it was shoddily reconstructed and found to violate emissions standards. It was then purchased by Aurora Energy. Rob says it was “Scabbed on” by workers who didn’t know what they were doing. This caused bottlenecks in the stack, which in turn led to explosions which would shoot out the side of the plant. “I’ve seen flames twenty and thirty feet long leaping out the side of the plant when this happened.” Rob was hired to rewrite some of the programs to get the plant back online, and this resulted in an incident which was to be his final straw.

“The lead manager said we’re ready to fire,” he explained, “and I said I’m not done making these changes. He said ‘we’re putting the plant online’, and I had one more change to download into the controls. This is a lot of pressure. I told him I wasn’t ready. As I hit the download button, there were a whole lot of people in the plant, you know, contractors were there, plus overtime people working, so the plant was full of people and I stopped, and I said ‘no, this is crazy Rob.’ So, I go through the program one more time, and I found a typographical error. A decimal in the wrong spot. If I had gone ahead I would have maybe killed a bunch of people, or severely burned a bunch of people, or asphyxiated a bunch of people. If I’d went along with what Buki Wright wanted.”

Some people think Rob Mulford is crazy, perhaps because of his political views and radical appearance, but mostly because they’re eager to dismiss him. I was able to find proof that Aurora Energy falsifies their records. There is no evidence Rob has lied. So, they can call him a nut but he’s not the one with the credibility issue. As he says “It’s all water off a duck.”


Black Flags


Suzi Q

Growing up I had a dog named Suzi. Suzi lived in the backyard and drank out of the river. You’d often notice a rainbow colored sheen crawling on top of the river. My mom said she’d read something about it being oil secreted by the chokecherry trees. A natural occurrence, naturally. Suzi was the most rambunctious dog I’d ever encountered. Sometimes, I’d walk her by hanging a leash out of the car door and drive around the wide streets of our neighborhood. Once in the still, quiet winter I walked her down our snow clad street. A couple hundred feet out and she became lethargic, when I knelt down to see what was wrong I saw blood coming out of her nose. We took her to the vet and she was diagnosed with liver cancer and died within days. She was three. I always assumed she was poisoned by the power plant, although there’s obviously no way to prove that. I can prove the plant lies about their emissions, but I cannot prove that.

Teresa De Lima was born in Fairbanks and is a seventh generation Alaskan. Her grandparents bought their house on First Avenue in 1910. Her mother was raised in that house. The Chena Power Plant was built in the 1950’s. They built it 450 feet from her grandmother’s house. Other houses are as close at 150 feet. It is uncertain if they asked first.

Her parents moved from Fairbanks when she was a child to a remote area four hours away called Manley Hot Springs. She grew up there. As her parents neared their twilight years in the early 2000’s, they decided they wanted to be closer to medical care, and her mother and father moved back into the house on First Avenue. De Lima would visit, but soon grew uncomfortable with the large amount of coal dust blanketing the home. “I broke an icicle off the house and put it in a five gallon bucket. The sheen on the top was amazing. It was like a petroleum sheen. After a few days that went away, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of sediment in the bottom of the bucket from an icicle.”

De Lima called the city’s Department of Public works to make inquiries. The Director of Public Works at that time was Mike Schmetzer, the same guy who is now the general manager of the Chena Power Plant. He is the one who told me that “The river hasn’t frozen since the 30’s” and, as an adult man, began hanging up the phone on me when I called.

“They came over to the house, I showed them the shit on the windows,” Teresa said. “They said ‘yeah I know exactly what that is.’ I had Mike Schmetzer over there. He climbed a ladder up on the roof. Pile of black shit. He climbed up there and I said ‘Mike what do you think I should do about this?’ He told me to hire a really good lawyer.”

De Lima filed a petition with the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011. They sent some representatives from Seattle, 1,519 miles away as the crow flies, and they took surface soil samples from homes near the plant. The EPA’s standard for acceptable lead contamination levels in soil which children have access to is 400 parts per million. One home measured 785. Several others were over the threshold as well. All of the samples were taken from homes on the same side of the river as the plant. I’m still unclear which way the wind blows.

The EPA wrote a lengthy report and never returned. “Basically, they gave Aurora a year to get their shit together,” said De Lima. Her complaint however did ruffle some feathers with Usibelli. She says Aurora Energy was forced to heavily increase their operating costs to become more compliant with the EPA. She said because of this, she was made a target. “They pull me over, they’ve had the cops pull me over, try and run me over with their dump trucks. Absolutely, I’m afraid of retaliation. I absolutely fear for my safety.”

She could be lying about this. But she doesn’t have a history of it. Everyone’s crazy except the people thawing the river.

Dr. James Dahlgren is perhaps the nation’s foremost authority on environmental toxicology. When he tells people what he does, they usually say “You mean like Erin Brockovich?” and he is forced to pretend he hasn’t heard this before, but the comparison is not far off. Dahlgren was the lead expert witness in the case of Hinkley vs. PG&E, Brockovich’s first case, which brought her national fame. Basically, the major flaw in the comparison is breast size. It turns out PG&E was poisoning the community in which they operated, contributing to the deaths of many men, women, and children.

Unlike Dr. Richard Steiner, Dahlgren has not gotten zen. Dahlgren has gotten pissed. I recapped the Aurora Energy situation in great detail and he told me what he thought. He appears to be done with being objective about concepts which are an affront to his intellect. I didn’t ask him about the river not freezing because I didn’t want to ruin his day. I told him that the DEC’s official stance is that there is no need to test the river water for heavy metals, because they have deemed it to have zero potential for contamination. Does that sound right to you, Doctor?

“No, it sounds like complete crap to me, it sounds like something that the company was able to convince the DEC. They are usually corrupt in every state of the union. Every single one of them are bribed, in various ways, not so much exchanging cash, although that happens, but there’s not a single department of environmental control in the United States that is honest. The DEC should not be believed. And what you need to do if you can, you need to measure the water yourself. Because you’ll probably find that it’s loaded with pollutants. There’s no such thing as cooling water in a power plant that isn’t getting contaminated by the materials in the power plant. It is common sense, and the reason that they’re not measuring it is, they’ve been bribed. The reason they should measure it is, they’ll find stuff. The problem with bureaucrats is, if they’re not being bribed, they’re lazy. And they know that if they find pollutants in the water, they’ll have to do something about it, and then they’ll have to force the company to put some kind of cleaning system in place before they discharge the water. And that will mean that the company will sue them. And then they’ll have to go to court and argue with very smart, very highly paid lawyers, and the case will drag on for years. And these bureaucrats don’t want to do that. If they don’t look, no harm no foul. And they’ve got an excuse here that the average person would probably not have any idea what they meant by it, but they’ll take their word for it. Supposedly, they have experts on this. If it’s a power plant they’ll figure out some way to hire them [DEC employees] as a consultant, an environmental consultant, and pay them a big fat salary for saving them millions and millions of dollars that they didn’t have to spend because the rules weren’t enforced.”

Dahlgren asked me what the plant was doing with the ash from the coal that they burn, commonly known as “coal ash.” I didn’t know. “Coal ash is one of the most toxic substances that you could imagine. It is unbelievably bad,” he said.

As it turns out, Aurora Energy is dumping coal ash all over Fairbanks in uncovered, unfenced, unlined mountains. They are also allowing anyone with a pickup to take as much as they want for “backfill” in construction projects. Many buildings in town are literally built on coal ash. The entire city is swimming in it. If you spend a few days in Fairbanks, this piece of information might help you make sense of things.

De Lima’s father died of lymphoma. Her mother from rheumatoid arthritis and advanced Alzheimer’s, diseases all linked to coal ash.

During my brief stay at Pike’s Landing I called a cab to take me to my friend’s house on Farmers Loop Road on the opposite side of town. The driver arrived in an ’85 Bronco with a CB radio and after some brief small talk, started muttering about his bitch of an ex-wife. From the passenger seat I noticed a few humungous piles of black stuff dumped off the side of the road.

Part VII

The Reckoning

Coal ash being dumped in Fairbanks.

Coal ash being dumped in Fairbanks.

To reiterate, the Alaska DEC is a state run agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation. The EPA is the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency. They operate somewhat symbiotically, so if you contact either one of them to ask, say, why your town is inundated with piles of industrial waste, they’ll tell you to contact the other. Many of their former employees have crossed over to the private sector that they had previously regulated.

As of the writing of this article, the EPA does not have toxicity limits for coal ash when used as “fill”, or for any other purpose for that matter. Fill doesn’t mean anything. It’s the same ash, just called  a different name. The EPA does have some regulations regarding disposal of ash. They are lackluster, but they do indeed exist. However, if the ash is used as “fill” or “backfill”, that is exempt from regulation. Apparently, it’s okay to dispose of ash for use in a construction site, but bad things can happen if it’s put in a landfill. It doesn’t really make sense. This process simply encourages power plants to allow construction companies and individuals to take away their ash so they do not need to worry about properly disposing of it and complying with regulations that cost them money.

Rhiannon Fionn is perhaps the nation’s foremost civil authority on coal ash. She is convivial, speaking with a charming North Carolina accent. One day she got sick and tired of seeing her home state being overrun with coal ash, and decided to do something about it. She has made it a part of her life’s mission to expose its harmful impact. She is, in fact, so dedicated to this cause that she is one of the very few people from North Carolina who will tell you they’ve been to Alaska and mean Fairbanks, not a cruise ship seven hundred miles away. Upon visiting, she was absolutely appalled by what she saw:

“Fairbanks is inundated with coal ash. Alaska is handling it differently than other states, there aren’t actual landfills. They’re just dumping it and getting away with it.”

The EPA recently passed some standards for the dumping of coal ash, but they are unlikely to change the common practice of the Fairbanks area power plants dumping their ash in unlined makeshift landfills. The root of the issue is, not surprisingly, a steadfast disagreement over what is in the ash. According to a report conducted by an environmental group called Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the coal ash in Fairbanks is up to seventy times more toxic than its regular soil. Buki Wright, Aurora Energy, and Usibelli disagree, their stance being that the ash is no more toxic than background soil samples. The DEC’s opinion is that the ash contains minuscule amounts of heavy metals and is well below the threshold for human harm: “Analytical data on coal ash in Alaska indicate that some metals are present in the ash; however, the levels present are generally lower than coal ash levels reported in other places in the United States.” Well, screw it then, we’re just trying to fly under the radar. “Does it have metals in it?”, repeated Wright when asked about the situation by the Daily News Miner, “Yes. Does the dirt in the elementary school playground have metals in it? Yes.” Interesting point. Perhaps that elementary school was built on coal ash. You’ve got to wonder why there’s such a vast discrepancy in the numbers.

At least one of these makeshift dumping grounds is located within a flood plane. The Chena River flooded Fairbanks in 1967, placidly destroying anything within a football field of its path. That’s why the Army Corps built flood gates in the seventies. However, the risk of flooding still exists, and major incidents occurred in 1992 and 2008. If increased flooding occurred and carried this ash throughout town, it would be a total disaster. The DEC is allowing Fairbanks to sit on a powder keg.

Coal Ash dumping

Coal Ash dumping.

The DEC does not regularly test the coal ash for heavy metals, and like the EPA has no specific regulations for coal ash being used as “fill”, however materials used as fill must conform to a uniform set of standards. It is the DEC’s belief that the coal ash “Does not cause a threat to the public health, safety, or welfare, or to the environment,” and that based on their research “the leaching data indicate that migration to groundwater is not a concern.” Certainly, that would depend on where it was being dumped. It is not currently treated any differently than sawdust.

According to my research, the DEC tested Aurora’s Usibelli coal once, ever, before permitting disposal. You might wonder where they got that sample. Coal is not homogenous by nature. There is dirty coal, and there is much much dirtier coal. Any ground you walk on in Fairbanks, any highway you drive on, any parking lot you park in, and any home you visit in a subdivision, may be built, quite literally, on coal ash.

In 2010 the Chena Power Plant self reported as being the 12th biggest emitter of lead in the nation, among all power plants. They reported this information to the EPA, which then catalogued that information in their Toxic Release Inventory. The Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI, is the EPA’s method of listing power plant emissions for public record. It was included in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which was passed in 1986. The section of EPCRA which includes the TRI was subsequently weakened by congress and the EPA to the point that now power plants are responsible for reporting their own emissions. The EPA simply takes their word for it. The DEC gets their numbers from the EPA’s TRI and apparently factors them in when issuing permits to dump 20,000,000 gallons of untested water per day into a river. There is no independent testing. There is zero accountability. What other organization would see fit to operate this way? Certainly the IRS would never stand for this. The potential for abuse is obvious, and incredibly easy to get away with. That’s why Aurora Energy started abusing the system.

In that year, 2010, Aurora reported the Chena Power Plant emitted 1,126 pounds of lead, again, the 12th most in the country. It should be noted the plant has the capacity to produce only 32 megawatts of electricity. Pennsylvania’s Hatfield Power Station, which came in 13th, has the capacity to produce 1700 megawatts. The plant coming in directly in front of them, 1,400.

This would lead one to surmise that the coal the plant is burning is either exceptionally heavy with lead, or they’re doing an extremely poor job of filtering what they emit from their stack. It should also be noted that lead, although harmful, is an indicator of other more toxic pollutants. If lead is present, other elements are too.

When I first googled “Chena Power Plant pollution”, the first thing that came up was a report from a non-profit watchdog group called Environmental Integrity. Their entire operation is taking self reported data from power plants and filtering the data it so that it is easy for a lay person like myself to understand. As I looked further, Aurora’s numbers became more and more fishy. Increasingly, Aurora’s numbers didn’t match that of Environmental Integrity or the EPA’s TRI. It’s because Aurora was reporting certain numbers and then going back and changing them, usually to zero, and apparently without alerting the EPA, as this was news to them.

I asked the DEC about the numbers I got from Environmental Integrity’s website. “If they can emit 1,127 pound of lead, why are you so concerned about Jaybird’s golf balls?” The DEC responded with the following:

“The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) “report” supposedly relies on EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) information. (I put “report” in quotes because it does not appear to be peer-reviewed.) However, the TRI information for 2010 does NOT match the figure provided in the “report” for the Chena Power Plant. For 2010, TRI lists 0 air emissions and 2,242 pounds transferred off-site for land treatment (presumably in the disposal of ash). Since you seem to be focusing on the “1,127 pounds” number referenced from the EIP report, I will point out that even with this questionable figure, emissions would be less than the significance threshold for Lead emissions (0.56 tons vs 0.6 tons for significant emissions).”

There are several problems with this statement, not to mention the abuse of quotation marks. The DEC’s official stance is that the Chena Power Plant emitted zero emissions from their stack in the year referenced, 2010. It is impossible for an operating plant to emit nothing. That’s common sense. As an entity whose sole purpose is protecting the environment, you’d think they might take note of the fact that there’s blatant falsehood involved in the numbers they’re defending. Even once that is understood, it’s weird to be kind of bitchy about your bad information. Also, the numbers I provided the DEC were simply copied and pasted by Environmental Integrity into a spreadsheet, so its a ludicrous notion to assume that this would need to be peer reviewed. It would be like criticizing a transcript of the presidential debate because it wasn’t peer reviewed.

I ran the problem by Environmental Integrity. “It appears that the good folks at Aurora went back, sometime after our report came out, and changed their 2010 TRI,” they said.

After many, many, attempts at following up on this discrepancy of 1,127 pounds of lead versus zero pounds of lead, the EPA finally admitted that Aurora Energy had “misreported” their numbers. Not just for the year 2010, but for the next five years as well. Turns out, it’s not that big of a deal. The EPA allows them to change their numbers at any time. That’s it. You report something wrong, and you go back and change it. The EPA casually let me know that the situation had been taken care of and that they were following up with Aurora.

Matt: Thanks for your patience as we followed up on your inquiry about TRI reporting discrepancies at the Aurora Energy power plant near Fairbanks.

You are correct. There does some to be some data missing from the facility’s TRI lead reporting from 2010 to 2015. When we looked at the data you offered and confirmed the gaps, we initiated our normal practice, which is to call companies and ask about changes as we become aware of them. As context: under the TRI program, Program Reporters can adjust their TRI reports at any time. It is within their discretion to submit new or corrected Form Rs.

Additionally, as part of reporting, the company must identify the principal methods used to determine their emissions quantities and the fate of those compounds (recycling, air, etc). These are expected to be provided by the company and are not system defaults. Ensuring that the data they report is accurate is one of the tasks of the TRI enforcement program.

Following our contact with the Aurora facility (based on your inquiry) regarding the missing data, they have been researching the basis of the errors in their reporting. According to them, there was a multi-year calculation error that has caused reports for lead and other chemicals to be inaccurate since 2006.

They lied about their emissions for nearly ten years. This was apparently characterized by Aurora to the EPA as a mistake. I wonder how often power plants make the mistake of over reporting their emissions. About as often as the CEO of the company lives within 400 feet of their power plant. I was able to find out that the EPA and DEC were using incorrect numbers through basic internet research and emailing. I have no expertise in this field, yet I was able to catch the discrepancy. That there was a thousand pounds of lead missing. I was able to inform the EPA and the DEC that their information was wrong. You might think that is a problem.

Interestingly, that year, 2010, when Aurora reported zero air emissions, they also reported 2,242 pounds transferred off-site for land treatment in the disposal of coal ash. Since it is impossible to burn coal and produce zero air emissions, it would appear they were revising their air emissions to be categorized as coal ash, as there were and are ostensibly zero laws discouraging them from dumping the ash around town.They were pawning off their waste on the city of Fairbanks. Probably still are.

I asked the EPA if their discovery of this incorrect data set of any alarm bells: “In fact, it did. Upon reviewing the material you cited, we confirmed that there was missing data and immediately contacted the facility requesting an explanation and a timeline for when they anticipated to fill in the information gaps.” This is apparently the extent of the EPA’s interest in the matter. I asked if there were any repercussions for falsifying the information, “The EPA may also consider enforcement action if we find that inaccurate data has been submitted.” As of now it appears to be a chummy conversation. I asked the DEC whether or not Aurora’s lying will in any way affect their continued operation, specifically the renewal of their permit. “No”, they responded, their first direct answer in my dealings with them. Completely perplexed by their apathy, I then fired off several questions enquiring why they are not prepared to take any action on this. They have not yet responded.

Fairbanks has a violent crime rate of 659 incidents per 100,000 people, per the last available statistics compiled by the FBI. That’s not Detroit, which is approaching 2,000, or even Stockton or Baltimore, which have crime rates twice that of Fairbanks. It’s still pretty bad. You still don’t want to encounter a group of drunken locals without someone to vouch for you. Forbes Magazine recently deemed Fairbanks third on the list of ‘Most Dangerous Cities for Women’, coming in only behind Saginaw, Michigan and Anchorage, Alaska. The number of rapes per capita is arguably the highest in the entire country.

I would argue there is less reason to behave violently in Fairbanks than say, Detroit. There is less to be mad about. There’s less class divide. There are less Buki Wrights. Statistics aside, Fairbanks is the most violent city I’ve ever experienced. Guys really like to fight. To beat each other to a pulp for recreation. I once saw a guy get mad over absolutely nothing and bang his head into the hood of a Ford F-150 leaving an enormous dent. Growing up we would stand next to a stack of pallets and a bonfire with a cup of Budweiser in hand, and watch guys beat the living shit out of each other over beefs they creatively conjured up on the spot. They’d roll in the mud, it was just normal. I found it nothing more than cheap lowbrow entertainment at the time.

Hyperactive and aggressive behavior is a symptom of lead exposure, including a lack of impulse control. Of the violent crimes, perhaps rape correlates most highly when impulse is not checked. Before I could posit my armchair theory, De Lima beat me to it, “It might sound crazy but I believe it has a lot to with the large amount of Alzheimers and mental health problems in this town. I believe very strongly that this is the case. They have explosions down there all the time, nobody will talk about. And I’m crazy.” I ran the possibility by Dr. Dahlgren, “Of course that could be a factor,” he said.

There is a propensity, a well documented phenomenon, where people being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins to ignore the reality of their situation. They don’t want to know what’s in their air or water. It’s peace of mind. It may seem counterintuitive, but they find it is beyond their control, so why stress. This adaptation can be found in the attitudes of the Fairbanks City Council. I emailed council member Jim Matherly and asked him why the river doesn’t freeze: “Hey Matt. Great question! It’s crossed my mind before as I live on the Chena. Let me think on that….Jim.” Yes Jim, let’s think on it buddy. If not you, then who?

Another council member, June Rogers, responded that the situation is well under control: “Dear Mr. Ralston, Thank you for voicing your concern to the Fairbanks City Council. Your communication is very much appreciated. My general impression and understanding is that the power plant undergoes rigorous scrutiny from regulatory agencies, for the very subject that you bring up in your message.” She is characterizing the near opposite of what actually happens. The river water is not tested for heavy metals, only for pH level and temperature to make sure it’s not too hot. Disposing of coal ash in unlined and uncovered landfills is entirely permitted. The DEC is now aware that the emissions Aurora is reporting from their stacks is dubious, and doesn’t care. They also allowed them to operate for several years without a permit. None of this comes off as “rigourous.”

The abject truth is that nobody knows what is in the water that is being pumped into the river. Those who understand the workings of the plant, including Rob Mulford, Paul Barrett, my own father, and others, insist that there is no potential for contamination, as the water is “non-contact discharge.” This is the position of the DEC. I’d maintain that a test couldn’t hurt, considering the Chena Plant is one of the worst polluters in the entire country in terms of lead emissions from their stack. If you were a thinking person, you might wonder if any of that would fall into the river on which the plant is located. Or into the city’s water wells which are located on the same piece of land, one of which being inside the power plant.

Compared to the coal ash, the issue of the river water is likely an afterthought in terms of danger to people. I elaborated on it because it is obvious that Aurora Energy and Usibelli lie about the reasons the river is thawed. They make up a ludicrous excuse such as a “naturally occurring thermal plume”, and have the hubris to stand by it. If they would have the balls to do that, in the face of all common sense, why would they not lie about less observable issues, and as it turns out, they do that too. To what extent, we don’t know.

In tying it up, I think of every single person familiar with the situation. Like Paul Barrett who’s seen the DEC and EPA laugh in his face. Like the city of Fairbanks who simply takes its thawed river as normal. Dr. Richard Steiner, Dr. James Dahlgren. Rhiannon Fionn. Teresa De Lima. Jaybird. Good people balancing their sanity against the regulators blatant ignoring of the coal industry’s reckless disregard for their communities. Anyone defending this system has skin in the game.

Sitting on that barstool at Pike’s Landing I was utterly baffled. “How does the DEC pick its battles?” I wondered, “what’s worse, these golf balls or that filthy power plant?” It is not a question worthy of extensive deliberation. Your average eight year old knows the answer. The DEC does not. “Of course one is more of a threat,” said James Dahlgren, “that bar is not going to bribe the officials. They’re not going to lobby the local politicians. It’s an easy thing for the DEC to appear to be doing something, to pick on the little guy. They don’t have the resources. It’s a joke. It’s a joke.”

This story takes place in Fairbanks, Alaska, but it could be anywhere. Allowing power plants to report their own emissions, and rarely leveraging any repercussions when they lie is, by design, a completely incompetent system. The deck is stacked. The misreported data I was able to find marks a drop in the bucket of potential abuse, and only of this particular company. There are four more coal fired plants in the Fairbanks area alone.

The Chena Power Plant’s discharge permit is up for renewal in 2017. The Department of Environmental Conservation will move to grant it. They are not concerned. Are you?

I’ve started a crowdfunding campaign, to test the river discharge, the air coming from the Chena Power Plant’s smoke stack, the surrounding surface soil, and their coal ash dumping sites for heavy metals. Consider donating, and sharing this with anyone you think would be interested.



Matt Ralston is a comedian and writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewRalston

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