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State Has Received the Plan to Remove a Sunken Bulldozer

by Phillip Manning ~ July 18th, 2013

The submerged bulldozer broke through the ice on May 10th and sunk to the bottom of the lake, killing driver Donald Kiehl.   Kiehl was traveling as part of a cat train to Stephan (step-PAN) Lake Lodge, where the heavy equipment was to be used to construct an airstrip supplying the preliminary research teams associated with the Susitna-Watana Dam.Both the Talkeetna and Chase Community Councils have expressed concerns over a lack of information from the State of Alaska regarding the plan for removal of the 18-ton bulldozer.

D-N-R says they have now received the plan for the next steps in the recovery process.  Cliff Larson, Permitting Manager for D-N-R, says that the contractor that operated the cat train, Alaska Diversified Services, has contracted a dive team that will place float bags under the bulldozer so that it can be floated to a more stable position,  a cable will then be rigged that will allow complete removal of the dozer at a later date.  The original D-N-R permit required the cat train to stay on snow-covered terrain in order to protect the tundra underneath, and Larson says that will also be the case with the equipment used to extract the bulldozer.

D-N-R representatives say in multiple interviews that the ultimate responsibility for any recovery effort lies with the permit holder.  In this case, the permit was issued to Ben Stevenson, manager at Stephan Lake Lodge.  The Lodge then contracted Alaska Diversified Services, who subcontracted Kiehl’s Welding and Salvage out of North Pole.

In addition to the recovery of the bulldozer itself, there is concern over the potential for hazardous materials leaking into the alpine lake.

“As a rule of thumb, I’d say there’s at least a hundred gallons of petroleum or other hazardous materials in there.”

That’s Steven Russell, Environmental Program Manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.  Russell says that while the amount of hazardous material makes this a serious incident, D-E-C views it as being far from the worst-case scenario.

“If the hydraulic system, the drive line, and transfer case that contain the heavier oils are intact, the acute local effect can be minor.  If the diesel fuel is coming out in small amounts, the chronic effect will be–I don’t want to say minor–but it will certainly be less than if there was a catastrophic failure…if the entire tank had ruptured at one time.”

Russell says that it would be unsafe for divers to attempt to extract the diesel fuel and other liquids from the bulldozer while it still rests at an angle near a precipice under the lake, but that once it is stabilized and moved to shallower water, that efforts to prevent any further leakage might be possible.

While the plan means there is progress on the recovery of the bulldozer that has been under the water for more than two months, both D-E-C and D-N-R say that the final recovery will have to wait until the ground freezes to prevent significant damage to the tundra.  Steven Russell says the trade-off of an earlier recovery would not be worth the environmental cost.

“We’re not quite at the point where we’re willing to trade fifteen [to] eighteen miles of new cat trail to pull out one dozer.  The damage of that new cat train would be significant.”

Cliff Larson with the Department of Natural Resources says that it is in continuous contact with Alaska Diversified Services and Stephan Lake Lodge, and that they are currently working out the details of the recovery plan before giving the final go-ahead.

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