By Katherine Rose
Radio station KCAW Sitka 

Sitka also faces deadline for safely shipping trash aboard barges


Photo from a Republic Services presentation to the City and Borough of Sitka

Sitka, like Wrangell, faces a deadline to stop shipping its trash out of town in open-top containers. The last time a Sitka garbage container caught fire was 2016 (above), while a Wrangell load ignited in the fall of 2020 as the barge was in Ketchikan. The request for safer practices is coming from Alaska Marine Lines and Republic Services, which hauls the trash under contract for both communities.

Sitka, just as Wrangell, has been told that open-top trash containers are a fire risk aboard barges and cannot be used to send the community's garbage south.

The Sitka borough assembly last week heard about the reasons and options for the policy change from the city's solid-waste contractor, but the city is pushing back on paying the bill.

Last fall, Alaska Marine Lines announced it would start refusing shipments of solid waste in open containers as of June 1. Switching to closed containers and fully compacting the trash would require a significant investment in new equipment that could come with a big price tag.

The Wrangell Borough Assembly last month approved spending more than $600,000 to buy and install a solid-waste baler so that the garbage can be mashed into tight blocks for loading into closed containers for safer shipment aboard barges.

Sitka, like Wrangell, contracts with Republic Services for its solid-waste shipping. The nationwide company delivers Sitka's loaded trash containers to AML barges for transport to Seattle, then hauls them by truck and rail to a landfill in Eastern Washington.

"We have three partners in Southeast Alaska - Sitka, Klawock and Wrangell - that are still currently utilizing open-top equipment," Republic Services spokesperson Matthew Pederson told the Sitka assembly May 11.

Shipping garbage in open containers poses a fire risk. The last time a Sitka container caught fire was in 2016. But last fall, a container from Wrangell caught fire in Ketchikan, and that spurred AML to set a firm deadline with Republic Services to stop shipping trash without a lid.

Pederson said Sitka needs a baler or a special compactor that compresses the trash into "loaves."

"It's very efficient and a known and trusted methodology to eliminate both underweight fees, saving the community dollars in the long run," he said, adding that it is the safest way to compact and ship garbage.

If the trash is compacted with one of these machines, it will fit into the containers Republic Services already owns and supplies at no additional cost. Without a compactor, someone would need to purchase special retrofitted or "shoe-box" container lids, which would be a multimillion-dollar investment, the company told the Sitka assembly.

Republic Services said it's the city's responsibility to install a trash compacting system. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz pushed back on whether compaction was necessarily safer or even required.

"Will AML accept the closed-top containers without compaction? Without pre-load compaction?" he asked. "I think it would be very difficult to do," Pederson said.

Pederson said if no changes were made before June 1, Republic Services was contractually obligated to find another way to ship Sitka's garbage out of town. So far, the options the company has explored were pricey, and he said the additional cost would be on the city.

Wrangell Borough Manager Lisa Von Bargen said last month that AML is flexible on the June 1 deadline as long as the city is making progress on a solution.

Sitka is moving slower. In an interview with KCAW, City Administrator John Leach said, "It's very complicated, and we're trying to stand our ground while reiterating that we're concerned about the fire risk safety."

The city has made some changes since the 2016 container fire to address risk, like regular inspections of the waste stream and signage discouraging disposal of flammable materials at the transfer station.

Leach said the city will continue exploring its options with Republic Services.


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