Neighbors push for changes to project that would expand international cargo operations at Anchorage airport

Jul. 31—Nearby residents are increasingly anxious as a private developer pursues building a huge new facility that could expand cargo operations at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, already the world's fourth-busiest for cargo.

NorthLink Aviation wants to create 15 parking and fueling spots for jumbo jets, called hardstands, atop what is now mostly wooded land at the airport's south end. Plans also call for a 90,000-square-foot warehouse where international cargo carriers can stockpile and swap products, expanding delivery opportunities to the Lower 48 and elsewhere, said Sean Dolan, NorthLink's chief executive. It will cost at least $125 million.

"Our project will create opportunities to significantly grow the airport's cargo operations," Dolan said.

But people living south of the project area, across Raspberry Road near Kincaid Park, are fighting to change the plans.

Many homeowners use water wells, and they're especially worried about contamination from "forever chemicals" known as PFAS, said Linda Swiss, who lives in the Tanaina Hills neighborhood.

The chemicals, linked to severe health problems including cancer, have been found on other sites near the 120-acre property where the project would be built, Swiss said. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has also raised concerns about the chemicals nearby, and is taking steps to better understand groundwater flow in the area.

Residents, no strangers to the roar of jets flying overhead, also worry about more noise — as well as potential fuel spills, air pollution and lights, Swiss said.

"It will definitely affect the quality of our life," Swiss said. "People say, 'You knew you were near an airport,' but we never thought about them developing this side of the airport."

Company says it could mitigate impacts

Dolan said the company has met several times with the residents, who have formed a subcommittee under the Sand Lake Community Council to influence the project.

NorthLink holds a 55-year lease for the airport land that was signed last year. Some money for the project comes under the Alaska Investment Program, part of the $79 billion Alaska Permanent Fund. Dolan declined to say how much.

Dolan said NorthLink will operate in an environmentally safe manner.

"My objective is I really want this to be as invisible as possible," he said. "That's one thing we can do to be a good long-term neighbor."

The project will create a 700-foot, wooded protective setback north of Raspberry Road, as sought by residents, he said. NorthLink plans to build Alaska's first system to capture and reuse aircraft de-icing fluid. Multiple mechanisms will be in place to prevent any fuel spilled from leaving the site, he said.

A 25-foot-high earth berm, topped with tall vegetation, will be built to reduce noise from the operation, he said. Lighting will be carefully positioned. A blast fence will redirect engine exhaust.

The neighborhood also has asked NorthLink to help pay to extend city water service. The company is exploring providing funding for that idea, Dolan said.

"We are trying to be respectful of the impact on the community and we are trying to address their concerns as much as possible," he said.

Peter Heninger, a retired resident in the Tanaina Hills area, said he's also concerned about pollution to his well water. He said potential contamination from PFAS, as well as other aspects such as the project's economic justification, need to be better studied.

"If this is going to happen, they should devote time and resources to this to do it properly, and not rush it through," he said.

Matt Sanders, who lives in the area, said he believes strong winds will carry de-icing fluid into Kincaid Park and Little Campbell Lake, a recreational area where a conservation group has reported detecting PFAS. Noise pollution is among his other concerns.

"It is the wrong location," Sanders said of the project.

Dolan said the project signed a lease with the airport, following a public comment period, and cannot relocate. He said de-icing fluid won't reach the berm even on the windiest days, let alone the wooded setback area.

State environmental regulators raise concerns

Nearby residents aren't the only ones watching the project.

As part of the permitting process, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has raised concerns in a letter to the developer about groundwater flow and contaminated sites nearby.

The agency doesn't have enough information to understand the project's potential impacts to groundwater, the letter says.

DEC is launching a "robust" study to learn more, in part to ensure water wells will be safe, said Bill O'Connell, an environmental program manager in the state's contaminated sites program.

That study could begin in September, and will hopefully be completed soon after, he said.

"Our site characterization should inform that situation for everyone's benefit," O'Connell said.

The agency is particularly concerned about PFAS contamination at a former fire training area just west of the project site where fire-dousing foam, which often contains PFAS compounds, had been used, O'Connell said.

Also, levels of PFAS "above regulatory standards" have been detected in soil at the Kulis Air National Guard base to the east, where a planned taxiway extension would connect to the NorthLink project, the letter says.

That area is a half-mile from the project site, said Dolan, with NorthLink. The state will handle that taxiway extension, which will provide access for planes reaching the NorthLink site, he said.

Craig Campbell, the airport's interim manager, said the airport wants to make sure no residential wells are polluted.

He said the airport has hired a contractor to work with residents and sample water in wells.

"We want to have a solid baseline of what is in the wells now," Campbell said. "The last thing we want to do is stir up PFAS and affect groundwater. If it looks like that will happen, we'd have to do a remediation study."

The well sampling and upcoming DEC study could help determine what work might need to be done, if any, to protect drinking water, Campbell said.

International cargo demand is expected to keep growing at the airport, where all existing hardstands — the jet parking and refueling spots — are sometimes occupied, Campbell said.

Multiple cargo expansion projects are advancing at the airport, including by UPS and FedEx.

National Air Cargo is also expanding its operations in Alaska, Campbell said. The company has signed an agreement with NorthLink Aviation to use its hardstands.

NorthLink is working on inking agreements with other operators, Dolan said.

The demand for air cargo will keep growing, he said.

"People want stuff reliably and they want it fast," Dolan said. "Whether it's your iPhone, your yoga pants or car parts, air cargo is instrumental in doing that."