Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Mitigating Contamination on Alaska Native Lands

Hundreds of sites, very little funding to get work done


A helicopter transports a six-passenger vehicle on Tanaga Island, the site of a $20 million FUDS cleanup.

Photos courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District

The modern history of Alaska is one of massive transfers of land from one government entity to another. Prior to statehood, the federal government owned nearly all the land in Alaska. In 1959, the new state of Alaska got the right to select 104 million acres. As part of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska Natives were granted title to 44 million acres—and about $1 billion—in return for relinquishing aboriginal rights to their land in order to permit construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The newly formed Native corporations made some of their selections based on the cultural or subsistence importance of the land, and they chose other properties because of their potential for economic development. But some of that land was contaminated by chemicals and debris from facilities once used by the federal government.

During World War II and the Cold War, the US military had a heavy presence in Alaska. Besides at front line combat areas in the western Aleutians, the then-territory was peppered with hundreds of sites, such as giant highway construction “mancamps,” heavily used airports, fuel depots, and defensive gun emplacements along the Alaska coast. Left behind by the military were fuel-soaked land, dilapidated quonset huts, untold numbers of spent oil drums, and other debris.

In Cold War Alaska, White Alice communication sites relayed signals from Distant Early Warning defense sites to the Alaskan Air Command. In addition to leaving a legacy of debris and petroleum leaks and spills, Cold War defense sites utilized electronic equipment that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—later found to be a potential carcinogen.

But the military was in no way the only polluter. Facilities of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US Public Health Service were among the raft of government facilities built well before today’s environmental awareness. These facilities and properties may still contain contamination for years after they have last been used. Privately-owned mines have also contributed to the problem.


The base camp at Tanaga Island on a rare sunny day.

Photos courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District 

Oil Spill Legacy

Another important year in this story is 1989—when the reality of dealing with the oil-soaked beaches of Prince William Sound prompted Alaska environmental officials to begin considering state regulations for cleaning up contaminated sites.

NPR-A legacy well Umiat #9 PCB cleanup.

© Alaska DEC

Today, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) regulations are used as the standard by both federal and state officials when cleaning up contaminated sites. But there were no specific state cleanup regulations before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, says ADEC Contaminated Sites Program Manager Jennifer Roberts.

“The [ADEC] Contaminated Sites Program grew out of the response to the 1989 oil spill,” Roberts says. “My program was formed in 1992. We didn’t have contaminated sites regulations until 1999.”

The federal government has been cleaning up contaminated sites in Alaska since before the 1980s, and the state regulations broadly mirror the federal standards.

Roberts says the work being proposed at the Bureau of Indian Affairs/Indian Health Service compound in Kotzebue presents a good example of the complexity of an environmental investigation and cleanup. The Kotzebue site is only one of a number of BIA schools that ADEC is recommending be investigated for contaminants.

Roberts says the Maniilaq Association would like to build on the site, but before that can happen there needs to be an investigation and possible cleanup. ADEC estimates that the soil is contaminated with between twenty thousand to forty thousand gallons of fuel.

Asphalt released from drums on a hill behind a roadhouse.

© Alaska DEC

“Ultimately what we want is to have these [contaminated] sites be investigated and for us to be able to say that these sites are not causing damage to public health and subsistence foods,” she says. “We are either actively managing [sites] because we have put institutional controls on, or we have actively cleaned them up and they are safe.”


Warning sign and fence.

© Alaska DEC

Cape Pole LTF APC cleanup.

© Alaska DEC

Formerly Used Defense Sites

There are more than five hundred sites in Alaska where the US Department of Defense (DOD) owned, leased, or used property that was transferred out of DOD control before October 17, 1986. This qualifies the properties for the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program, a federal program which funds environmental cleanups. The implementation date corresponds with the Superfund Amendments Re-Authorization Act, which made changes to the federal Superfund act. The environmental cleanup under FUDS is expected to continue beyond 2020 with more than $1 billion in cleanup work yet to be completed.

The US Army Corps of Engineers administers the FUDS program for former US Navy, Air Force, and Army sites.

A White Alice Communications Systems tower at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island tumbles down during cleanup of the former Air Force site in July 2003.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District

Of the more than 500 eligible sites in Alaska, 137 have been found to contain identified hazards, says Ken Andraschko, FUDS program manager with the Corps of Engineers in Alaska. These hazards may be petroleum products, PCBs, lead, demolition or other debris, and, in some cases, munitions.

Andraschko says 67 of the 137 prioritized sites have been cleaned up—about halfway through the list. Between 1984 and 2014, the Department of Defense has invested $813 million in environmental restoration at these Alaska FUDS sites.

Two examples of FUDS sites are the Umiat test oil well on the North Slope and a former Air Force station on St. Lawrence Island.

“We have spent the last four or five years pulling out thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated soil and petroleum-impacted soil,” Andraschko says.

And there may be more work still to do.

“We clean up to Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation standards,” he says. “We try to clean things up to an unrestricted use, unlimited-exposure risk scenario. Where that is technically not practical, we have to monitor and continue monitoring until we achieve those levels.”

Andraschko says ADEC regulations can be more stringent than federal standards, but they usually match.


Poorly Funded Mitigation

Since 1993, Congress has appropriated a separate $8 million to $12 million per year to fund the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program (NALEMP) and to be used to clean up Native lands across the United States that were contaminated by the military. Annually, about half of that money, $4 million to $6 million, comes to Alaska.

“The program is meant to address environmental impacts that the DOD left on Indian lands that aren’t being addressed by other programs,” says Andrea Elconin, the US Army Corps of Engineers program manager for NALEMP. Lands transferred from DOD prior to the 1986 FUDS deadline may be eligible, for instance.

Elconin explains that NALEMP offers Native tribes the opportunity to enter into a cooperative agreement with DOD for cleanups. Elconin’s office administers the program for the Secretary of Defense. DOD inspects the property and, if the property is selected, DOD supplies the funds. The actual cleanup is accomplished by the tribe themselves or their contractors.

While the FUDS program tends to prioritize projects partly on the basis of population, NALEMP can address more rural concerns such as the effects on subsistence.

Under FUDS, “risks in highly-populated areas rise to the top,” Elconin says, “but under NALEMP they don’t prioritize the high-population areas as much, so that it can address problems in rural areas where population is low.”

Eight cooperative agreements were signed last summer, Elconin says, and she expects about the same number to be signed before the end of the 2014 fiscal year in September. Overall, NALEMP administers twenty-five to thirty different cooperative agreements.

The Native Village of Gakona, the ANCSA village corporation, has been working with NALEMP for about five years to clean up an Air Force radio relay site, or RSS, which operated from 1960 to 1983.

“NALEMP funded the cleanup of twenty-eight fifty-five-gallon drum tops, five grounding posts, one hundred pieces of metal strapping, one Army truck tailgate, and one rusted metal stove, among other debris from 5.62 acres of Ahtna [Corporation] land adjacent to the RRS site. In addition, analysis of samples collected and tested confirmed earlier findings that neither soil nor groundwater on affected Ahtna land were contaminated by petroleum products,” according to a US Army Corps of Engineers report, which further states that the removal and disposal of the debris has made it possible for tribal members to resume subsistence hunting and gathering activities in the area without risk of injury.

Woodpecker Cove LTF APC cleanup well installation.

© Alaska DEC

Data Control

Greg DuBois is a geologist and manager for APC Services LLC, an Alaska Native-owned company and a subsidiary of the Alaska Peninsula Corporation. Their company offers environmental consulting services, including the remediation of contaminated sites.

DuBois described work APC Services has performed for the Native Village of Port Heiden at another former radio relay site, which has contamination from PCBs and petroleum. The Port Heiden Tribe has a cooperative agreement with the Corps of Engineers.

The mitigation process involves setting out a grid over the suspect property, and then taking samples from each grid. Soil containing too high a presence of PCBs must be excavated and temporarily stored in lined stockpiles, and then the ground is tested again until the grid area is below the cleanup level. Since there are no permitted hazardous waste disposal facilities in Alaska, the contaminated soil must be barged to the Lower 48 for disposal in a permitted landfill.

DuBois says diesel-contaminated soil can sometimes be treated by a process known as “land farming.” The contaminated soil is spread out a foot or two thick and then turned over bi-weekly or so. The tilling allows oxygen to reach microbes in the soil which consume the contaminants.

APC Services was formed in 2006 in order to perform environmental work in connection with the Pebble Mine Project, says DuBois. Alaska Peninsula Corporation owns land adjacent to the mine project claim block.

DuBois says APC Services has performed important water quality and fisheries baseline studies and that Alaska Peninsula Corporation co-owns the water quality data that is collected within Alaska Peninsula Corporation lands. Baseline studies set the “starting point” for use by officials in granting mine permits and for gauging future potential effects on the environment.

“[Co-owning the water quality data on Alaska Peninsula Corporation land] protects the parent corporation,” DuBois says. “If there is a mine, the parent corporation has the data related to their own land and waterways. It gives the board some confidence, and it helps the shareholders know their parent corporation has the information to protect their resources.”


Devil of a Problem

Maver Carey is the president and CEO of the Kuskokwim Corporation, a village corporation composed of ten villages located along the upper Kuskokwim River. She is also the founder and chairman of the Alaska Native Village CEO Association, which provides advocacy and training for Alaska Native village corporations.

Carey has been testifying before various state officials, including Governor Sean Parnell, urging them to help Native tribes and corporations deal with contaminated lands which have or will be conveyed to Native groups. She supported the passage of state resolution HJR 15, which asks the state to help Native groups persuade the federal government to act.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get all those sites cleaned up, so we asked the state to help us prioritize the ten most contaminated sites,” Carey says. “So, when we go back to [Washington] DC we can go with a plan of action.”

In her own area, the Red Devil Mine—an old, unused mercury and cinnabar mine—is leaking contaminants into the Kuskokwim River. The problem is so acute, Carey says, that Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials issued guidelines restricting the consumption of fish harvested in the middle Kuskokwim. “Tests showed elevated levels of mercury in pike, lush, Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, and other subsistence fish,” she says.

The Bureau of Land Management has already spent $10 million in cleanup efforts, and the problems persist, Carey says. There are liability issues associated with the property, Carey says. An effort to get the site listed as a Superfund site failed.

“We have not been conveyed the land at Red Devil because it is contaminated and have asked that the land be cleaned up first,” Carey says. “We’re one of the lucky ones. There were several other corporations who were conveyed land that they didn’t know was contaminated.”R

Author and journalist Will Swagel writes from Sitka.

This first appeared in the August 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
Edit Module

Add your comment: