BLM Report on ANCSA Land Contamination
Environmental services needed across Alaska
In some circles, Alaska’s state flower isn’t the forget-me-not, it’s a different beast entirely: a tundra tulip. A quick glance through a wildflower book won’t find it, though. Tundra tulips are fifty-five-gallon drums used in past decades to transport fuel to remote mining camps or military installations and left behind to flower into rust when the sites were abandoned.
Those sites, such as former DEWLine and White Alice sites, radio towers, tank farms, asbestos-laden buildings, bomb impact areas, legacy wells, mines, and dumps are found throughout Alaska, from the tip of the Aleutians to the top of the North Slope. Many are a result of World War II and the Cold War, times when environmental controls were less rigid than today.
Many contained toxic materials such as arsenic, solvents, PCBs, asbestos, mercury, mining chemicals, oil and petroleum, and unexploded ordnance. Hundreds of these contaminated sites are now under the ownership of Alaska Native corporations, and the effort to get them cleaned up has been going on for decades.
In the meantime, Native leaders are concerned with the health and safety impacts of the contamination on local populations. According to the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, “anecdotally villages report higher rates of cancer and other illnesses linked to hazardous substances.” Many of the rural contaminated sites are near villages whose residents practice subsistence lifestyles. Only limited research has been done on the contaminants’ impacts to fish, berries, and wildlife in those areas.
A report released in July details the problem and the steps taken to solve it. The “Report to Congress: Hazardous Substance Contamination of Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act Lands in Alaska” is the latest chapter in a long and tangled history between the federal government and Alaska Natives.
When Alaska became a state, the federal government owned all but a tiny percentage of the land. However, when oil was found on Alaska’s North Slope, it quickly became clear that a pipeline to carry the oil to market would not be built until the government addressed long-simmering land claims from Alaska Natives, who had lived in the area for thousands of years.
After years of work and debate, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. The sweeping act aimed to provide a fair settlement of aboriginal land claims, providing Alaska Natives with 44 million acres of land, about the size of Oklahoma, and $962.5 million, in exchange for them dropping the claims. The twelve Alaska-based regional corporations created under ANCSA set about selecting the land, mostly in areas traditionally used and occupied by villagers of those regions. The land was withdrawn from the public domain by the secretary of the Interior. The BLM was tapped to administer the selection.
It proved to be a slow process, one that is still not completed today, nearly forty-five years after ANCSA’s passage. By 1998, about 37.3 million acres of land hand been conveyed. As the process unfolded, however, Alaska Native people began to express concerns about the presence of hazardous materials and abandoned buildings, bunkers, and scrapped equipment on the conveyed lands and the health, safety, and economic impact on residents. Federal officials say they were unaware the land was contaminated before conveyance.
In 1998, the US Department of the Interior delivered the first report titled “Hazardous Substance Contamination of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in Alaska” to Congress. That report identified the need for a comprehensive solution and outlined six steps to start the process.
About five years ago, Alaska Native leaders started to press for answers, saying the contamination was an unjust liability. The Alaska Native Village Corporation Association took up the issue. In 2012 and 2015, the Alaska Federation of Natives passed resolutions calling on the federal and Alaska governments to prioritize the cleanup of sites on ANCSA-conveyed land and to acknowledge federal government’s liability for the contamination that occurred under its ownership.
In 2014, Congress asked for an update to the 1998 report, including the identification and status of each site and if any remediation had been done. That is the report that was released in July. Its 106 pages detail the development and status of all documented contaminated sites on ANCSA lands, as well as listing sites whose status is still undetermined. It also provides an update on the recommendations in the 1998 BLM report to Congress, in addition to recommendations for fully cleaning up the contaminated sites conveyed via ANCSA.
Since much of the information about contaminated sites was incomplete in 1998, BLM started with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) database of contaminated sites in Alaska. It also included information from the Federal Aviation Administration, US Air Force, and US Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program.
As of September 2015, the database showed:
- 920 contaminated sites were conveyed to an ANCSA landowner. Of those, 328 sites have been cleaned up, 338 sites require additional cleanup, and 242 sites have sufficient land use controls to prevent human exposure. Another 12 sites have no confirmed contamination.
- For the 338 sites that still require cleanup, ADEC has identified the agency or organization that controlled the site. Nearly half, 162 sites, were controlled by the Department of Defense; 51 sites were under the state of Alaska or other state subdivision; and 16 sites under the FAA. Another 20 sites were controlled by ANCSA corporations; 14 by non-ANCSA Native entities; 42 sites under private ownership; and 7 by other federal entities. In 26 sites, the ownership was unknown.
Through the FAA and military databases multi-meeting review, the BLM also determined which known contaminated sites on ANCSA land were not in a cleanup program. These 94 sites were termed “orphan sites.” Another 104 sites were still under review and could be added to the orphan list.
None of the contaminated sites are known to be on BLM land. Although the agency “conveyed and patented the majority of these lands, it did so while acting solely in a pass-through capacity as the federal government’s ‘real estate agent,’” the report states.
Additionally, BLM has no authority to compel or conduct the cleanup of the contaminated sites. That power is reserved for the ADEC and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The agency in charge of the facility or site when the contamination occurred is responsible for cleanup. For the “orphan sites,” however, the presence of the release of a contaminant needs to be verified at each site. In those cases, stakeholders are asked to provide that information so it can be added to the database.
In some cases, identifying the sites was difficult. Some sites were described simply as “Hill 400,” or in the case of Icehouse Point on Woody Island, the accompanying coordinates placed it somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska. There was no centralized gathering point, which meant stakeholders might report a site to the ADEC, but not the BLM, which was building the database. There was no formal mechanism for the two to exchange information. Other times, a site would be reported twice using different descriptions.
In some cases, even the large sites posed a problem because of their complexity. For example, the Anvil Mountain Radio Relay Station, located about five miles north of Nome, is the last intact White Alice Communications System site and was operational until 1978. It contains multiple points of contamination, such as fuel spills.
But when the BLM tried to obtain descriptions of the complex of buildings and equipment from the Air Force, ADEC, and Corps of Engineers, the agencies all used different terms to describe the site’s features. BLM states, “The currently available spatial data consists of a single point, which does not support estimating the size and shape of each feature. More information is needed to establish the actual location of each feature, and how it may relate to nearby conveyed land.”
The 1998 report outlined six steps necessary to begin the identification and cleanup process:
- Establish a forum of ANCSA landowners and federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to exchange and discuss information and set priorities.
- Compile a comprehensive inventory of contaminated sites with input from all parties.
- Apply EPA policies to ANCSA landowners, so they are not held liable for the contamination existing at the time the land was transferred.
- Analyze the data and report to Congress on sites not covered in existing programs and recommend whether further federal programs or actions are needed.
- Modify policies, where needed, to address contaminants and structures that may affect public health and safety on ANCSA lands.
- Continue to develop, under the leadership of the EPA and any other relevant agencies, a process to train and enable local residents to participate in cleanup efforts.
The 2016 report followed up on those recommendations, noting that only the first three had been met. The BLM did create a stakeholder group and conducted extensive outreach to Native corporations. It met with representatives from all twelve regions in Alaska over a period of several weeks.
The BLM also produced a preliminary database of contaminated sites on ANCSA land and also identified sites not part of a cleanup program (orphan sites).
However, the report states, since BLM lacks authority to compel cleanup of contaminated sites on ANCSA lands after they are conveyed, the agency did not take action on the remaining three steps: apply EPA policies to ANCSA landowners; modify policies, where needed, to address contaminants and structures that may affect public health and safety on ANCSA lands; and to develop a process to train local residents to participate in cleanup efforts.
The report does offer recommendations for ADEC, which has authority to address the cleanup of contaminated lands.
First, the report says, ADEC should finalize the database of sites and ownership and start a remedial action process, including identifying the party responsible for cleanup. The ADEC can also provide specific training to residents to assist in cleanup.
A formal contamination lands working group should be created to replace the ad hoc stakeholder group BLM gathered for preliminary work. The group would provide an ongoing forum to share information and create a strategic cleanup plan.
Once the responsible parties are documented by the ADEC, the cleanup itself will be done by the appropriate agency.
Of the 920 sites identified in the preliminary database, cleanup has been completed at 328 sites, mostly by the Department of Defense and given final approval by the ADEC. Final approval means “the sites pose no further threat to human health and safety or to the environment.” They are considered closed sites.
Another 338 are deemed “active,” which means cleanup has not been completed. No contamination was found at another 12 sites.
In addition, 242 sites have had land use controls, such as caps, fences, limits on site use, or warning signs to prevent human exposure to contaminations. Land use controls are used when it is not “technically feasible or is cost-prohibitive to complete remediation of contaminants to acceptable levels, in such a way that would allow for unrestricted future use.”
Creating a database of “orphan sites,” lands with verified contamination at the time of conveyance not under a cleanup program, was one of the primary goals of BLM’s stakeholder group. That database, consisting of 94 sites, exists within the larger contaminated lands inventory list. Another 104 sites need additional verification before being added to the database or declared closed. In most cases, these sites need to be reviewed to ensure the “no further action finding” given to them by the US Army Corps of Engineers is warranted. In some cases, site investigations were performed decades ago and were limited in scope.
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
This article first appeared in the August 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.