Although the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed in 1972, the conveyance of lands to the Alaska Native corporations formed by that act faces ongoing issues, including the fact that many of the lands were contaminated while not under Alaska Native ownership. The pace at which this is being resolved is unacceptable and unreasonable according to US Senator Lisa Murkowski, who calls it a "raw deal,"
The contaminants on some of these lands-which include arsenic, asbestos, lead, mercury, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, and petroleum products--pose health concerns to Native Alaskan communities, negatively impact subsistence resources, and hamper economic activity, according to the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association.
"In a settlement with the government, Alaska Native peoples were promised--were promised--certain lands... and then when the conveyance has been made, you then find out that what you have received is contaminated property," Murkowski says.
"It is damaged goods, effectively. And you are a small, small village, and you're up against the federal government saying, 'Hey, don't you have a responsibility to clean this up before you give it to us?' It is truly a situation that is daunting."
The transferred lands belong not only to some of the 198 Alaska Native village corporations but also to the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations. Nonetheless, the costs of cleanup and the federal government's ties to the liability in many cases have hampered the speed of remedial efforts, according to Murkowski.
"If it had been the private sector that had occupied these lands, contaminated them, and then walked away, you can bet that there would be no end to the repercussions, the financial assessments, the punitive damages. Yet, because it's the federal government, it's kind of like, 'Well, I guess we'll get to that when we get to that.' That's not acceptable and it's not reasonable," Murkowski says.
In 1971, ANCSA settled Alaska Native aboriginal land claims in exchange for titles to 44 million acres of land, a $963 million cash payment from the federal treasury, and additional oil revenue sharing. In an effort to enable statewide economic development, the act also created more than 200 village corporations and 12 regional corporations, some of which have since merged to combine resources or otherwise better serve their shareholders.
Congress directed the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to oversee the transfer of federal lands to the then newly established ANCs. The first ANCSA conveyance occurred in 1974 To date, about 36 million of the promised 44 million acres have been conveyed.
Though the BLM is not allowed to knowingly transfer contaminated land, which prevents ANCs from returning such land back to the federal government, there were no systems in place at the initial time of conveyance to inform the agency that some of the millions of acres set to be transferred were contaminated.
In 2016, the BLM presented its Report to Congress: Hazardous Substance Contamination of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Lands in Alaska. The report included an inventory of all known contaminated sites conveyed to ANCSA landowners, as well as recommendations for cleanup. It came nearly twenty years after a similar 1998 report to Congress.
"There's a lot of contaminated sites that were conveyed and many have been cleaned up in the past," says John Halverson, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's contaminated sites program manager.
"This report is focused more on the sites where contamination remains and sites where prior cleanup efforts may not be sufficient."
The 2016 BLM report identified 920 contaminated sites conveyed to ANCSA landowners, based on data collected by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and several federal agencies.
"Of those, 328 sites have been cleaned up, 338 sites require additional cleanup, 242 sites have sufficient land use controls to prevent human exposure, and 12 sites have no confirmed release of contaminants," the report states.
Though the BLM...