Mitigating contamination on Alaska native lands: hundreds of sites, very little funding to get work done.

Author:Swagel, Will
Position:SPECIAL SECTION: Environmental Services
 
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The modern history of Alaska is one of massive transfers of land from -L 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.

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.

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...

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