Industrial and military activities have resulted in more than 2,000 contaminated sites throughout Alaska. Contamination at many of these sites includes fuel spills, solvents, heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, and other persistent chemicals. There are nine known chemical weapons dumps and fifteen radioactive waste sites. There are at least 520 hazardous waste sites that have caused contamination of groundwater sources of drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated 6 sites in Alaska as National Priorities List or Superfund sites, among the most polluted hazardous waste sites in the nation. These contaminated sites poison the land, contaminate drinking water sources, and can cause health problems such as cancers, birth defects, and liver problems.
Alaska is a site of great strategic importance to the Department of Defense from World War II through the Cold War and into present times. There are approximately 700 formerly used defense sites in Alaska, many in close proximity to Alaska Native communities, and then traditional fishing and hunting grounds, medicinal plants and waters. Alaska has been used as an experimental testing ground for the military’s nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare programs. Weapons testing ranges encompass an area approximately the size of the state of Kansas. Alaska is perceived as “remote,” with small populations of isolated communities that lack the political clout to resist the intrusions. On the Aleutian Island of Amchitka, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission detonated three nuclear blasts between 1965 and 1971, including the world’s largest underground nuclear test, the 5 megaton Cannikin test. At Fort Greely in Interior Alaska, the Army operated a nuclear reactor to make weapons-grade nuclear materials. The Army concealed radioactive contamination that affects workers, residents of nearby communities and the natural environment.
Department of Defense policy has been to leave contamination in place, relying on institutional controls such as fences and signs to “prevent” exposures to toxic chemicals. Many of the sites have significant PCB contamination, in addition to massive fuel spills, solvents, herbicides/pesticides, heavy metals, chemical warfare materials, and radioactive waste. Information about these sites is often shrouded in secrecy—FOIA requests take months or years. All sampling information is conducted and controlled by DoD. The DoD frequently prepares grossly incomplete site characterizations and vested-interest science using contractors with no accountability to affected communities. Most sites lack a comprehensive assessment of the nature and extent of contamination. Although millions of dollars are spent on site assessments in Alaska, much of this money is wasted through the conduct of poor science and lack of accountability. Provisions need to be established for use of innovative clean up technologies relevant to the Arctic.
The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations, built to detect missiles and bombers heading toward North America, included 63 military radar stations along the 66th parallel across Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment (AMAP) Report estimates that 30 tonnes of PCBs were used in the stations, with an unknown amount disposed in landfills. The sites in Canada have been more thoroughly studied. The Canadian government has measured PCBs levels ranging from 1-10,000 nanograms per gram in soils. The AMAP report states that: “these numbers can be compared to remote background areas with 0.9 nanograms PCBs per gram soil. As is apparent from measurements in soils and plants, the severely contaminated soils have served as a source to nearby areas.” The DEW Line and other FUD sites in Alaska hold significant stores of PCBs, many along the margin of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Sea coasts, providing a ready path into the marine and/or freshwater environment and the fat-rich food web of fish and marine mammals—animals used by Alaska Natives and others for subsistence.
Dr. Ronald Scrudato, Director of the Environmental Research Center at State University of New York, Oswego and Superfund Basic Research Program states in his recent review of the Adak Naval Air Station and Saint Lawrence Island sites: “Based on the extensive use of institutional controls and “no further action” remedies for sites that have not been effectively characterized, it is likely that Adak and Saint Lawrence Island will continue to serve as long-term sources of contaminants to the Arctic region.” Alaska Native peoples express profound concerns about the health of traditional foods and human health. Many sites in Alaska warrant objective investigation as NPL sites. A Congressional investigation of the effectiveness of DoD site investigation, remediation, and accountability would be very helpful. I will briefly summarize some of the sites of concern as examples of the problem:
- Northeast Cape on Saint Lawrence Island (northern Bering Sea): The Air Force acquired the strategically located Northeast Cape site in 1952 and operated it as a surveillance station as part of the Cold War North American Air Defense Command from 1952-1972. Beginning in 1982, the Navy used the area as a White Alice communications site. Within an area that encompasses approximately 9 square miles, the Army Corps of Engineers contractors have identified at least 23 contaminated sites that require environmental investigation and cleanup. Contamination includes fuel spills totaling over 220,000 gallons, solvents, heavy metals, asbestos, and PCBs. Recent studies demonstrate that fish downstream from the site contain contaminants (PCBs and PAHs) at levels that warrant a designation of “no consumption recommended (according to EPA guidance).” (Link to DEC Site 30 detail)
- Umiat former Air Force site (Colville River): Near the Umiat site along the Colville River, levels of PCBs in soils ranged up to 240,000 parts per billion. PCBs have been detected in broad whitefish and burbot of the Colville River. Contaminant levels in burbot are high at 665 ppb PCBs and 1029.8 ppb DDT/DDE.
- Cape Romanzof Long-Range Radar Site (western Alaska near villages of Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Paimute, and Chevak): This site contains numerous hazardous waste landfills and spill sites containing fuels, solvents, ethylene glycol, PCBs, and incinerator ash. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report reveals that the Cape Romanzof Long Range Radar Site has “contaminated the area’s environment. Findings indicate that Fowler Creek’s sediment is contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, and fish and wildlife resources (dolly varden, voles, and red fox) are contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, PCBs and DDT-related compounds.” The site is within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and subsistence fishing and hunting areas of nearby communities.
Several of the state’s impaired water bodies (currently listed as required under 303(d) of the Clean Water Act are degraded due to military activities:
- Eagle River Flats (estuary of the Eagle River near Anchorage) was used by the Army to test incendiary weapons containing white phosphorus. The area is now part of the Fort Richardson NPL site. Thousands of waterfowl have been killed as a result of exposure to the white phosphorus from the weapons range.
- Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula served as a military site and fuel storage area. High levels of diesel fuel and other petroleum products contaminate the cliffs, beach soils, and ocean sediments.
- Garrison Slough (near Fairbanks) contains high levels of PCBs in sediments and fish from military operations at Eielson Air Force Base.
- King Salmon Air Force Base (Alaska Peninsula) contaminated the Naknek River, King Salmon Creek, and aquifers upstream from Bristol Bay with petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides, heavy metals, and PCBs. DoD selected a remedy of capping large landfills containing thousands of barrels.
The Department of Defense and industry must be held accountable for responsible cleanup of the contamination that affects water quality, habitat, subsistence and commercial fisheries, natural resources and human health. Agencies must require thorough site investigation and cleanup to prevent migration and bioaccumulation of contaminants. Innovative remediation technologies offer promising relief Industry and the military must strive conduct their operations using technologies and materials that will not cause harm to the environment or human health.
Our goal is to prevent pollution and environmental destruction before it happens. We support this precautionary approach because it is preventive medicine for our environment and health. It makes sense to:
- Prevent pollution and make polluters, not taxpayers, pay and assume responsibility for the damage they cause;
- Protect our children from chemical and radioactive exposures to avoid illness and suffering;
- Promote use of safe, renewable, non-toxic technologies;
- Provide a natural environment we can all enjoy with clean air, swimmable, fishable water.
Heed Early Warnings
Government and industry have a duty to prevent harm, when there is credible evidence that harm is occurring or is likely to occur—even when the exact nature and full magnitude of harm is not yet proven.
Put Safety First
Industry and government have a responsibility to thoroughly study the potential for harm from a new chemical or technology before it is used—rather than assume it is harmless until proven otherwise. We need to ensure it is safe now, or we will be sorry later. Research on impacts to workers and the public needs to be confirmed by independent third parties.
Precautionary decisions place the highest priority on protecting health and the environment, and help develop cleaner technologies and industries with effective safeguards and enforcement. Government and industry decisions should be based on meaningful citizen input and mutual respect (the golden rule), with the highest regard for those whose health may be affected and for our irreplaceable natural resources—not for those with financial interests. Uncompromised science should inform public policy.
Choose the Safest Solution
Decision-making by government, industry and individuals must include an evaluation of alternatives, and the choice of the safest, technically feasible solutions. We support innovation and promotion of technologies and solutions that create a healthy environment and economy, and protect our natural resources.
1 Goals for prevention and precaution have been developed by the Environmental Health Alliance, coordinated by the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice www.besafenet.com. Alaska Community Action on Toxics is a participating member of this coalition.