Military Waste in Alaska

Due to its close proximity to Russia, Alaska has been of strategic military importance since the 1940s and into present times. Alaska has around 700 formerly and currently used military sites, many of which are abandoned from the World War II and Cold War eras.

Alaska has also 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.

Department of Defense (DoD) 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 the DoD and the agency 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.

Alaska Native peoples express profound concerns about the health of traditional foods and human health. Many sites in Alaska warrant objective investigation as National Priority List, or Superfund sites.

Our Work

ACAT works with communities to hold the Department of Defense and other agencies accountable for military contamination that affects water quality, habitat, subsistence foods, and human health. PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) derive from both military sources and long-range transport, including atmospheric, oceanic and biotransport mechanisms. ACAT’s work includes addressing both local and global sources of contamination.

ACAT also assists individuals who may have been exposed to contamination while in military or civilian service at Northeast Cape, Fort Greely, Amchitka, and other military sites. We provide injured workers with information they need to obtain medical assistance from the Veterans Administration.

Map: Military and Other Federal Waste Sites in Alaska (jpeg)

SLI Formerly Used Defense Sites

Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDs)

I often think of those great big wild raspberries around that white and red roofed instrument filled building and wonder if those berries were “hot”.

— Darlene Katchatag, Unalakleet

When the military closed operations after World War II and the Cold War, they frequently left behind equipment and supplies containing hazardous chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), fuels, solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals. Many abandoned sites are located near Alaska Native communities and traditional fishing and hunting areas.

About two dozen formerly used defense sites are located in the Norton Sound region in northwest Alaska, where ACAT has been working closely with affected communities to seek justice. Two of the largest and most contaminated sites – Northeast Cape and Gambell – are on St. Lawrence Island. Clean-up efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers have been slow and in many cases inadequate.

Military sites in Alaska’s Norton Sound region were primarily built for communications operations. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), used at that time in transformers and other electrical equipment, are among the dangerous chemicals found in the wastes that the military left behind when they closed operations. PCBs from sites along the coast enter the marine and freshwater environment and the fat-rich food web of fish and marine mammals—animals used by Alaska Natives for subsistence. Other military contaminants found in the region include petroleum products, asbestos, antifreeze, chlorinated solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals.

ACAT’s investigative research identifying the location, history of use, contaminants present, and status of clean-up efforts of FUDs in the region is summarized in the 46-page report Formerly Used Defense Sites in the Norton Sound Region pdf and is used by communities as a basis for determining environmental field research priorities.

Through a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Environmental Justice and Community-based Participatory Research Program, ACAT responds to community concerns about military contamination in Norton Sound. We engage in Community-Based Participatory Research, and offer an annual Field Institute in which participants learn about contaminants from both local and global sources, practice environmental sampling methods in the field, and explore environmental health research methods.

Although it is uncertain how far contaminants may spread around formerly used defense sites, ACAT advises testing of water and traditional food sources close to, downstream or downwind of these sites and to investigate the possibility of harmful exposures.

Related documents:

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Northeast Cape Formerly Used Defense Site, St. Lawrence Island

Northeast Cape is one of the largest and most contaminated abandoned military sites in Alaska. The Air Force operated the strategically located Northeast Cape site as a surveillance station 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 (4,800 acres), there were 25 industrial buildings and associated support facilities. Diesel, PCBs, pesticides, brominated flame retardants and heavy metals (arsenic, chromium and lead) continue to contaminate the area.  One of several barrel dumps in the area contained over 29,500 buried drums.

White Alice Site

Clean-up was initiated in 1986, but was halted due to concerns raised by residents over disposal of debris onsite. ACAT and St. Lawrence Island residents remain concerned that characterization and cleanup of contaminants at Northeast Cape has been superficial. Extensive contamination remains in landfills, groundwater, and within the sediments of the Suqi River.

Army Corps of Engineers contractors have identified at least 23 contaminated sites at the Northeast Cape White Alice site that require environmental investigation and cleanup.  Contamination includes fuel spills totaling over 220,000 gallons, solvents, heavy metals, asbestos, and PCBs. 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).”

ACAT sponsored a delegation of leaders from St. Lawrence Island to meet with policymakers and agency officials in Washington, D.C. in September 2009. As a result of these and subsequent meetings, the EPA made a commitment to re-evaluate Northeast Cape as a National Priorities List (Superfund) Site and high-level officials with the Corps of Engineers and Senate offices made site visits to St. Lawrence Island.

Health Hazards of Exposure to PCBs

Prenatal exposure to PCBs is linked to lower developmental test scores, short-term memory defects, and lower IQ levels in children. Long-term and chronic PCBs exposures are associated with cancer, immune suppression, neurobehavioral problems, endocrine disruption of sex steroid and thyroid function, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other adverse health effects.

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Eagle River Flats

Eagle River Flats

Eagle River Flats, an estuary of the Eagle River near Anchorage, has been used by the Army for decades to test weapons, including incendiary weapons that contain white phosphorus. The area is now part of the Fort Richardson National Priority List (NPL) site, among the most polluted sites in the nation. Thousands of waterfowl have been killed as a result of exposure to the white phosphorus from the weapons range. The Army refuses to assess or remediate damage from the heavy metals and other toxic contamination from the more than 10,000 unexploded munitions in the estuary. Contamination and continued munitions testing threatens waterfowl, endangered beluga whales, and human health.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics filed suit in 2002 citing violations of the Clean Water Act and state and federal waste laws at the base, and negotiated a precedent-setting settlement in 2004 with the U.S. Department of Defense that restricted the Army to seasonal munitions firing. The agreement limits the Army to live ammunition exercises to the winter months when birds are not migrating through that region, and requires that the Army 1) get a permit under the Clean Water Act, 2) monitor the endangered beluga that visit the Eagle River Flats, and 3) implement the use of non-toxic ammunition. Unfortunately the Army is not complying with the agreement. In 2009, ACAT informally challenged the Army’s implementation of the settlement accord. We are especially concerned about the Army’s failure to obtain a Clean Water Act permit and to establish monitoring programs for water quality and beluga whale protection.

What’s Happening Now:

The Army wants to resume year-round firing and in March 2010, the military submitted a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) outlining its plans. EPA lists “serious concerns” with the potential impacts from the two proposals analyzed in the draft document.

  • Download ACAT’s comments on the DEIS for Resumption of Year-Round Firing on Fort Richardson

A resumption of year-round live firing would violate the provisions of the settlement agreement and would threaten water quality, fish habitat, waterfowl, and human health:

  • The live-fire bombing of Eagle River Flats has resulted in severe physical and toxic damage to the estuary of the Eagle River. Contamination from the use of white phosphorus has resulted in the deaths of thousands of waterfowl each year.
  • Although the Army discontinued the use of white phosphorus, it failed to address the contamination from the more than 10,000 unexploded bombs and other munitions at Eagle River Flats, harm to water quality, salmon habitat, and the Cook Inlet beluga whale population.
  • Eagle River Flats is an important feeding area for the Cook Inlet beluga whale. According to their Draft Environmental Impact Statement, 5-30 beluga whales were spotted per month in the Eagle River Flats area in 2007 and 2008. Belugas have been spotted by the USGS as far as 1.5 miles upriver from the mouth of Eagle River.
  • After the Army restricted firing on Eagle River Flats to the winter months, the waterfowl population in the area markedly increased. Resuming year round firing would threaten waterfowl and migratory birds who use this coastal estuary.
  • Subsistence hunting and fishing by Tribes living upstream from Eagle River Flats would be negatively impacted by year round firing.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has only held the U.S. Army accountable for white phosphorus and not for the numerous other toxins that are still poisoning our waterfowl, fish, wildlife and humans who catch a fish that has visited the Eagle River Flats estuary.
  • Among numerous other toxic substances found in munitions, migratory birds and other wildlife are exposed to:
    • Lead, a serious nervous system toxin;
    • Other dangerous heavy metals, including cobalt, chromium, beryllium;
    • Dinitrotolulene, a known carcinogen in people;
    • RDX, also known to be carcinogenic to people
    • Lindane, a dangerous pesticide that is extremely toxic and is internationally banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods.

Background:

1994: EPA lists Fort Richardson on National Priorities “Superfund” List of the most polluted sites in the United States

1998: Army releases their Proposed Cleanup Plan under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or “Superfund” law. Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) serves on the Fort Richardson Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a citizens’ advisory committee that meets on a quarterly basis. ACAT provided formal public comments on the Army’s proposed cleanup plan, citing the Army’s failure to address the larger problem of continuing toxic pollution from the more than 10,000 unexploded bombs and other munitions at Eagle River Flats.

2001: Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Chickaloon Tribe, Cook Inletkeeper, and Military Toxics Project (collectively, the Plaintiffs) filed a Notice of Intent to Sue on June 15, 2001, citing violations by the Army of the federal Clean Water Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); the Federal Facility Agreement for Fort Richardson; and the Solid Waste Disposal Act.

In August, 2001 the plaintiffs sent a letter to the Department of Defense proposing settlement terms. At the request of the Defendants and after September 11, settlement discussions commenced with all parties trying in good faith to negotiate a mutually agreeable settlement. Plaintiffs expressed a willingness to forego injunctive relief while the military obtained permits necessary for legal operation of bombing operations on Eagle River Flats. From September 2001 to April 10, 2002, parties communicated and tried to reach agreeable settlement terms.

2002: On April 10, 2002 the military informed plaintiffs that it was terminating settlement discussions. On April 12, 2002, plaintiffs filed a complaint with the court to protect their legal position. Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief on June 26, 2002. Plaintiffs and Defendants meet in Anchorage to resume negotiations in November 2002.

2004: On October 28, 2004 the Plaintiffs and Department of Defense reach settlement agreement. The major provisions of the agreement include:

  • Monitoring the health and behavior of beluga whales in and around Eagle River Flats;
  • Additional protection to ensure that beluga whales are not harmed by military activities;
  • Water quality monitoring for toxic chemicals associated with military munitions firing;
  • Provisions for enhanced community right-to-know and documentation about military munitions firing activities at Fort Richardson and chemical constituents of munitions;
  • Restrictions on munitions firing activities to protect migratory birds;
  • Prompt cleanup of munitions that fall outside the immediate impact area of Eagle River Flats;
  • Feasibility study to determine potential for substitution of safer munitions in order to minimize environmental impacts;
  • The Army will obtain a Clean Water Act permit for its munitions discharges;
  • The Army will initiate Government-to-Government consultations with Upper Cook Inlet Tribes;
  • Provisions to allow the Plaintiffs to engage independent experts to study the environmental impacts of the bombing and to recommend measures to avoid those impacts.

We are still in the process of implementing the settlement agreement.

2010:  March 2010, ignoring the settlement agreement with ACAT, the Army presented a draft environmental impact statement outlining plans to resume year-round live-fire training as the “preferred alternative.”

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Amchitka Island Nuclear Testing

Cannikin Amchitka 1971 US Department of Energy
Cannikin warhead being lowered into test shaft for the United States’ largest underground nuclear test. Photo by U.S. Department of Energy

On the Aleutian Island of Amchitka, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission detonated three nuclear blasts between 1965 and 1971, including the United States’ largest underground nuclear test, the five megaton Cannikin test which was 385 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

ACAT conducted an independent scientific investigation that demonstrates radioactive leakage of americium-241 and plutonium at the surface of the island. ACAT was instrumental in obtaining an apology, medical assistance, and reparation for nuclear workers who were sickened or died as a result of Cannikin test of 1971.

 

 

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Fort Greely Nuclear Reactor

Fort Greely Alaska

From 1962-1972, the Army operated a small nuclear reactor at Fort Greely near Delta Junction. While the Department of Defense and Department of Energy claimed that the nuclear plant was designed to provide heating and electricity to the base, the Fort Greely reactor was in fact covertly designed and operated as a small pilot plant to make weapons-grade nuclear materials. At the request of Delta Junction residents, ACAT published an investigative report detailing the radioactive contamination and the federal government’s actions to conceal the true purpose of the nuclear reactor. We continue to respond to numerous calls and requests for information from former workers at Fort Greely who may have been exposed to radiation or other chemical contamination while in military or civilian service and are seeking medical assistance from the Veterans Administration.

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Additional Resources

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation website maintains public databases of documented contaminated sites in Alaska.
To view sites in Alaska on a map, click here. You can zoom in to areas for more information, and click on each site for a link to that site’s specific information in the pop up window. Many databases exist with accessible information.
In Division of Spill Prevention and Response select:

Contaminated Sites in Alaska: Database holding historic leaks and spills, including leaking underground storage tanks.The select Map of Contaminated Sites and open in ARC GIS Viewer