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They've waited years for cleanup in Alaska

More than 600 defense installations sit downsized or emptied, contaminating soil and water. Repairs are only half done.

September 30, 2007|Jeannette J. Lee | Associated Press

anchorage, alaska -- For countless generations, Yup'ik Eskimos fished the Suqitughneq River on St. Lawrence Island. Though his grandfather once pulled salmon and trout from its waters, George Noongwook has never done so.

The Yup'ik whaling captain from the village of Savoonga is wary of lingering diesel and PCBs from a deserted Cold War surveillance site nearby. He believes they will make him sick.

"There hasn't been anyone fishing there in my lifetime because all the fish died," said Noongwook, 58. "They're back now, but everyone knows [the river] is contaminated so they go elsewhere."

The old Air Force base at Northeast Cape, 140 miles from the Russian mainland, is one of at least 640 contaminated military installations across Alaska dating from World War II and the Cold War. In all, they will cost at least $1 billion to clean up, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Many of these decaying or downsized outposts are sullying lands and waterways used as primary food sources by at least two dozen tiny communities. Thousands of rural Alaskans subsist on wild plants and animals such as caribou, salmon and berries.

Old barracks and radar stations from the Arctic coast to the Aleutian Islands contain now-banned materials such as asbestos and lead paint, according to state environmental records. Hidden landfills harbor unknown quantities of scrap metal and munitions. Diesel, PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals have seeped unchecked into soils and rivers.

Conflicting studies on any lingering health hazards worry many rural residents, who blame the sites for recent increases in cancer and other diseases.

A study in 2002 showed that islanders who hunt and fish near Northeast Cape have nearly 10 times as many PCBs in their blood as average Americans, but more research needs to be done, said Dr. David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the University of Albany in New York who led the study.

In the meantime, residents of these isolated villages wait with varying degrees of patience as the years-long cleanups run their course.

At Cape Lisburne on the Chukchi Sea, a scaled-down Cold War radar site continues to leak contaminants onto prime hunting grounds inhabited by caribou, grizzlies and walrus, said Earl Kingik of Point Hope. Pollution from the site runs directly into the Chukchi, part of the Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge, according to the state's contaminated sites database.

"There was a cleanup several years ago, but we are not satisfied," said Kingik, co-chairman of a community group that advises the military on cleanup. "The landfill is right on the drainage into the ocean."

The military receives congressional funding for cleanups nationwide through the Department of Defense's Environmental Restoration Program, started in 1987.

In 2007 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received $262.8 million for the cleanup of 9,000 former defense sites nationwide. Nearly 8% of that went to Alaska.

The state contains the third-highest number of formerly used defense sites in the nation, behind California and Florida, according to the corps, which is in charge of 600 sites in Alaska.

"The military has changed, technology has changed, the threat has changed. The decision to scale down is a combination of all kinds of things," said Tommie Baker of the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron. The 611th is responsible for environmental restoration of about 40 Air Force sites in Alaska.

During World War II, Alaska became a transit hub for weapons and supplies sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease program. In 1942, the Japanese capture of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands also spurred military buildup.

Radar and satellite stations sprang up along the northern and western coasts during the Cold War to watch for Soviet air attacks launched over the North Pole.

The military said it had been steadily clearing away the most conspicuous remnants of war, including barracks, radio towers, construction equipment and mounds of rusted oil drums.

"At Northeast Cape we have gotten rid of buildings and other visible impacts," said Carey Cossaboom, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers. "We're now moving to the leftover contamination in the ground, the nonvisible impacts, which are very real."

Of 1,500 contaminated sites within the 640 installations, about 50% have reached sufficiently clean standards, according to Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency oversees the cleanups and determines when they can stop, based on state regulations.

"They're required to clean to levels that are not considered an unacceptable risk," said John Halverson, an environmental program manager at the department. "It's not feasible to clean anything up to original background levels, but that means sometimes the landowners won't be happy."

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