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Decontaminating Alaska: cleaning up the 49th State.

The Cold War may be over, but the battle over cleaning up toxic waste and contaminated soils at hundreds of abandoned military sites in Alaska is hotter than ever for environmental services companies. Whether on the tip of the Aleutian chain at Atka or just north of Anchorage at the Native Village of Eklutna, the United States Department of Defense continues to budget money--$46 million this year alone for Alaska--to dig up and properly dispose of hundreds of rusting drums and other volatile remnants of strategic posts from World War II and the '50s.

"Environmental clean-up is the name of the game right now," Brice Environmental Services Corp. General Manager Craig Jones says when talking about Brice's $5 million contract to clean up a former anti-aircraft artillery site near Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. "The jobs are sometimes hard to get, but when you win the bid, it can be a windfall for your company."

Coordinated through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Formerly Used Defense Sites program identified more than 500 potentially contaminated sites throughout the state after the program was created in 1986, according to FUDS Program Manager Ken Andraschko and the Corps of Engineers website, which currently shows 299 site in Alaska.

Sixty of those projects have been completed, Andraschko said. The FUDS work is estimated to continue until 2020. Additional contaminated properties fall under the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, which was created by Congress in 1992 after it was determined many Native lands were not being properly cleaned up under FUDS. NALEMP provides for a cooperative partnership between tribes, the government and the companies tasked with cleaning up the contamination.


"The NALEMP program provides a unique opportunity to include tribes in the projects that affect their lands," said Elijah Donat, senior project manager of Chilkat Environmental LLC, a company based in Haines that works partly under NALEMP contracts. "The FUDS projects, on the other hand, don't include anybody except the large contractors chosen for the jobs. They have no incentives to build relationships in the community because they'll never be there again after the job is done."


The Eklutna site is a perfect example of the challenges of identifying and mitigating contaminants left by military activity of the past, Donat said.

"The Eklutna Army site went through a series of five assessments since the '60s and each assessment found it clean, so it was transferred to an Alaska Native Corporation," says Donat, one of the original founders of Chilkat in 2007. "I went in through NALEMP and found hundreds of buried drums filled with contaminants along the railroad tracks there. All it took was actually showing up and walking around."

Donat said he also discovered about 30 degraded Quonset huts on the 150 acres of property, and learned the military had bulldozed the state's first Indian boarding school from the '20s after using it for military purposes.

According to Donat, the main motivation for finally funding the clean-up was the fact that scientists feared contamination of the groundwater at Eklutna could actually spread to the Anchorage bowl.

And although tests showed it wasn't, Chilkat and the Native Village of Eklutna finally got the go-ahead to dig up 53 of an estimated 200 rusting drums full of hazardous solvents and fuels to protect the nearby residents.

The Eklutna project has so far cost $1.5 million, Donat says. In April the company got the green light to install water monitoring wells to ensure any remaining contaminants in the soils don't affect the residents' drinking water.

At the week-long Annual NALEMP meeting in Anchorage in April, Donat said he was happy to learn the program is getting $12 million this year, and that $8 million of that is going directly to the tribes.

"Although the Department of Defense is cutting at all levels, the NALEMP program is not being cut," said Donat, who earned his first Bachelor of Science at age 18, and was a director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society at 23. "Although it could use more funding, we're not complaining because we're just so happy it's not getting cut."

Continued Funding

The continuation of the FUDS and NALEMP funding is good news for other Alaska companies, too.

Emerald Alaska Inc. may have its headquarters in Seattle, but its Anchorage, Palmer, Fairbanks, Kenai and Prudhoe Bay offices are continuously busy with Corps and oil field projects all over the state. The Alaska-founded company has grown from 13 employees eight years ago to 120 today.

"We've been doing FUDS projects since 2000," says Emerald President Blake Hillis, of Palmer. "There are about 80 sites around the state that potentially use our services. Last year we shipped 10,000 yards of PCB-contaminated soil out of Port Heiden. We have a very large map in our Anchorage office with pins stuck wherever we've been."


Hillis said his company is the only one in Alaska with processing facilities for nonhazardous wastes, and is able to recycle petroleum and automotive fuels for re-use by clients.

"We've been very innovative in what we've done and we have the best people working for us," says Hillis, who works with both a son and a daughter. "I hire people who are smarter than I am. They make my life a lot easier."

Hillis said his company is bidding on an environmental restoration contract being put out by the Corps of Engineers this summer, but he realizes there is a lot of competition.

Decontaminating Dirt

Brice Environmental Services Corp. has been around for about 20 years and became part of Calista Corp. last August, Jones said, after Brice was awarded the Eielson Farm Road project through the FUDS program last April.

The site just outside Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks involves excavating 40,000 tons of contaminated soil caused by leaking diesel tanks and heating oil pipes on the property.

"It was a good one," Jones said of the multi-million dollar project started last fall and anticipate completing this month. "The work we did last fall was the largest volume of contaminated soil remediated by the Alaska District in one field season ever."

Jones says he is proud of the company's track record for safety, which earned it a multi-year "Celebrate Safety" award from the Corps.

Neil Folcik, a Corps of Engineers project manager in Alaska, said the Eielson Farm Road project involved more work than originally anticipated.

"A lot of fuel got spilled and went to the water table," Folcik explained. "There were three or four acres of contaminated soil. We first estimated there were about 30,000 tons of soil, but added another 10,000 tons this year. The plume migrated a little. It was first mapped in 2006 and expanded by 20 percent in 2011."

Folcik said the project first involved removing rusted cars and debris that had accumulated there over the years on what became Alaska Mental Health Trust property.

"We have an agreement with the Mental Health Trust that they won't sell the property or give it back to the state while we're actively cleaning it up," Folcik said, adding that although the water table had been affected by the contamination, there was no risk to those living down gradient of the site. "It could be 30 years before drinking water there is back to acceptable standards," he says.


Site Logistics

When it comes to easily accessing clean-up sites, Eklutna and Eielson are a piece of cake compared to the Pribilof Islands and sites along the Aleutian Chain, Folcik says.

"We're spending millions just to get to the remote sites," he says. "We're chartering helicopters and barges to reach some spots."

Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island involved the removal of contaminated drums and infrastructure before the PCB-tainted soil could be cleaned up. The site is about 60 miles from Savoonga, and is being remediated by Bristol Environmental Corp..

"Our costliest project so far is at the Northeast Cape," Andraschko said. "I'm guessing it's in the $80 million range."

Andraschko had high praise for the NALEMP program.

"It's a wonderful program," he said. "We recognize that FUDS can't get everywhere. NALEMP fills in the gaps and takes care of some of the things that FUDS can't get to in a quick and timely fashion or where the risk perspective isn't very high. The two programs complement each other."

Andraschko said the programs appear to be stable for at least the next five years.

"Everything depends on Congress," he said. "They're typically funding it nationally at $150 million to $300 million a year since the '80s. But there's still quite a lot of sites to take care of."

One of those more remote sites in the Aleutians at Atka had been used during WWII as an Air Force Station. It had a runway, hospital and radio communications station that had eventually deteriorated, along with a grease and oil pit buried 10 feet below the surface.

The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association contracted with Chilkat Environmental to investigate the oil and tar drum pit site there through NALEMP last fall because residents were dissatisfied with previous efforts to locate the pit.

The pit's close proximity to a creek that flows into a nearby bay worried residents. The creek supports a salmon run that helps sustain their subsistence lifestyle, according to a 2008 environmental report.

The population of about 100 is almost exclusively Aleut, whose ancestral occupation goes back at least 2,000 years. The U.S. Navy evacuated the residents in June 1942, forcibly, to internment camps where many died, and burned the village to the ground to prevent any use by the invading Japanese army, according to history. The site was abandoned by the military in late 1945 and the surviving Aleuts returned to the island.

In 1986, the Army Corps of Engineers hired a contractor to demolish abandoned military buildings on Atka.

"Building debris, thousands of drums, over 400,000 square feet of runway matting, and other materials were buried in at least five disposal sites in the area," the report said. "No contamination sampling was performed at the time."

It wasn't until 1998 that the Corps of Engineers performed a site investigation to identify numerous contaminant sources there.

Bruce Wright, senior scientist of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, said the Atka project is a perfect example of the cooperative nature of NALEMP with environmental mitigation companies and the Native communities they are serving.

"Elijah went out there and listened to the elders, who told him they were looking too far south for the drum pit," Wright said. "They told him he needed to move over 10 feet to find it. Sure enough, it was there. The drums were in really bad condition."

Wright said it's common for folks to wonder why drums containing toxic chemicals would be buried and abandoned by the military after WWII.

"People used to not treat these things as very toxic," Wright said. "It wasn't until the Exxon Valdez incident and research conducted on the water and wildlife there that there was a push for higher toxicity standards. We realized that was really dangerous stuff we were dealing with. It wasn't as organic as mother's cherry pie, after all."

K.T. McKee is a writer living in Wasilla.
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Comment:Decontaminating Alaska: cleaning up the 49th State.(ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES)
Author:McKee, K.T.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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