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Pollutants taint military legacy in Alaska

Like countless generations of Yup'ik Eskimos, George Noongwook's grandfather once pulled salmon and trout from the Suqitughneq River on St. Lawrence Island. But Noongwook has never done so.
Cold War Pollution
This undated photo provided by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics shows a fox walking around the abandoned Northeast Cape Air Force base on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. The buildings have since been cleared but underground contaminants have yet to be cleaned up.Alaska Community Action on Toxics via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like countless generations of Yup'ik Eskimos, George Noongwook's grandfather once pulled salmon and trout from the Suqitughneq River on St. Lawrence Island. But Noongwook has never done so.

The whaling captain from the village of Savoonga worries that the remnants of a 180,000-gallon diesel fuel spill from a deserted Cold War surveillance site 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 it is contaminated so they go elsewhere."

The old Northeast Cape Air Force base, 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, the Army Corps of Engineers says.

But funding for military cleanups in Alaska is dwindling steadily as the focus of cleanups has shifted to states with buried munitions, such as Hawaii, said Pat Richardson, a spokeswoman for the corps, which oversees the bulk of polluted sites in Alaska. The corps in Alaska received $20 million in 2007, down from $50 million in 1998.

And while state regulators say about half of the polluted sites have been sufficiently cleaned, environmental groups and residents don't consider some of those jobs complete.

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

During the Cold War, radar and satellite stations sprang up along the northern and western coasts to watch for Soviet air attacks over the North Pole.

"Our people welcomed the military, our men enlisted, they helped rescue downed planes and the Department of Defense has not taken into consideration the human health effects of these places," said Vi Waghiyi of the Norton Sound Alaska Project, an arm of the nonprofit Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Congressional hearing sought
Waghiyi hopes to travel to Washington next year with elders from St. Lawrence Island villages to seek a congressional hearing on the two badly polluted military sites on the island, she said.

Many of the 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 depend on wild plants and animals such as caribou, salmon and berries for sustenance.

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

"At Northeast Cape we're now moving to the leftover contamination in the ground, the nonvisible impacts, which are very real," said Carey Cossaboom, a project manager with the corps.

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. Long-abandoned landfills harbor unknown quantities of tainted scrap metal, diesel fuel, pesticides, heavy metals and PCBs — highly toxic compounds used to insulate transformers — that have seeped unchecked into soils and rivers, the records state.

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

Paul Nagaruk, former mayor of Elim, said most of the elders who lived near a former Army installation at Moses Point, an important Inupiat Eskimo fishing site in western Alaska, have died of cancer.

"Another camp nearby didn't have access to Moses Point. They lived a lot longer and died of natural causes," he said.

A study in 2002 showed that Alaska Natives 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 to show any health effects, said David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the University of Albany who led the study.

In the meantime, residents of these isolated villages wait with varying degrees of patience as the cleanups that started in the 1990s run their course.

The village of Elim was not satisfied with the Moses Point cleanup, which the state shelved as completed two years ago. Its 300 residents have asked Alaska Community Action on Toxics for additional studies.

Of 1,500 contaminated sites within the 640 installations, about half 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."

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

In 2007, the Corps of Engineers received $262.8 million for the cleanup of 9,000 former defense sites nationwide. Nearly 8 percent of that went to Alaska, which trails only California and Florida in the number of such sites.

The ones in Alaska generally cost more to clean up because of the short summer work season and the logistics of traveling across vast stretches of roadless terrain.

"You can only go by barge to Northeast Cape and you need to get in by mid-June and get out by September or risk being stuck all winter," said Kenneth Andraschko, the corps' acting program manager for formerly used defense sites in Alaska. "You're at the whim of Mother Nature."

St. Lawrence Island residents hope that one of these summers, the sheen of diesel fuel and other chemicals will be removed from the Suqitughneq River. Then, just maybe, they will return to its banks to fish.

"You can smell it and you can see it," Noongwook said of the fuel. "Before the military came, the river was an important subsistence source, a great ecosystem."