Village Corps. CEOs push for contaminated land cleanup
Spread throughout Alaska are hundreds of parcels of contaminated land, the legacy of past development on what was once federal land.
Now those parcels are owned by Alaska Native corporations, conveyed as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act during the past four decades, and the Alaska Native Village CEO Association is at the forefront of a push to get them cleaned up through a process that starts with identifying what parcels are a priority and getting the federal government to help address them.
According to a Jan. 27 letter from Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the sites were conveyed before the contaminants were recognized.
The corporations, and other Alaska Native organizations, have said the contamination — which includes arsenic, asbestos, PCBs, mining waste chemicals, spilled diesel, mercury, petroleum products and other pollutants — is an unjust liability for the corporations, according to ANVCA Chairman Maver Carey, who founded that organization and is also the president and CEO of The Kuskokwim Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for 10 villages along the upper Kuskokwim River.
This summer, an intern with The Kuskokwim Corp., or TKC, is working with the Bureau of Land Management to identify contaminated sites.
That’s one step toward addressing the issue, Carey said, and she said it was positive to see the BLM focusing on the issue.
Eventually, she’d like ANVCA to work with the State of Alaska to identify the top three to five priority sites for federal cleanup.
“We’re trying not to just go with a problem,” Carey said. “We’re trying to come up with solutions.”
There are a lot of options for top sites — there are about 650 known contaminated sites, according to Carey, with more being discovered.
Those range from legacy wells to old mines to various spills.
According to Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., sites near Imikpuk Lake — Barrow’s primary source of freshwater —were contaminated as a result of diesel and gasoline spilled by the Navy in the 1950s. Near the Kuskokwim River, the former Red Devil Mine is on land to be conveyed to TKC, and tests have shown that pike, burbot, Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling and other fish have elevated levels of mercury, leading to fish consumption warnings for the middle river area, according to that corporation.
The contaminated land poses several problems.
Foremost, it’s a health and safety concern for area residents, particularly those living a subsistence lifestyle, said Brennan Cain, vice president and general counsel for The Eyak Corp., who has been involved in the issue since the mid-2000s.
“People are being exposed to contamination,” he said.
It’s also an issue of fairness, Cain said. The land was conveyed, along with money, to extinguish aboriginal rights throughout the state.
“You can’t extinguish rights by conveying a legal liability,” Cain said.
According to Carey, it has also resulted in significant delays to economic development projects and business investments in Alaska, and Cain agreed.
“You can’t put certain resources to use if they’re contaminated,” he said.
Cleaning the sites will be expensive, and Alaska groups want to see the federal government foot the bill for contamination that occurred before the Alaska entities received title to the land.
In a 1998 report, the Department of the Interior agreed that the land was a problem, and made six recommendations for cleaning the land. Then, nothing happened.
By the time Cain got involved, it seemed that no one was aware of the 1998 report.
That’s been changing, however.
For the past several years, Carey, Cain and others have worked to get the federal government to recognize that 1998 report, and start acting upon it.
Carey said it was Cain who first brought the issue forward to ANVCA in 2012 when the organization decided to get involved in political issues, and was looking for concerns that it could address.
Cain said he first became aware of the issue while working at a private legal firm earlier in the 2000s. When Carey mentioned that ANVCA was researching issues, he brought it up.
“Everyone agreed, yeah, this is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Several other individuals hopped onboard, and have helped with the push, Cain said. Other Alaska Native organizations, including the Alaska Federation of Natives and ANCSA Regional Association, also got involved.
Although the 1998 report was largely shelved, Cain also noted that some federal entities have already worked on the issue.
The Federal Aviation Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other branches of the military have cleaned up some lands, he said.
Tanadgusix Corporation, or TDX, also cleaned up some of its own land in the Pribilof Islands using federal funds. According to information provided by that village corporation, about $76 million was spent on the cleanup by various entities.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has also helped with the issue, both Cain and Carey said.
“There was support from all three of our Alaska delegation,” Carey said.
Last fall, the delegation wrote a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, raising the issue of the contaminated lands.
Now, the 1998 report has been acknowledged, Cain said, including in a January 2014 letter from Jewell to each member of the Alaska delegation.
In January, Jewell wrote: “The department is committed to determining what sites identified in the 1998 Report were conveyed under ANCSA in order to continue follow-up on the six recommendations. We will continue to work collaboratively with the Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Alaska, ANCSA corporations, and tribal governments as appropriate.”
Jewell’s advisor on Alaska issues, Pat Pourchot, also addressed state Rep. Charisse Millet, R-Anchorage, acknowledging the land issue and 1998 report.
Now that the report is back in the forefront, other work is also underway.
“Our delegation is, I think, kind of brainstorming solutions,” Cain said.
Cain said he wants to see federal legislation that ensures that Alaska Native corporations have no liability for sites that were contaminated when they were conveyed to the corporations.
He’d also like to see the federal government help pay for cleanup throughout the state. At best, the government could pay the Native corporations to do the work, he said.
“Local hire, shareholder hire, would be great,” Cain said.
Momentum for the issue has also grown within the state.
In February, Carey testified to the House Resources Committee asking the state to help with the issue, including by lobbying on the matter in Washington, D.C., and helping identify the top problem sites.
In March, the Alaska Legislature passed a resolution calling for the federal government to help with the issue. Carey said the response from the state administration was also positive, and follow up will be done now that the session is over to get things moving, she said.