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December 08, 2023 Feature

Alaska’s Contaminated Lands Are an Environmental Injustice

By Senator Lisa Murkowski

In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which settled the aboriginal land claims of Alaska Natives in exchange for $962.5 million and fee simple title to approximately 45.7 million acres of land.

ANCSA’s nontreaty model has produced notable results over the past half century. More than 44 million acres of land have now been conveyed to the Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) it chartered. Many of those ANCs have become economic engines providing benefits to their Tribal members, villages, cities, regions, and the state as a whole.

Yet, there is also a deep stain on ANCSA’s legacy, in the form of a shocking environmental injustice. Under this landmark law, the federal government has conveyed lands with hundreds of significantly contaminated sites to Alaska Natives.

The extent of this contamination has never been fully inventoried, but it is extensive, involving lands, facilities, and equipment previously utilized by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The state of Alaska has estimated that some level of contamination could affect up to 17.6 million acres, or 40 percent of what has been conveyed under ANCSA.

As depicted on the map above, this is not the “eight stars of gold on a field of blue” we celebrate on Alaska’s flag—these are a thousand points of blight damaging the natural environment and the health of people across our state.

Some contamination is occasionally visible, including leaking barrels, corroding fuel tanks, and unexploded ordnance from World War II. But much of it cannot be easily detected because it is either buried or harmful even in small quantities. That list includes arsenic, asbestos, mercury, toxic metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are often abbreviated as PCBs.

Over the years, examples of contamination on ANCSA lands have become well known, often in the wake of unexplained sickness or worse.

At a field hearing I held in Unalaska last year, Hallie Bissett, the executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association (ANVCA), testified about contaminated drinking water in communities such as Utqiagvik and Unalakleet, where leaking jet fuel was the source.

The mayor of Unalaska, Vincent Tutiakoff, testified about the sustained loss of fish populations and clam beds and how local residents unknowingly used contaminated materials from infrastructure left on conveyed lands to help weatherize their homes.

Alaska news organizations have also reported on contamination found in berries, which are an important subsistence food, in places such as St. Lawrence Island.

Contaminated sites have led to a slowdown in ANCSA conveyances and the loss of economic opportunities those lands were meant to provide. But nothing compares to the physical impacts of exposure, which are often horrific and can result in toxic poisoning. In humans, the effects have ranged from hair loss, skin burns, and illnesses to clusters of Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and untimely death.

This crisis is not getting better with time. As climate change accelerates, erosion and other factors are literally bringing old contamination to the surface. As that occurs, decades of burying and abandoning equipment and waste are proving to be anything but a “best practice.”

So, what is being done to remedy this historic injustice?

Since the issue came to the forefront in the early 1990s, Congress has repeatedly issued directives to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), within the Department of the Interior, which was responsible for the conveyances.

Progress has been made to identify contaminated lands and, in 2018, Congress passed legislation providing that ANCs are not liable for contamination on lands that occurred prior to conveyance to them.

Otherwise, the past three decades have largely been an exercise in frustration as agencies finger-point among themselves and environmental degradation continue.

The federal response actually started on a promising note. As groups like the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) worked with Alaska’s congressional delegation to find solutions, the Department of the Interior initially sought to lead. For a moment, it appeared that recognition of the problem would be matched with determination and concrete actions to address it.

In 1998, BLM issued a report documenting at least 650 ANCSA sites with known contamination. The report included six recommendations, and the agency vowed to “coordinate implementation of these recommendations, although other agencies such as the EPA and the Corps of Engineers may take the lead in certain aspects” of them.

Unfortunately, that never came to be. In response to further congressional directives, BLM issued an updated report in 2016, which documents a total of 920 contaminated sites in Alaska in what it described as a still preliminary inventory. Only 328 sites had been remediated, and another 338 sites still require “additional cleanup.” There are 94 “orphans” with no clear responsible party, and 104 others need further vetting to determine whether they should be added to that list.

At this point, BLM also changed tact, asserting that it was merely the “real estate agency” for ANCSA land conveyances. Claiming it held no legal authority for cleanup, either on its own or to compel other agencies, BLM sought to task the EPA and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation with that responsibility—thereby prolonging the federal failure.

Today, however, amid the national push for environmental justice, there is renewed hope for a more sustained effort to address ANCSA-contaminated lands.

At the Unalaska field hearing I held last year, the Department of the Interior was once again unwilling to take the lead to address this longstanding issue, but the EPA has agreed to step in to facilitate the federal response.

The revived Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which is composed of senior officials from numerous federal agencies, is making this a priority.

Congress is also taking action through both oversight and legislation. I established the Contaminated ANCSA Lands Assistance Program at the EPA to offer both technical assistance and grants to tribal entities in Alaska to empower them to help clean up their own lands. Congress approved $20 million for this new program in fiscal year 2023. The first grants were announced in August 2023, and I have included $30 million for the program in the Senate’s fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills.

These are all positives, but the situation demands perspective. Today’s funding levels are a pittance compared to what is needed for full remediation, which is expected to cost billions of dollars. It could take hundreds of years to complete full remediation at the current pace. Given the scale of contamination on some lands, it’s also important to recognize that funding is only one part of a more comprehensive solution. In some instances, land exchanges and other options will need to be on the table to help make Alaska Natives whole.

Looking ahead, we need to pay special attention to the recommendations made by ANVCA, AFN, the State of Alaska, and other stakeholders. We need to do more to prioritize cleanup, including the completion of a full inventory of contaminated lands, the designation of responsible federal parties, and detailed plans to remediate each site. We also need to continue increasing federal appropriations for this purpose because cleanups cannot consist of roping off areas and telling those who live nearby, “Just don’t go there.”

It is also likely that the courts will be drawn in. While a lawsuit filed by the State of Alaska was dismissed in federal district court in July 2023, an appeal of that case and potential new claims from additional injured parties are surely on the horizon.

Ultimately, more administrative, legislative, and judicial action will be needed to fully remedy this longstanding environmental injustice. That is the only way forward to remove the stain on ANCSA’s legacy and fully protect the health, safety, and well-being of Alaska Natives.

Senator Lisa Murkowski

United States Senate

Senator Lisa Murkowski is Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator and was appointed to the Senate in 2002. She is a leader on energy and public land issues and continues to pursue policies to advance renewable energy.

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