Compass: Uncle Sam needs to clean up messes left to Alaskans

By REP. CHARISSE MILLETTSeptember 10, 2013 

Many of our Alaskan communities and private organizations are being plagued by the past actions of others. Near villages, streams and in forests, relics of projects from a bygone era pepper the landscape. Drums of oil containers, long abandoned military stations and solid waste dumps are reminders of a time when the lands of our state functioned essentially as a laboratory.

For the better part of the 20th century, various departments and agencies of the federal government either constructed or oversaw the building of thousands of facilities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense and many others constructed sites such as BIA schools, airstrips and transmission centers, and radar sites. As with any industrial and military site, heavy industrial materials and chemicals were in abundant supply. This included benzene, hundreds of petroleum drums, battery acid, asbestos and many others.

Once they had outlived their usefulness, a great number of these installations were simply vacated with no decommissioning efforts taken. Unfortunately, such actions have resulted in the past impacting the present in worrying ways. Now on state and private land, the hefty costs for properly cleaning up these deteriorating structures and materials are falling on the current landowners. The State of Alaska is picking up the bill in several instances. But Alaska Native corporations and other private landowners are subject to state and potentially federal fines while cleaning up the mess they did not create.

In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, also known as ANCSA. With 44 million acres promised to be conveyed, when the transfers are complete (6 million acres still to be conveyed) it will be the single largest transfer of lands to private ownership in American history. What was given in exchange for this legislation by Alaska Natives was the extinguishment of future land claims. Congress understood that this law was also meant to address historical inequities.

Within 20 years, it became apparent that many of the lands conveyed from federal management had contaminants on them. But the extent of the damage was unknown. In 1998, after Congress had mandated a report, the Department of the Interior acknowledged approximately 650 contaminated sites that existed on lands conveyed through ANCSA. Some sites had minor amounts of hazardous materials; others were designated Superfund sites with known carcinogens. All the liability, however, fell on the current landowner.

In that same report, the Interior Department proposed six recommendations to remediate these sites. To date, none of the recommendations have been implemented. This past July, an Interior Department official admitted that, once the report was submitted, the Department had no further involvement in the cleanup efforts.

Since the report was issued, local communities continue to be exposed to hazardous materials. Fish above a certain length are not supposed to be eaten from some streams due to the toxicity of the water. Millions of dollars are being spent to haul out industrial waste chemicals and building components.

Congressman Don Young stated, "It was clearly not the intent of ANCSA to extinguish Native claims by conveying contaminated property to recipients." Our congressional delegation fought tremendously, though ultimately was not able, to hold the appropriate agencies and departments responsible for the cleanup costs.

Rep. Benny Nageak, I and other members of the Alaska Native community will travel to Washington, D.C., this month. We are urging the administration to meet and identify a lead agency for the remediation process. The most hazardous sites need to be identified and cleaned up immediately. We will also press for those six recommendations from the 1998 Department of Interior Report to at last be implemented. Finally, we will urge Congress to pass legislation to do the right thing: Have the federal departments and agencies that created and then abandoned these sites take financial responsibility for cleaning them up.

If you also feel that those who created these contaminated lands need to take responsibility and restore them properly, please write or call the Department of Interior and tell them.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2009.

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