CAPE THOMPSON -- At the Project Chariot site, rusted-out pipes, wires and even a rotting fire extinguisher have lain on the tundra for more than 50 years, the last remnants of a plan to blast out a deep-water port in the Northwest Arctic using nuclear explosives.
And those last bits have left people who live in the region frustrated.
"It's a cover-up," said Point Hope Mayor Jack Schaefer, who has long been critical of the government's attempts to clean up the site over the last two decades.
The pipes, wires and temperature gauges are some of the last bits of materials left over on the tundra about 26 miles south of Point Hope and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They're the remnants of Operation Plowshare, a government program that in the 1950s and '60s aimed at peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. The harbor was a project that almost came to fruition, if not for the organized efforts of Alaska Natives in the region who quickly mobilized to oppose it.
No nuclear explosives were ever detonated at the site, nor were any bombs even brought to the region, government officials have long said. But many tests were conducted, including burying radioactive material and not telling the locals about it, according to documents uncovered by University of Alaska researcher Dan O'Neill, author of 'The Firecracker Boys," which documented the project's history.
That material was cleaned up in early '90s, with assurances that the materials posed no risk, but residents in the region worry that the cleanup process is far from complete. Some worry that nuclear weapons are buried in the area. Residents point to the site as a potential cause for illnesses, including cancer, though a direct link to the site has never been definitively established.
"We just want a clean environment for the animals and the people," said Point Hope resident Art Oomittuk. "This has been going on far too long."
As a result of those concerns, this summer the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management is cleaning up the last five "test holes" at the site.
The five holes were dug in the early '60s as part of testing at the location. Most of the holes were used to test the subsurface of the tundra, including permafrost temperatures. One hole was designed to test how the tundra would react to non-nuclear explosions.
This cleanup should be the last, said Mark Kautsky, the Energy Department's site manager for Office of Legacy Management. Kautsky said the government has done its research, looking at all the documents available on the project. Staff have traveled to Alaska to check the federal archives and worked with other agencies to track down any hidden files. Kautsky believes the information his agency has is the best available.
It was pressure from Point Hope residents that caused the government to act to clean up the test holes. Still, Kautsky said when the Office of Legacy Management heard there were still leftover materials at the site, officials were surprised.
"People were asking, 'What are these casings?'" Kautsky said. "And we were a little indignant. The Department of Energy thought this site was closed."
The cleanup, which consists of pulling out the casings and removing soil contaminated with diesel, is coming at a cost of $3 million, paid for by the Department of Energy.
Out on the tundra
The site is located in the green and lush Ogotoruk Valley. The Western Arctic caribou herd migrates through here, making it a popular area for subsistence hunting. White granite cliffs rise from the tundra, home to gulls and other seabirds. There's even a natural granite arch.
Manmade structures are few and far between. At the site there's a lone, weathered safety cabin put there by locals who hunt in the area. Planes land close to what appears to be a small gravesite, noted only by the small fence that surrounds it.
It's a change from when the government conducted research on the site. At its peak, the Atomic Energy Commission built five permanent structures and a semi-permanent camp that could house up to 90 workers. At one point three gravel air strips were in place, each over 2,000 feet long.
But this summer there's a little more human activity. Half a dozen canvas tents are set up on the site that parallels the end of Ogotoruk Creek. In it are subcontractors for the U.S. Department of Energy doing the last bits of remediation work in the area.
The crew pushes bulldozers, hauls gravel and drives all-terrain vehicles from test hole to test hole. Bear guards roam the perimeter with high-powered shotguns, on the lookout for grizzlies and polar bears. Every worker carries a handgun. They all wear heavy, mosquito-proof netting to combat the thick bugs that quickly swarm people at the remote site.
The workers are cleaning up five test holes in the area, named Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and X1. Dug between 1959 and 1962, the holes are spread out over roughly 1 square mile of marshy, bug-filled tundra.
Most of the test holes are small, less than 6 inches in diameter, their only remnants steel pipes that stick out about 1 to 2 feet above the ground. Four of the holes were used as entry points to lower down devices to test for subsurface temperatures. The fifth -- test hole X1 -- is slightly larger at about a foot in a diameter and was likely an "emplacement hole" used to test for how the permafrost would react to explosive devices. The government insists these tests were non-nuclear.
According to records, some of the test holes went down to 600 to 1,000 feet. John Halverson, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation contaminated sites program manager, said early holes had some localized diesel and other petroleum product spillage. But as they dug newer holes Dog and Charlie, they used chilled diesel along the walls of the holes to keep the permafrost from melting and causing the holes to collapse.
Because of that diesel contamination, hundreds of tons of dirt have been scraped off the permafrost to be hauled out to a waste disposal site in the Pacific Northwest in giant, heavy-duty polyethylene "super sack" bags.
"We wanted to get everything out of there," said Halverson, "to assure Alaskans that this is really gone."
'We keep finding it'
Because of its history, getting the dirt and materials far from the site has been priority. For years, the government withheld information on the site and potential impacts from a nuclear detonation. That led to challenges in public trust.
The Department of Energy had a meeting in Point Hope in March to explain the cleanup project. Kautsky said the whole thing was delayed last year after the death of an elder prevented
a meeting in the village. The agency plans to return after the cleanup is finished to share its results with Point Hope.
Kautsky said they tried to contact people from Point Hope to help work on the site but found that all the qualified workers were busy. Point Hope Mayor Schaefer said that's not the case and that Point Hope contractors were not selected for unknown reasons.
On a media tour of the site this month, no locals were included on the trip, much to the dismay of lifelong resident Mae Hank.
"Where's the tribe? Where's the city council?" she said. "We're the ones you're supposed to explain to."
Transparency hasn't been perfect. It was Kautsky's second time to the site that year. The project manager for Stoller Corp., a subcontractor for the Department of Energy working on the site, wasn't allowed to answer questions related to the cleanup. He couldn't even go on the record about a walrus that washed ashore several weeks ago and attracted an influx of brown and polar bears.
Halverson said he understands the villagers' concerns but could only offer his own assessment of the situation. He said that at nearly every cleanup public meeting he attends, there are always concerns about possible cancer causes, especially in rural Alaska.
"We can clean up all we can, give out all the information we can, and some still won't be satisfied," Halverson said. "Our focus is to know what's there, and if there's an unacceptable risk, we deal with it."
But some residents, like Hank, aren't convinced. She said the latest cleanup is just another "little bit of makeup" to cover up the situation.
"They always assure us it will be cleaned up," she said. "But then we keep finding it."