After visiting several Alaska communities — including Utqiaġvik — last week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said they will provide a grant to help clean up legacy contamination on lands at Utqiaġvik’s former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory.
The funds announced Friday are coming from the EPA’s $20 million program to assist Alaska tribal entities with the cleanup of lands, contaminated at the time of transfer through the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced the first round of funding — totaling $2.5 million — in Fairbanks, during the last stop of the administrator’s Journey to Justice trip through Alaska where he discussed environmental justice concerns.
“We’re excited to deploy these funds and help Alaska Native communities clean up the legacy contamination left behind on conveyed lands,” Regan said in a prepared statement.
“When you can’t access your lands for development or subsistence, the federal government has failed on the commitment of ANCSA,” Senator Murkowski said. “It’s why I fought so hard to make funding available for cleaning up the mess left behind in Arctic communities such as Utqiaġvik so that we can start correcting this long-time environmental injustice.”
Because of military activity, fuel storage, waste handling practices and mining on ANCSA lands decades ago, remaining contaminants such as arsenic, asbestos, lead, mercury and petroleum products are still posing health concerns to Alaska Native communities and harming subsistence resources, EPA officials said in a statement.
To begin the cleanup process, the first grants will go to three Alaska Native corporations —Utqiaġvik’s Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., Ounalashka Corp. and Tyonek Native Corp. — for projects that were considered “shovel-ready” and could start in the fiscal year of 2023, explained EPA regional spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski.
Funds from this initial round of grants are expected to be awarded between September and October of this year, and projects are expected to be completed in 2024, Skadowski said. EPA expects to select additional projects for funding in late 2023 or in 2024.
In this round of funding, Tyonek Native Corp. has been selected to receive $1 million to decommission abandoned drums and clean up any remaining petroleum on the Iniskin Peninsula, according to the EPA’s statement In turn, Ounalashka Corp. is set to receive $1 million to remove soils contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, at a World War II-era warehouse in Dutch Harbor.
Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp. has been selected to receive more than $580,000 to assess and clean up the consequences of a fuel spill at the NARL powerhouse and conduct lead and asbestos testing and abatement at the powerhouse, wastewater treatment plants and other buildings, Skadowski said.
Several fuel spills have been reported at the former NARL in the past. The facility is bordered on the southwest by Imikpuk Lake, one of the two local potable water sources.
While NARL was previously a U.S. Navy facility, UIC now owns the property. The organization operates the Barrow Arctic Research Center to host scientific research at the now de-commissioned NARL campus.
“Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation is thrilled and honored to be one of the first organizations to be selected for the EPA’s project funding aimed at addressing contaminated ANCSA lands,” UIC President and CEO Pearl Brower said in a prepared statement. “The important work that is to come from the EPA Contaminated ANCSA Land Assistance Agreements resonates deeply with our core commitment to protecting our lands for future generations.”
Visit to Utqiaġvik
During his visit to Utqiaġvik last Wednesday, Regan met with students from Barrow High School, who shared their concerns about climate impacts like beach erosion and thawing permafrost which is impacting the town’s infrastructure, said Tim Carroll, EPA spokesperson. He also talked to Iḷisaġvik College students about the impacts of climate change and the future of clean energy.
The Iḷisaġvik students greeted the EPA administrator with traditional drumming and motion dancing, said Tiġiġluk Frieda Nageak, external affairs coordinator at Iḷisaġvik.
Students were also able to talk to Regan about “the importance of clean water, clean lands because we’re still hunting on our lands,” Nageak said.
“It was really awesome that they came and they wanted to listen, they wanted to hear from students,” Nageak said. “He talked about the students as future generations and that they are the decision-maker ... youth standing up for the environment themselves.”
In Utqiaġvik, Regan visited several contaminated sites, including the powerhouse at former NARL. He also stopped by Imikpuk Lake, where the levels of “forever chemicals” PFOA and PFOS – which don’t degrade in the environment – have been detected over EPA’s lifetime health advisory level, Carroll said.
The visit to Utqiaġvik was crucial for the EPA administrator to hear directly from Indigenous communities and their elected leadership, said Kate Wolgemuth, program and government affairs manager for the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, who was present during the trip.
“This visit enabled you to see and understand firsthand how contamination from abandoned federal government materials left decades ago is still affecting our lives,” Wolgemuth said during a press conference last Thursday. “These sites are both directly in our communities and on the lands and waters where we hunt, fish, and gather to feed our people.”