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Tour of toxic sites shows need for clean-up

Technicians from Brice Engineering sample soil stockpiles at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska in September 2020.
Courtesy Brice Engineering
Technicians from Brice Engineering sample soil stockpiles at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska in September 2020.

Environmental activists toured several contaminated sites around Fairbanks last week, with the hope of drawing attention from federal officials.

The Biden administration has asked that 40% of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. It is called the Justice40 Initiative.

“Which gives great opportunity to marry policy and practice as well as funding from federal appropriations,” Johnson said.

That’s Dana Johnson, Senior Director of Strategy and Federal Policy, from a national organization called WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She spoke at a forum hosted by Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and Native Movement.

Johnson said WE ACT is trying to connect organizations to increase the likelihood that the billions of federal dollars in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and other appropriations – might be used to clean up pollution sites.

“This is our effort to ensure that we leverage this opportunity.”

Other community leaders shared concerns about toxic sites.

Vi Waghiyi, of Savoonga, works with Alaska Community Action on Toxics tracking old military contamination on her home island in the Bering Sea.

“We have legacy military toxics on our island from two Cold War era defense sites. We've identified PCBs, pesticides, heavy metals and solvents. My people have four-to-10 times higher PCBs (in their blood) than the average American in the lower 48.”

Waghiyi is serving her second term on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council as the Arctic regional representative.

“We helped to convene this Jusitce40rward tour to work with state and federal agencies to find solutions. We have been working on these issues for decades,” Waghiyi said.

After the forum, the group toured several polluted sites around Fairbanks that have contamination from military or industrial uses. The former North Pole Refinery, where spills of sulfolane, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), created a contaminated groundwater plume extends into residential wells… Eielson Air Force Base, where several lakes on base are closed to fishing because of PFAS contamination… the community of Moose Creek, where chemicals from fire-fighting foam were found in blood samples of local residents last year.

The Justice40 Initiative has identified much of downtown Fairbanks as underserved, but also most of Alaska outside of the cities.

Siqiñiq Maupin of the organization, Sovereign Iñupiaq for a Living Arctic says its also important to look at oil and gas industry pollution, and learn how to transition away from oil and gas as the resource dries out, and becomes too expensive to clean up.

“We have not been able to invest properly in how to transition from oil and gas and be energy independent,” Maupin said.

She says not every Inupiat agrees with her view, but particularly on the North Slope, Native people are in an “economic hostage” situation, and need help with the transition.

 “If we were to pull away from oil and gas, that would mean we would lose funding for thre most expensive water system in the world, based in Utquiagvik, we would lose funding for essential food programs, and much of the privileges that, um, we have because of oil and gas,” Maupin said.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.