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Tracking Toxics

by BILL SHERWONIT

Published in the July/August 2003 issue of Orion magazine



MORE THAN ONE HUNDRED MILES from Alaska’s western coastline, and only forty miles from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula, St. Lawrence Island is a mostly flat, wind-battered, and isolated finger of land surrounded by the stormy but fertile waters of the northern Bering Sea. Its volcanic high point, Atuk Mountain, reaches 2,207 feet above the sea. But most of St. Lawrence is boggy, lowland tundra, dotted by hundreds of ponds, lakes, and sloughs. Large numbers of migratory birds nest in these wetlands each year, while salmon spawn in streams, marine mammals congregate on beaches, and some of the Bering Sea’s largest seabird colonies crowd high coastal cliffs.

Most Americans would consider the 105-mile-long island a desolate, forbidding, middle-of-nowhere sort of place. Yet Siberian Yup’ik Eskimos have made it their home for more than two thousand years. As recently as the 1700s, four thousand people inhabited the island, called Sivuqaq by the Yup’iks. Today, approximately fourteen hundred people reside there, split between two villages. Gambell occupies the island’s northwesternmost tip; Savoonga lies forty miles to the east, along Kookoolik Cape. Residents depend on local animals and plants for their survival: walrus, seals, bowhead whales, fish, crab, waterfowl and seabirds, reindeer, berries, roots, greens. It’s a hard but fulfilling life.

In 1952, the Yup’iks gained some new neighbors. As part of America’s Cold War build-up against the Soviet Union, the U.S. military established an army post at Gambell and an air force base and radar site at Northeast Cape, where many residents traditionally harvested plants, fish, and mammals. Only a decade later, Savoonga health aide Annie Alowa began to notice unusual health problems among the island’s residents, such as cancer and increased miscarriages.

Base commanders were either unaware or unconcerned that their activities and waste-disposal sites endangered local residents. And when the military shut down its bases in the early ‘70s it left behind a toxic stew: nine square miles contaminated by 220,000 gallons of spilled fuel plus unknown quantities of solvents, asbestos, heavy metals, and PCBs. One barrel dump contains more than 29,000 drums, some leaking unknown fluids.

For two decades, Alowa tried to get the air force to clean up its mess. She was sent from one agency to another, with no results. Then, in 1997, a discouraged Alowa met Pamela K. Miller at an environmental health conference. An activist with Greenpeace at the time, Miller would soon launch her own grassroots organization, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), to promote environmental justice and help communities hold polluters accountable. That summer the two toured Northeast Cape, taking photographs and samples to build their case.

MOST PEOPLE, RESIDENTS INCLUDED, imagine Alaska to be a wildly pristine place, but it is pockmarked with poisons like those on St. Lawrence Island. Maps compiled by ACAT show more than two thousand toxic sites statewide, contaminated by radioactive wastes, PCBs, oil spills, asbestos, heavy metals, pesticides, or other pollutants. As one might expect, the majority of polluted sites are tied to industrial activities, for instance gold and lead-zinc mining or oil and gas development; in their unquenchable desire for rich bonanzas, these resource-extraction industries have made Alaska their dumping ground for decades. More surprising, perhaps, is the federal government’s toxic legacy: more than 650 sites—including nearly all of Alaska’s six Superfund sites, fifteen radio-active waste dumps, and nine chemical weapons dumps—are contaminated leftovers from military, coast guard, and Federal Aviation Administration activities.

The military has been an especially egregious offender, using Alaska as a surveillance outpost and testing ground for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, on ranges that cover an area the size of Kansas. Its toxic tracks reach back in time to World War II, when remote Alaska first became a critical cog in the nation’s defense. And they stretch geographically from the outer Aleutian Islands and southernmost panhandle to the heavily populated Anchorage-Fairbanks “railbelt” region, and on to Alaska’s farthest northern reaches, where now-abandoned DEW (Distance Early Warning) installations leak chemicals along the Arctic Coast.

As recently as the 1990s, the military abandoned obsolete posts without properly cleaning up its messes or telling local residents—in many instances, Native Alaskans—what contaminants might be poisoning their lands and waters, their foods, their own bodies. Even now, federal agencies are more likely to resist the attempts of individuals and communities to learn how their homelands have been poisoned, than to make amends for toxins left behind.

“The military, like industry, has perceived Alaska as a remote, sparsely populated place with a weak regulatory structure,” Miller says. “Neither has felt much obligation to clean up after itself, or to take responsibility for the damage that’s been done.”

In 1998, Miller accompanied Annie Alowa to a meeting with Colonel Sheldon Jahn, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. Speaking softly yet eloquently, the Yup’ik elder told of the fourteen villagers who’d died of cancer since the military’s arrival; all had regularly harvested and eaten foods from Northeast Cape. Jahn turned a deaf ear, and Alowa’s homeland remained a low-priority clean-up site.

That December, Annie Alowa became seriously ill. Taken to an Anchorage hospital, she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Before returning home to spend her final days with family, Alowa asked Miller to interview her. On videotape, a weary sadness filling her face, the seventy-four-year-old woman described in painful detail the harm done to her homeland. One last time, she beseeched the government to accept responsibility and make amends to St. Lawrence’s residents: “I say to the colonel and the people that messed up the village at Northeast Cape, a real nice place that used to be used by the Eskimos: would you please, if you are not the enemies of us, please come over and clean it up before more people die of cancer. I will be very thankful.”

Annie Alowa died less than two months later, on February 19, 1999. Shortly before her death, she called Miller and urged her to continue spreading the island’s story.

That spring, ACAT and Alaskan filmmaker Jean Riordan produced a short documentary video that combines interview excerpts with footage of the island, its people, and the Northeast Cape dumping ground. Alowa’s haunting words provided a powerful title: I Will Fight Until I Melt.

With permission from Annie’s family, Miller showed the tape to Colonel Jahn. Initially reluctant to watch the video, then angered by it, he accused Miller and Alowa of spreading lies. Miller next showed the video publicly, at an event co-sponsored by ACAT. Among those present were Marilyn Heiman, special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, and Michele Brown, commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Afterward, Heiman and Brown sent copies of the video to several government agencies, including the Department of Defense. Colonel Jahn again vehemently protested its contents.

But at the end of his three-year rotation in Alaska, Jahn was reassigned. And, given a more receptive audience, Alowa’s softer, heart-spoken plea ultimately drowned out Jahn’s angry denials. Since the change in command, the Corps’s Alaska district has moved St. Lawrence Island to the top of its clean-up list. In a press release issued last fall, Colonel Steven L. Perrenot stated, “We are aware of the dangers of these contaminants and that is why we are dedicating almost fifty percent of our program dollars to cleaning up St. Lawrence as quickly as we can.”

According to the Corps, removal of debris and contaminants began in 1994. Its staff expects that the agency will spend $58 million during a seventeen-year program to remove hazardous wastes from Northeast Cape. Still, Miller insists the Corps can do more. She says its clean-up crews have largely ignored the advice of elders who’ve suggested places to excavate. And they’ve so far done little to remove solvents and other toxics from the soils and groundwater.

But Alowa and ACAT’s combined efforts have been rewarded in other ways. In 2000, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) awarded ACAT a four-year, $800,000 grant to conduct environmental justice research on St. Lawrence Island. ACAT’s collaborators include the island’s two villages, a regional native health corporation, and scientists from the State University of New York. Among the study’s goals: identify all sources of contamination; seek links to local health problems; determine ways to clean up toxics; and provide information about contaminants in traditional foods.

ACAT coordinator June Gologergen-Martin and her assistant Viola Waghiyi have been assigned to shepherd the St. Lawrence research. Cousins, both are Yup’ik Eskimos born and raised in Savoonga. Each of their fathers spent considerable time at Northeast Cape, harvesting food or working. Each man died from cancer. “What we’ve learned has been devastating,” says Gologergen-Martin, referring to the links between the chemicals and illnesses. Though proud of the work they’re doing, Waghiyi emphasizes it’s a bittersweet task: “It’s not just a job for us. We know many of the people who’ve gotten sick, died. Our hearts are in this.”

With NIEHS funding—and at the request of island residents—ACAT arranged in 2001 for blood sampling and analyses to be done. Sixty people volunteered. Last October, test results showed that St. Lawrence residents have PCB levels nearly ten times greater than average Americans. The highest amounts were found in islanders who had worked at Northeast Cape or regularly used the area to harvest food. In February, Alaska’s Division of Public Health disputed ACAT’s interpretation of the testing. The state argued that the study failed to prove that PCB contamination is any worse on St. Lawrence than in other coastal communities where PCBs are ingested through the ocean food chain. “For the state to say these PCB levels are normal is an outrage,” an angry Miller responded.

Meanwhile ACAT’s work at St. Lawrence Island has greatly increased demand for its technical assistance. Requests from Native Alaskan tribal leaders have increased exponentially. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” Miller says. “But then the problems are overwhelming.”

AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH, a half dozen or so women from ACAT gather in the upstairs office of a drab, boxy building that fronts Northern Lights Boulevard, one of Anchorage’s main commercial drives. Amid laughter and stories, they fill a table with salads and breads, fish and fruit. Then, for an hour or two, they share potluck dishes and progress reports. “These are our harmony meetings,” says June Gologergen-Martin. “All of us are doing such big tasks; this is a nice way of checking in with each other.”

Though the mood in the room is usually upbeat, the conversations are edged in black, laced with references to PCBs, pesticides, radioactive waste dumps, and cancer. It’s hard and often discouraging work, and these meetings help ACAT staff and volunteers support each other’s efforts in a spirit-boosting way.

Because ACAT emphasizes environmental justice and human health, Miller says, “we get a lot of support and interest from people who don’t necessarily consider themselves environmentalists.” In its short history, the group has become an information clearinghouse and referral service for all manner of citizens. Some are veterans who once worked at Alaska’s military installations. Others are industry whistleblowers, or ordinary people who come to ACAT seeking advice or help addressing environmental hazards after they’ve exhausted other avenues.

The group has built especially strong ties with several Alaska native tribes—no small feat because many of the state’s indigenous peoples have come to distrust the motives of environmentalists. Too many times, local and national “greenie” groups have used native issues to raise money for themselves, or they’ve co-opted native interests for their own purposes.

ACAT’s close working relationship with Native Alaskans reflects directly on Miller, a transplanted Ohioan who was schooled in marine biology and came to Alaska in 1989 with Greenpeace, a group reviled by many natives because of its anti-whaling reputation. Miller and other Greenpeace activists worked hard to build bridges with Alaska’s indigenous tribes and together they formed coalitions to fight toxic pollution. When Greenpeace decided in 1997 to focus its energies on global climate change, Miller left and started ACAT. “I felt a moral obligation to the people who’d asked for our help,” she explains. “I couldn’t abandon them.”

“Pam is unique,” says Elijah Donat, who works for a tribally owned business in southeast Alaska. “She focuses on issues that directly affect native people, but she only helps when asked to. She recognizes native sovereignty and hires locals on her projects. Plus more than half her staff are Native Alaskans.”

One of those employees, environmental justice coordinator Shawna Larson, was named a “young visionary” by Utne Reader in 2002 for her work with ACAT. In her late twenties, Larson is part Athabascan, part Aleut, and full-blooded activist. For two years she specialized in certain air- and water-borne pollutants and joined international efforts to eliminate their use. Now this mother of a young daughter and infant son is working with Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes to ensure that people’s rights to public health and a clean environment are protected. Many of Alaska’s native villages are small, isolated, and cash poor. Standing alone, they have little, if any, political clout. But working together—and with advocates such as ACAT—they can right past wrongs, prevent additional abuses, and increase the odds that they’ll be treated justly.

“We need to hold the U.S. government accountable for its mistakes,” Larson says. “It’s our job to right the wrongs. I know firsthand what challenges the tribes are facing. For many communities, the most pressing question is, why are cancer rates so high? People ask, “Are our fish contaminated? Are our caribou contaminated? Am I contaminated?” They’re worried. And they want our help.”

From the start, Miller established for ACAT a philosophy of “listening and respect” when working with indigenous peoples. “We don’t impose ourselves on people and we don’t presume to have all the answers,” she explains. “Our job is to provide assistance.”

When ACAT marked its fifth anniversary last December, there was plenty to celebrate. Among the smallest of Alaska’s environmental organizations (with a staff of five and an annual budget of less than $500,000), ACAT has quickly established itself as one of the most effective in fighting for clean air and clean water, contaminant-free landscapes, and toxic-free foods in our nation’s “Last Frontier.”

In July of 1999, ACAT teamed up with the student group Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) to protest the Anchorage School District’s use of pesticides to control insects, spiders, and rodents. Weeks later, the district canceled its annual district-wide spraying of poisons, which had included chloropyrifos, since banned by the EPA. Then in February 2000, the school district adopted a least-toxic pest management policy. Largely written by ACAT, it’s among the most progressive in the nation. In announcing the change, Superintendent Carol Comeau vowed, “We will use non-chemical measures first, with pesticides used only as a last resort and with parental notification.”

One creative spin-off of the pesticide project is the Organic Peace Garden. A cooperative effort with students of nearby Steller Secondary School, the garden is about the size of a football field. It has flower beds, trees, a park bench, and a vegetable garden that produces lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and beets. To help celebrate Rachel Carson’s birthday, and to raise public awareness of pesticide-free growing methods, ACAT uses the plot to host organic gardening workshops each spring. The garden is also a place where staff members eat meals and have their harmony meetings during Alaska’s warmer, greener months. And some of its harvest is donated to Kids’ Kitchen, which provides free meals to children at local recreational centers.

“What I love about the garden is that it gives us a chance to walk our talk,” says Lydia Darby, a special-projects consultant to ACAT. “Most of the work we do is in the political realm. But this is very personal, it’s in the community realm. And it’s a way we can be a positive role model.”

NOW 19, KATE BRYSON was a ninth grader when she helped to found AYEA in November 1998. Joining forces with ACAT for its “first big campaign”—the successful and much publicized pesticide project—helped to give the teenage activists credibility. “The pesticide project was an amazing step forward for me,” says Bryson, who later joined Miller’s staff for a six-month internship, during which she conducted pesticide research, testified before the Alaska Legislature, and spoke at news conferences. Those experiences reinforced Bryson’s desire to become a professional activist (to be balanced, somehow, with teaching and writing).

Through working closely with young people, ACAT is spreading hope of a less toxic future among Alaska’s next generation of activists. “Pam has been an immense teacher,” says Bryson. “And my work with ACAT has expanded my understanding of what it means to be an activist: the long hours, the frustrations, the excitement,” and above all, she adds, “the ability to change how things are done.”

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This article has been abridged for the web.

BILL SHERWONIT has called Alaska home since 1982. He has contributed to a wide variety of publications, and is the author of nine books about Alaska including Denali.

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