The Cold War is over, but toxic waste from abandoned military sites is a troubling reminder of its legacy.

While toxic waste sites in the lower 48 states grab headlines, Alaska is grappling with its own toxic waste legacy, a byproduct of largely forgotten military operations. The installations, which numbered in the hundreds, served the U.S. well during the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. But they were abandoned as technology and a changing world order rendered them obsolete.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently mounted large-scale efforts to clean them up, but some critics are concerned that the cleanup wasn’t completed. Now, a scientific team that includes Clarkson Professor Tom Holsen, an air pollution specialist, is conducting extensive air, soil and water tests on more than 15 abandoned military sites in the state to determine how much toxic waste remains.

The project has taken Holsen to places unheard of by many Americans. St. Lawrence Island, for example, is a lonely outpost in the Bering Sea, closer to Russia than to the United States, and accessible only by sea and air. Its residents are Yupik Eskimos, who exist largely as a hunter-gatherer society. The project has also taken Holsen back to a period many Americans know little if anything about — a period when Alaska was a vital defense outpost.

The once-sizable military presence in Alaska, and the events which warranted that presence, have faded into history. After so many years, finding traces of the military presence can be difficult. Holsen’s team examined the sites but only found significant amounts of toxic waste at two locations on St. Lawrence Island. “The Army buried a lot of stuff there,” Holsen said. “You can see rusted metal from old oil drums and building debris.”
But that wasn’t the case for most of the sites. “From a distance, you couldn’t tell that many of them had been former military sites, except at those locations where certain buildings were left intact by agreement with the native population which still uses them,” said Holsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. In some sites, everything is gone. “It’s just tundra,” said Holsen. “The oldest local residents who used to work there would take us out and say, ‘Here’s where the buildings were.’”
AlaskaOne exception is an outpost of the early warning system located on Alaska’s mainland coast. It had been left intact, an eerie reminder of Cold War tensions and the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation. “We went into one building where paper and notebooks were still there on the desk. It looked like they just walked away and left everything.”
On St. Lawrence Island, residents blame the military’s abandoned toxic waste for widespread health issues, including cancer, reproductive problems, and nervous and immune system disorders, according to testimony before the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a unit of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“The military has caused impacts that are devastating to our land and environment,” Vi Waghiyi, coordinator of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, told the council in a 2004 hearing. “That affects our traditional subsistence lifestyle and culture that has sustained our very existence and survival.” Over four years have passed since that testimony without further cleanup on the island, which was once home to an Air Force base as well as a military early-warning outpost.
Holsen’s team ran the tests in 2006 and 2008 during the summer, when Alaska’s frigid climate and long nights give way to warmer weather and almost round-the-clock sunshine. The sites were chosen because of their proximity to tribal settlements or to tribal hunting and gathering grounds.
“We found high concentrations of pollution at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island,” said Holsen. The Northeast Cape was a traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering center. “Samples of soil and water that we had analyzed found PCBs and residual compounds from diesel fuel. Both could be characterized as suspected carcinogens.” Similar pollution turned up on the island at Gamble, home to a Native American community of roughly 800 people, he said.
A full-scale cleanup would help ease residents’ fears
about both sites, and allow them to return to Northeast Cape, which they have abandoned. “The people of
St. Lawrence want to reestablish a village on the cape,
but right now it’s unsafe to do so,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. The group hired Holsen’s team with funds from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
While the findings could help spur another round of cleanups, they won’t resolve the issue of whether military waste is making the local populations sick. Illnesses could also be caused by lifestyle, Holsen said. In Alaska’s remote Native American communities, smoking is widespread, and a diet high in the fatty tissue of ocean mammals is conducive to heart disease. The fat also contains a hidden threat — toxins that have accumulated as these mammals ate lower organisms. The underlying cause of this toxic buildup is manmade pollution in the oceans.
Holsen’s interest in the environment began in childhood. His time was spent in the Boy Scouts and on hiking, hockey and other outdoor sports. “It was punishment to have to stay in the house on rainy days,” he recalled. The Internet, video games and cable TV didn’t exist. “We didn’t have the indoor distractions kids have now.” Holsen found little appeal in most of what was available. An exception was the famed television series of undersea pioneer Jacques Cousteau. “The work of Jacques Cousteau was one of the drivers in my young life,” he said. Holsen had hoped for a career in marine biology until a cold assessment of economic reality convinced him that he was unlikely to find a job in that field.
That didn’t deter him from a career in environmental research. After earning three degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, he has specialized in air pollution, focusing on how pollution moves long distances through the atmosphere. His specialty earned him a place on the Alaska research team alongside Jeff Chiarenzelli, professor of geology at St. Lawrence University, and Ron Scrudato, former professor of geology at the State University of New York at Oswego. This research project focuses on a region of the United States that is often no more than a second thought for residents of the lower 48 states. But Alaska has long been of interest to the military. For instance, in 1897 a military outpost was established at Fort Saint Michael to maintain order during the Yukon Gold Rush.
During World War II, the military’s presence grew exponentially. Alaska served as a way stop for aircraft being flown to our then ally, the Soviet Union. (Its Air Force had been largely destroyed when the Nazis attacked in 1940.) In addition, troops were stationed in Alaska to block any attempt by the Japanese to invade the U.S. through the far north.
But by the early 1950s, the Soviet Union was our enemy. Its western-most region lay roughly 60 miles across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The military responded by building radar stations in the state to monitor movement by Soviet aircraft. When fear of an air strike gave way to visions of a Soviet missile attack, the military built an early-warning system across Arctic Alaska. By 1981, the system had been superseded by satellite technology, and gradually the sites were abandoned. The military left behind equipment and supplies. The latter included containers of brake fluid, fuel drums of petroleum products, anti-freeze, and containers and transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, according to a 2006 report funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. A cleanup program began in the mid-1980s, but the program was underfunded the report said.
While the defense sites were operating, the military presence was a welcome addition in Eskimo villages because it provided jobs for the populace, and paying jobs are a chronically scarce commodity in the area. Much of the populace subsisted — and continues to subsist — on hunting and gathering, and whaling.
Now the military jobs are gone, and the Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island want to reclaim parts of their island they believe are unusable because of abandoned waste.
“Some of these sites would have cost a tremendous amount of money to clean up,” Holsen added. “There was a limited pot of money. So the military did what they could. But they’re not done. I hope there will be more money forthcoming, in part because of the work we have done.”