Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Alaska Region   

Contaminant Cleanup

Contaminant Legacy - Amchitka Island

 Machine gun turret . Jordan Stout/USFWS. Click to Enlarge

The following is adapted from a poster presentation by Jordan H. Stout, US Fish & Wildlife Service Environmental Contaminants Program, Anchorage Field Office: Contaminated military sites on National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.


War Duties: Amchitka Island in the central Aleutian Islands was drafted into military service during World War II. This island in the Alaska Maritime Refuge became a forward fighter and bomber base for the Allies in January of 1943 in the campaign to recapture the Japanese-held islands of Attu and Kiska.

Suddenly a Small City: The facilities included living quarters, roads, runways and infrastructure to support dozens of fighter planes and, bombers, as well as15,000 troops stationed there.

Underground Nuclear Testing: Cold War era activities on Amchitka included a White Alice Communications Site (1959-61) and underground nuclear testing including the Longshot (1965), Milrow (1969) and Cannikin Projects (1971). At nearly five megatons, the Cannikin blast was the largest underground nuclear test ever performed by the United States.

Cold War Radar Site: A Relocatable Over The Horizon Radar (ROTHR) surveillance facility was operated on Amchitka from 1987 until the system was abandoned but left in place in 1993. The island has remained deserted since 1993 and no development (military or otherwise) is anticipated.

Remains of an Outpost . Jordan Stout/USFWS. Click to Enlarge

Contaminant Issues

The historic events left nearly 75 contaminated sites on Amchitka under three responsible parties: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Navy and Department of Energy.

Cleanup: Some of the cleanup issues include chemicals, ordnance, contaminated drilling muds and radionuclides. Chemicals in groundwater and soil include petroleum products as well as solid and hazardous wastes. Sewage sludges in the sewage lagoon contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at levels up to 463 ppm.

DDT: DDT-related compounds have been found in peregrine falcons, bald eagles and sea otters from Amchitka, although the source of these compounds is not clear.

Ordnance: Thirty-nine potential ordnance sites have been found, including practice ranges, defensive positions and storage and disposal areas.

Legacy of Nuclear Testing: The underground nuclear testing program on Amchitka produced well over 100,000 cubic yards of drilling muds contaminated with chromium, diesel fuel and PCBs. About 40,000 cubic yards of these drilling muds were contained within open reserve pits, many of which attracted waterfowl and had been known to fail, spilling contaminated drilling muds into adjacent wetlands and stream reaches.

Radionuclides: The nuclear testing program also produced radionuclides, some of which (tritium) were released during the Longshot blast and some of which may be released to the biosphere in the coming years. The timing, location and extent of future releases of other more persistent radionuclides are currently unknown.

Drilling mud pit clean-up in 2001 at the site of Longshot, the 8-kiloton underground nuclear test detonated in 1965.. Jordan Stout/USFWS. Click to Enlarge


Cleanup Actions

Demolition, Burial, Removal: The 2001 cleanup involved 200 people at a cost of more than $20 million. The Navy demolished 60 abandoned structures and facilities; removed 47 fuel storage tanks; treated 2,500 cubic yards of petroleum-contaminated soils; and remediated the sewage lagoon by shipping 2,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sludges off-island for incineration.

Detecting Ordnance: The Corps used historic records, computer-aided aerial photographic interpretation techniques and on-the-ground geophysical surveys to understand the nature and extent of the ordnance contamination on Amchitka.

Ordnance Legacy: Napalm; 60 and 81 mm mortars; grenades; anti-personnel mines; 4, 20, 100, 250 and 500 pound bombs or casings; incendiary bomblets; 20, 37, 90 and 155 mm projectiles; and various smaller items have been found so far.

Radionuclide Monitoring: The Department of Energy closed 12 drilling mud pits and, an underground storage tank, and is currently developing a groundwater model and long-term marine monitoring program for Amchitka to address potential radionuculide-related contamination issues.

Last updated:September 8, 2008