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Resource Management

Barrels on AttuContaminant Cleanup - Fighting a Legacy of Contaminants

While much of the Alaska Maritime Refuge remains in near-pristine condition, some past uses of refuge lands have left a legacy of contamination. Military activities represent one of the longest-term and most geographically widespread contaminants-related issues. 

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge contains 34 military cleanup sites within or near its boundaries 

Bombs Drop on Refuge Islands

Military activities in Alaska started in earnest during World War II. The bombing of Dutch Harbor on June 3rd or 4th 1942, and the Japanese occupation of the national wildlife refuge islands of Attu and Kiska Islands a few days later sparked a massive buildup of military personnel, equipment and infrastructure throughout the state.

New Cities Overnight

As a result, the remote Aleutian Islands, which had once supported only small native Aleut villages, soon were populated by nearly 150,000 American troops. Other Alaska Maritime Refuge islands, because of their proximity to the Asian coast, became early warning outposts, ostensibly for gathering weather data.

Uncountable Ordnance

During the 14-month Aleutian Campaign to recapture Attu and Kiska, tons of bombs rained down on those islands and others. The islands were mined by the Japanese. In the three-week-long Battle of Attu, uncountable rounds of munitions and other ordnance were deployed. Ordnance was abandoned on Kiska as the Japanese evacuated under the cover of the infamous Aleutian fog.

Military Stays Active

After the war, the military remained active on some refuge islands during the Cold War. Several islands continue to have a military presence today.

Assessment and Cleanup

Many remote operations on the refuge were abandoned, from military sites to ranches. All too often, hazardous materials were spilled with no subsequent cleanup. Thousands of 55-gallon drums (some partially or completely full) were left behind to rust through, releasing their contents into the surrounding environment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

  • conducts contaminant studies 
  • establishes baseline conditions 
  • identifies potentially contaminated sites 
  • investigates the effects on fish and wildlife 
  • works with responsible parties to ensure cleanup. 

A number of sites have been remediated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, the Air Force and the Department of Energy. 

When contaminated sites occur on refuge lands, assessments and cleanups are performed by the responsible party. To do this properly, those entities must coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the resultant site conditions will be compatible with refuge purposes, requirements and priorities and that land/resource management goals are met.

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.

Last Updated: Jun 03, 2014
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