Savoonga residents frustrated with cleanup of former military site

Savoonga. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/ KNOM)
Savoonga. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/ KNOM)

Northeast Cape is a Formerly Used Defense Site situated on the eastern tip of St. Lawrence Island. A former subsistence camp for island residents, the base established there was active during the Cold War and closed down in the early 70s. Recently in Savoonga, residents of St. Lawrence Island met with the Army Corps. of Engineers to discuss the cleanup of environmental contaminants left by the site. KNOM’s Kristin Leffler and Jenn Ruckel attended and filed this report:

It was a clear and bright day on St. Lawrence Island when representatives of the Army Corps. of Engineers landed in Savoonga. Two meetings slated that day would address the process for cleaning up Northeast Cape, inactive since 1972, but harboring a slew of environmental contaminants, including the toxin PCB.

According to Kevin Maher with Jacobs Engineering, the meetings aimed to introduce how the CERCLA process was used at Northeast Cape.

“The CERCLA is really a federal act that helped to deal with legacy contamination at abandoned contaminated sites,” said Maher. “And really, it was the first comprehensive way a process was implemented to handle these large contaminated sites.”

CERCLA stands for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. It’s basically a multi-step process by which contaminants are assessed and actions are planned to remediate them. According to the Army Corps., the remedial actions at Northeast Cape (including excavating contaminated soil, removing debris, and installing landfill caps) are nearing completion.

But St. Lawrence Island residents aren’t completely satisfied, and they have qualms with the process itself: citing lack of transparency, poor communication, and exclusion of tribal governments.

Delbert Pungowiyi says there hasn’t been good government-to-government cooperation between the tribal governments and the federal government with the cleanup process. When the base was first established, Pungowiyi says island residents didn’t have much of a choice…

“At least our government, the United States government, had the courtesy to ask for permission to use our island. And our grandparents back then agreed that we really had no choice,” he said. “We’re in between these two big giants—America and Russia. It was the Cold War era. If World War III had taken place, we would’ve been wiped off the face of this earth.”

But now, cleaning up the site proves an aggravating process for Savoonga and Gambell residents who recount striking cancer rates among their people, which they attribute to military sites. According to a study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002, the average level of the toxin PCB measured in St. Lawrence Island residents was 7.5 parts per billion, compared to the national average of 0.9-1.5 parts per billion for the rest of the nation. The highest levels of PCBs were found in those who spent most of their time at the former military site at Northeast Cape.

Many residents who attended the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the cleanup process. Muffy Iya is worried that the federal government didn’t invest enough money in remediation, and used a metaphor to express her concern:

“Just to put it in perspective, you know, women have a certain way of washing dishes. So does everybody. Sometimes we don’t even have to use hot water because it’s a cost-saving thing. You use cold water, and that works, too,” she said. “And the same thing with Army Corps. of Engineers—you know, sometimes they take the least amount of money to correct the problem.”

However, the meeting was simply held to explain the CERCLA process. As Kevin Maher conceded, there were many more issues than the Corps. representatives could address, and there were questions they didn’t have the answers to.

“There’s bigger issues here today than we’re going to be able to solve at this time,” said Maher. “But there still is opportunity for public comment throughout the process, and we’ll touch on that again later, but thank you for your comments.”

But what follows “the process” for a federal agency translates to a frustrating amount of red tape for island residents who don’t feel they’re being heard.

“My concern is, you know, we’re making all of these public comments about the Northeast Cape site, and I don’t know if our public comments change the record of decision with the Army Corps,” said Iya.

The Record of Decision is the document that initially established what type of remediation would be implemented at the site. Though the document was finalized in 2009, Aaron Shewman with the Army Corps. says it can be modified as new information about the site becomes available. To this end, Restoration Advisory Boards (or RABs) were established to keep the public involved.

“The RAB functions as a way for the public to give us input. And if you find things out at Northeast Cape over the years that we’ve been doing remedial actions out there, we’ve addressed them,” said Shewman. “You know, Bryan came up with the fuel pipeline break down near Site 6, for example. That’s definitely one function of the RAB. The other one is to keep everybody up-to-date on where we are in the process.”

The next RAB meeting will be later this month in Savoonga, and federally mandated 5-year reviews will occur until the site is considered clean.

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