Eight decades after the fact, the federal government plans to spend $2.2 million to clean up a contaminated former army site on Kruzof Island near Sitka. It isn’t going to happen overnight — the Army Corps is still designing the effort. Actual work and removal of the PCB-contaminated soils isn’t expected until 2024.
But to understand how and why Fort Babcock came to be requires a 20th Century history lesson on the rise of Imperial Japan as a Pacific power. And few people in Sitka know as much about the area’s military history as high school teacher Matt Hunter.
As an amateur historian, Hunter curates a website on Sitka Harbor’s WWII-era military sites. He says that when Japan invaded its neighbors in the 1930s, the United States realized it had few Pacific defenses outside of Hawaii and the Panama Canal zone.
“But Alaska, sort of the third vertex of a strategic triangle, was completely undefended,” he said.
A critical part of Sitka Sound’s defenses
Fort Babcock was designed to be a keystone in the defense of Sitka Harbor, which during World War II hosted a significant military presence to counter the threat from Imperial Japan.
But today its legacy today is little more than abandoned buildings and contaminated soil near the shores of Sitka Sound.
Naval air stations were established on Kodiak Island, Dutch Harbor and Sitka. Defense of those naval bases fell to the U.S. Army which installed a battery of six-inch guns capable of striking an enemy ship from 12 miles away.
But as the tide of the war shifted, the threat from Imperial Japan receded, and by 1944 the military canceled the defense project.
“And then as soon as they finished, they abandoned them and locked the doors and left,” Hunter said.
Today the site is heavily overgrown. But among the ruins there’s still evidence of the efforts of thousands of men.
“There’s even some notes on some of the work benches, and they’re written by the men who are in the construction battalion,” he said.
A nonagenarian veteran returns in 2010
One member of that battalion came back for a visit more than a decade ago.
“I’m just like MacArthur wading ashore,” 93-year-old Bob Vollmer laughingly told KCAW during a visit to Kruzof Island in 2010. “MacArthur said, ‘I shall return!’”
“I didn’t like that guy, though,” he added.
KCAW’s Ed Ronco shadowed Vollmer and filed a story for the Alaska Public Radio Network about the Indiana man, who’d spent most of 1943 helping build Fort Babcock.
Vollmer passed away earlier this month at the age of 104. But in an interview with KCAW some 11 years back, he expressed surprise by how much nature had taken over what had been a bustling observation post during the war.
“I’m real happy to know, like places like this, they are still environmentally sound,” he said as he took in the thick foliage that had reclaimed the former fort site.
But Fort Babcock is not as pristine as it may have appeared to Vollmer in 2010. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is tasked with cleaning up the hundreds of potentially contaminated former military sites in Alaska, discovered serious contamination several years later.
Beth Astley is the Army Corps’ project manager overseeing cleanup of the site. She says investigators knew about the old oil tanks. But in 2012 and 2013 they dug deeper.
“That’s when we discovered that there was PCB contamination at the former power plant,” she told CoastAlaska in a recent interview.
In a 259-page decision document filed last August, the Army Corps announced plans to remove about 559 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil and place them in what Astley calls “super sacks.”
“Which are large sacks that are specially made to hold contaminated soil. And then those bags would then be put on to a barge and then they would be taken to a port and then to the landfill (in the Lower 48),” she said.
PCBs are highly toxic and carcinogenic and can build up in the human body over years.
“They don’t seem to go away very quickly,” Astley said. “They can persist for a really long time.”
Sitka tribal officials assess cleanup plan
Sitka Tribe of Alaska has been pushing for the cleanup of Shoals Point. People hunt, fish and gather traditional foods on Kruzof Island, just a 10-mile skiff ride across the sound from Sitka.
“The Tribe is pleased that … the Army Corps is going forward with cleaning up the site, because it’s long overdue,” said Helen Dangel, a biologist who works as a natural resources specialist for the Sitka tribe.
Dangel says the Army Corps’ priority seems to be the most hazardous waste at the former Fort Babcock site.
“But that doesn’t mean that all of the contaminants will be cleaned up,” she said. “In the document, there’s a lot of talk about cleanup levels, and if there’s a complete pathway to humans, through air through, through drinking water, through skin contact, or through eating. And so if they determine that there’s not a complete pathway, then some of the contaminants aren’t getting cleaned up.”
The Army Corps says it plans to remediate the area to residential standards and that no additional environmental monitoring would be required.
Matt Hunter, the math and physics teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, says Shoals Point is a fantastic place to visit — especially for anyone interested in Alaska’s early 20th century history when Sitka was a hive of military activity on what’s now an uninhabited island.
“It’s not like a park or something that’s had interpretation and doors locked. Everything’s wide open,” Hunter said. “And it’s also a very unique place. Being on this volcanic island with all the surf coming in, and the open ocean is absolutely beautiful.”