State seeks federal funding for Amchitka Island monitoring

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's environmental officials are again seeking federal help in finding out if Amchitka Island is leaking radioactive substances into the Bering Sea.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown last August asked the federal Department of Energy to pay for tests at the island. But she was turned down.

On Wednesday, she was expected to try again. She wants the agency to pay to send scientists to look for leaks on Amchitka.

State officials, Aleut residents of nearby islands and a panel of scientists have said monitoring is needed to determine if radioactive materials from underground atomic tests conducted more than three decades ago have begun to leak into the ocean.

''The question of contamination is not if, it's when,'' said Brown, who is in Washington, D.C., for a meeting on children's health issues and used the opportunity to schedule a meeting with DOE assistant secretary Jessie Roberson.

The island may not leak for hundreds or thousands of years, but it also could be leaking now, according to Brown and a panel of scientists studying Amchitka's nuclear legacy.

''There is no emergency, in the sense that there's no measurement that indicates leakage. But on the other hand there's a kind of appalling ignorance because there has not been any serious monitoring there for many years,'' said John Eichelberger, a volcanologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

When the atomic tests at Amchitka were planned and executed in the 1960s and early 1970s, far less was understood about the fundamental geology in Alaska and along the Aleutian Chain, Eichelberger said.

Earthquakes rattle the Aleutians regularly. So it is likely that faults and fissures have developed in the 31 years since the last of the atomic tests, a 5-megaton Spartan warhead called Cannikin, was detonated in a mile-deep pit. Radiation-contaminated groundwater could escape through such faults and fissures into the surrounding sea, potentially contaminating subsistence food sources or fish taken by commercial trawlers, Brown and the scientists say.

Energy Department officials repeatedly have said they want to complete a computer-driven risk analysis based on information collected on Amchitka years ago before planning an on-site monitoring program. That analysis, originally expected to be complete this spring, now has been pushed back to September.

Energy officials at the agency's Nevada Operations Office blame budget cuts.

Scientists on a panel of university and nuclear hazard experts that met in Fairbanks this month said the data being used is outdated and unreliable.

While there is no sign that radiation from Amchitka has tainted iether subsistence foods or commercial fisheries, without tests and monitoring, concerns can linger.

''Alaska produces over 50 percent of the nation's seafood,'' Brown said in a speech to the science panel. ''My agency inspects it for wholesomeness and we are increasingly being asked about contaminants, particularly by overseas buyers.''

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