Corps looks to public for help hunting Agent Orange

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants help from the public in its hunt for one of the world's deadliest manmade toxins.

The toxin could be in Alaska soil once part of a Haines-to-Fairbanks military oil pipeline. The search was spurred by an official state request after Army correspondence surfaced in late 2002 confirming that in the 1960s a herbicide known as Agent Orange was sprayed on the 626-mile-long pipeline's right of way to clear vegetation.

The corps needs public input to determine from which areas to take soil samples in their search for the toxin, said Richard Jackson, a corps project manager.

''We want to get samples before the snow flies,'' Jackson said at a Tok public meeting Thursday. ''We need to hear from people familiar with the area or a stakeholder.''

The corps plans to take 20 samples from the right of way and five samples for background readings, possibly in September, he said. Test results would be available by January 2004.

The Army used three types of herbicides on land surrounding the eight-inch pipeline that was built in 1953 to supply petroleum products for Interior military bases. It operated until 1971.

One herbicide, called Esteron, was the same herbicide that was used during the Vietnam War to clear jungle foliage. It was called Agent Orange because of an orange stripe on the barrels that contained the product.

Agent Orange has since been linked to a multitude of health problems, including cancer and Type II diabetes, among Vietnam veterans as well as birth defects in their children.

The reason can be blamed on a dioxin found in Agent Orange that was accidentally formed in a manufacturing glitch of some batches of the herbicide. That dioxin, known as 2,3,7,8, TCDD, is what the corps is searching for in the soils of the pipeline's right of way.

This particular dioxin is extremely toxic, said Greg Light, a military environmental specialist with the Department of Environmental Conservation. That's why the DEC formally asked the corps to investigate, he said.

''My gut feeling is that the residue is low,'' Light said, adding that spraying happened more than 30 years ago. ''If there was harm from this spraying, it was probably already done. We just got to find out whether or not it's there.''

About half of the 626-mile pipeline ran near the Richardson Highway and along the Alaska Highway. The other half went into British Columbia and the Yukon. Approximately 44 miles is in Haines.

Much of the former Alaska right of way is on state land, while other sections are tribally or privately owned.

There is conflicting science about how long the dioxin remains in soil, said David Westerman, a corps environmental engineer.

''I've heard three and half years to seven years,'' Westerman said. But it is hard to say for sure, especially when referring to arctic conditions, he said.

Because the dioxin is so dangerous to human health, the corps has set a detection limit of 3.9 parts per trillion. That would be similar to a solution made up of 4 million gallons of water or enough to fill a large tank and nearly four drops of the dioxin.

If the dioxin is found at that level, it would trigger further investigation, including more sampling which could lead to a cleanup plan, Westerman said.

A former manager at a pipeline pump station in Tok recalled that nothing grew in the right of way for about 10 years after the pipeline was shut down and spraying was discontinued.

''Oh, it killed everything,'' said John Burnham of Tok. ''We didn't think much of it. It has grown back.''

Indeed, most of the old pipeline's route has grown back with moss, low-lying plants, birch and alder trees. Much of the route is still used for recreation and hunting year around.

Residents around the pipeline are concerned.

''I think it would be good for someone to tell us whether it was safe or not,'' said Alice Breen, a part-time Tanacross resident.

Her husband worked at the Tok pump station and survived stomach cancer twice, she said.

Anyone wishing to comment should contact Richard Jackson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at (907) 753-5606 or Greg Light, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, at (907) 451-2117.

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