Fort Yukon looks toward lawsuit to block military debris disposal

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Fort Yukon residents are considering filing a lawsuit in efforts to stop the military from burying asbestos-contaminated debris near the village.

The Air Force plans to dispose of some asbestos-laden material left from the demolition of several buildings at an old White Alice radar site.

That proposal was opposed by villagers last year.

''They brought that asbestos in,'' said Cheryl Williams, First Chief of Fort Yukon. ''They can take it out.''

The military later offered to join with Fort Yukon to build a much needed landfill, but those plans were rejected.

With hopes for a compromise all but gone, the debris probably will be buried a mile-and-a-half from the community of 800 by the end of the year, officials said.

The debris consists of 47 steel containers with enough material to fill the community's basketball gymnasium. That material -- mostly floor and ceiling tiles and sheet rock -- has a little over 1 percent asbestos bound into it and is not considered a serious hazard, state officials have said.

The military applied to the state earlier this month for a modified permit that would allow it to bury the containers.

Nancy Sonafrank, an environmental specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said she will open a 30-day public comment period within the week.

She expects to conduct a public hearing at Fort Yukon during that time, although it hasn't been formally requested.

The agency can deny the permit only if there's a risk to human health or the environment, she said. Burying asbestos is a common way of dealing with the material, Sonafrank said.

''The village, for better or worse, does not have veto,'' Sonafrank told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I don't see yet any show stopper. They might bring forth information. I'm not closing my mind to that.''

Air Force officials said they worked with the community throughout the process in efforts to keep residents informed. Despite that, talks have ended in a standstill, said Col. Mike Wyka, commander of the 611th Air Support Group at Elemendorf Air Force Base.

''We agree to disagree,'' Wyka said. ''We are proceeding with what we think is a safe and smart process.''

Williams agrees that the military said it would work with the village, but it has refused to ship the material from the area.

''They just keep saying, 'It's not going to be removed,' '' Williams said.

No one has answered questions about what will happen to the buried material over time, she said.

''We are not worried about tomorrow and the next day,'' Williams said. ''We're worried about 100 years from now. We are worried for our great-grandchildren.''

The Air Force has offered to help the community build a new landfill, since the current facility is at the end of the runway and constitutes a hazard. Birds that are scavenging garbage are becoming a nuisance to aircraft, and the community is under pressure from the state to move it.

But villagers refused the military's offer and $500,000 in tipping fees, Williams said. There are other ways to get a new landfill, she said.

The radar site was built in the 1950s and at one time supported about 100 military personnel. The White Alice radar system was a vital link to military communications in the North but was replaced by more sophisticated technology.

The Fort Yukon White Alice site was decommissioned in 1978. A small radar facility staffed by a contractor remains.

In early 1999, the Air Force announced plans to demolish the abandoned buildings, clean up any contaminated soil and bury the debris. That included some materials containing potentially toxic PCBs, asbestos and lead-based paint.

Residents asked that the debris be taken from the village. Since then the Air Force has removed two containers filled with toxic materials, including asbestos that was not encapsulated in other material.

Asbestos once was widely used in building insulation and for fire protection. The federal Environmental Protection Agency banned the spraying of asbestos in 1973 and limited its use.

Asbestos is dangerous if inhaled, because its tiny fibers can cause lung disease, including cancer.

Williams said the community is looking at the big picture.

''They're (the Air Force) not here anymore,'' she said. ''We're going to be here a long time.''



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