Navy cleans up Adak before transfer to Aleuts

Posted: Monday, August 13, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The joke in Adak used to be that it was hazardous to walk around after dark. You might step on something that goes boom.

''Those are old jokes anymore,'' said Agafon Krukoff, mayor of the fledgling Aleutian town 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Krukoff believes the Navy is doing a good job ridding Adak Island of military explosives left over from World War II, when Adak was used as a staging area to mount a counteroffensive against Japanese troops occupying neighboring Attu and Kiska.

The cleanup is part of preparations to soon transfer the former Navy base at Adak to the Aleut Corp., a Native corporation that hopes to transform the island from a military outpost into a commercial fishing town and transportation hub.

As many as 60 contractors are occupying Adak this summer not only to hunt down possibly hazardous artillery shells and grenades but also to get rid of other hazards ranging from oil spills to asbestos to lead-based paint in some buildings.

The cleanup is the main economic activity on Adak Island, and it is nothing new. The Navy LF has been investigating and cleaning up military contamination there since 1986, and the process is far from over. This year, the Navy committed $17.4 million for environmental cleanup and other activities related to Adak's eventual handover to the Aleuts.

Mark Murphy, lead environmental project manager with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Poulsbo, Wash., said the cleanup won't be complete before the end of next year.

''And it may go on for some time after that,'' he said.

Even then, certain spots will remain under Navy control until technology is developed to eliminate particular hazards. An example is the seawall at Lake Andrew, outside ''downtown'' Adak. There, unexploded ordnance that apparently was dumped or flew into the sea sometimes washes up on the seawall, Murphy said.

Likewise, anyone arriving at Adak must watch a video about the possibility of explosives on the island. The video and some posters feature ''Boomer,'' a cartoon sea otter who tells kids to be careful about what they find.

It all makes Adak sound like a dangerous place. In fact, the island's permanent population of nearly 200 people feels safe, especially in the heart of the old military base where there are 900 housing units and lots of other amenities left over by the military after the base closed in March 1997.

''Probably safer than Anchorage,'' Krukoff said.

''There's never been any recorded injury related to ordnance on the island,'' Murphy added. ''Past history tells us that absolutely the island is habitable.''

With the downtown already thoroughly searched for explosives, much of the focus now is on the island's outback, especially around sites thought to have been used as firing ranges or minefields to protect against invaders. Crews are scouting the spongy tundra with a sort of super metal detector, looking for anomalies. Other crews then dig by hand to recover LF suspicious items. Occasionally, things like unexploded grenades are found, but unexploded ordnance also includes fuses, fragments and the like.

Also this summer, Navy officials brought out a World War II veteran from Pennsylvania who said he remembered helping bury and dispose of weapons containing mustard gas. Jesse Morgan, white-haired and hard of hearing, succeeded in finding a site where he remembered helping dig a trench 14 feet deep. The weapons were buried and then detonated in place. It happened around 1944.

Murphy said he believes it is at least possible that mustard gas could have been there, though there's no clear evidence on the surface such as soil discoloration.

''We have good documentation that mustard gas was handled, not used, but at least stored and handled in the Aleutian theater during the World War II era,'' Murphy said. The Navy will consult historical records, take soil samples and do a cleanup if warranted, he said.

Lots of other agencies are helping with the island's cleanup, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and panels of local Adak representatives.

For the Aleut Corp., the goal is to take title to an island as clean and free of liability as possible. It's kind of like buying a house you want all the problems taken care of before you close the deal, Krukoff said.

The transfer is not expected to be complete before next year, he said.

This month, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced the necessary legislation to complete the transfer of the Adak naval base, with its fine deep-water port, huge airfield and many houses, to the Aleut Corp. In exchange, the Aleut Corp. will give up to 46,000 acres of inholdings in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to the Interior Department. The LF refuge has about 4.5 million acres of islands, headlands and reefs around the Alaska coast.

The company is touting the island's rich cod and halibut fishing, coupled with abundant housing and the heady spirit of a frontier place making a fresh start, to entice young fishing families. Adak once was off-limits to all but the military. Now, proclaims an Aleut Corp. Web site, ''Adak is open to the world!''

The island's air transportation problems recently were solved when Evergreen International Airlines Inc. was tabbed to carry mail, freight and passengers to Adak. A fish-processing plant recently changed hands but continues to operate through the year.

Last November, the state granted Adak's request to incorporate as a city with authority to levy a 3 percent sales tax and a 2 percent fuel transfer tax. In an April 3 election, the incorporation and both taxes were approved, and a seven-member city council was elected. Turnout was 67 voters.


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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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