Effect of rocket launches called minimal

Posted: Friday, October 25, 2002

KODIAK (AP) -- The first five launches at the Kodiak Launch Complex had minimal impact on the environment, according to University of Alaska Anchorage scientists.

Several Kodiak residents questioned those findings Wednesday at an informational forum on the Environmental Impact Statement for the first five launches. Residents said poor methods were used to gather inconclusive data.

Army representatives at the forum addressed their progress in preparing an impact statement for adaptation of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, formerly known as the National Missile Defense program.

A sparse crowd attended the presentation by Sal V. Cuccarese, the interim director of UAA's Environment and Natural Recourses Institute.

Cuccarese's findings included several years' worth of studies focusing on the effects of the first five rocket launches. His test area was a 6-mile radius around the Narrow Cape launch site, including Ugak Island.

Cuccarese outlined five factors determining the impact of the rocket launches: Steller sea lion surveys at the Ugak Island haul-out; rocket motor noise measurements; bald eagle nest monitoring; Steller's eider surveys; and environmental quality studying.

Cuccarese said Kodiak's unpredictable weather made it difficult for scientists to distinguish between the environmental impact of the rocket launches and environmental change due to weather. Nevertheless, he said, the study concluded that the impact of the rocket launches on each of the five indicators was negligible.

Cuccarese concluded that there was no significant impact on the Steller sea lions at Narrow Cape due to launches. However, the sound pressure levels were within the audible range of the sea lions, and the behavioral response of the sea lions was undetermined, the Kodiak Daily News reported.

''The sea lions ran into the water four hours before launch,'' said Cuccarese. ''I would think that the rocket did it. We reported it as such.''

Bald eagles and Steller's eiders were unaffected by the launch, according to the study. In fact, of 38 bird species present within the 6-mile radius around Narrow Cape, there was ''no significant difference in numbers pre- and post-launch,'' Cuccarese said.

Cuccarese also looked at water chemistry, vegetation and other indicators. The aim was to determine if any of the main constituents of the rocket fuel were present in the environment.

There was some indication that components of rocket fuel were present in the environment after the launches. Cuccarese found that the amount of aluminum, one of the main components of rocket fuel, spiked in some streams after the launch. However, he said, the study did not determine whether the fluctuation in aluminum levels was due to the launch or due to natural environmental variation.

Members of the audience criticized the study's methodology, claiming that the sample area around Narrow Cape was not large enough to set viable controls for the experiment. They questioned the value of the study's findings due to the inconclusive data that did not distinguish between natural environmental factors and effects of the rocket launches.

The final environmental impact statement is expected to be completed some time in 2004.

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