By Karina Quintans, M.SAME
In this three-part series on environmental restoration in Alaska, the authors go inside a multi-effort remediation project in the Aleutian Islands, providing details on logistics challenges, health and safety risks, unique contracting requirements, interagency cooperation, and the geographic complexities of working in the Last Frontier.
Traveling westward across the Aleutian Islands from Unalaska Island, a series of small dramatic volcanic islands begin to appear under the constant cloud cover on a 46°F day in mid-June. Only snow-capped volcanic peaks rise high enough above the clouds to see the sun. There are two people accompanying the pilot on the plane headed to Atka Island. The other seven seats have been removed. In their place, cargo is stacked high on both sides of the narrow aisle and kept in place by a web of thick black straps.
Two weeks earlier, a field team headed to Atka Island to perform its two- to three-week rotation, sat in Unalaska for eight days, unable to fly due to unrelenting fog. The team was obligated to check in at the airport every morning and wait for a window of clear weather. On the eighth day, the team finally made it to Atka, after $4,000 in lost labor. But today, after a four-hour weather delay and two hours in the air, the plane lands on a 3,000-ft airstrip, the only infrastructure left intact from World War II in the barren landscape of Atka Island. A few pickup trucks idling at the edge of the taxiway pull up and park with their truck beds facing the left side of the plane. The pilot opens the door, lets down the stairs, and in routine fashion, men from each vehicle form an assembly line and begin to unload the cargo onto each of the trucks. Much of it is two weeks’ worth of perishable and non-perishable food supplies for a field team from Ahtna Engineering Services LLC.
The company is performing a three-phase remedial investigation on Atka Island in partnership with the Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and team members Geosyntec Consultants and Jacobs Engineering Group. Ahtna’s truck next heads to a small K-12 schoolhouse about a mile away, which serves as basecamp during the summer field season. Inside, the classroom serves as an office; the library is a dining room; and cubbies, closets, and tables function as the field laboratory where samples are collected and prepared for transport off the island. Just outside are five all-terrain utility vehicles, the primary mode of transport on this island of unpaved roads.
Whether working on Tanaga, Unimak, Atka, or Attu Island, where Ahtna currently holds environmental task orders, much of this scenario is familiar. The Aleutians are home to several Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) that have been designated for environmental cleanup under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program—including site assessments, remedial investigations, and removal actions.
LOGISTICS AND WEATHER
Logistics and weather are the main challenges for any kind of mission across this 1,200-mi island chain set in between the Bering Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The Aleutian Islands are notorious for bad weather, primarily heavy rain and fog. Wind is often above 50-mph with no place to take shelter across barren grasslands dotted with a few herbs and shrubs and almost no trees. The weather can be so severe that during the World War II battles in Attu and Kiska, historian James Bartlett noted: “More American aircraft were lost in the violent gales and low visibility than by enemy fire.” It was further stated that the price of victory in the Aleutians was very high, given that 2,100 American soldiers were taken out of action by disease and non-battle injuries, most of the latter the result of climate and terrain and inadequate clothing.
From island to island, added complexities vary and may include working in and around historically significant areas, or among endangered and threatened species, and important wildlife habitats. Local infrastructure is minimal and varies in terms of communications, sources for power and water, and room and board. Some islands are populated; some are not. On both Atka and Unimak Islands, current populations of mostly native Aleuts are approximately 60 persons each. Active coordination and consultation with native populations is just the beginning of performing environmental restoration in the Aleutians.
PRESERVING HISTORY AND HABITATS
The Aleutian Islands are rich with culture and history. World War II battle sites, invasion beaches, airfields, and other infrastructure, as well as Aleut villages have been included in the National Register of Historic Places or have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. However, in a region where much of the infrastructure from the war was left to deteriorate over time, there is still potential to uncover historically significant resources while performing environmental restoration work. On Atka, Unimak, Tanaga, and Attu Islands, the FUDS scope of work requires that an archaeologist perform surveys and provide training for field crews on how to respond to potential archaeological finds.
From island to island, added complexities vary and may include working in and around historically significant areas, or among endangered and threatened species, and important wildlife habitats.
At some FUDS, structures were demolished under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, leaving vague and minimally documented footprints that still require environmental cleanup. To facilitate the planning of the remaining environmental work, USACE Alaska District initiated historic geospatial analyses of the various sites; these analyses are compiled into a geodatabase. For Atka, the historic geospatial analyses was completed in 2014, and has been critical for developing and executing plans for this complex three-phase remedial investigation project.
The islands provide critical habitat for numerous protected and endangered species. In total, over 250 bird species have been sighted and more than 40 million seabirds nest in the Aleutians. Much of the environmental work requires coordination with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to avoid or minimize impacts while ensuring remedial actions protect both human health and the environment.
TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Accessing Aleutian Island project sites is difficult and costly. Chartered and commercial airplanes and marine vessels are arranged to mobilize field teams, supplies, and equipment. The use of barges to transport heavy equipment (excavators, drill rigs, utility vehicles) and supplies (fuel, tools, containers) to project sites requires extensive pre-planning. Barges depart several weeks in advance of the field team, and can cost as much as $1 million each way.
Tented camps with full life support are established on islands with zero infrastructure to house field teams, as was the case when performing a remedial investigation on Unimak Island in summer 2016. For the summer field season in 2017, tented camps will also be implemented on Tanaga and Attu Islands. For the investigation work on Atka Island, along with the local school facilities, two local houses are rented for use as accommodations and office space.
DOUBLING DOWN ON SAFETY
Safety concerns rise significantly when working in the Aleutians. There are minimal to no medical facilities. Local clinics deal primarily with minor medical conditions. Emergency response is challenging given the distances involved and the unpredictable and harsh weather conditions. In the summer of 2016, a tragic vehicle accident occurred in Atka involving 10 local cannery workers, with half needing urgent care. Medivac services were unable to reach the island until three hours after the accident occurred. During this time, the field crew, trained in first aid, provided care at the request of the local clinic. Three of the cannery workers ultimately succumbed to their injuries.
The islands’ active volcanoes and potential for tsunamis are also real safety threats that require detailed communications and evacuation plans. Unexploded ordnance left from World War II activities remains an issue for many environmental projects including in Tanaga and Attu. A specialist must first clear the work areas, and designate safe pathways for the field team to perform work.
Given the remote, austere conditions of Attu and Tanaga, and the possibility of safety incidents from the continuous use of heavy equipment and exposure to potential unexploded ordnance, full-time medivac capabilities will be retained. In addition, a full-time, emergency medical technician will be available for both locations to enhance emergency response capabilities.
THE ADVENTURE OF IT ALL
Despite their challenges, these remote locations also make for a unique work experience for field teams spending much of their summers there. Books, decks of cards, hiking shoes, and fishing gear are essentials for whatever free time there may be during a demanding work schedule of 12-hour days, 7 days per week for two to three weeks at a time. A sense of humor and a love for the wilds and unpredictability of Alaska are a must.
The reality is, these qualities are second nature for those who live and work in the Last Frontier.
Karina Quintans, M.SAME, is Technical Writer, Write on Mission LLC; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Article first published in the May-June 2017 issue of The Military Engineer.]