By Karina Quintans, M.SAME, and Matt Flynn, 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.

Part 1 | Part II | Part III

In response to the World War II bombing of Dutch Harbor and the subsequent occupation of both Kiska and Attu Islands in the Aleutian Islands, the War Department constructed an airfield on Atka Island in 1942. Atka Island is located in the center of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, an archipelago of 69 large and small volcanic islands that span 1,200-mi west towards Russia. Though Atka was deemed ideal for long-range fighter and medium bomber operations, the airfield was later abandoned in 1945. Today, approximately 60, mostly native Atkans, live in and around the 10-mi² area where airfield operations once stood.

What remains are the scars of abandoned infrastructure and an untold amount of contamination being investigated by Ahtna Engineering Services in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sites.

Large remedial investigations are typically divided into smaller, more manageable projects. However, Atka Island is far from typical. The site is highly remote and costly to investigate. The exact location, type, and extent of contamination across the barren 10-mi² area of concern was unknown. The contract was eventually awarded as a three-phase investigation on a cost-plus-fixed-fee basis. This allowed for quality, continuity, and cost-effectiveness. Further, cost plus pricing would be critical for the collaboration and flexibility needed on a large complex project. For USACE, the work would be about getting the job done the first time; there would be no going back. There was one chance to get it right.

Field staff use a drill rig to obtain samples during the Phase II investigation, in proximity to Korovin Volcano, an active volcano on Atka Island. PHOTOS COURTESY AHTNA ENGINEERING SERVICES



Working in partnership with USACE, Ahtna applied innovative techniques for this complex investigation. Potential sources of contamination included aboveground storage tanks, drums, pipelines, generator houses, antennas, towers, radars, heated mess halls, radio/transmitter buildings, and bathhouses.

Because the facilities had been demolished or scattered by severe wind and weather, Ahtna relied on USACE’s historical geospatial analysis of Atka Island to develop work plans. The analysis documented potential features where hazardous, toxic, or radiological waste (HTRW) impacts from military operations could be present by reviewing historical aerial photography, satellite imagery, historical maps and drawings, and other archived documents.

The effort identified 1,891 features with the potential for HTRW; and ultimately, 1,136 of the 1,891 were deemed important for investigation in Phase I. These 1,136 features were then evaluated for any ground disturbance (scarring), surface staining, stressed vegetation, debris, and the remains of any containers (drums or tanks). If evidence of HTRW was found, then the type, quantity, condition, size, area, and depth (buried or aboveground) was recorded. Of the 1,136 features reviewed, 354 were documented for a more intrusive investigation in Phase II.

Due to its historical and cultural significance, the 10-mi² area of the former airfield was first assessed by an archaeologist. The Aleutians have been inhabited for over 2,500 years. Encountering artifacts during field execution was a possibility. Prior to intrusive operations, field personnel attended a cultural resources briefing that provided an overview of archaeological sites, prehistoric and historical activities, the types of artifacts typically found, how to avoid impact, and the protocol if any artifacts are found. During Phase II, the investigation primarily focused on the detection, identification, and delineation of contamination at the 354 features from Phase I results. Laser-induced fluorescence using an ultraviolet optical screening tool (UVOST) was the primary screening technique in soil for features deemed likely impacted with fuel. Advanced either by drill rigs or by hand, a total of 1,890 UVOST probes were installed for soil screening.

Direct push drill rigs were used to collect subsurface soil to depths of 70-ft. Where rig access was limited due to terrain, a hand auger was used. In total, 324 soil borings were advanced for subsurface soil sample collection. Additionally, 35 features were investigated for subsurface anomalies by electromagnetic and ground-penetrating radar techniques, and 10 monitoring wells were installed to assess groundwater quality. The data collected during Phase II determined that 256 of the 354 features are not contaminated and require no further investigation.


How do you go about collecting field data from 1,136 investigation points located across 10-mi² where World War II-era facilities had long been demolished, the surface debris removed, and all that remains is chest-high grass? The thought of completing over 2,000 pages of field forms and handwritten field notes collected under the near constant rain and wind conditions that characterize the Aleutian Island weather was simply unappealing, not to mention risky given the possibility for multiple transcription errors.

Instead, Ahtna and team member Geosyntec Consultants developed an iPad application to collect and manage the data, built a customized database, and designed a project website.

Tablets were pre-loaded with feature information such as GPS coordinates; historical aerial photos; modern satellite imagery; historical maps and as-builts; historical photos of active operations associated with the site, if any; and any previously collected data.

The tablet-loaded data with an external Bluetooth enabled Global Navigation Satellite System device guided the field team to the general area of each feature. Using the aerials, satellite images, still photos, historical maps, and as-builts, the field team could then identify precisely where a building stood, ascertain its size and shape, and assess if anything else may have been present.

Pre-loaded field forms were completed as field screening results, sample info, soil data, water level, and water quality info were collected). GPS coordinates of each screening and sampling location were stored with the record; features were photographed using the iPad camera and automatically stored within the database record.

At the end of each day, the tablets were synced wirelessly to update the project database. Similarly, UVOST logs were reviewed and updated nightly to the project server.

The project website was then used by the sample manager to confirm receipt of all samples collected and allowed for the creation of a chain-of-custody. This solution reduced field equipment needs; improved data management/quality; provided daily updates; improved real-time decision-making; provided confidence that field data collection was complete prior to demobilizing; created “ready-to-go” digital appendices; and eliminated the need to create/update the database upon return to the office.

Extensive planning was required to mobilize equipment and supplies for the investigation.



On Atka there is no gas station or hardware store. There are no hotels or hospitals. The nearest of these amenities is 350-mi away by air. Even cellular service is non-existent. Transport of personnel to the island is by small plane only, limited to three days a week,
and highly weather dependent. Across the 10-mi² of the former airfield, most roads have deteriorated, so travel is primarily through all-terrain vehicles, utility task vehicles, and trucks.

Extensive planning was required to mobilize equipment and supplies for the investigation. Chartering a barge is the only option, and it is a costly one. A pickup truck, five utility task vehicles, 55-gal drums of fuel, spill response materials, two Geoprobe drill rigs, sample coolers and glassware, various field supplies, and non-perishable foods were barged ahead of staff each field season.

Perishable food supplies were flown in every two weeks. A field office was established inside the local schoolhouse. A full-time cook was hired to prepare thrice-daily meals for the field team in the schoolhouse kitchen. Much of the field team stayed in adjacent houses normally occupied by teachers during the school year.

On Atka there is no gas station or hardware store. There are no hotels or hospitals. The nearest of these amenities is 350-mi away by air. Even cellular service is non-existent.

To ensure safety while working in pairs across the project site, fieldwork was arranged to ensure that teams were located close enough to each other to enable two-way radio communications. A satellite phone was kept readily available in case of an emergency.


USACE led three public meetings (one for each project phase) at the school in Atka to engage the local community. Overall, relationship building has been vital while working on a small remote island with a population of approximately 60 people. Throughout fieldwork, there has been proactive communication and coordination with the Atxam Corporation (landowner), Atka school administrators and teachers, the community store, airport personnel, the mayor, health clinic nurses, and the village public safety officer.

This effort has not only kept the community apprised of field activities, but has resulted in mutually beneficial relationships in times of need. Ahtna has allowed the community to use project-chartered aircraft to move people and goods onto or off the island when available. In turn, when the project was at a standstill waiting for hydraulic fluid for the drill rig to arrive, the local fish processing plant provided interim supplies.


Phase III of the investigation will occur during the 2017 summer field season. This final phase is comprised of completing Phase II, collecting data to support a site-wide risk assessment, and conducting a feasibility study of potential remedial actions.

To date, this complex project has been executed seamlessly, and been highly praised for quality, scheduling, and cost control.

Karina Quintans, M.SAME, is Technical Writer, Write on Mission LLC;

Matt Flynn, M.SAME, is Deputy Program Manager, Ahtna Engineering Services;

[Article originally published in the July-August 2017 issue of The Military Engineer.]