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.
The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of 2,400 islands, headlands, rocks, islets, spires, and reefs that provide essential habitat for 55 species, including marine mammals and 30 million seabirds. Though we might think of wildlife refuges as pristine wilderness untouched by human activity, in the Aleutian Islands, much work is ongoing to clean up contamination from World War II and Cold War-era operations.
During late spring and early summer 2017, Ahtna Engineering Services spent a few weeks investigating and removing contamination on Attu Island. Former U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard facilities and infrastructure there included airfields, hangars, living quarters, bunkers, warehouses, fuel tanks, pipelines, pumping stations, repair shops, piers, dry docks, and radar and radio stations.
While the logistics of working most anywhere in the Aleutians are complicated and expensive, Attu Island raises the bar. Located approximately 1,500-mi west of Anchorage, Attu is the westernmost point in the United States (and in the eastern hemisphere), with slightly over 200-mi to the nearest point in Russia. Though Attu was previously inhabited by native people for thousands of years prior to World War II, the island is now absent of a local population.
After the Japanese invasion, subsequent battle, and occupation by U.S. forces during the remainder of World War II, the Coast Guard’s Long Range Navigation (LORAN) stations were the only permanently inhabited portion of the island until 2010 when the LORAN C station ceased operations.
Like the rest of the archipelago’s notorious weather, Attu is generally cloudy, rainy, and foggy. Strong winds are typical, with recorded gusts above 120-mph. During summer months, high temperatures average only in the mid-50°s. The rare sunny day (eight to 10 days per year) generally starts or ends with fog.
Attu Island’s wildlife and historic significance attract dedicated bird watchers and history enthusiasts through tours permitted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The agency indicates there is notable interest in increasing tourism to the island. Accordingly, while restoring the environment is a noble effort, it is also costly and complicated due to the highly remote and austere conditions. With no infrastructure or local population, support services are some 435-mi away by chartered aircraft, and are minimal at that.
Having been awarded a contract to conduct a remedial investigation on Tanaga Island, Ahtna subsequently competed for and won the removal action project at Attu Island four months later. Given the investment in time and money for the complex endeavor, combining efforts made sense for Attu’s project stakeholders. Tanaga’s barging plans were re-worked to consolidate requirements. The same barge would carry heavy equipment and supplies for both Attu and Tanaga within a single roundtrip, reducing mobilization costs by $1 million (barging costs for mobilization and demobilization still hovered at nearly $2 million).
The award of the removal action on Attu also created an opportunity for interagency collaboration between the Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to further achieve environmental restoration goals. The Coast Guard’s former navigation facility on Attu, the Loran C Station, had been abandoned in place seven years ago, leaving behind materials to be removed, some hazardous. Judicious interagency negotiations between USACE and the Coast Guard resulted in a modification to Ahtna’s contract to remove non-hazardous and hazardous materials from inside the station, conduct a preliminary assessment for potential environmental releases on the Coast Guard’s 1,800-acre parcel, and perform site investigations of fuel spills to determine the future environmental liability. This additional effort now allows the Coast Guard to acquire future funding to perform the final environmental cleanup of its facility.
While the logistics of working most anywhere in the Aleutians are complicated and expensive, Attu Island raises the bar. Located approximately 1,500-mi west of Anchorage, Attu is the westernmost point in the United States (and in the eastern hemisphere), with slightly over 200-mi to the nearest point in Russia.
The bundling of three complex environmental projects in the Aleutian Islands was an effective win-win for the U.S. military, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and Alaska regulators. The upfront planning, mobilization, coordination, and field setup for these projects easily represented 50 percent of the labor hours expended to successfully deliver the environmental restoration work.
JUST GETTING THERE
Because Alaska has no facilities capable of accepting hazardous materials, Seattle was the ultimate destination for excavated contaminated soil and other waste from Attu and Tanaga Islands, making it the logical start and endpoint for the chartered barge. To begin mobilization, one shipment of field equipment, supplies, and heavy equipment were sent from Anchorage to meet the chartered barge. Similarly, a few hundred pounds of explosives needed to perform an unexploded ordnance removal action on Tanaga were driven across multiple state lines to reach the chartered barge. The explosives added a unique security concern requiring special Coast Guard inspections in addition to a dock with the appropriate Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection requirements. Once temperatures average only in the mid-50°s. The rare sunny day the explosives were loaded into a magazine on the barge, the magazine was then locked and the key held by the barge captain.
By mid-April, the barge had left Seattle and traveled to Seward, Alaska, where the remainder of equipment and supplies were loaded for the two-week trip to Attu. Not unexpectedly, the Aleutian Island weather stalled the trip by nine days at various points: one day in Seward, one day in Dutch Harbor, and seven days in Adak, as storms with strong winds and waves approaching 25-ft came and went. Once in Attu, the offload of the barge took 24 hours before departing to Tanaga Island. Three days later, the barge arrived at Tanaga Island where it was again offloaded in 24 hours, before returning to Seattle. Despite the nine-day delay, planning included a contingency for weather. In the Aleutians, mobilization delays have a costly ripple effect. Every day a barge is delayed costs an additional $25,000. Ultimately, only two days of additional costs were incurred due to these weather delays en route to Attu Island.
SUPPORTING FIELD TEAMS
Once on the island, it would still take over a week to complete site preparation. With no place to house the field teams, one group immediately began to assemble the 24-person man camp, which was strategically located adjacent to the Loran C Station for added wind protection and ease in accessing higher ground in the event of a tsunami. The camp was staffed with a full-time cook, full-time camp maintenance person, and an emergency medical technician.
Crew installed a top-of-the-line reverse osmosis system to perform basic water treatment from a nearby stream while also installing a satellite-based communications system for internet and phones. The Ahtna mobilization crew installed a fueling station including a secondary containment. Members built up local roads to make them passable for heavy equipment using gravel from a nearby gravel pit, and installed a 62-ft long railcar bridge with a 100,000-lb capacity to allow loaders to temporarily cross over the Peaceful River, where the previous road and culverts were washed away by spring thaw and storms. All this work and the actual environmental fieldwork had yet to begin.
BALANCING FINITE RESOURCES
Resource loading for the Attu work was a balancing act between getting the job done within Alaska’s limited field season, minimizing impact to the island, and ensuring cost effectiveness. Adding personnel to a project allows for quicker completion, but for Attu, the Alaska Department of Conservation would only issue a permit for a maximum of 24 people—a number defined based on waste and wastewater management needs. Any more persons would require the installation of both an engineered water and septic system, an option not really cost effective for a project of this size and which would be completed in no more than eight weeks.
In the end, 24 field staff worked well. Months of in-depth planning and mobilization paid off. The fieldwork in Attu was completed in 75 percent less time than originally planned. Though initial excavation quantities were estimated at up to 11,000-T of various types of contaminated soil, clean soil was found after excavating just 5,500-T. Moreover, field operations were seamless. Ahtna’s field team production rate averaged nearly 100-T of soil per hour, which included excavation of the contaminated soil, placement in soil bags, and weighing and staging the bags for loading on the barge and the long trip back to the contiguous United States.
Karina Quintans, M.SAME, is Technical Writer, Write on Mission LLC; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt Flynn, M.SAME, is Deputy Program Manager, Ahtna Engineering Services; email@example.com.
[Article first published in the November-December 2017 issue of The Military Engineer.]