Umiat is located in the foothills of the Brooks Range in Alaska, southwest of Prudhoe Bay, in what used to be called Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. From 1945 to 1954, the U.S. Navy constructed facilities at Umiat for oil and gas exploration purposes. Improvements included living quarters, mess hall, latrines, shops, powerhouse, office, storage, and miscellaneous buildings, together with related utilities and gravel runway. Starting in 1946, the Navy established eleven oil exploration wells in the Umiat vicinity.
As the 1963 photo shows, the Navy left an incredible mess. The stuff in the lower left consists of thousands of 55-gallon oil drums, mixed with camp debris, old electrical transformers, truck batteries and, literally, no one knows what else.
In 1973 the Navy cleaned up the mess – for a given definition of “cleaned up” by digging a pit on the Colville River bottom and burying its mess. More than 409 tons of junk equipment and scrap metal and approximately 86,600(!) crushed drums were reportedly buried in “stable areas of the flood plain.” The stuff is buried 4 to 17 feet below the ground surface, with an average depth of 14.5 feet. The estimated volume of debris is approximately 100,000 cubic yards. The estimated contaminated soil is likely 50 times that.
But the Colville River floods most years – sometimes both in spring and during autumn rains – and the stream channel shifts over time. The river has exposed the “landfill” and the contaminants in the crushed drums and old transformers and batteries were leaching into the river. The Alaska Native village of Nuitsuq isn’t that far downstream. It’s a subsistence community; the residents rely upon fish from the Colville River for food. The polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs; specifically Aroclor 1254), pesticides (4,4’-DDD, 4,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDT), diesel-range organics (DRO), naphthalene, methylene chloride, and lead from the landfill were all moving into the wider environment. Testing found PCBs, DDD, DDE, and DDT in fish samples from the vicinity of Umiat. Bottom-feeding Burbot, in particular, had high levels of contamination.
On an interim basis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has hired “soil burners” to burn the contaminated ground soil at very high temperatures, oxidizing all of the contaminants. The problem is that the landfill contains at least 5.3 million cubic feet of contaminated soil. Soil burning makes it look like the Corps is doing something, but really, it’s for show. The problem is simply too big.
Still the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with cleaning up environmental contamination at old military sites. After a very, very long period of study, in February 2018 the Corps issued a “Proposed Plan” of remediation. As with any national environmental action, it lays out alternative plans of dealing with the Navy’s mess at Umiat. Alternatives range from nothing – the famous “no action” alternative – to loading up the whole miserable mess and trucking it stateside for disposal.
The recommended course of action – the “preferred alternative” in environmental jargon – is to bury the “clean material” up on the hillside, above the river, and transport the contaminated material elsewhere for disposal. Exactly where the contaminated material would go isn’t mentioned, but there are facilities at Prudhoe Bay.
The Corps estimates the cost of its Preferred Alternative at $224 million. Knowing the Corps tendency to grossly underestimate costs, it’s likely to be more than half a billion dollars before it’s completed.
The Department of Defense has bequeathed dozens of sites like this to Alaska. In the best case, it’s going to take decades to clean them up. The lesson of Umiat is that it is far, far better not to create the messes than to clean them up afterwards.[^1]
[^1]: Another lesson: Don’t let the U.S. Navy clean up environmental contamination.