Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: EPA administrator makes push to help ANCSA land cleanup

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency completed an Alaska tour Friday with a stopover in Fairbanks to announce large grants to three Alaska Native Corporations aimed at cleaning up contaminated lands conveyed at the time of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s Alaska tour was the latest in the agency’s national Journey to Justice campaign, an initiative launched in 2021 to highlight how marginalized and low-income communities suffer from environmental harms.

“The strength and resilience we have seen from our tribal and Indigenous communities is truly inspiring,” Regan said. “Despite the lack of resources, I’ve learned so many [Alaska Natives] have been able to band together and forge effective solutions to tackle their most challenging and pressing environmental concerns.”

Regan had previously visited Igiugig, a Yup’ik village in Bristol Bay; Utqiagvik, on the North Slope; and Eklutna, a Dena’ina community in Anchorage.

“We must do better, at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that historically overburdened and underserved communities receive the support they need and deserve,” Regan said.

The Ounalashka Corp. in Unalaska and Tyonek Native Corp in Cook Inlet will each receive $1 million, while $582,345 goes to the Ukpea?vik Iñupiat Corporation on the North Slope.

The funding will be used to assess and clean up contaminated lands owned by Native corporations.

With the passage of ANCSA in 1972, 46 million acres of land were conveyed to Alaska Native Corporations. However, many sites were contaminated or polluted with chemicals left over from military, mining and industrial operations.

A 2019 analysis concluded that of the nearly 1,200 sites, only half had been remediated. A 2022 report to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs estimated clean up cost to range from $60 billion to $100 billion.

“For generations, contaminated sites on lands conveyed to Alaska Natives have jeopardized the health and way of life for local tribal communities, negatively affecting their sustenance, resources, cultural and economic activities,” Regan said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed to have the initial $20 million in grant funding available to remediate contaminated ANCSA-conveyed lands, with the initial $2.58 million awarded in three grants announced Friday.

“This is, in my mind, a long-time environmental injustice,” Murkowski said. “I think that all would recognize that ... it has remained unaddressed for far too long.”

Murkowski said groups can argue who are responsible for contamination and failure to remediate “but at the end of the day, if you’re dealing with contaminated lands, you don’t really care whose fault it is.”

“They just want to know it’s being addressed and the EPA really stepped up to this,” she said.

Murkowski said the $20 million won’t be a one-shot funding solution. She noted $30 million has been placed in the Senate’s version of the upcoming federal budget, but a final budget must be approved by Congress and sent to the White House.

“It’s just getting the foot in the door,” Murkowski said. “But it is significant going forward ... a longstanding commitment to address a true environmental injustice.”

Regan said the Alaska Native Corporations can use the funds either to conduct work themselves or outsource to qualified contractors. He added the funding can be leveraged for additional funding and resources.

The grant funding isn’t a “silver bullet” but will create flexibility, including building technical capacity for tribal entities to apply for other federal grants.

Talks with local leaders included devising strategies to “acquire resources from our other programs as well.”

Regan noted that he had toured the Barrow Arctic Research Facility and Environmental Observatory, which used to study permafrost, wildlife and impacts brought on by climate change.

A visit to Barrow High School resulted in conversations with students about climate change, erosion and receding sea ice.

“These grants will not only allow the Ukpea?vik Iñupiat Corp to conduct testing and abatement to prepare clean up and reuse, but also to survey and assess local lands impacted by fuel spills,” Regan said.

The EPA tour addressed other concerns, including water quality and its threat to fisheries. Visiting Eklutna, for example, included learning about how the community was attempting to restore its salmon run even after the 2019 removal of an old dam.

Other topics included forever chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that have contaminated many water and land sites across Alaska.

The trip also highlights that the EPA will take a lead role in Alaska when it comes to lands.

“It remains a bit disappointing to me still that the Department of the Interior views themselves more as a landlord here, but not one that is taking lead on some of these things,” Murkowski said.

Regan agreed with the statement in the EPA’s willingness to take a lead role.

“Everything we do at the EPA is through the lens of environmental justice,” Regan said. He added that other federal agencies have their own roles, something he intends to speak with other departmental heads in the coming months.

The EPA falls under the Interior Department, along with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Each has their independent charters and mandates, but Murkowski noted the EPA intends to lead the charge on land cleanups.

“What has happened over the years is that we have directed inventory to be compiled, lists and priorities, but nothing is getting cleaned up,” Murkowski said. “We’ve got to get started.”

ANCSA, she said, conveyed the promise that the lands could be used for the betterment of Alaska Natives, but contaminated lands have that purpose.

“It thwarts [Alaska Natives’] ability to fulfill the promise of ANCSA,” Murkowski said. “When your lands are contaminated and you can’t access them for development, much less berry picking, that’s not keeping our promise.”

By:  Jack Barnwell
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner