ATTU ISLAND, Alaska -- Against the backdrop of a crisp, blue sky and snow-scattered mountains, a bright orange excavator sharply claws at the earth near Massacre Bay.
With each dip of its bucket, contaminated soil, tar and old, rusted diesel drums are unearthed from their decades-long resting place.
Once a bustling active military site, the remote Aleutian island buzzed again with activity from June to mid-July as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District, along with its contractor, Bristol Environmental Remediation Services, LLC, cleaned up contaminated remnants from Attu's storied military past.
More than 70 years ago, the area served as a landing hub for U.S. Army Soldiers fighting to recapture the island from the Japanese during World War II. It also operated as an Army base and Naval station during the war, and was later home to the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, the latter maintaining its presence there until 2010.
The island is now home to its only remaining inhabitants - hundreds of migratory and Asiatic bird species.
Although human residents are gone from the island, the footprint of their presence still remains through miles of twisted metal, rusted fuel storage tanks and barrels, flattened Quonset huts and former military quarters scattered throughout the island.
But the biggest concern for the landowner - the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - is not the rusted fuel storage tanks and barrels themselves, but the petroleum once stored in them, which has leaked and entrapped birds.
The short-term goal for the 2016 cleanup effort was to address the physical entrapment and bird mortality, which has been occurring at two significant petroleum release sites at Attu Island, according to Tim Plucinski, environmental contaminants biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuge.
GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF IT ALL
While on the island, the Corps oversaw the removal of about 10,000 tons of petroleum, oil and lubricant-contaminated soil; five tons of lead-contaminated soil; 70 tons of tar drums; and 52 above-ground storage tanks from the area formerly known as "Navy Town," said Andy Sorum, project manager for the Corps' Formerly Used Defense Sites program.
Samples were taken from the excavation site, before the contaminated soil was placed in 10-ton bags, numbered and transported to a staging area. In the fall, it will be barged to a permitted disposal area in the Lower 48.
The excavation and offsite disposal of petroleum-contaminated soil, drums and tanks sufficiently addressed the risks posed by the release sites, Plucinski said.
"By removing these source areas, we have cut off that exposure pathway and stopped a continuous release of pollution into our environment," said Ken Andraschko, chief of the FUDS program for the Corps in Alaska.
In addition to the two project sites, the Corps oversaw the excavation of additional lead-contaminated soil for off-site disposal, conducted reconnaissance of a number of other sites in search of contaminant sources and performed archaeological surveys to ensure the protection of the island's cultural and historical resources during future work activities.
One of those involved was 10-year Corps' employee and physical scientist Jake Sweet, who collected samples from other potential sources of contamination on the island.
"Out here, we are collecting samples for petroleum products - heavy Bunker C diesel and gasoline. Also the tar coming out of the burn pits," Sweet said. "In addition to the petroleum stuff, we are looking for lead batteries, lead paint and transformers, which are being analyzed for PCBs."
The work was not without its challenges, however, when considering weather in the Aleutians and the logistics of getting equipment out to the site, which is about 1,500 miles from Anchorage at the tip of the island chain.
"Our first goal is to achieve the work with a complete safety-first mindset," Andraschko said. "Having that safety-first mindset is paramount with logistics being such a great challenge."
Bristol began making arrangements for the equipment and materials for the project in November 2015, according to Shane Burgess, site superintendent for the company. Some of the materials were transported in April from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, while the rest were shipped from the Port of Anchorage. Upon their arrival at Dutch Harbor, the materials were transferred to a barge and landing craft, which then left Dutch Harbor for Adak.
Unsure about the condition of the airfield at Attu, the Bristol crew met the barge in Adak and rode with the equipment and materials to the island.
"It took almost four days from Adak to Attu," Burgess said. "That was the slowest days of my life. We were averaging six knots an hour - about four miles an hour."
The Bristol crew arrived at Attu May 1 and was faced with another challenge -snow drifts where the base camp was slated to be set up and snow covering half the island, Burgess said.
"It took us about a day total to get everything unloaded when we got here, but there was a lot of snow," he said. "The road was snowed in. The airstrip, half of it, was snowed in. We spent two days doing snow removal, so we could get the camp set up."
It took the crew 11 days total to set up camp. The team left the island May 12 to give the snow a chance to melt off and returned to start work June 1. Once the crew was on the ground, the work progressed without a hitch.
"Bristol has great experience at providing all the requirements necessary to operate in remote Alaska for months at a time, and they demonstrated it once again," Sorum said.
A MECCA FOR BIRDS
Attu is a mecca for bird lovers around the world, intent on adding rare Asiatic migratory birds to their annual or life list for North America, according to Marianne Aplin, visitor services supervisor for the USFWS and the refuge in Homer.
As avid bird lovers, Aplin, along with Bobby Beckman, an environmental scientist with Bristol and a self-proclaimed "bird nerd," seemed more than thrilled to be working on the island.
Beckman was at Attu to take environmental samples of the excavated soil for lab analysis, which will determine if the crew removed soil above screening values. Coincidentally, his parents were chemists and environmental scientists, who moved to Alaska when he was 14 to do work for the Corps at Shemya Island, not far from Attu.
Although it was a little late in the season for Aplin to see the rare Asiatic birds during her visit, she said she saw birds like the Common Eider, Aleutian Cackling Geese and Aleutian Terns nesting and rearing their young.
Beckman, who arrived earlier than Aplin, said he was lucky enough to see a Hawk Finch, an Asian bird that doesn't usually appear in the U.S.
"We're only a couple of hundred miles from Russia, so storms blow them over," he said. "That's why it's such a big deal to do birding here. There are several hundred birds here that you can't see anywhere else. It's like $10,000 to come here on a two-week birding trip, and I'm getting paid to be here," Beckman gushed.
PARTNERING FOR SUCCESS
While on the island, the team worked diligently to minimize wildlife disturbance, as well as protect the land's resources.
Aplin said she appreciated the fact the Corps and Bristol emphasized the point of minimizing those impacts during daily safety briefings.
"The USFWS and the refuge were very pleased with the work conducted by the Corps and Bristol," said Merry Maxwell, FUDS coordinator for the USFWS and the refuge. "The project not only required the removal of contaminants from the environment, but also the protection of the cultural and historical features that are located all over the island. That success was directly related to the positive relationship and teamwork between the USFWS and the Corps."
The clear result was a consistent, well-coordinated and productive effort, she added.
"We have built a solid partnership between USFWS and the Corps over the years, with communication and trust between the people of both agencies," Andraschko said. "I believe that by working together, communicating with each other regularly and by understanding each person's role, we can all achieve our common goal of restoring and protecting the environment in Alaska."
The Corps is planning some additional cleanup work at Attu in the summer of 2017. The hope of the USFWS and the Corps is the island will one day, again, "go back to the birds."
"All of this beauty and life is set against the background of the landscape and the scars it still bears from the Battle of Attu," Aplin said. "The island was a wildlife refuge before the war, saw valor and sacrifice by civilians and Soldiers, and, with the help of the Corps, the birds are reclaiming safe habitat in this farthest west extent of the (refuge) and North America."
ABOUT THE FUDS PROGRAM
The work at Attu is part of the Corps' goal of cleaning up 90 percent of Alaska's FUDS properties by the end of fiscal year 2018 and 95 percent by the end of FY2021.
The cost of this year's project was more than $10 million.
There are more than 530 FUDS properties across Alaska. Of those properties, 395 were found to have no hazards. The remaining 137 properties required additional investigation and remedial action, with more than half of those already completed. About 48 of the FUDS properties are scattered throughout the Aleutians.
Many of the identified properties in Alaska are remnants of World War II and Cold War defense site activities, including Attu.