Sometimes the challenges facing the Alaska Army National Guard Environmental Restoration Team can seem as big as their home state – which is roughly half the size of the continental United States.
Through its focused work on a divestiture and transformation plan – ensuring sites are remediated and transferring them to private or tribal ownership when they are done – the team has made great strides in tackling this big challenge.
“In remote Alaska, it seems like everything you do takes 10 times the amount of coordination and planning,” said Don Flournoy, the environmental branch chief. “Sites are separated by hundreds of miles, but there are no roads to reach them. Similar programs in other states just don’t have those sorts of obstacles limiting them. Equipment is flown, barged, or rented from the local community, if possible.”
“Also, the season for fieldwork is fleeting. In some northern locations, work is accomplished over a few weeks and extreme weather conditions routinely cut activities short presenting significant challenges to project scheduling.”
In addition to dealing with distance and climate conditions, the team closely coordinates with several constituents – everything from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to dozens of tribal governments and entities, local governments, and other state and federal agencies.
The team’s efforts have centered on restoring community armory sites throughout Alaska and transferring these sites and facilities no longer used by the Army Guard to the community where they can be valuable assets.
“The restoration team is the point of the spear on this effort,” said Patrick Geary, environmental specialist. “We are working hard to create the pathways and initiate the processes to propel this transformation forward. We cannot transfer these sites without a clean bill of environmental health.”
More than 60 state and federally owned properties were targeted for the transformation plan, and the team has made significant progress in reaching its goals. In fiscal year 2020-21, 15 of these properties were fully divested and have been transferred to become local assets. The team remains engaged in monitoring and testing of cleanup progress at the sites under the environmental restoration program.
“Most of the restoration sites are small, Cold-War era properties that used above-ground storage tanks for heating oil and fuel. There are a lot of moving parts when beginning the divestiture of a site,” said Alyssa Murphy, the Environmental Team lead. “There might be ‘legacy spills’ from previous years we need to clean up. We can’t divest a property unless we’ve done our due diligence to ensure there is no negative impact on the environment or cultural resources and that there is no threat to human health.”
And then another factor is Alaska’s climate. The presence or absence of permafrost and the impacts weather, temperature and climate have on the sites also affect the cleanup efforts.
Because of its unique environment, the State of Alaska uses several different standards for remediation efforts based on the annual rates of thaw, boundaries of the traditional arctic zone, which are shifting because of climate change, and local permafrost conditions.
One solution that has helped is the team’s emphasis on working with Alaskan companies to contract work.
“Local contractors have demonstrated an excellent grasp in navigating the network of stakeholders that are unique to each site,” said Flournoy. “Also, in-state travel costs and bringing in equipment and materials, while still significant, are far less than what out-of-state contractors can provide.”
The team continues its work on the divestiture of the former armory sites and pays particular attention to outreach to Tribal organizations, involving them in the planning process and incorporating local recommendations into project execution. The goal is to conduct appropriate remediation and then to deed these properties to Tribal organizations so they may be used by the community.