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On Attu, toxic cleanup decades in the making

By Bonney Bowman 11:11 PM July 19, 2016

Seventy years ago during the battle for the Pacific, the military occupied the remote Aleutian island of Attu. During its time there, the military dumped barrels of toxic tar and fuel, buried under asphalt and left to leak into the soil. This summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) used $10 million in Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) funding to clean up the mess decades in the making.

Crews are digging out old barrels of tar and fuel left to leak into the soil.

Crews are digging out old barrels of tar and fuel left to leak into the soil.

“There’s more contamination underneath the asphalt. The asphalt has kind of capped it over the last 60 years or 50 years,” said USACE project engineer Andy Sorum as he surveyed the site on Attu. “There’s not much human contact here. We’re not going to be developing this for residences or schools or anything like that, but it represents a real risk to the environment.”

Toxic tar sitting on the soil on Attu.

Toxic tar sitting on the soil on Attu.

The ooze gave off a strong fuel smell and trapped rare birds, creating an environmental hazard for not just the birds, but also anyone who visited the island.

A crew with Bristol Environmental Remediation Services LLC worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week digging out the contaminated soil. They used heavy machinery to load it into super sacks, each holding up to 22,000 pounds of soil. The goal is to fill 50 bags a day in what can be dangerous work.

Heavy machinery is key to the cleanup efforts on Attu.

Heavy machinery is key to the cleanup efforts on Attu.

“The biggest challenge is you have a lot of overhead hazards and pinch points, just making sure nobody gets crushed by the machine,” said unexploded ordnance technician John Mura.

Because the military was active on Attu, Mura was on hand in case ammunition was found among the barrels.

“We’re not out looking for it,” he said. “I’m just here just in case it shows up.”

The barrel dump is the second site the crew is working to clean up. The started their work on a World War II-era ball field turned toxic pit.

This former ball field turned toxic dump. The flags show places the soil was sampled for testing to confirm it was clean.

Former ball field turned toxic dump. The flags show places the soil was sampled for testing to confirm it was clean.

“They came in here, they dumped the contaminants down and then they bulldozed this kind of generally level,” said Sorum as he looked over the field.

The crew removed 1,300 tons of soil from the field. A biologist took soil samples to ensure they got everything.

“To be able to come in, dig it all out and leave something clean, generally graded to contour, that’s going to heal itself, that’s great,” said Sorum. He said removing the contaminants protects the fragile environment while remembering the sacrifice of the men who served on Attu.

The old Coast Guard headquarters and camp site on Attu

The old Coast Guard headquarters and camp site on Attu

“It’s an amazing difference, it’s a transformation,” he said. “It really honors the history here and the great things that were done here.”

KTVA 11’s Bonney Bowman can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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