Alaska Needs Federal Action To Clean Up ANSCA Contaminated Land
Walt Disney drilled oil in Alaska in 1938. He and his associates drilled a second well on the Iniskin Peninsula at the southwestern end of Cook Inlet decades later, five years before Alaska became a state and only a few months before he opened Disneyland.
Sadly, Disney and his gang have left much of their exploration equipment, including many barrels of oil and lubricants, on these federal lands to rust and leak contaminants into the ground. And the worst part is that everything is still there. In fairness, effective environmental laws weren’t passed until the early 1970s, and the federal government didn’t force Disney to clean up its mess.
Ten years after Alaska became a state, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, but not by Disney and his colleagues. The massive discovery required the construction of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, and to facilitate this, the government was forced to settle Indigenous land claims in Alaska. To do this, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, was enacted 50 years ago this month. Through ANSAA, the federal government ceded 44 million acres of land to Native Alaskan corporations.
Several Alaska Native societies have selected these contaminated sites on the Iniskin Peninsula as part of their land rights promised by ANSAA. They didn’t know what to expect. To date, neither Disney and its business partners nor the federal government that owned the land at the time of the contamination have cleaned up the site.
Similar stories, though less glamorous than that of Walt Disney’s efforts to resemble the Beverly Hillbillies, have been repeated over 1,000 times on lands selected by Native Alaskan societies. Comparable environmental contamination has been left by the military, Federal Aviation Administration and others on these tracts of land. No one expected the federal government to donate damaged goods under ANSCA, but alas, that’s exactly what happened. No fairy tale here.
Federal law requires that contamination be cleaned up by, among others, regardless of the registered landowner at the time the damage occurred. In the case of these sites, that official landowner happens to be the United States of America. In 1990, Congress demanded an inventory of the contamination and, after the federal government failed to comply, made a similar request decades later. In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, finally provided a report to Congress that identified the contaminated sites on ANSCA lands. But from that time until today, very little has been done to rectify the situation.
In May, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to take immediate action to address this issue. Likewise, the Alaskan Attorney General and I wrote letters to the Home Secretary and the BLM asking them to develop a work plan to clean up these sites. What have we heard since we sent these letters? Crickets.
In the meantime, but not with the aforementioned contamination of Alaska in mind, the EPA released a memo in July titled “Strengthening Environmental Justice Through Clean-Up Enforcement”. In the memo, the EPA says it will “ensure prompt clean-up actions by responsible parties” with particular emphasis on sites with environmental justice concerns. Indeed, there is no greater environmental justice problem in Alaska than this. In addition, President Biden‘s senior environmental lawyer also recently informed companies that his team is ready to take action on pollution in vulnerable communities. Given this commitment, I hope they will also begin to hold themselves and their federal colleagues to the same standard.
By then, under Governor Dunleavy’s leadership, the state of Alaska has filed 548 notices of intent to sue the federal government for its lack of progress in cleaning up ANSCA-contaminated sites. It shouldn’t have come to this. Generations have passed since the lands were surrendered and it is high time the federal government got its act together and cleaned up these sites. We kindly asked, and now we’re ready to play hard. As Walt Disney said, “You might not realize it when this happens, but a kick in the teeth can be the best thing in the world for you.”
Jason Brown is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
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