EPA official says agency is committed to cleaning up contaminated Native corporation land

Bald man with light brown complexion in grey suit in front of busy backdrop
Carlton Waterhouse, EPA deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, at the BP Energy Center in Anchorage on June 7, 2022. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

President Biden’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency office responsible for Superfund sites said he’s committed to making progress on cleaning up contaminated lands conveyed to Alaska Native corporations.

The problem is huge but solveable, Carlton Waterhouse said.

“Obviously, there’s agencies and departments that have been doing cleanups over 50 years, but we haven’t got enough done over too long a time period,” he said. “And so now we need to strategize on how we can really meaningfully ramp up what we’re able to accomplish. And we think the key to that is working together.”

Some 44 million acres have been conveyed to Native corporations as part of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That includes more than 900 sites contaminated with military and civilian dump sites, heavy metals, PCBs and buildings containing asbestos. Several hundred sites have been cleaned up, but there are many more to go.

Waterhouse said the Biden administration will take a “whole of government” approach. Coordination is particularly important in Alaska, he said, because the cost of mobilizing to a remote contaminated site is so high.

“If you think about the federal government, each sending different people to different sites at different times to deal with the same problems, rather than us kind of collaborating on how we marshal our resources and assets to be able to address the problem, it really adds to the expense,” he said. “It really adds to the amount of time. ”

Waterhouse is still waiting for a U.S. Senate vote on his confirmation. Casey Sixkiller joined him for meetings with Native organization leaders in Anchorage. Sixkiller is the new head of EPA’s Region 10, which includes Alaska.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.