Judge tosses Alaska suit against feds over contaminated ANCSA lands

Two excavators dig up contaminated soil and rusted diesel drums on Attu Island. (Dena O’Dell/USACE)

A federal judge has dismissed the state of Alaska’s lawsuit against the federal government over contamination on Alaska Native corporation lands.

Assuming the judgment stands, it blocks one possible avenue for forcing a solution to a decades-long saga. The problem centers on dump sites, fuel depots and other pollution on land the federal government transferred to Alaska Native Corporations as part of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“There were well over 1,000 contaminated sites that were conveyed, as part of the 44 million-acre ‘settlement’ for dealing with indigenous land claims,” said Jason Brune, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the state agency that brought the lawsuit. “And they were given damaged goods.”

The lawsuit claimed the U.S. Interior Department didn’t fulfill a congressional mandate to address the contamination.

But U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland said Congress required the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to create a remediation plan, not to carry it out. The judge also said the state has no standing to sue, and no Native corporations joined the lawsuit.

A state press release accuses the government of shirking its duties.

“The dismissal of this case is a maddening excuse for the federal government to continue circumventing its responsibility,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said, according to the press release.

Of the 1,179 known contaminated sites on Native Corporation land, only about half have been cleaned up, according to an 2019 analysis. It would take an estimated $50 billion to remediate all of them.

Congress last year appropriated $27 million to the job, spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Agency. This year, five Native organizations applied for the money, to address seven contaminated sites, according to Tami Fordham, director of the EPA’s operations in Alaska.

“Our whole commitment on this is to learn and adapt,” she said. “There will be, I’m sure, others coming in for projects and [we’re] looking to really help accelerate cleanup of contaminated lands in Alaska.”

Fordham says among the applications are proposals to address Unalaska’s Strawberry Hill dump site, a drum disposal location near Tyonek, and asbestos contamination in former Navy buildings in Utqiagvik.

Meanwhile, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state is studying the judge’s order for possible appeal.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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