FAA, Army Corps to Cleanup at Old Bethel Airport

by Daysha Eaton on November 24, 2014

12.12.13 ONCThe Army Corps of Engineers plans to test soil and ground water at a former air force base on the island across from Bethel this coming summer. But the FAA is holding off on removing barrels left at the site that was also used as an airport.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.



Curtis Mann, who does environmental work for Bethel’s tribe, the Orutsarmiut Native Council, was doing some routine surveys at the old airfield on the island across from Bethel in 2013 when he stumbled upon a bunch of barrels in the brush.

A map showing the location of the old air field where the Army Corp of Engineers plans to test soil and water this summer. Photo Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers

A map showing the location of the old air field where the Army Corp of Engineers plans to test soil and water this summer. Photo Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers

“Accidentally, I found all these drums. I found it kind of odd cause they were neatly laid. They weren’t upright but they were laying down in neat rows. Somebody had taken the time to lay them next to each other and I counted them and it was 156 drums of unknown contents,” said Mann.

He took photos and reported the find to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The site was built by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, a precursor to the FAA, in the 1940s and has since bounced back and forth between that organization and the U.S. military. The U.S. Army stepped in and operated it during WW II, then turned it back over to the CAA after the war. Then the air force used the facility in the 50s, and turned it back over to the FAA until the new airport was built in Bethel.

The Corp of Engineers has been cleaning up the site, off and on, for years, but the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is requiring them to go back for more work. The Army Corp of Engineers is scheduled to do soil and water testing, said John Halverson a manager in the DEC’s contaminated sites program. 

Curtis Mann (left), the ONC Brownfield Coordinator. Photo by Charles Enoch

Curtis Mann (left), the ONC Brownfield Coordinator. Photo by Charles Enoch

“We have asked the Corp to do that further investigation because we aren’t sure if there’s additional contaminants that were left behind. The site is pretty overgrown. There are a lot of alders out there. The buildings that were there are pretty much collapsed. And so we want them to go in and do a more thorough investigation just to see if there are other contaminants that could pose a potential problem. The only waste that I know of for sure that needs to be removed are these drums,” said Halverson.

The drums, Halverson says, appear to be the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration. Halverson says tests show the barrels are filled with a heavy petroleum fuel, leftover from the days when the site was an airport. The Army Corp’s is putting a work plan together now and plans to drill for soil and ground water sample next summer.

The Army Corp will also take soil and water samples at the old Bureau of Indian Affairs site where officials say there is confirmed petroleum product contamination..

The FAA has not actually started work on the old airport site yet. As for the barrels, FAA spokesperson, Allen Kenitzer, said via email that the FAA is committed to cleaning up the old infrastructure and plans to start within two years.

Mann with ONC said he’s encouraged that both the Army Corp and the FAA are making plans to address the situation, but he’s concerned about the barrels he found.

“When I discovered those barrels, you know, I was down wind from them and I could smell something not natural in the air coming from these barrels. I’d like to see it done sooner than two years,” said Mann.

Mann adds, the sooner the better.

Previous post:

Next post: