Liability dispute between landowner, feds delays search for agent orange

Carcinogenic defoliant used in Vienam may have been buried in Tok

Posted: Monday, January 10, 2005

FAIRBANKS - A disagreement between a federal agency and a private landowner over who will pay to move construction equipment is holding up the search for barrels of Agent Orange possibly buried in Tok.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said they aren't authorized to use federal funds for that type of work.

A spokesman for the landowner, Nugget Construction, said the company shouldn't have to bear the cost, about $3,000.

"It still comes out of our pocket," said John Smithson, construction manager for Nugget Construction. "We would have to pay guys, actually write them a paycheck."

John Erickson of Hoonah contends he was ordered about 30 years ago to bury six barrels of what he believed to be Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide, while he was a working for a military contractor.

"At the time I thought, 'This is kind of stupid,"' Erickson said last year.

State and federal officials found his story credible. The corps had a signed agreement to enter the property to search for the barrels last spring but were held up by the equipment-removal dispute.

Erickson said Agent Orange was used to clear alder trees and other vegetation from repeater sites that were part of the White Alice Communications System, a ballistic missile early warning program established during the Cold War. The Tok repeater was one of 49 White Alice sites in Alaska.

The Corps of Engineers is authorized to use funds from a federal program, called Formerly Used Defense Sites or FUDS, to look for and clean up any contamination left on property that was once owned or used by the military, spokeswoman Pat Richardson said. But FUDS rules don't cover moving equipment or other barriers to get to buried material.

In the Tok case, the corps would first have to use electromagnetic equipment to search for the buried 55-gallon barrels, she said. But the metal of the heavy construction equipment would interfere with the testing.

The corps has removed the Tok property from its budget for this coming work season.

"For the moment, it seems to be a stalled issue," Richardson said.

Nugget Construction's property is within sight of the Alaska Highway in the heart of Tok. The work in question would consist of moving construction trailers and heavy equipment over a couple of days, Smithson said.

"The fact is it's a cost we would have had to pay for," Smithson said. "We didn't put the stuff there, whatever it may be."

He said the company wanted to expand the shop area and install a new septic system but now can't because of what they may find underground.

John Halverson, an environmental specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said he plans to make the site a priority this year in order to find out if the barrels exist.

The removal issue has come up in other contamination investigations, he said. The corps wanted to investigate property in Dutch Harbor but couldn't get to the soil because crab pots were stacked on top of the site. The Dutch Harbor company also would have had to invest considerable time and money to move the pots, if it found a suitable location to relocate them.

In the end, the corps had to wait until crab season when the pots were in use before they could conduct the tests, Halverson said.

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