ANCHORAGE - More than 100 years of government occupation has left Alaska's Pribilof Islands an environmental mess.
The federal government now is facing an estimated $100 million cleanup bill for two of the five tiny islands in the Bering Sea, 800 miles west-southwest of Anchorage.
Tens of thousands of gallons of fuel oil has seeped into the tundra on St. Paul and St. George islands due to leaky fuel tanks and lines or from outright dumping. The landscape is home to tons of debris, including derelict cars and trucks, oil barrels, asbestos-tainted buildings and abandoned fuel tanks.
The Aleuts want the land back, but in near the same condition as when they were brought to the islands in the mid-18th century by the Russians to hunt seals. The hunts were halted in 1983.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was the last in a long line of federal agencies that managed the fur seal trade on the islands. When NOAA was formed in 1970, it took control of the Pribilofs.
The Pribilof project accounts for 90 percent of the agency's environmental restoration budget. In its 2003 budget request, the agency has asked for $10 million toward the cleanup, an increase of $4 million from this year.
Some $50 million has been spent since the mid-1990s cleaning up the islands. Much of the work has been done by residents of the islands working for environmental restoration firms started by local Alaska Native village corporations.
The new jobs created during the cleanup are welcomed in St. Paul and St. George, hit hard in recent years with the crash of the overfished opilio crab industry.
"The economy is so bad here everybody is afraid to get pregnant," said Phyllis Swetzof, St. Paul city clerk.
The island's population has slid from 650 in 2000 to about 535 today, Swetzof said. Only six babies have been born since the crab-fishery crisis. Historically, St. Paul's annual birthrate had been in the high teens, she said.
St. Paul 's village corporation, Tanadgusix, started its own environmental restoration company to do the some of the cleanup work on the island.
"I don't want to say we are blessed, but (the pollution) has become an opportunity for us," said Bill Arterburn, president of the Native corporation's environmental cleanup subsidiary, Bering Sea Eccotech.
The company, which employs up to 40 locals, has parlayed its cleanup experience to get other jobs Outside, including on government land in Hawaii, and at several U.S. Air Force facilities in the Lower 48.
Bering Sea Eccotech in one summer removed 2,300 tons of scrap metal from the island, mostly from junk cars, fuel tanks and machinery. It also has treated tens of thousand cubic yards of fuel-contaminated dirt.