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ANCHORAGE - Steve Howdeshell, an environmental program manager for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, had heard for years that the Army may have sprayed Agent Orange along an old pipeline corridor between Haines and Fairbanks.
He could not find military records of the spraying, but wariness lingered in Interior villages about the herbicide suspected of causing cancer in Vietnam War veterans. The defoliant was sprayed over Vietnam to kill cover vegetation used by enemy fighters. The military quit using Agent Orange in 1970.
"We've talked to people who remember as kids playing in the pipeline corridor and being told, 'Oh, don't play there. They sprayed something,' " Howdeshell said.
Last summer Howdeshell found a Canadian report that confirmed the U.S. Army had sprayed the pipeline with the two chemical ingredients of Agent Orange, perhaps annually, in the 1960s.
Howdeshell found confirmation that the Agent Orange ingredients had been used along the old pipeline route in a report Canadian tribes prepared to support a land claim. The report included a series of letters between the U.S. Army and Canadian officials. One letter said the spraying began in 1966.
Now Howdeshell, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have begun discussing what to do about it.
Fifty-four Native families have allotments along the old corridor. People hunt, pick berries and cut firewood in the area.
"There were people hunting along the pipeline when they sprayed it," he said. "There are still areas where nothing grows."
The 626-mile line was built in 1954 to bring fuel from Haines to Fairbanks. It followed the Alaska Highway route and was used until the 1970s.
Corps of Engineers spokesman John Killoran said his agency just learned from the Tanana Chiefs Conference of the possible chemical contamination. The corps hopes to conduct a site investigation next year and decide what, if anything, needs to be done. If work is required, it likely would not begin for several years because of the backlog of defense site cleanups, he said.
So far, the only test results from the Alaska side of the pipeline corridor are from soil near Northway, and they show low levels of contamination.
Greg Light, a DEC environmental specialist, said the state may ask the corps to move more quickly, depending on the results of future tests. He said there's no evidence yet that the area has toxins in levels above normal, but he suggested taking the next samples from suspect areas, such as any that appear barren of vegetation.