By John Budnik
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Alaska District Public Affairs Office
Numb fingertips and toes; frozen beards and eyelashes; and an ice road sound like something out of a major film. However, there were no video cameras rolling as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District conducted an environmental cleanup project in the tundra-covered foothills of the Brooks Range.
Since 2009, more than 7,800 tons of contaminated soil polluted the remote location of Test Well No. 9 near Umiat, a historic oil exploratory base camp. The conditions are harsh with the site located more than 100 miles from the nearest road system in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. Operations at the site officially completed this year.
Between 1944 and 1982, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Geological Survey drilled exploratory and scientific wells in the region formerly known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve No.4. Umiat’s base camp originated when the Navy investigated the area for its oil potential between 1944 and 1953. Eleven wells were drilled near the remote complex.
In 1952, the Navy broke ground on Test Well No. 9 and about 200 barrels of oil flowed daily for seven weeks. Unaware of the harmful traits, polychlorinated biphenyls were used as a tracer in the drilling fluid used to aid the rig and contaminated the surrounding ground surface.
“It was the only well that appears to have used PCBs as a tracer,” said David Jadhon, project manager in the Formerly Used Defense Sites program of the Environmental and Special Projects Branch.
Test Well No. 9 is one of more than 500 identified properties in Alaska eligible as a formerly used defense site under the Department of Defense’s Environmental Restoration Program.
“This remediation project is an example of the Corps’ hardy expertise when it comes to environmental engineering in the Arctic," said Ken Andraschko, chief of the Formerly Used Defense Sites program in Alaska.
Before Congress banned PCBs in 1979, the harmful compounds could be found in common materials such as transformers, electrical equipment and cutting fluids for machine operations. Now, the chemicals are linked to cancer and other health concerns.
“Back then, we did not know they would be a challenge,” Jadhon explained. “When you look at some of these (formerly used defense sites), go back in time and look at the work that was done. There wasn’t necessarily a life-cycle mindset.”
Alaska lacks disposal facilities for PCB-contaminated waste. The material removed from the project site was shipped to the Lower 48, adding another challenge to logistics.
The Umiat camp is difficult to reach with access only by boat on the Colville River or airplane, Jadhon said. Many of Alaska’s deactivated defense sites entail long-distance trips, complicated terrain and an absence of general transportation amenities. Specifically, traveling to Test Well No. 9 is unforgiving because of the soft tundra surrounding the area.
Therefore, contractors built an ice road for heavy equipment to traverse over the arctic tundra. Authorized by the state, the new path required about 3,000 gallons of water from a nearby lake to build the two-mile stretch of highway. Several long trains of snow-tracked machinery transported the material to the disposal staging area.
“Planning begins in the summer months with maintenance of our heavy equipment and camp units,” said Bryan Lund, vice president of the Environmental and Construction Division for Marsh Creek LLC, the Anchorage-based company contracted to execute the work. “Every piece of equipment we use is specifically designed or modified to operate in arctic winter conditions.”
The winter elements consistently brought darkness, blizzards and temperatures 40 degrees below zero. When spring neared, traveling overland was threatened because the ice road began to melt and the Colville River rose. Wildlife encounters and grizzly bear dens also were a concern.
“The trust and camaraderie that comes with safely operating together under such inclement conditions makes projects such as (Test Well No. 9) fun for all of us,” Lund said.
For the remediation work at Umiat, Marsh Creek was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Association as its 2013 Region 10 Contractor of the Year.
In the interest of saving mobilization costs, the plugging of Test Well No. 9 occurred during the surface cleanup operations.
“The Corps worked collaboratively with the Bureau of Land Management and successfully accomplished the plugging of legacy wells No. 6, 7 and 9,” Jadhon said. “The ice road was already there to make it happen.”