Climbing up the hillside of a remote Alaskan island, an old tramway rusts into the ground beneath it. With gnarled rails, the 2,400-foot structure is a remanent of an abandoned radar facility that provided early warning of approaching enemy aircraft during World War II. The tramway is part of a formerly used defense site that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District worked to clean up the past two summers.
This impressive endeavor earned the project team a Secretary of the Army Environmental Award, the second in as many years for the Alaska District. In 2019, the organization received top honors for its remediation of the Fort Rousseau Formerly Used Defense Site near Sitka.
“The Cape Prominence Team has delivered another successful Formerly Used Defense Site project in remote Alaska,” said Randy Bowker, deputy district engineer and chief of the Programs and Project Management Division at the Alaska District. “Overcoming some of our most difficult environmental and logistical challenges, they are most deserving of this prestigious award.”
Located on a remote peninsula of Unalaska about 30 air miles from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, the former U.S. Army Signal Corps facility consists of two primary areas: a lower camp in a natural valley and an upper camp atop a steep slope that cover a combined 160 acres. The tramway connects the two sites at an average grade of 52 percent and moved troops and supplies from the shoreline where they lived to the high rocky bluff where they worked.
“There are only a few sites that were ever built like that,” said Jeremy Craner, project manager, while describing the unique connecting tramway.
The project falls within the Aleutian Islands Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and is under the jurisdiction and management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’ve had a really good partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Craner said. “They have been outstanding to work with. They see the big picture and understand the work we do out there – that we want to make it better. Without their cooperation, we would not be able to do our jobs out there.”
This strong sense of collaboration and comradery carried over to the district team and its contractor.
“We work together to get some pretty incredible stuff done in the field that nobody can get done by themselves,” Craner said.
Prior to the cleanup, the team used aerial photos, online maps and previous site visits to determine the areas of contamination on the remote location.
USACE investigated Cape Prominence and did some remediation work on the project in the 1990s. In 2017, the organization did an in house follow-up investigation with photos and samples of the remote site.
“Based on those results, we determined there was contamination out there,” Craner said.
Though rusting, the rails of the tram pose no threat to human health or the environment.
“There wasn’t any contamination related to the tramway or underneath the tramway to deal with,” Craner said. “We are going to leave it in place as a cool historic piece for potential visitors.”
The connecting infrastructure is just one aspect of the site though. In total, the district identified 19 structures for cleanup including the former radar site, storage areas, barracks, powerhouses and other facilities.
In the 2019 field season, contractors got to work cleaning up the site by decommissioning tanks, consolidating and removing drums, and excavating more than 1,000 tons of soil.
The site needed further work though. So, in 2020, a local Alaskan company prepared to finish the cleanup project at Cape Prominence. But then, COVID-19 pandemic started.
“We had a plan,” Craner said. “We were getting ready to go to the field and then we had to change plans on the fly.”
Once a new health measures were in place to keep contractors and the local community safe from the virus, work got underway to continue restoration activities. To prevent impacts to the land beyond what was needed to clean the soil, the team did not build a road between the two project sites. Instead, they used a helicopter to transport people, equipment and materials.
“We used a mini excavator that the contractor broke into pieces and slung up to the upper camp,” Craner said.
Once the excavator was reassembled, the team filled bulk bags with contaminated soil and transported it to the lower camp for staging.
Before the contaminated soil was removed, the field team carefully set aside and preserved the existing vegetative mat. Upon completion, the workers recontoured the excavations to match the surrounding topography and replaced the organic layer to further enhance restoration and promote natural revegetation of the site.
Though a major hurdle for the project, COVID-19 was not the only challenge to the cleanup effort.
“The weather and remoteness are tough,” Craner said. “When things don’t go right, like when things are breaking, it can be tough. Lots of planning, thought and extra effort go into a project like this.”
Despite the hardships of operating in an isolated location, dealing with equipment setbacks and tackling logistical issues, the crew completed the work by the end of the summer with zero incidents, accidents or lost time during the field work.
“Cape Prominence shows the grit and tenancy of our contractors and what they can do,” Craner said. “When things got tough, they just kept on going and found ways to overcome these obstacles.”
Under the Formerly Used Defense Sites Program, the Alaska District performs environmental remediation of properties that were once occupied by the military. In the Aleutians, that presence was primarily during the World War II era.
“In the process of using these sites, people spilled some things – most likely gasoline, diesel and things like that,” Craner said. “As much as we can, our goal is to clean things up to their natural state in a manner that is as safe and minimally invasive as possible.”
During the spring and summer of 2020, the district team collaborated with industry partners, communities and regulators to successfully execute multiple challenging projects in the Aleutians, including the waste removal at Cape Prominence.
Similar sites exist all over the state and to date, the Alaska District has closed 77 of 137 properties that were identified to have environmental hazards. The estimated cost to execute this remaining workload is approximately $1.2 billion.
“We get to make a positive difference in the environment through this work,” Craner said. “We get to make the world a better place.”