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Murkowski waits for BLM response on contaminated lands

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Theo Greenly
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KUCB
Murkowski requested the Department of the Interior to take up the mantle of coordinating agency. She said she “get some kind of a determination from the Interior as to their commitment as a coordinating agency.”

A week after traveling to Unalaska in an effort to spur the government into action, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is still waiting for a commitment from the Department of the Interior to coordinate cleanup efforts on contaminated lands conveyed to Alaska Natives.

The federal government conveyed 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives as part of the 1971 Alaska Native Corporation Settlement Act, or ANCSA. But lots of that land was polluted, by things like mining and military operations — and different governmental agencies, committees and other organizations have been arguing over whose responsibility it is to clean it up for the past 50 years.

Murkowski co-chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. She, and a group of state and federal officials, held an official U.S. Senate field hearing in Unalaska Aug. 23 to organize cleanup efforts to some of that polluted land.

“What we're discussing today is really environmental injustice, true environmental injustice,” Murkowski told those in attendance. “We're talking about lands the federal government conveyed to Alaska Native corporations to settle Aboriginal land claims that were often horribly contaminated.”

Pressure has been rising for the government to act. The state of Alaska sued the feds in July, arguing that the ANCSA land was too polluted to develop, and that the Department of the Interior was responsible for cleaning it up.

Jason Brune is the commissioner for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. He told the seven members on the panel that litigation was Alaska’s only choice.

“We had to bring litigation against the Department of the Interior, against the Bureau of Land Management,” Brune said. “We did not want to bring litigation. We were hoping, and we've been trying, to resolve this. And we all recognize this as an issue. But ultimately, the force of litigation ultimately brought us together.”

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Theo Greenly
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KUCB
Murkowski co-chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. She, and a group of state and federal officials, held an official U.S. Senate field hearing in Unalaska Aug. 23 to organize cleanup efforts to some of that polluted land.

The community of Unalaska has more than 50 sites that have been deemed areas of concern, covering around 80,000 acres.

Vince Tutiakoff Sr. is the mayor of Unalaska. He’s also the traditional chief of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, and chairs the board of Unalaska’s Native corporation. He said they've been petitioning the government to do something for decades.

“We're tired everytime we get a letter back [saying], ‘Oh, we're gonna confirm this, and we're gonna start a study.’ Well, we've been studied enough. Take all these studies and put them up on the shelf,” Tutiakoff said.

Murkowski ended the hearing by requesting the Department of the Interior to take up the mantle of coordinating agency. She said she expects “some kind of a determination from the Interior as to their commitment as a coordinating agency,” by the end of last week.

Representatives from Murkowski’s office said her staff had followed up with the Interior, and made clear she expected a timely response, but one had yet to come.

“If I have to legislate an answer, I will,” Murkwoski said.

At the time of publication, Murkowski’s office said the Department of the Interior had requested more time for their followup, citing a number of staff being out of office on official travel.

Anyone who wants to send public testimony can send it to testimony@indian.senate.gov.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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