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Qawalangin Tribe to search for wartime debris in Unalaska Lake

The LiDAR project will generate subsurface images of Unalaska Lake, offering insight into possible wartime debris.
Andy Lusk
The LiDAR project will generate subsurface images of Unalaska Lake, offering insight into possible wartime debris.

The Qawalangin Tribe will use laser-based technology to look for World War II debris in Unalaska Lake this summer.

Tribal staff will scan the lake floor using laser imaging, in collaboration with city officials and a contractor who will operate the LiDAR technology.

LiDAR — which stands for light detection and ranging — is a technology that uses sensors that send out pulses of concentrated light across an area to see how far objects are from the scanner. This happens rapidly, putting together a picture of what a landscape looks like, even underwater.

The LiDAR project will generate subsurface images of Unalaska Lake, offering insight into possible wartime debris.

The tribe received funding for the Unalaska Lake survey through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program (NALEMP).

Qawalangin Tribe CEO Chris Price said they paired with Resolve Marine divers to remove World War II objects from Iliuliuk River earlier this year, as part of the city’s annual Community Clean-Up. According to the Unalaska Department of Parks, Culture and Recreation, residents collected more than 700 bags of trash during that cleanup.

Price said divers found a pipe in the river, which could be leftover from the war.

“They had two divers come out,” he said. “They got in there in their wetsuits, and they figured out a way to hook that thing up, and they pulled it out.”

Price said Resolve is hanging on to the pipe while the tribe decides what to do with it. He said the wood attached to the pipe still appears usable.

The Resolve divers also brought up old oil drums that were lodged in the river near the community center.

Now, using LiDAR technology, the tribe can find waste without using divers.

Elise Contreras, the tribe’s environmental remediation manager and NALEMP coordinator, said she wants to see if local rumors are true that during the war, soldiers left barrels on Unalaska Lake while it was frozen. Those barrels fell into the water when the ice melted, introducing new chemicals to the environment.

Contreras said cleanup efforts on the island are interconnected. She is interested in knowing if the salmon population is impacted by potential debris in Unalaska Lake.

“We want to make sure that’s taken care of, and any remediation actions,” Contreras said.

There are several other ongoing local cleanup efforts in Unalaska, including Formerly Used Defense Sites restoration through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. FUDS programs in Unalaska have previously facilitated contaminated soil cleanup and the removal of fuel storage tanks.

Unalaska is no stranger to wartime debris. Concrete pillboxes are a common sight around town, and it’s not unheard of to find remnants of machinery in the tundra. Contreras said a different, ongoing NALEMP project involves removing wartime debris from Unalaska Valley.

Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Andy Lusk is a writer, travel enthusiast and seafood aficionado who won the jackpot by landing in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. When he's not hiking or working on his latest story, you can find him curled up with his cats and a good book. Andy is a Report for America corps member and an alumnus of New York University.
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