1. News & Issues
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Toxic Waste in Alaska: Pollution and Cancer on The Last Frontier

State Marked by Thousands of Unknown and Unmonitored Toxic Waste Sites


Large fishing boat anchored in Valdez, Alaska bay
Dave Hughes/E+/Getty Images
Alaska residents and wildlife may be at risk of serious health effects brought on by exposure to thousands of industrial and military toxic waste dumps, according to a report about the waste sites that was prepared for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC)—but never published.

The report, titled Pollution and Cancer in Alaska [pdf] was finally released in June 2006 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Thousands of Unknown Toxic Waste Sites
The report compiled state records on all known nuclear, mining and military waste sites in Alaska, but makes it clear that there may be thousands of other toxic waste sites that are unknown and undocumented.

The U.S. Department of Defense is responsible for "one-third of all active toxic waste sites in Alaska," according to the report. In addition, there may be as many as 10,000 abandoned defense sites that are polluted. Complicating the problem further are the thousands of small landfills and industrial waste pits that Alaska does not inventory or monitor.

Toxic Waste May Be Contaminating Drinking Water in Alaska
Hundreds of toxic waste dumps are spread along Alaska's coast and adjacent to lakes, streams and freshwater aquifers, but the extent to which they may be contaminating drinking water is poorly understood. Seventy-nine percent of "rural Alaskans get their drinking water from small water systems or private wells, which are not currently monitored for toxic substances."

"While many parts of Alaska remain pristine, many other parts of The Last Frontier are profoundly polluted," said Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director. "Unfortunately, the state is making no effort to assess the dimensions of this multifaceted toxic legacy or the effects on its people and wildlife."

Link Between Pollution and Cancer Uncertain
The report underlines the knowledge gaps about the effects of persistent pollution exposure on cancer rates, disease patterns, and bioaccumulation of toxins in both humans and wildlife. The report surveys discrepancies in cancer rates and traces cancer clusters, but says more systematic research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

Questions Raised About State Environmental Agency
According to Ruch, additional research will be hampered because the majority of toxic waste sites scattered throughout the state are not actively monitored.

"The prevailing anti-pollution philosophy at the Department of Environmental Conservation seems to be 'don't ask-don't tell'," Ruch said, pointing to a 2002 survey of ADEC staff that suggested resource limitations, political interference, and fear of retaliation were undermining the agency's environmental performance.

[View either the highlights or the question-by-question results [pdf] of the 2002 ADEC survey.]

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.