Work continues on a contaminated site at 7-Mile Haines Highway. (Jillian Rogers)

Work continues on a contaminated site at 7-Mile Haines Highway. (Jillian Rogers)

A clean-up project at 7-Mile of the Haines Highway that is estimated to cost a half-million dollars, is moving forward. The site was littered with trash, old vehicles and was contaminated with lead, arsenic after decades of use as a shooting range.

Shooting for practice or just for fun is a popular pastime in Alaska, and Haines is no exception. And it’s legal to shoot guns on public land. But decades of people shooting at targets, without retrieving the casing or bullets, has left nearly an acre of land at 7-Mile highly contaminated. Larry Beck is an environmental protection specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that currently owns the land. He and a small crew are working at the site removing trash and digging up surface contamination.

“Before we go we want to dust off the boots and when you get home with them you probably want to wash the dirt out,” he says. “There’s always a chance you may have picked up some lead or antimony or arsenic or copper from the soil, those are the four metals.”

As we walk around the site, Beck points out different colored flags which represent they’ve sampled and divided into a grid pattern.

“Sampling was done within each one of those grids measuring the metal content and the depth going down into the soil and that got transferred into the report,” Beck explains. “And so now our cleanup contractors are following those same grids for the removal action where we’re going to physically take the dirt off.”

BLM is work ng to transfer the land to the State. Before that can happen, it has to be cleaned up. Dennis Teitzel is the field manager for the BLM office in Glenallen overseeing the land in Haines. He says one goal of the project is to get the land ready to be transferred to the State, but they still might not take it. It’s a 14-acre parcel surrounded on three sides by more State land. About an acre of it is contaminated. Teitzel says that the clean-up is about more than a land transfer clause.

“It’s a good project, it’s needed regardless of why we’re doing it at this time,” Teitzel says. “It’s contamination that needs to be cleaned up for health and safety reasons, for the public and the wildlife and the habitat in the area so we don’t extend contamination beyond where it is today.”

Beck, who got involved in 2008, says clean-up goes back to at least 2002.

Over the past few years, dead cars and trucks, busted up television sets, and truckloads of household garbage – all of which had been peppered with bullets after being dumped –  have been removed. More than 80 asphalt drums found buried near the road were also removed. With the heavy lifting out of the way, crews are now digging into the dirt, removing soil saturated with harmful heavy metals from bullets and casings.

“A lot of ammunition residue, shotgun shells, cases. There’s still some broken cathode ray tube glass, which is impregnated with lead. There’s a pile over here.”

Last week as we walked around the site, workers were busy pushing dirt around with heavy equipment and clearing trees to get better access for the clean-up.

The lead contamination ranges from about three inches deep at the firing line to upwards of three feet deep at the backstop. The site has been used as a recreational range for at least 40 years.

“The really highly concentrated lead, which we think may have to be handled in a different manner than the rest of the lead-contaminated dirt,” Beck says. “We start getting into the EPAs hazardous waste regulations when the concentration is high enough.”

Beck says, according to the findings from a 2013 investigation by Chilkat Environmental, there are about 450 cubic yards of lead, antimony, arsenic and copper-contaminated dirt that needs to get shipped out.

But it’s not just the ammunition that contributed to the toxic dirt.

“And this is really thick, heavy glass,” Beck says. “Here’s a piece of a beer bottle if you want to hold that piece and then compare it to that piece. It’s impregnated with the heavy metals as part of TV screens. I think I had somewhere that the average cathode ray tube has about 10 pounds of lead in it.”

The tainted soil will be loaded into containers and shipped to a processing plant in Oregon, which deals with heavy-metal-laden matter. That’s where most of the cost comes from, Beck says.

“Right now, total, over the years since what got spent in 2002, we’re right at about a half a million,” says Beck. “The big money is this year quite a bit being spent shipping contaminated dirt to a landfill, an EPA certified, approved, permitted appropriate landfill. And that’s where the big money comes in. That’s including the half million.”

Both Teitzel and Beck say there is no documented evidence the contamination has had harmful effects on humans or wildlife, but Beck says the potential is there.

The bulk of the clean-up effort will most likely be completed this fall, unless they find more contamination than originally estimated. Beck says if all goes well, the area is expected to be capped with clean fill and seeded with grass next summer. If the chunk of land is conveyed to the state, it’s their choice what to do with it.  Beck says they could make it into a picnic area, a small campground. But he says, there’s nothing stopping people from pulling the trigger and turning the site into a shooting range again.