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Sitkans of a certain age might remember a time when they could run across the airport runway to explore the former World War II defense site known as “the causeway.” Although access to the causeway is only by boat or kayak now, this summer the Army Corps of Engineers will restrict visitors while work is underway to rid the soil of  of residual toxins from the 1940s. KCAW’s Katherine Rose reports.

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Ft. Rousseau was a part of Sitka’s harbor defenses during World War II, comprised of eight rock islands connected by a rock causeway. The site of a gun battery, it was closed in 1944. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1986, and is now a state park.

And this summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is embarking on a project to remove contaminated soil from the park. Project and technical manager Aaron Shewman says they’ll be working to remove contaminants that were left behind by buried electrical equipment, as well as fuel and batteries.

“Back in the 1940s they didn’t understand what would cause contamination or never even had the concept of what contamination was,” Shewman says. “So they left some fuel behind, for example.”

They also left behind lead from lead acid batteries that were improperly disposed of, and a toxin known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, left behind by old transformers. PCBs are classified as carcinogenic to humans by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Exposure to PCBs can cause skin conditions and according to the Center for Disease Control, some studies suggest prolonged exposure can cause liver damage.

Shewman says that Sitkans who’ve used the causeway for camping or exploring shouldn’t be too concerned.

“The reality is people who use or have used the causeways have only used it for a day or two here and there,” Shewman says. “Any exposure if it did happen was low. Given that the contamination is in the soil and it’s a rainy environment, there’s unlikely any dust that anyone would have breathed.”

KCAW reached out to a representative from the State Department of Health and Social Services, who said that without contamination data it’s difficult to know if recreational use of the area for 1-2 days a year presents a risk. But according to Lisa Geist — also with the Corps — who oversees formerly used defense sites — or FUDS — the concentration of PCBs in the soil at Ft. Rousseau is enough the state Department of Environmental Conservation stepped in.

“They do set cleanup levels that are protective of human health and the environment,” Geist says. “They have provided regulatory oversight, and we are going to clean up these contaminants to certain levels that are protective for the future.”

So the contaminants will be dug up, contained, and then they’ll come full circle and be buried again.

“We’ve hired a contractor, and the contractor will use heavy equipment to excavate the soil,” Shewman says. “He’ll take the excavated soil and place it in big bags. The bags will be loaded onto a barge and shipped off-site for disposal into a landfill.”

The project to remove the lead, fuel, and PCB contaminated soil begins after April 9 The Corps of Engineers anticipates to complete their work in late June. In the meantime, the Corps is asking the public to steer clear of the causeway until the work is done and the site is contaminant-free.

This story was updated on May 11 to reflect the new project timeline from the Army Corps of Engineers. They now estimate the Ft. Rousseau project will conclude near the end of June.