A pair of divers hauled about 500 pounds of World War II lead communication cable from the ocean floor near Clam Island as part of a project to remove a segment of the 63-year-old cable from Sitka Sound.
Sitka Tribe of Alaska officials estimate as many as 25 miles of the cable crisscross the ocean floor near Sitka, where they believe it is slowly corroding and threatening the marine environment.
Over the next two weeks, divers will be concentrating on removing about 3,000 feet of cable. The remediation is funded by the Defense Department’s Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, which aids Native American groups in cleaning up after defense department activity.
Defense Department investigator Steve Johnson said the tribe hopes to remove all of the submerged cable eventually but for now is focusing on segments that pose the greatest risk to marine life.
“The ones we’re concerned with are less than 100 feet (deep),” Johnson said. “The deeper ones can wait. There’s less oxygen down there.”
In 1942, the U.S. Navy laid roughly 50 miles of communication cable, both underwater and underground, between defense sites on Kruzoff Island, Harbor Mountain, the Lisianski Peninsula, Biorka Island and many other small islands in Sitka Sound.
The Army Signal Corps planned to remove much of the cable after World War II, but Signal Corps records show a great deal of the cable was never recovered.
“It’s not being used; it hasn’t been used in 60 years,” Johnson said. “It’s turning to dust in our back yard.”
A 1998 study by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society found elevated levels of lead in gumboots, abalone, herring row, seaweed and other subsistence foods gathered near Sitka.
Other studies have had similar findings, including a 2002 Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation study in which shellfish gathered in Starrigavan Bay exceeded recommended lead levels for pregnant women and young children.
Although studies have not linked the World War II cable specifically to the elevated lead levels, the tribe is concerned the cable could be contributing to the contamination. The tribe has state permits to conduct the remediation work through the end of the month, since divers must be out of the water before the start of the spring herring spawn. Johnson said the tribe will be allowed back in the water next winter.
Johnson and Jeromey Campbell, a diver hired by the tribe for the project, are using declassified military maps to find the cable as well as information gathered by divers who assessed the cable in 2001.
But Johnson said locating the cable under water is difficult, as some sections are buried in up to 8 inches of sediment. In their first attempt last Friday, Johnson and Campbell failed to find a segment of the cable they were looking for in Starrigavan Bay. Earlier in the week, they dove in Whiting Harbor, the cove off the northern end of the airport runway, but again didn’t find the one they wanted.
“We found cables, but they weren’t the right one,” Campbell said.
It was during a dive Thursday near Clam Island, about a mile and a half south of Middle Island, that Johnson and Campbell finally found the cable they were looking for. Campbell said he expects things to go more smoothly now that they can get into a routine for recovering the material.
The cable is made of steel wire wrapped around a black plastic or hemp sheath coated with creosote. The sheath covers a lead core containing a mass of copper wires wrapped in hemp.
Sections of the cable vary in diameter, with an average thickness of about one and a half inches.
To recover the cable, Johnson and Campbell cut off small sections with hacksaws and bolt cutters and attach them to lift bags that float them to the surface, where two workers take them aboard a boat.
Johnson said the tribe plans to send the retrieved cable south to be recycled.
“It will probably end up in a bunch of car batteries,” he said.