By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern
In an interview on Wednesday, September 30, 2020 for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series, Pamela Miller and Vi Waghiyi of Alaska Community Actions on Toxins (ACAT) shared their experience tackling toxics, protecting health and achieving justice for Alaska’s wildlife and people.
The U.S. Air Force established a base at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island in 1952. When the military vacated the base in the early 1970s, they left at least thirty-four contaminated sites in a nine-square-mile area. Contamination includes at least 220,000 gallons of spilt fuel, as well as heavy metals, asbestos, solvents, and PCBs which are known to cause cancer.
Vi Waghiyi is a Yupik grandmother who was born in Savoonga, a native village on St. Lawrence Island. Her ancestors’ connection to the land and her people’s disproportionate exposure to harmful toxins motivates her environmental activism with ACAT. Vi’s community has been struggling to hold the military accountable for their reckless abandonment of the formerly used defense sites in the area. Pollutants from these sites contaminate Alaska’s soil and groundwater and disproportionately affect the Yupik community given their reliance on traditional subsistence agriculture. Vi used the term “environmental violence” when referring to the military’s negligence in the area.
“My people feel that our basic human rights have been violated”, said Vi.
Pamela Miller founded Alaska Community Action on Toxics in 1997 after repeated requests from Alaskans for technical assistance. ACAT ensures that Alaskan natives are partners in the fight for justice, and believes in the power of community-based participatory research: combining local knowledge with science to better understand the long term effects of toxic exposure in these areas. Pam has been working with the Savoonga community for decades, transforming knowledge into policies that are protective of Alaskan natives’ health. She worked closely with Yupik leader, Annie Alowa, who had been trying for decades to get the military to clean up its toxic legacy at St. Lawrence. Annie, who served a health aide in Savoonga, began to notice serious health problems among island residents – including members of her own family – who lived, worked, and harvested greens, berries, fish, and wildlife from the Northeast Cape area. Health problems included cancer, low birth weights, and miscarriages among her people.
Annie’s motto was “I will fight until I melt.”
Her perseverance continues to inspire Pam and Vi’s work to protect environmental health and ensure justice. Over the years, ACAT has had many successes, including eliminating global pollution in the arctic, reducing pesticide use in Alaska, advancing state and national chemical policy reform, and achieving justice for Exxon Valdez Oil Spill workers. For a more in depth look at ACAT’s work, please visit https://www.akaction.org/our_story/accomplishments/.
Click here to watch “I Will Fight Until I Melt,” a short film documenting Yupik elder Annie Alowa’s decades long struggle to get the military to clean up toxic waste on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.