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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Project Chariot,

Part II: Setting Up

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The new AEC chief of the environmental impact studies for Project Chariot was fond of telling how he presented a proposal to the commission which required a very modest expenditure of funds. After hearing the reasons he needed the money, the chairman informed him that there wasn't enough money for the project.

"Gentlemen," replied Wolfe, "You have the money. What you are trying to tell me is that you have assigned my project a very low priority." He got the money. In The Firecracker Boys, O'Neill described Wolfe as "an urbane sophisticate brimming with wit and savoir faire, as comfortable quoting literary classics as he was at explicating current scientific theories."

Not long after Wolfe went to Washington, the commission proposed the sub-surface atomic detonation to scoop out the giant man-made harbor near Point Hope. According to Ed Thomas, Wolfe used his now-considerable influence in convincing the commission that a comprehensive environmental impact study was required before any detonations could be set off. He was successful in his efforts and his plans eventually entailed the spending of several million dollars. All of that is true.

The greater truth was that on October 7, 1958, University of Alaska president Ernest Patty sent a letter to the Atomic Energy Commission informing it that the university supported Project Chariot but suggested an environmental study be made of the area prior to any blast . In The Firecracker Boys, O'Neill states that President Patty informed the AEC that the university was "intrigued by the imaginative thinking," but that at least fifteen of his scientists were concerned about the blasts' effects on wildlife and they urged that the area should be carefully studied before any action was taken.

The result was that the University of Alaska landed some prestigious and financially rewarding contracts and their people played a leading role in the subsequent studies.

The study straddled the years 1959-1960-1961 and was to determine the undisturbed state of the environment in the coastal waters and the surrounding countryside before the atomic detonations were set off.

It might be reasonable to assume that they were also concerned with the overall effect the atomic explosions would have on the wildlife-and humans.

A team of scientists-including geologists, soil experts, radio-chemists, botanists, anthropologists, zoologists and ornithologists-was mobilized and, beside the University of Alaska, other major players included the University of Washington, The Ohio State University, the U. S. Geological Survey, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the General Electric Company's Hanford facility, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Arctic Health Research Center, and the U. S. Weather Bureau.

The Chariot camp had been established during the summer of 1959 and by mid-August it was a beehive of activity. "The permanent camp included ten dormitories," O'Neill writes, and "a mess hall, a shower and laundry building with hot water available at all times, a building housing water purification equipment, three gasoline generators, two warehouses, a communications building, a mechanic's shelter, and wood-frame latrines."

There were roadways connecting the camp with a barge unloading area, and an airstrip. Nine tank like "weasels" clattered over the tundra on various missions and, offshore, two oceanographic vessels rocked and rolled in the swells.

"Planes landed and took off," O'Neill wryly notes, " the generator shack throbbed with a constant pop, pop, pop, and the cooks served up three meals a day to a camp population that sometimes reached seventy."

And on every hand, there were the wild birds-the noisy, chattering seabirds, swirling like clouds of confetti and, along the coast, the forlornly calling shorebirds had gathered and, on the multi-colored tundra and in patches of scrub growth, the landbirds darted about; all of them, on land and over the water, all of them preparing for their long flights southward.

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