The Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) was established in 1997 to address concerns about the impact of toxic pollution on human health and the environment raised by rural Alaskans affected by military and industrial operations. Guided by a belief in environmental justice, ACAT empowers communities through collaborative research, shared science, education, organizing, and advocacy, guided by science and the precautionary principle.
ACAT’s primary focus is on serving all Alaskans, with particular attention to Alaska Native peoples who suffer disproportionately from exposure to toxic chemicals in their traditional foods. Protecting vulnerable groups, including Alaska Native peoples, women, children, and workers, is essential for safeguarding the well-being of all. The Arctic’s Indigenous communities face some of the world’s highest levels of persistent and toxic chemicals, compounded by climate change.
ACAT is led by women and Alaska Natives, with diverse board and staff representation. The organization boasts a history of successful policy campaigns at local, state, and international levels, striving to reduce or eliminate toxic contamination. ACAT has played key roles in the creation and implementation of global conventions banning hazardous chemicals, including the UN’s Stockholm Convention and the Minamata Convention on mercury.
The organization engages in community-based participatory research, publishing scientific articles and investigative reports to inform the public and influence policy. Collaboration is central to ACAT’s strategy, partnering with numerous NGOs, tribes, universities, and labor unions to amplify its impact. ACAT operates throughout Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples’ unceded territories, committed to democratic organizing principles.
We work throughout the unceded territories of the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska. Our offices are located on the traditional territories of the Dena’ina and Sivuqaq Yupik Peoples. We strive to carry out our work based in a commitment to the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing.
Environmental Justice Leader Spotlight
Merle Apassingok was born in Kotzebue, Alaska and raised in Gambell on Sivuqaq, Alaska. Merle works with ACAT as a member of our Sivuqaq Working Group to investigate residents’ exposure to legacy contaminants and emerging flame-retardant chemicals and effects on the endocrine system and child development.
Merle had been a crew member on his father’s walrus skin boat since he was a young child, and eventually became a striker, where he successfully harpooned three bowhead whales. Merle and his brother John Apassingok were the last registered whaling captains under the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Committee (AEWC) to sail for whales in a walrus skin boat on April 16, 2010. Since 2011, Merle has been a Commissioned Pastor at Gambell Presbyterian Church. Merle and his wife Rhona Apassingok have been Bering Air Village Agents since June of 2000.
Harriet is a bilingual Yupik grandmother born in 1932 in Savoonga on Sivuqaq (a/k/a St. Lawrence Island) in the Bering Sea. As an Elder in her village, she serves her people (and ACAT’s board) as a spiritual and cultural leader. She loves music and dancing, and taught herself to play the piano. She started playing piano for the Presbyterian Church in 1950; she is also a Sunday School teacher there. When her son passed away in 1989, Harriet taught herself to play the guitar by remembering the way he had played. She teaches children Eskimo dancing – and ACAT’s Executive Director, too. Harriet attends meetings of the Restoration Advisory Board for the abandoned military site at Northeast Cape, expressing her concerns about the health problems she saw as a community health aide, which are linked with military toxics. Harriet joined the board in February 2004.
Wagner “Utu” Iworrigan
Wagner “Utu” Iworrigan joined ACAT in early 2020 as a Sivuqaq Community Health Researcher. At ACAT, Utu organizes community meetings and events and assists with field research logistics and sample collection. Utu was born in Gambell, but later moved to Savoonga on Sivuqaq (St. Lawrence Island). Growing up on the island, Utu quickly became an avid hunter and gatherer. In practicing Sivuqaq traditions, Utu gained a great love and respect for his people, the island, the surrounding waters, and the wildlife that sustains them.
Growing up, Utu noticed a drastic change in the health of his people and the wildlife. Many years after the US Military occupied the island, he saw unprecedented rates of cancer and disease in many people of Sivuqaq, both young and old. This motivated him to further his education and research on harmful chemicals like PCBs, POPs, and other cancer-causing pollutants. Utu is passionate about the health of his community and seeks to help his people through education and research to mitigate the high rate of cancer on the island. Utu is resolute in holding military polluters accountable and getting the justice his community deserves.
Pam founded ACAT in 1997 and serves as Executive Director. She brings more than 35 years of research, education, and advocacy experience to her present work. Pam works passionately for environmental and reproductive justice, health, and human rights. In addition to serving as Executive Director for ACAT, Pamela was elected in 2016 as Co-Chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a network of more than 600 environmental health and justice organizations working in 124 countries. She serves as a Principal Investigator for community-based participatory research funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Pamela received a Meritorious Service Award from the University of Alaska and Alaska Conservation Foundation’s Olaus Murie Award in recognition of her “long-term outstanding professional contributions to the conservation movement in Alaska.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wittenberg University and a master’s degree in environmental science from Miami University.
Prior to her work in Alaska, she served as Ocean Issues Technical Coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology and Director of a marine science education center at Nisqually Reach in southern Puget Sound. She received the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in Washington State. She came to Alaska in 1989 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill to serve as a research biologist for Greenpeace.
Vi Waghiy is a Sivuqaq Yupik, Native Village of Savoonga Tribal Citizen, mother, and grandmother. Since 2002, she has worked with ACAT and serves as Environmental Health and Justice Director. She was appointed by President Biden to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in April 2021. She is a nationally recognized environmental justice leader and is frequently invited to speak locally, nationally, and internationally. Vi serves as a leader of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus that advises the United Nation’s international delegates for treaties concerning persistent organic pollutants.
She served as a member of the Environmental Health Sciences Council that advises the NIEHS.Vi received an Environmental Achievement Award from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in “Recognition of Valuable Contributions to Environmental Excellence in Alaska.” She received a certificate of appreciation from the leaders of her home village, Savoonga, “for the dedication and devoted service as an Ambassador of Sivuqaq for protecting our health and human rights.” She coordinates environmental health research projects in the Norton Sound region of Alaska and supervises the work of community researchers on Sivuqaq.
Samarys Seguinot Medina
Samarys, also known as Sama or by her given Siberian Yupik name, Umyuugalek, is a Boricua from the Archipelago of Borikén (Puerto Rico). She was born and raised between the beautiful countryside of San Sebastián and the sandy beaches of the west coast of Borikén. She first came to Alaska in 2009 as a summer intern at ACAT and returned in 2010 to become a full-time employee. Today she serves as the Environmental Health Director. The focus of her work is supporting ACAT’s community-based participatory research projects and environmental health research.
Sama has extensive experience in environmental justice advocacy; decolonization efforts in Borikén, the Caribbean and Alaska; community-based participatory research; environmental health education; environmental planning; and science translation. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology specializing in Environmental Science from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, a master’s degree in science of environmental risk assessment & environmental planning from Universidad Metropolitana, and a doctorate degree in public health specializing in environmental health from the University of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences Campus.
Sama is passionate about her family, social justice, the outdoors, and people’s connections to the natural world. She is immensely proud of her Boricua heritage.
Why is ACAT excited for the Justice40rward Community Tour to come to your community?
We are excited to share the unique environmental justice and climate justice struggles faced by Alaska Indigenous communities with Administration and elected officials. We look forward to lifting community solutions and exploring ways to get critical funding into our communities to help solve the complex and urgent environmental and climate justice needs.
What are a few projects you’re currently working on with the community?
- Ensuring toxic, petroleum-based plastics and chemicals are addressed in climate action plans and phased out through state and national policies.
- Ensuring the new international plastics treaty addresses all environmental and health impacts of toxic plastics from production to waste disposal.
- Achieving federal and state policies to protect drinking water and environmental and public health from PFAS chemicals.
- Phasing out persistent, bio-accumulative, toxic chemicals at the state, national, and international levels.
- Eliminating air pollution caused by leaded aviation gas.
- Reducing/eliminating the use of toxic oil spill dispersants in Alaskan waters.
- Bringing air quality in Fairbanks into compliance with federal Clean Air Act provisions for small soot particulates.
- Releasing investigative reports, including: (1) links between chemicals, plastic, and climate change in the Arctic; (2) lead exposures in Alaskan children; (3) PFAS in Alaska water bodies and drinking water.
What should others know about environmental justice in your community?
Alaska faces two critical threats: the climate crisis and toxic chemicals. It warms four times faster than the rest of the world, causing erosion, village displacement, and harm to wildlife. Toxic chemicals and microplastics accumulate in the Arctic due to global distillation, disproportionately impacting Indigenous peoples and their traditional diet.
Alaska Native communities suffer severe pollution from industrial and military operations, leading to various health issues. These threats are rooted in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, driving climate change and toxic contamination.
The Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) aims to eliminate toxic exposure and work towards a post-carbon, climate-stable, and just future for all Alaskans.
Why is ACAT excited about the Justice40 Initiative?
ACAT is excited to address cumulative impacts and restore damage caused by decades of industrial and military contamination and the devastating effects of climate warming on Indigenous communities, lands, and waters in Alaska. To provide infrastructure for safe water, sewer, and solid waste systems. To stop air and water pollution from military and industrial facilities. To address health disparities and prevent further harm to the health and wellbeing of our communities.
What are previous projects or programs that your organization is proud of achieving for your community?
- Engage thousands of Alaskans through our organizing and Integrated Voter Engagement programs, including canvasses, get-out-the-vote activities, public events (lectures, films, arts events), workshops, leadership, and volunteer training.
- Serve as host to high school, undergraduate, and graduate student interns.
- Conduct leadership trainings, including Indigenous Women and Girls Leadership Trainings and Gatherings.
- Created an organic gardening program and Yarducopia, including educational workshops, and creation of shared and community gardens.
- Play key role in coalitions including Just Transition Collective, Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, Environmental Justice Leadership Forum, Coming Clean, Safer States, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Mind the Store, and IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network).
- Conduct human rights trainings for youth and adults.
- Train and coordinate the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
- Organize community environmental health fairs.
- Organize lecture series on Children’s Environmental Health, Reproductive Justice/Health, and Breast Cancer Prevention.
- Earn state, national, and international media coverage including New York Times, Guardian, Democracy Now, National Geographic, statewide public radio, newspapers, and television.
- Achieved passage of a precedent-setting policy by the Anchorage School District requiring least-toxic approach to pest management.
- Won passage of pesticide-right-to-know ordinance in Anchorage.
- Achieved statewide pesticide right-to-know law for schools and statewide right-to-law for public parks and facilities.
- Successfully prevented the aerial spraying of herbicides in southeast Alaska and along transportation rights of way. Prevented uncontrolled herbicide applications by the Alaska Railroad.
- Achieved passage of the Pesticide-Free Anchorage ordinance.
- Worked with Municipality and Healthy Babies Bright Futures to establish Anchorage as a Bright City with the purpose of reducing children’s exposures to neurodevelopmental toxicants. Trained hundreds of childcare providers and exchanged toxic nap mats.
- With labor union UNITE HERE Local 878, achieved passage of an ordinance in Anchorage to protect workers and the public from exposure to toxic mold.
- Contributed significantly to passage of an ordinance in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to prevent the use of toxic sewage sludge on agricultural lands.
- Played a key role in passage of an ordinance in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to prevent dumping of toxic construction waste in landfills.
- Helped support the rights of transgender people in defeating Proposition 1 in Anchorage.
- Achieved passage of a landmark ordinance banning four classes of toxic flame-retardant chemicals from children’s products, furniture, and mattresses in Anchorage.
- Support Citizens for Clean Air, community-based air quality monitoring, and legal challenges for clean air in Fairbanks.
- Achieved introduction of the Toxic-Free Children’s Act, hearings, passage through the Senate, House Bill 27.
- Passed state legislation in 2023 to protect drinking water by banning PFAS in industrial firefighting foams used on airports and military bases.
- Actively work to prevent destructive coal and metals mines, oil and gas development, and minimize harm from existing extractive industries. Work to hold industrial and military polluters accountable.
- Conduct on going work to ensure reform and implementation of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to protect vulnerable populations.
- Initiate litigation to uphold environmental and public health laws including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund law), Toxic Substances Control Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
- Address the vulnerability of the north and Arctic to the interconnected harms associated with climate change, chemicals, and plastics to prompt leadership and meaningful action from elected officials.
- Instrumental in achieving global bans on chemicals that are ubiquitous and harming Arctic ecosystems and Indigenous Peoples through work on the negotiation and implementation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Pollutants.