ChemTrack & Cornerstone
Two Heads Are Better
A joint venture adventure
By Katie Pesznecker

nused for years, the Kaktovik airstrip on Barter Island idled in decay, battered by punishing Arctic coastal storms. Although the land was culturally important to Kaktovik’s Alaska Native people, the former US Air Force runway sat in a ruinous state, with 11,121 square yards of geocell material and 1,464 linear feet of steel drums that had been incrementally installed to protect the landing area from flooding and other show-stopping conditions over the decades.

Removing these materials, remediating the land, and restoring it presented a monumental task. A single company didn’t win the bid; two companies did. ChemTrack Alaska and Cornerstone General Contractors tackled the project under the auspices of their ChemTrack/Cornerstone Joint Venture (CTCSJV).

The partnership exemplifies the benefits that can result when contractors unite on joint bids. In this case, the joint venture blends small-business ChemTrack’s record for environmental services, construction, engineering, and innovative remedial technology with the much-larger Cornerstone’s depth in cold-climate construction and massive, year-round projects.

Wild Ride
It’s a win-win professional partnership, says Carrie Jokiel, ChemTrack’s president. ChemTrack is 51 percent owner in the joint venture; because it’s a small business, Cornerstone can bid in the small business category when the companies team up.

“The advantage for the small business is the person power, expertise, and sometimes bonding leverage the large business brings along with it,” Jokiel says. “For us specifically, our leadership is well aligned and has a strong personal friendship. We believe that is a differentiator for us. We enjoy working together, talking shop, and supporting one another on the wild ride of doing business in Alaska.”

The work on Barter Island presented a uniquely Alaskan opportunity, ending the lifespan of military infrastructure dating back decades. The story began with the forced move of Alaska Native people from their ancestral land; with CTCSJV, it would end with that land remediated and presented back to its first people.

“You have to bid a lot before you win. Have lots of open conversations. Make sure your goals are aligned. There’s a lot to it.”

Jenith Ziegler
Vice President, ChemTrack Alaska

Buried by the US Air Force to protect the Kaktovik runway from coastal erosion, steel drums and other materials had been surfacing in fragments and posing a hazard to local people and wildlife.

ChemTrack & Cornerstone

yellow construction vehicle clearing debris
“A JV is a great way to be able to marry core competencies and compete on more projects… You are truly trying to make gains, learn, better your company, and support the people you work with.”

Carrie Jokiel
ChemTrack Alaska

“We loved the idea of returning this area to its pristine natural landscape for the local community,” Jokiel says. “It brought us great pride to be a part of the bookend for this area.”
Remove This Runway
The community of Kaktovik is located on Barter Island in northeast Alaska adjacent to the Beaufort Sea. In the ‘40’s the US Air Force (USAF) decided to build an airstrip there—on the site of the historic Native village. The people of the North Slope Borough’s easternmost village had to abandon what had been their village site for generations.

Runway work proceeded. A hangar and the east-west runway were completed in 1947 on a narrow spit of land on the northeast portion of Barter Island. It had an elevation of less than five feet above mean sea level. As years passed, the runway experienced significant erosion and frequent flooding. In 1951, the entire area around Kaktovik was made a military reserve, and some residents were required to move again. The village was moved once more in 1964, but this time, residents received title to their village site.

In the late ‘90s, the North Slope Borough operated and maintained the airstrip under a joint-use agreement with the USAF. During that time, the borough continued to install erosion control elements, including a revetment constructed of gravel-filled steel drums and a geocell confinement grid both above and below ground.

In July 2008, a severe winter storm submerged half of the runway, exposing and damaging several sections of the geocell materials.

In 2015, construction of a new airport began farther inland at an elevation above the 100-year floodplain. By 2017, the new airport was complete, and the Barter Island runway was abandoned. While airplane activity stopped, ferocious weather did not; storms continued to erode both sides of the spit, further exposing the geocell.

“The unknown subsurface steel drums were fragmented and posed a serious health hazard to both the employees, our equipment, as well as the surrounding locals who use the Barter Island spit daily,” Jokiel says.

Several factors complicated the removal of these materials, such as the area’s archeological significance, the short work season due to sea ice and limited barge accessibility, and even polar bears, which frequent the area and attract wildlife tourism.

Combined Capabilities
The project seemed like a great fit for the CTCSJV team, which had tackled several other jobs since forming in 2017.

“We were drawn to the idea that—even though there wasn’t typical contamination, in that it wasn’t contaminated—it was still environmental, in that it was cleaning up something that was a legacy item,” says Jenith Ziegler, ChemTrack’s vice president. “It was kind of the last piece of the puzzle. There had been a lot of contract work at the site before we got there, and this was the last piece to turn that over.”

Coordination between JV partners enabled crews to evaluate the site for hidden materials during the short season.

ChemTrack & Cornerstone

A joint venture is a marriage of disciplines, when two companies’ complementary skillsets combine to amplify their competitive edge and open new opportunities. With ChemTrack and Cornerstone working together, the team offers experience in every sector, construction delivery method, and region of Alaska.

“Our approach always balances the importance of performing safe, high quality, and efficient field activities with excellent operational planning, support, and coordination,” Jokiel says. “We pursue opportunities that are well-suited for the capabilities of our combined companies and highly qualified personnel.”

With the Barter Island project, CTCSJV saw areas for professionals from both companies to lend to its success.

“ChemTrack historically has performed work off the road system, where Cornerstone typically performs projects in larger communities,” Ziegler says. “Together we are able to look for opportunities in all areas of Alaska. We look for work where we both can contribute and find value.”

The Kaktovik shoreline is free of sea ice for about three months each year, from mid-July to mid-September. Even in that window, sea ice can float near the coast, driven by strong winds. This means barge service generally happens only once a season, which influenced CTCSJV’s schedule and approach.

Uncovering Surprises
The Barter Island project had two parts. The first entailed initial evaluation of materials on site, both visible and under the surface. The team discovered the project needed additional permits before beginning field work.

The discovery “saved the season,” Jokiel says. She credits the total synergy of CTCSJV and how team members meet regularly “under a cooperative framework to solve problems on paper long before construction begins,” as she puts it. This risk analysis, work planning, and upfront and continuous preparation uncovered the permitting lapse.

“Without our early discovery, acknowledgement by the USAF, and associated expedited permitting work by their staff, we would have missed the short construction window available at Barter Island,” Jokiel says. When the start date arrived, the field teams worked in areas that did not require the missing permit. They were notified by the contracting officer when the permit arrived, just as they were about to leave. Crews were able to finish the site survey and investigation of concealed geocells.

Thanks to thorough planning, groundwork took about three weeks, and then a barge carried the debris away from Barter Island.

ChemTrack & Cornerstone

piles of debris
“The client did not know how much geocell was initially installed, so we did not know how much there was to remove,” Ziegler says. “The first portion of our contract was to go up early in the season and excavate test holes. Those early test holes and related surveying provided the client with data to contract the remainder of the work.”

Namely, removal and disposal of all geocell and drum materials.

Tread with Care
The Barter Island project included many standard Alaska construction project issues, such as scheduling constraints and harsh weather conditions. Kaktovik carried its own special challenges. Off the road system and north of the Arctic Circle, Kaktovik has limited amenities. Coordination with chartered barge and airlift services was essential to meet timelines.

“Due to the extreme remoteness of this project, safety was always in the forefront of the field team’s minds, and teamwork was essential in the execution of this project,” Jokiel says.

Associated General Contractors of Alaska honored the JV partners with an award for excellence in construction in the “Transportation, Heavy, Marine and Earthmoving” category for a project under $5 million.

ChemTrack & Cornerstone

construction workers loading debris onto construction vehicle
Polar bears are common in Kaktovik beginning in August, particularly near the old air strip where whale hunters often leave carcasses. CTCSJV trained staff to serve as armed bear guards. On one day, they spotted twelve polar bears.

The bears draw wildlife tourists, which required planning to make sure the CTCSJV team locked down its portion of the village’s limited hotel rooms.

Anytime ground was disturbed, archeological monitoring was in play. While nothing was discovered, it was contractually required to provide that service, Ziegler says.

Warm Reception
The groundwork wrapped up after about three weeks, in time for a barge to remove the debris.

Jokiel says CTCSJV left the area “as close to its natural state as possible. Within a few days, even our equipment tracks were gone. This project was completed safely, delivering on-time and on-budget performance with excellent environmental results.”

The people of Kaktovik expressed gratitude throughout the project, Jokiel says.

“The crew was warmly received in Kaktovik,” she says. “We were educated by residents about the original townsite forced move. Elders were excited that we were there. They were thrilled to envision a beach free of metal debris and geocell fabric and matting. Residents showed up often to take pictures of the progress and our team. CTCSJV provided options for locals to re-use project materials for future trails. Our crew members were invited back for whaling season by the mayor.”

Further accolades came from industry peers. The Barter Island project won the 2023 Parker, Smith & Feek “Excellence in Construction, Meeting the Challenge of a Job Under $5 Million: Transportation, Heavy, Marine and Earthmoving” award from the Associated General Contractors of Alaska.

“ChemTrack historically has performed work off the road system, where Cornerstone typically performs projects in larger communities… Together we are able to look for opportunities in all areas of Alaska. We look for work where we both can contribute and find value.”
Jenith Ziegler
Vice President
ChemTrack Alaska
Happy JVs Are All Alike
The success stems from the partnership the joint venture represents, Jokiel says.

“A JV is a great way to be able to marry core competencies and compete on more projects,” she says. Companies considering it should “do it with someone you trust. If you’re like me, you aren’t trying to be a passthrough company; you are truly trying to make gains, learn, better your company, and support the people you work with.”

Ziegler adds that sometimes joint ventures struggle because of poor communication or failing to establish lines of responsibility early on.

Joined together years before the Barter Island runway project, ChemTrack and Cornerstone continue their venture with, for example, a project at the Fort Wainwright laundry facility.

ChemTrack & Cornerstone

excavator on beach with construction workers organizing debris
“It’s different when you’re trusting someone else in a different building across town to do work that you both agreed to,” Ziegler says. “Are they going to prioritize you in the right manner? I think Cornerstone prioritizes ChemTrack, and I think ChemTrack prioritizes Cornerstone. It’s a really nice blend because they’re learning from us and we’re learning from them.”

A joint venture takes time to gain traction. Ziegler says, “You have to bid a lot before you win. Have lots of open conversations. Make sure your goals are aligned. There’s a lot to it.”

Joint ventures have their own rules and regulations, legal structures, reporting requirements, and more. They can also be temporary or long-term arrangements, with a specific end date or ongoing duration.

Ziegler categorizes CTCSJV “as a long-term joint venture. We leverage both companies’ expertise and resources.”

Ongoing Partnership
Other projects currently underway by CTCSJV include expanding laundry rooms in barracks at Fort Wainwright, which entails adding plumbing and electrical service to support the US Army’s desired laundry-to-person ratio as much as feasible within the available laundry room space. The scope involves twelve barrack locations and thirty-five laundry rooms.

CTCSJV is also the prime contractor on a heat extraction project for a computer server room on the Army post. Work includes mitigating the heat load, providing power and grounding to server equipment, providing back-up uninterruptible power supply to additional equipment, repairing exterior portions of the building, and repairing maintenance hole covers and frames.

“We are truly lucky to have an amazing JV partner with Cornerstone,” Jokiel says. “The leadership has a friendship deeper than business, and that attitude runs through our folks that work with us too. We see it in our meetings, in our projects and in our approach to future work. It’s awesome to have success and enjoy working with folks you like.”