• Cook Inlet community’s experience with oil companies offers guidance in dealing with coal
By Naomi Klouda
Editor’s note: As energy issues continue to plague the country, the future development of Cook Inlet’s resources remains in question. Coal at Chuitna, gold at Pebble Mine, numerous offshore gas reserves and the reduction of oil flow from the 12 platforms currently churning in the Inlet point to the need for both economically sound and environmentally responsible development.
This is the third in a five-part series, where the Homer Tribune is looking at how Cook Inlet has transformed from a humble, twisting waterway to one of the most resource-rich areas in the nation.
“Yeti hnu bugh yagheli est tsedi: Whatever you do in life I hope you succeed in good health.”– A Dena’ina blessing.
On the bending blue grass of the Chuitna River, two hired guards walk the bank, monitoring the river for potential poachers and trespassers.
One carries a rifle “in case there are bears,” he says.
In a year where king salmon returns were alarmingly low on major fishing systems like the Anchor and Karluk rivers, the Chuitna had no such trouble. Their kings returned, designated for subsistence use with a limit of 25 per head of household and 10 for each family member after that. This year, they are in high demand given the low supply elsewhere.
“With up to eight planes landing on the north side of Chuitna every day, there’s a lot of people to keep track of,” said Betty Valka, a member of a five-generation family all living in Tyonek and village coordinator for the Tyonek Native Corp. “We hire the guards from Doyon Universal Services, employees from all walks of life, from prior state troopers to school teachers.”
Private property issues are made clear on a pamphlet serving as notice to hunters and fishermen who wish to access TNC lands:
“The Bureau of Land Management has determined the Chuitna River is a non-navigable waterbody. TNC is title-holder to the mean-center line of a non-navigable river, which includes the river bed itself,” it reads.
“We went to court to make sure those (kings) weren’t taken away from us,” Valka said.
Valka has served several terms as a TNC board director since 1984, and when visitors show up, she is the one to welcome them, said TNC Chief Executive Officer Tom Harris.
Since she lives it, she is proficient in explaining the twin realities of this traditional Athabascan village: the conundrum of trying to remain who they are and keep their culture alive, while they re-invent an economy to feed their families.
“The restrictions Tyonek has in place aren’t meant to discourage visitors, but are meant to discourage abusive trespassers,” Harris said. The village continues its historical generosity toward strangers, but is a “gated community,” similar to many gated communities in the city of Anchorage – you don’t just show up.
Those who go through the proper channels for visiting are given a green badge to wear. They land on an airfield owned by the Native Village of Tyonek. TNC owns a lodge targeting hunting and fishing clientele, or visitors stay at the tribe-owned guest house.
Protecting the Chuitna river has taken on a new urgency for the people of Tyonek. Anymore, poachers don’t present the biggest threat; a wealthy company owned by Richard Bass and Herbert Hunt does. PacRim Corp. is planning to develop one of the world’s largest coal mines near the village, and use the treasured Chuitna for drainage.
TNC’s reaction to those plans is complex.
While neighbors at Beluga are quick to appeal for aid in stopping the development, the corporation trains a proactive, watchful eye on the coal companies’ 20-year progress toward working the heavy coal tailings here. At this stage, PacRim is completing its environmental impact studies, and could begin applying for permits next year.
However, it must also now face regulations imposed from the newly declared endangered status of the beluga whale, as well as a conservation easement sought by TNC.
Still, many seem certain that the coal mine is in the future – whether they like it or not.
“Instead of griping and complaining and saying it shouldn’t happen, we need to make sure that if it goes, it happens on our own terms,” Valka said. “We need to be proactive to ensure we get what we want, rather than letting it happen and not having much say in it.”
As tribal member Debbie Standifer put it, “I won’t protest anything and I won’t sign anything until I see the paperwork.”
The village of Tyonek was somber this past weekend following the death of Elder Pete Allowan, 78. Allowan received Russian Orthodox rites, first spending the night in his own home, and then in the church for the people to pay their respects prior to his funeral.
The onion-domed church is the most visible sign of Russian influence on the society of people who have lived at the banks of Cook Inlet for 10,000 years.
Allowan was known for his devotion to family and to the Russian Orthodox Church. He was a fluent Dena’ina speaker, born in the now-extinct Susitna Station in 1930.
While many Alaska Native groups afforded cultural privacy by virtue of their remoteness, the Tebughna, “beach people,” had no such luxury. Athabascan whale hunters, trappers, fishermen and healers were beset by nearly 3,000 gold miners and others outsiders in the late 19th century.
“It was the largest community in southcentral at the time,” said Harris. “Miners came from San Francisco and stopped in Tyonek. At one point, an Army base and a grocery store (Alaska Commercial) were there. Only after the miners stopped showing up did the village become smaller.”
President Woodrow Wilson made Tyonek an Indian reservation in 1915 in a protective action, the same year Anchorage was established on the banks of Cook Inlet as a tent city. An influenza epidemic a few years later nearly wiped out the village, and a devastating flood in 1930 forced the village to move to its present site.
Since Tyonek was the first village to be impacted by oil development when the Swanson Oil Fields were discovered on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957, their chiefs had to be resourceful. In the 1960s, oil companies established off-shore drilling operations in front of the village and drilled in Tyonek’s backyard – all without village permission.
In 1965, a federal court ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no right to lease Tyonek Indian land for oil development without permission of the Indians themselves. Called “The Trespass Case,” the BIA had to pay $12.6 million to Tyonek in settlement.
“This forced land claims, a discussion of who had rights to the land,” recalled Albert Kaloa Jr., in a 1966 interview. It was the first year the Alaska Federation of Natives convened. Using $150,000 from a settlement that took six years to broker of its total $12.6 million, Tyonek footed the bill for transportation expenses for representatives from throughout the young state, and another $100,000 loaned to AFN to help it organize.
It would take four more years to hammer out the ideals of a land claims settlement act that many felt would be fair to Alaska’s first people, but the credit for initiating discussions goes to Tyonek, said Tribal Administrator Dennis Tiepelman. Tyonek’s reservation status was removed with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.
“With some of the settlement money, they built Tebughna school,” Tiepelman said. “The school belongs to them, not the Kenai Peninsula Borough. They built homes with money as well.”
Tyonek’s interaction with the oil companies continued for the next 40 years, making it more experienced with the oil industry than any other Alaska tribe; even the North Slope Inupiat. Some villagers are employed at the nearby facilities such as Granite Point, where gas is piped from the Inlet. On a clear day, villagers can see many of the 14 oil platforms operating in the Inlet today.
However, the relationship between oil companies and villagers is adversarial to some degree, Tiepelman said. The village doesn’t benefit from the nearby oil and gas drilling by paying lower fuel prices – pump prices hover around $5.80 a gallon. And Tiepelman said he predicts that “coal can’t help but be adversarial, especially one that is large-scale.”
But learning to live with gas and oil development is a different matter than the environmental hazards posed by a coal mine, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook InletKeeper.
“PacRim has stated that, on an average day, they will release seven million gallons of mine waste and run-off into the river – that’s on average,” Shavelson said.
“Agencies have a lot of discretion, so they could say ‘no’ to an ill-conceived project, but they never do. Responsible development and endangered species protection can go hand-in-hand. But stripping a salmon stream is not responsible development.”
CEO Harris says these representations are not accurate.
“Our concern is they have brought in environmental groups who want us to be their poster children, and we are not interested in being their poster children. Tyonek has been protecting that land for thousands of years,” Harris said. “The village is concerned and we are concerned about how they have come in and made statements that are false and disconcerting.”
PacRim Coal Co.
A heavy steel-piled pier sits unused at the far southern end of Tyonek village lands. Built in the 1970s by the Kodiak Lumber Co., it juts out 1,200 feet into the Inlet. TNC inherited it after the lumber company shut down its chip operations. The dock’s heavy steel pilings and girders have withstood 30 years in the fast-moving, turbid Cook Inlet currents. Now it is planned to be used again as a bulk-commodities loading facility and part of a planned North Foreland Industrial Park. Meanwhile, PacRim has a lease with the Kenai Peninsula Borough to develop the Ladd Landing and build a similar dock.
If PacRim passes the many hurdles ahead in feasibility studies, the proposed coal mine involves leasing state lands, but it must also pass across village lands. In this way too, TNC could benefit financially.
To get ready for what many are calling the inevitable, TNC wants to turn its Chuitna River holding into a 2,000-acre conservation easement. However, a part of the process is a change that literally requires an act of Congress. Alaska’s Congressional delegation is on board with the measure, which involves all conservation easements on Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act lands.
“(Yet,) this gives teeth for TNC; it says development must follow these guidelines,” Valka said. “We have pursued this conservation easement to protect the river for generations to come. It’s been hard-going, but we want this.”
Valka said this is the way the river has been used for many generations.
“We’ve used it forever,” she explained. “What we don’t catch starts the cycle over, not only for the kings, but for reds, silvers, and for the Beluga who eat the smelt. They feed on that river.”
More than any of the other projects currently pursued by TNC, Valka said the easement is closest to her heart, “because all our fish go out of there and go back there.
“Coal will ruin the water and has the capability of washing the eggs out,” she explained. “There is no way around it, except to protect it.”
The plan is to work with PacRim to outline a path.
“At least that way, we know where they are,” Valka said. “We know what they are doing and we know what direction they are heading.”
At Beluga, a settlement of 17 or so year-round residents that doubles in the summer, not a single person supports a coal plant.
Terry Jorgensen, a retired school teacher and a set-net fishermen, along with Larry and Judy Heilman, and Bobbie and Ron Burnett, are trying any route they can to educate the public about the proposed coal mine. They have garnered the support of fishing and environmental groups.
“It’s hard to imagine and very disheartening to think of all the people in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula who don’t have a clue that this is going on over here,” said Judy Heilman.
According to Shavelson, while the proposed Pebble Mine garners a lot of attention, it’s this coal development that will really test whether federal and state regulators are sleeping on the job.
“It is incumbent on state and federal agencies to educate the public,” Shavelson said. “This project would be the camel’s nose under the tent for destroying fish and game habitat just to send coal to China.”
Jorgensen took it upon himself to read the several-inch thick documents detailing the environmental studies done previously on the Chuitna Coal project. In addition, the Beluga group has sought out the “best of the best” expert hydrologists, geologists and other scientists to see what they are up against should the coal plant go in. In this way, they feel they are arming themselves with knowledge to help fight the project.
“I’m probably the only one in the world who read the environmental impact study – it’s thick and it’s overwhelming,” Jorgensen said.
Even in light of permitting requirements, the endangered beluga and a looming conservation easement on the Chuitna, the group says it does not feel optimistic that the coal company’s damage can be stopped.
“There’s not a single place where the river won’t be dead,” said Ron Burnett. His father died of cancer after working in the coal fields around Perry County, Ohio.
Burnett said the land there is now sold for 50 cents an acre, and wells are so contaminated you can’t drink the water. He considers it one of life’s ironies then that he – after witnessing coal’s destruction – picked out a summer home in the shadow of a coal mine. Burnett said he bought the land before coal concerns began prospecting.
Yet, there are a few potential safeguards. Cook InletKeeper’s Shavelson said the beluga endangered listing will mean companies must have “consultations” with National Marine Fisheries biologists before they can dig.
Shavelson said the conservation easement also has Cook InletKeeper’s support.
The bridge generation
As a corporation, TNC has a lot of irons in the fire. In addition to being a contracting company involved in aviation maintenance and information technology, it owns land near developments proposed by other governments or corporations.
Most of the proposed projects – a subdivision of lots sold by the borough, a road to the Richardson Highway, a fast ferry and a geothermal project – have nothing to do with the coal mine. But all touch village life.
“There is a phenomenal amount of development in terms of hydro, (Mount Spurr) geothermal and also export opportunities,” Harris said. TNC’s objective, as a pro-development community, is to shepherd whatever part of the projects intersect with their lands to the tribe’s financial benefit.
Even Pebble Mine could impact life here. Power generation at the mine – if it goes through – could help supply power for southcentral, including Tyonek.
It’s a lot for tribal members to absorb.
“We’ve only been encountering Western culture since the 1960s,” Valka said, referring to modern conveniences. “For us to focus on the corporate level, and become successful, is phenomenal. Now we need to invest ourselves in our kids and let them know there are options beyond the lifestyle they are in now.”
Both Valka’s mother, Sue Tumbleson, and her grandmother, Nora McCord, were born at Susitna Station, an abandoned village at the base of Sleeping Lady. Pete Allowan was Nora’s brother.
“My mom is a product of the old world, and my grandmother is literally a part of the old world,” Valka said. “I am a product of both. People project a lot of their judgments on us and what they want us to be. We have had our subsistence lifestyle for generations and generations and we have fine-tuned it.”
For 25 years, Valka has been involved in steeping her understanding of financial issues in order to make decisions on the TNC Board. It was a big learning curve for her generation, but they managed, she said. Those coming up will face similar challenges, though hopefully the learning curve won’t be so steep.
“Our kids have hunted with us. They’ve cut up moose meat with us. Now they need to go balance both worlds and be successful too,” she said. “It’s about balancing both of them. And we have to love them enough to let them explore that, and hopefully not take too many knocks.”
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