Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at the Pile Bay Road leading from Williamsport to Lake Iliamna. An area of economic and environmental sensitivity, Iliamna is preparing for the Pebble Partnership to complete feasibility work on its proposed copper/gold and molybdenum mine.
• New freighting venture helps local economy living in shadow of Pebble’s progress
By Naomi Klouda
Williamsport lies at the end of a shallow, protective bay lined by rounded, craggy mountains.
The M/V Polar Bear’s Capt. Ed Dyer maneuvers the 150-foot barge into the narrow bay in early morning hours before daybreak. The Bear’s cargo consists of two, 5,000-gallon tankers of aviation fuel destined for Iliamna Air, a van load of propane tanks for villagers in the lake region, and two flats loaded with construction supplies.
“Back up and drop again,” crewman Dakota Zellin tells the captain by radio as they wedge the ramp flush with a gravel bar.
Vigilant maneuvers on Dyer’s part keep the 36-foot beamed barge centered in the narrow bay. Once situated, a heavy-equipment operator drives aboard to pull cargo off.
At 3:30 a.m., the Polar Bear has traveled eight hours from the Homer Port and Harbor. Cook Inlet’s waters cooperated this time, but on the two previous trips, heaving seas exhausted a watchful crew and the 55-mile journey took extra hours away from the short high-tide window for offloading.
“Once the tide starts receding, we only have so much time to get it offloaded,” Capt. Dyer said. “If any of this takes too long, we’re hung up on a sandbar until the tide comes in again.”
The Homer-to-Williamsport route is important for a number of reasons: it is a partial connection between a world class copper-gold mine pursued by the Pebble Project and the closest major port at Homer. It is also the trade route newly utilized by Iliamna Development Corp., which launched a transportation-freight operation hoping to bring fuel and goods to the region for better prices than in the past.
Before the corporation began the freight operation, fuel was flown in to Kokhanok and cost $10 per gallon. It topped $8 in Iliamna-Newhalen, while this season’s cost for villages dropped to around $5.50-5.70 a gallon and $4.95 for home-heating fuel.
“This is making a big difference for everyone,” said Lisa Reimers, IDC’s chief executive. “We wanted to find a way to bring cheaper fuel because it impacts everything from heating a home to subsistence activities.”
Hard and hazardous haul
Pebble is one of IDC’s customers. After Iliamna and Newhalen villages learned of the mine plans in their backyard about six years ago, leaders like Reimers and her sister, Sue Anelon, head of the Iliamna Natives Limited, confronted the company, Northern Dynasty, about what it had in mind.
“We were tired of people coming in and making money off our resources, bypassing us, and not employing our people,” Reimers said. “We figured if we have a seat at the table, we can have input. We won’t be left out.”
Pebble’s Partnership, now comprising the British Anglo American and Canada’s Northern Dynasty, promised they would keep communication open. CEO John Shively has spoken broadly of the need for employment opportunities in the economically down-trodden region since commercial fisheries’ demise, and as a way to trumpet positive impacts of the highly controversial mine.
In response to these concerns, Pebble awarded the tribal corporation the contract for Pebble personnel from the region’s dozen villages; about 110 workers at the height of feasibility work, 80 this season.
When the IDC began its barge service, Pebble ordered aviation fuel for its helicopters and freighted-in equipment. More recently, the Partnership also financed a “bridge” loan so that IDC could purchase the heavy equipment needed to load and offload fuel and freight.
“Pebble is just one of our customers,” stressed Jack Paine, one of the drivers set to haul cargo from the Polar Bear barge to IDC Barge waiting at Iliamna Lake.
While it’s still dark out, cargo is offloaded from the Polar Bear by three crewmen, all members of the tribe. Jack Paine, Gerald Anelon and Norman Tretikoff are commercially licensed drivers and heavy equipment operators. They maneuver the tankers, flatbed and van off the narrow barge and hook them up to waiting trucks that will carry loads over a narrow, dangerous pass in the Chigmik Mountains.
“It’s a 15.5-mile road but it takes an hour to cross it,” Tretikoff explained. “You’ll see why, but it’s a much better road now than it used to be before the state improved it in sections.”
Rains wreak havoc on the muddy trail leading out of Williamsport. The “port” is an unremarkable staging area where state trucks, miscellaneous boats and ancient equipment crowd space on either side of a public right-of-way.
It will take two trips for the three men to transport all cargo across the pass, down to Iliamna Lake where another barge, this one owned by IDC, is loaded for a 38-mile journey by lake to the village of Iliamna.
Heading out of the port the road is level for only a bit, then ascends. Drivers are warned by signs to not exceed a 25-mile speed limit, though driving that fast would be difficult.
“We stay close together in case someone has a problem,” Tretikoff explained. “If another car comes along this road, I pull over and let them know a truck is behind me.”
At the top of the pass, the black rocky face looks down a skinny road whose shoulder is sifting off to a 500-foot gorge below. Looking down is a frightening suggestion of prospects.
“First time I came over this pass, my foot was shaking,” Paine said. “Now I don’t notice. I keep my eyes on the road.”
The State Department of Transportation completed spot improvements on parts of the road in 2009. It cost $6.2 million, or $1 million per mile. The pass saw very little work, and DOT has no immediate plans for future improvements, said Sean Holland, project manager.
Disagreements over the road
The Pile Bay Road was built by the Alaska Territorial Road Commission in the 1920s, elaborating on a walking trail used for hundreds of years by Athabascan, Yupik, Aleut and later, Russian traders and American gold miners into the area.
Ray Williams, son of Carl Williams who arrived in the area in 1934, inherited a substantial portion of land at Williamsport and at Iliamna Lake and carried on his dad’s freight business. He hires the MV Helinka barge to get it from Homer to Williamsport.
The road has always been a public right of way, but disagreements over how much has left tensions between Williams and the IDC. Commercial fishermen utilized Pile Bay to get their boats or freight from Williamsport to the Kvichak River or Bristol Bay. It is accessed by occasional hikers but isn’t open for general tourism – there are no public safety officers or public facilities along the way.
“I never had any problems for 50 years until this Native corporation gets a big loan from Pebble and the DOT gives them right-of-way on my property so they can operate,” Williams said.
Williams’ understanding was that the state alloted a 25-foot corridor for public access, but he was told the right-of-way is actually 60 feet wide last year. That cut into what he thought of as his personal property.
“They’re complaining they don’t have room to stage equipment – they have to use the road to park in and that is not the right way to use a right-of-way,” Williams said.
Part of his problem is with Pebble. “From a business point of view, they haven’t done anything yet except back up this Native corporation,” he said. “Then they have this fuel spill.”
A fuel spill of 1,400 gallons of diesel occurred, at least in part, due to disagreements over access, Reimers said. IDC had to stage cargo in order to haul each load over the pass. On June 6, 2009, a hitchable tanker was parked at Mile 11 when its landing gear collapsed. A hole punctured by the gear and hairline crack led to the slow leak, caught on a return run.
– Continues next week in part 2
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