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Alaska: oil and the Natives

Though visually stunning, Alaska is the fourth most polluted state in the country. ©

It's 14 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The oil industry still drives the state's politics and much of the environment. Senator Frank Murkowski has just been elected governor, and has appointed his daughter to fill out his term in the Senate. Linda Murkowski is proposing a bill that would exempt most new oil exploitation from any environmental impact statements. Meanwhile, Prince William Sound is still not cleaned up. Of the 28 species most affected by the spill, only two are on the recovery list.

"It will be a long time until we know the damages to our way of life," explains Dune Lankard. Lankard, of the Eyak community of Cordova; Evon Peter, Chief of the Gwich'in Nation from Arctic Village; and Violet Yeaton, from Port Graham Village on Lower Cook Inlet, have joined hundreds of other Alaska Native to form the Alaska Native Oil and Gas Working Group. They are challenging the oil industry in Alaska, the sacred cow of Alaskan politics. They're also challenging the activities of the Alaska Native Corporations, which, they charge, were created as tools to exploit the lands and resources of indigenous people.

Concerns over unsustainable oil and gas development, with its attendant environmental and cultural impacts on Alaska Natives, prompted grassroots community groups to form the Working Group. The process was supported by international organizations such as Project Underground and the Indigenous Environmental Network through the Indigenous Mining Campaign.

"Our traditional use [of natural resources] in an uncontaminated state is crucial to the sustainability of our culture," says Yeaton. "We require zero discharge."

Studies have documented heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants contaminating fisheries and other traditional resources. One such study was conducted by the EPA. Before the final report was completed, the EPA renewed permits for local oil and gas development based on exemptions from the law, exemptions that are illegal elsewhere.

The debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been used to pit native communities against one another, driving a wedge into the heart of Alaska Native territory.

Robert Thompson, an Inupiat from Kaktovik -- a village with a long history of involvement in oil development -- admits that many people in his area support oil development. Nonetheless, he sees a threat to native ways of life from the oil industry. "The Porcupine caribou herd is in decline. There are no safeguards during the production stage of oil and gas. [The herd is] having problems without any development… development will further damage this herd." Thompson's goal is to forestall that damage, and to preserve the caribou for the future. "It is my hope that the seventh generation will come to know our land and culture."

Oil drove the transformation of Alaska, as well as the creation of the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which separated many Alaska Natives from jurisdiction over their land. Gwich'in Chief Evon Peter is blunt in his assessment of ANCSA: "[It] took nearly all the land from indigenous control and allowed the industry and state to gain access to the resources. It set up a tool to divide and exploit the Alaskan indigenous nations, their traditional lands, and resources."

When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, about 85,000 Native people lived there. The discovery of oil prompted the federal government to address aboriginal title questions in the region, in order to find a tenable legal loophole through which to secure an 800-mile pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez.

That legal loophole was ANCSA. In 1971, the government set out to address the problem of Alaska Native jurisdiction. As Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network explains, "President Nixon convinced Wally Hickel to retire as Governor of Alaska to be appointed Secretary of the Interior, making him instrumental in brokering the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act. With the passage of the ANCSA legislation, all aboriginal land claims were extinguished. The law passed without a vote by Alaska Native people or the general public." Native lands were given to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations, and the people were made shareholders. This was not so different from the "termination era," which liquidated the assets of many native communities in the lower 48. The law wreaked social havoc on Alaska Native communities.

Today, Alaska Native Corporations control huge tracts of land. The Chugach Alaska Corporation controls 930,000 acres. Cook Inlet Regional Corporation controls 2.4 million acres, and Nana Regional Corporation controls 2.25 million acres. Many of the corporations have entered into joint ventures or partnerships with mining and oil development companies. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) holds entitlements to 5.1 million acres of land, including some lands rich in oil and minerals. Though 9 percent of the jobs are held by shareholders, ASRC's interests and responsibilities now include business partners like BP Amoco, which caused one of the region's largest crude oil spills. ASRC has caused its own spills as well, including one in February 2002 of more than 5,000 gallons of oil.

Though visually stunning, Alaska remains amazingly polluted. It's the fourth most polluted state in the country, with over 535 million pounds of toxic releases into the environment in 2000 alone. One lead and zinc mine, the Red Dog Mine in the Nana Regional corporation's territory, reported 450 million pounds of toxic releases in 2000, or about four-fifths of all reported toxic releases in the state. There is significant controversy about pollution from the mine, which employs many native people.

Oil exploration and production facilities, pipelines, and natural gas refineries are exempted from Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting requirements. Despite the exemptions, Alaskan industry reported releases of 265,000 pounds of toxics from the oil facilities in 2000.

That same year, there were 1,534 oil spills in the state reported to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. That amounts to a reported release of 145,338 gallons of oil, or 30 oil spills a week, four a day. In 2001, a spill was caused when 37-year-old Daniel Carson Lewis shot a hole in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, spilling an estimated 6,800 barrels. From 1994 to 1999, according to one report, approximately 1,600 spills occurred involving more than 1.2 million gallons of oil, diesel fuel, acids, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, produced water (brine from deep wells) and other liquids. A study of diesel spills in Alaska's Arctic region found that substantial hydrocarbons remained in the soil for up to 28 years, and vegetation in the spill areas had not recovered.

Industry representatives justify the pollution reporting exemption by saying that the facilities are located too far from communities to have an impact. However, for Violet Yeaton, Evon Peter, or Dune Lankard's communities, that exemption has proved problematic.

"The Chugach Alaska Corporation has decided it wants to drill for oil near Katalla, on the Copper River Delta and an ancestral village site of the Eyak," points out Lankard, whose Indian name means "a little bird who screams really loud and won't shut up." "We've never been asked for our opinion. The Copper River Delta is home to the world's finest salmon, and we do not want to lose this way of life. If the development happens at Katalla, it will affect everything we know about the Copper River Delta."

The Alaska Native Oil and Gas Working Group promises not only to challenge major oil companies over new Alaskan oil exploitation proposals, but to push Native Corporations and the state of Alaska to diversify the region's economy, while addressing the pollutants already dispersed throughout Alaska. The challenge is immense; Peter, Lankard, Yeaton and their colleagues are in for a long campaign.

Native rights activist Winona LaDuke was Ralph Nader's running mate on the Green Party ticket in the 2000 presidential election. She lives in Minnesota.


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