Don’t let oil and gas industry spoil islands, says Alaskan activist

  • Nov. 5, 2007 6:00 a.m.

By Heather Ramsay–The difference between what’s planned with oil and gas developments and what actually happens is evident on the North Slope of Alaska in a remote Inupiat community called Nuiqsut. Don’t let industry, which has had a huge impact on the traditional culture of northern Alaska, do the same thing here, said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, former mayor and community health practitioner. She’s been travelling around northern BC with representatives of Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law to warn people about what oil and gas development can mean to a traditional lifestyle, and was on the islands late last week. Nuiqsut only has a population of 523, but the community is surrounded by several oil and gas developments, including Alpine Oil, seven kilometers from town. Ms Ahtuangaruak says her community was one of the first to work with industry on an oil and gas development on tribal lands, but now some feel they were gravely misled. The community agreed to the Alpine development when told it would impact 14 acres of tribal land. After 10 years, she says, the project has spread incrementally across 500 acres and the community has no recourse. She says lack of enforcement of any of the negotiations between her community and industry have left her people facing health impacts and dealing with impacts on fish and wildlife. Since 1986, when she first started working in the health field the number of people needing medical help to breathe has risen dramatically. Nuiqsut is 15 metres above sea level on the tundra and Ms Ahtuangaruak says she can see the natural gas flares from the clinic. The nights when they light up the sky are the same nights she can’t leave the clinic, helping people with inhalers, nebulizers, steroids and anti-biotics. The seismic activity connected with exploration has disrupted caribou herds on land and off shore, the whales have been driven away. Both are important sources of food and resources for her community. Two hundred decibel booms, the equivalent of a jet engine starting up, have diverted the bowhead whales off shore. They used to be caught within five kilometers of shore, but now whales are more than 30 kilometres out, making hunting even more dangerous. She says the community also negotiated a limit on flight activity in the area during June and July when people traditionally hunt caribou. Planes bring in resources, workers and more, but the 20 flights agreed to in negotiations has turned into 1,900 flights during the summer hunting months. The added noise has had an impact on the caribou. Before the Alpine oil field was built, 97 out of 105 households in Nuiqsut successfully hunted caribou. After the development, only three households hung an animal. At one development, called Northstar, islands of gravel were created on the near shore impeding the ability of a fish, the Alaskan Cisco, to migrate. The company said they would build causeways for the oily, white fish, a staple of the Inupiat people, but it took eight years of no fish, before the community was able to convince anyone to look into the problem. The causeways were not being maintained, she says, and were full of sand. Even the 50 jobs promised to Nuisqut citizens turned out to be nothing but cleaning and other low quality positions. Ms Ahtuangaruak is concerned about an event like the Exxon Valdez oil spill happening on the North Slope. She says the entire top end of Alaska would be covered due to the adverse sea conditions. She is traveling to Kitimaat Village, Prince Rupert and Hartley Bay to warn people about the adverse impacts from oil and gas developments. She says it’s important for communities to be involved in the decision-making from the beginning and stay involved. She recommends a multi-generational approach with leaders and students staying informed. She says communities need their own base-line data and must be wary of industry controlling the research and monitoring of projects. “And don’t be misled like we were,” she says. “Look at the full field of development.” Ms Ahtuangaruak is spoke to islanders Friday and Saturday evenings in Skidegate and Old Massett. She was joined by Margot McMillan from West Coast Environmental Law who planned to present an overview of the oil tanker moratorium and Todd Monge who discussed how communities can access funding from WCEL for legal aid related to environmental issues.