Oil drilling alters landscape, life for tiny Inupiat village
Seattle Times staff reporter
In Arctic Alaska, oil wells on the ocean have arrived. First came BP's Northstar well, in 2001. Then this spring Shell paid $44 million to explore millions of acres of the Beaufort Sea.
Geologists think the ocean off Arctic Alaska holds significantly more oil than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But Inupiats worried about whales have fought for 25 years to block offshore drilling.
Noise from oil exploration scatters whales for miles. "It's spooking them," said George Ahmaogak, former North Slope Borough mayor.
Scientists say an oil spill in the fall, when new ice drifts and mixes with heavy slush, would be tough to control. And the Army Corps of Engineers once estimated the chance of a spill from one offshore rig in the Arctic was high.
Yet ocean drilling is banned off much of the Lower 48's coastline, and not where residents hunt whales for food, Ahmaogak fumed.
Arctic scientists increasingly use the observations of Native Alaskans to guide research.
When Native Arctic fishermen said they feared that whitefish had declined in the Colville River because of off-shore oil drilling or a spill of contaminated mud, the federal Minerals Management Service launched a study, to be completed next year.
When Natives reported that seal skins appeared more translucent, and that they had seen more deformed fish, it helped prompt more research into the contamination of Arctic estuaries.
Now the National Science Foundation funds workshops in Arctic communities where residents suggest research topics.
Scars on the tundra
The outside world has left scars on the Arctic that can be difficult, even impossible, to remove.
Roads and runways etched across the tundra 50 years ago are still visible today — even when they haven't been used in decades.
The U.S. military abandoned strings of radar sites along the Arctic coast after the Cold War, leaving behind contamination that has leached into the Arctic Ocean.
Just the cleanup of sites in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge involves thousands of pounds of contaminated soil, asbestos-lined buildings and thousands of drums of oil, the banned pesticide DDT, cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals.
Second of two parts
NUIQSUT, Alaska — Thomas Ahtuangaruak ripped down the Colville River, sucking an exceedingly damp cigarette and chewing on raw caribou fat like it was gum.
The Arctic sun was weeks from setting, but Ahtuangaruak's aluminum boat kicked up a spray so icy it burned.
The 36-year-old Inupiat and his friend Jonah Taleak were goofing off, poking around Native fishing huts outside Nuiqsut, a remote village in Alaska's Arctic, not far from the Beaufort Sea.
But when they whipped around a bend, the pair grew somber at a sight they'd seen hundreds of times before.
Rising like a missile silo from the hopelessly flat coastal plain was a monument to the best and worst of their future: an oil rig, drilling a well for the ConocoPhillips Alpine Oil Field.
"Kind of hard to miss, isn't it?" Ahtuangaruak asked in a near whisper.
The hunt for energy is marching across the Arctic, and arguments are raging over how oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) might alter life for Alaska's Natives. Some answers may lie here, in the village of Nuiqsut, population 450, about 100 miles west of ANWR.
Despite oil drilling that the industry insists is the least intrusive ever done, this community is already experiencing the mix of progress and decay that comes from having oil in the backyard.
A thousand years of culture are clashing with the promise of prosperity. And with oil development exploding all around, Nuiqsut's internal struggle is bound to escalate.
Settled 30 years ago by Inupiat seeking a more traditional life of hunting and bartering, this once-barren meadow is now ringed by pipelines and well pads that some villagers blame for chasing off wildlife.
Oil money has packed Nuiqsut's dirt streets with Dodge pickups. Satellite dishes poke out like elephant ears from homes that only recently got indoor plumbing. Yet now that offshore wells are pumping crude from beneath the Arctic Ocean, even pro-oil Nuiqsut residents worry that an oil spill on broken ice would devastate whales.
Winter ice roads built by oil companies open the village to the rest of Alaska — and boost the flow of methamphetamine, marijuana and liquor into a dry community.
Some Native villages "look at Nuiqsut and say, 'Oh my gosh, I hope that doesn't happen here,' " said Sverre Pedersen, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's division of subsistence.
Inupiat leaders in Barrow, however, maintain oil is progress.
"Nuiqsut talking about oil is like someone in the middle of a root canal trying to evaluate the pros and cons of dentistry," said Richard Glenn, vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which holds subsurface rights to Alpine oil.
"The question is: Is it worth it?"
Fueled by oil
Stretching from the Bering Sea to the Canadian border and from the crooked knobs of the Brooks Range across flatland tundra to the coast, Alaska's North Slope is a treeless expanse the size of Idaho — a place where roiling winds are so powerful they can reshape lakes.
Called "the world's largest municipality," the North Slope consists of 7,000 residents in eight villages, including Nuiqsut (pronounced "new-WICK-sit"), with tiny road systems that don't even connect to one another.
Virtually everything on the North Slope is paid for by oil — all of it, until recently, drawn from the 1,000-square-mile industrial zone of Prudhoe Bay.
Property taxes on Prudhoe oil fields support the municipal government. The $1.3-billion Native-owned company, Arctic Slope, gets money from oil rights, runs a network of refining and construction companies and pays dividends to Native residents. Each village has a subsidiary corporation that also pays dividends, though not all village residents are shareholders.
Still, life here remains a curious blend of ancient and modern.
Every year, Inupiat men disappear for weeks, paddling sealskin canoes out to sea to harpoon bowhead whales and shoot them with torpedo-shaped bombs. CB radios crackle from most homes as neighbors announce birthdays or broadcast the arrival of daily airplane flights. Children play outside long after midnight, soaking up summer's round-the-clock sun. Hunters carry global-positioning systems but still find their way by reading snowdrifts.
On this sunny summer day, Ahtuangaruak, who makes his living delivering packages, tooled around Nuiqsut in his pickup, chain-smoking in a T-shirt and bragging about the balmy weather.
"Could get up to 40 degrees," he said.
As he made his rounds, he spotted Mae Masuleak, a village elder, shuffling up the dusty lane toward the plywood Post Office. He placed a tiny stool on the ground to help her into the cab.
Ahtuangaruak's father and Masuleak were among 150 people who left Barrow in 1973 after Congress approved a settlement allowing Alaskan Natives to reclaim lost lands. They traveled 136 miles by snowmobile in a place where temperatures can hit minus 56 Fahrenheit, reaching the Colville River delta and settling on a bluff a few miles from the Arctic coast.
For 18 months, they lived in white, wind-battered canvas tents. All the while, a reminder of Western culture shined 60 miles away: lights from newly developed Prudhoe Bay.
Through the years, oil development crept ever closer, bringing people, planes and money, and an expanding industrial complex.
"When we first came here, there was just a dim little candlelight from Prudhoe," Masuleak said. "Now we're like a little suburb, surrounded by thousands of lights."
Oil already has transformed life here from pit toilets and dogsleds to top-of-the-line Ski-Doo snowmobiles and flat-screen TVs. Today the town's modular houses are built on stilts above the tundra to stay dry through the summer thaw. They're set back from the street in perfect alignment, like rainbow-colored military barracks. Powerboats litter yards where bear furs dry on wood blocks. The air is abuzz with the sound of all-terrain vehicles.
After pools of crude were discovered just eight miles downstream in 1996 — America's largest oil find in more than a decade — oil companies promised, and largely delivered, the latest in environmentally friendly oil development.
Drills tapped wells in dozens of directions underground from only a handful of sites. Development initially disturbed little more than 100 acres. The oil was sent to Prudhoe Bay through a pipe 100 feet beneath the Colville River, to avoid the risk of a spill in the water.
Oil executives told Congress and the public that Alpine was evidence of oil companies "doing it right." Today, ConocoPhillips, the company that operates the Alpine Oil Field, boasts that Alpine is "a model for future North Slope developments because of its 'near-zero-impact' policy."
But last year, villagers found out the federal government had approved a massive expansion: five more drill sites, another airstrip, two river bridges, a 65-acre gravel pit, 37 miles of new pipeline and more than 25 miles of permanent roads — all in a semicircle around Nuiqsut.
Oil has been discovered at other sites nearby. The Bureau of Land Management has received applications to drill at least 19 test wells west of Nuiqsut. And last spring, Shell Oil paid $44 million for the right to hunt for oil along a wide offshore swath of the Arctic Ocean.
"You could say some people were a little unhappy," Ahtuangaruak said, dropping Masuleak at the Nuiqsut Post Office.
The hunting life
A half-mile down the street, Leonard Lampe picked at the blood on his fingers as he watched his mother-in-law hack at a caribou carcass with a cleaver.
Rose Kaigelak carved heaps of meat from the bones of the two animals Lampe had bagged the night before. Lampe, 38, a former Nuiqsut mayor, loaded the steaks onto a tarp.
The legs and ribs would be boiled or barbecued, Lampe said. He picked errant hairs off the small hunks of raw fat and popped them into his mouth.
"The tongue and heart, of course, we'll cut all up into pieces to make soup," he said.
Inupiat hunt everything — from bearded seals and walruses to wild muskoxen and geese.
They hunt because the top layer of brittle soil above the frozen tundra won't grow corn or wheat or beans. They hunt because game meat is nutritious. They hunt because a 12-ounce package of Oscar Mayer deli ham at the AC Value Center grocery store costs $8, and a 3-pound pack of hamburger patties runs $16.
Mostly, they hunt because they always have.
"My youngest son wakes up these days and wants frozen fish for breakfast," said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Thomas Ahtuangaruak's cousin. "So I'm trying to make sure at least two meals a day are traditional foods."
But so few caribous venture near town these days that Ahtuangaruak calls those that do "the lost ones." The above-ground pipelines and barge traffic on the river have blocked access to popular duck- and goose-hunting grounds. The hundreds of helicopter and airplane flights a season sometimes scare away birds. Nuiqsut whalers complain that offshore oil exploration chases bowhead whales too far from shore to hunt, and residents say the practice of burning off excess gas at drill sites pollutes their air.
ConocoPhillips has paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines for failures that led to turbines pumping too much carbon monoxide into the air. And the company has spilled oil, mud and chemicals in or near the Colville River.
"They're drilling in prime fishing areas," Lampe complained. "Where they propose to build a bridge for a pipeline is a very hot area for Arctic cisco [a type of whitefish]. Air pollution will eventually fall out on birds, the waterfowl, pretty much everything that's around.
"The areas where my dad taught me to hunt, I had to let go of. I had to learn whole new areas, and now those are going to change for my son."
ConocoPhillips says Alpine is comparatively quite small, occupying only a fraction of the tundra outside Nuiqsut, and uses roads sparingly. New pipelines will be high enough for caribous to pass beneath, and the company has voluntarily reported air-pollution violations. ConocoPhillips has even conducted studies into the effect of noise on birds, concluding there have been "no significant impacts to nesting success."
"ConocoPhillips is proud of its environmental record and the manner in which Alpine was developed," the company said in a written response to questions for this story. "Alpine continues to operate in a manner which respects the subsistence way of life."
But Pedersen, with the game agency, said hunters are being crowded into smaller and smaller areas.
"People are uncomfortable hunting in developed areas, have difficulty getting there, or have concerns about them being polluted," he said. "East of the Colville River was a big bird hunting area they're not able to use anymore. Near the coast, man-made gravel islands are being built for processing, and there's all this boat and plane traffic and strangers all over the place."
Nuiqsut whaler Jonah Nukapigak fears the village is trading away its past.
For generations, Inupiat whalers hauled carcasses out on beaches north of Nuiqsut. Then in 1993, a mechanic at a nearby Air Force radar site was mauled by a polar bear.
Now oil companies help pay to barge the whales to a dock, where they are boxed up, trucked to Prudhoe Bay, packed into airplanes and flown back to Nuiqsut — in part so oil workers aren't threatened by bears drawn by the carcasses.
Life here now depends on oil.
Bounty and poverty
As the weather chilled in the afternoon, Thomas Ahtuangaruak slid on his jacket, a navy-blue windbreaker with a ConocoPhillips logo.
He had driven down the road to check on preparations for Isaac Nukapigak's nalukataq — a village celebration of a successful whale hunt.
Nukapigak, Jonah's brother, was also elbow-deep in blood, carving caribou for soup. In a tent in the dirt driveway, his mother-in-law fried bread. Nukapigak's wife popped in and out of the house in slacks and high heels.
As president of Nuiqsut's Native corporation, Nukapigak knows what oil brought.
It helped build a teen center, a gymnasium, a health clinic, fire station and a school. Oil executives at Alpine agreed to supply Nuiqsut with natural gas to heat their homes.
The Native corporation owns surface rights to Alpine and profits directly from drilling. A third of the villagers are shareholders, and the corporation has paid out $6 million, divided among 200 of them over five years.
Still, "not everyone here does as good as everyone else," said Nukapigak, who makes $80,000 a year, twice the median income in the village.
Up to a third of the adults here don't have jobs. Most who do are employed by the government.
Only a few dozen residents are employed by the oil fields. Others have tried to get work there but failed drug tests — a problem some contend is exacerbated by oil development.
While Nukapigak butchered his caribous, a woman raced by on a four-wheeled ATV. She sat up straight in the saddle, but her eyes were expressionless as she repeatedly circled the same two dusty blocks.
"Our social problems are real," Nukapigak said. "We have drugs, we've had suicides."
Nuiqsut is one of 98 Alaskan communities since 1979 that have voted to outlaw alcoholic beverages to combat high alcoholism rates.
But the same ice roads that now let villagers drive 465 miles to the Sam's Club store in Fairbanks to stock up on peanut butter, cereal, Hungry Man dinners and toilet paper also make it easier to import drugs and alcohol, said Paul Carr, the former chief of the North Slope police force.
In Nuiqsut on this nalukataq day, one elderly man rode around town drinking bottle after bottle of Nyquil.
A government survey of school kids recently found elders were often robbed by neighbors seeking drug money. Not long ago, a villager was caught trying to smuggle in dozens of bottles of rum, which can fetch up to $150 apiece.
"If you talk to the rest of Alaska, they'll tell you North Slope folks are rich," Carr said.
But that's deceptive, he said. "Where there is disposable income, we see a higher level of disorder. But there's poverty here, too."
Up the road from Isaac Nukapigak's home, his brother, Edward Nukapigak, leaned on a cane, helping their mother sew floats onto fish nets. His mother sat on the ground in a flower-print dress, and pulled up ill-fitting socks.
"Do we look like millionaires?" Edward Nukapigak said.
As the nalukataq began, Thomas Ahtuangaruak sat in his pickup and smoked cigarettes. Villagers and out-of-town guests gathered on a softball field. One of Isaac Nukapigak's sisters was being tossed in the air with a blanket held by family and friends, an amusement that recalls days when hunters were thrown like this to spot whales.
But another of Nukapigak's siblings, Eli Nukapigak, a city councilman and one of the village's best hunters, was fidgety.
He left the party and shuffled silently down a dirt road to town. He climbed the steps of a community hall and entered a vast, empty meeting room.
There, he pointed to detailed maps on the walls, showing the places oil companies may want to put more oil rigs and pipelines across the tundra.
Sweat beaded on his brow.
"We won't be able to use these areas for the next 30 years," Eli Nukapigak said quietly.
With hands on his hips, he stood there, considering his future.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Ringman: 206-464-8143 or email@example.com
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