Oil-soaked sand along Gulf Coast raises memories of Exxon Valdez

May 24, 2010

Oil on BeachA handful of oily sand grabbed from a Louisiana wetland brought back some strong memories for Earl Kingik. As a traditional hunter and whaler in Alaska’s Arctic, it reminded him of the Exxon Valdez spill. As he and other tribal leaders toured the U.S. Gulf Coast for signs of the BP oil spill, they worried that what’s happening now in Louisiana could happen if offshore drilling proceeds off the Alaskan coast.

“There’s no way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic,” said Kingik, an Inupiat tribal member from Point Hope, Alaska. Compared to Louisiana, where the waters are relatively calm and cleanup equipment and experts are nearby, the Arctic Ocean is a hostile place for oil and gas exploration. The Arctic leaders made their pilgrimage to the Gulf Coast as part of a campaign to block planned exploratory drilling by Shell Oil  in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

4 looking out windows“What I saw was devastating out there,” Martha Falk, the tribal council treasurer of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope in Alaska, said after the Gulf Coast tour by seaplane, boat and on foot. If the same thing occurred off Alaska, she said, “We would have to wait days and days and days for (cleanup) equipment to reach our area.”

The planned start of Alaska offshore drilling in July coincides with the spring hunt of the bowhead whale, a central event in the Inupiat culture, Falk said.

“The natural smell of the ocean was non-existent” along the Gulf Coast, said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Inupiat from Nuiqsut, a tiny Alaskan village near the Beaufort Sea.  She was brought close to tears as she recalled the faces of the Gulf residents she saw on the tour. “It is a strong burden that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.”

Aerial of oil slickThe Arctic native people headed for Washington DC after their Gulf  Coast tour to plead their case with members of Congress and Obama administration officials. The three members of the Alaskan congressional delegation generally favor offshore drilling as a way to ensure jobs and the continued operation of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. As a former mayor of her village, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak admits it’s a tough balancing act to juggle the oil industry’s potential impact on tribal culture with the creation of jobs for tribe members.

Environmental activists and members of Congress wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to suspend Shell’s drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean, which includes the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Salazar and others have said no new drilling will be approved until May 28, when a report on the BP spill is due.

Photo credits: Roger Herr via Alaska Wilderness League (along the U.S. Gulf Coast, May 18, 2010)

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