In this small Alaska Native village, residents look across a protected bay at a rugged and wild island where they hunt deer and geese, fish for silver and sockeye salmon, picnic and camp. For many, it’s their treasured homeland.
Old Harbor Native Corp. owns almost all of Sitkalidak Island. Now, just on the other side of snowy mountains, lies an unexpected source of worry, fear and frustration: Royal Dutch Shell’s grounded Kulluk oil drilling rig.
The Kulluk sits between Ocean Bay, a sandy beach that becomes a playground in summer, and a raised buttress known as Refuge Rock, where in 1784 Russian traders massacred hundreds of Alutiiq people, a sacred place to people here.
Villagers in a community that survives off fishing flash back to the 1989 grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez and its terrible results. The loss of that summer’s fishing season. The damage to wildlife. The tar balls on beaches.
Never miss a local story.
On Thursday, a week after the Kulluk and the Shell-contracted ship towing it first got into trouble, and three days after the grounding during a fierce Gulf of Alaska storm, the community was on edge and poised to help.
About noon on Thursday, a Shell-chartered ERA plane delivered some 4,000 pounds of bright orange oil spill containment boom, buoys and related hardware. Old Harbor Mayor Rick Berns drove the city’s flat-bed truck to the airport and, along with his son, the pilots, a fisherman and others, started loading the tons of boom onto it.
Shell says it sent oil spill response materials here as a precaution. The company and government officials say they have seen no sign of a sheen on the water, which would indicate spilled fuel or oil. The Kulluk contained more than 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel — which is light and more easily dissipated than crude — and 12,000 gallons of heavier lube oil and hydraulic fluid.
While the rig is intact, crashing waves have damaged its topside, and its watertight doors have been breached. Officials on the command team haven’t been able to say if it is still seaworthy.
“We’re just staging it to help things along,” said Berns, a fisherman and jack-of-all trades who has lived in Old Harbor since 1972. He has been mayor — an appointed post among the elected city council members — most years since 1990.
When he was growing up in Alaska, time was marked by the 1964 earthquake — “everything was before or after.” Then the milestone became the Exxon Valdez. No one wants the Kulluk to become the next one.
Old Harbor, which recently created an “incident response” team, just last month practiced responding to an oil spill, said Bobbi Barnowsky, environmental director for the Old Harbor tribal organization.
Shell has set up a command post in the city of Kodiak at the Best Western, where it holds daily 7 a.m. operational briefings for team leaders. The Kodiak harbor has cleared dock space for ships involved in the Kulluk salvage. The effect is being felt all over town. Shell jets and helicopters have been landing regularly at the airport, said Wes Osowski, owner of Servant Air, one of two air carriers that regularly fly to the island.
But residents say Shell itself hasn’t yet shown up in Old Harbor, a picture-perfect traditional village of about 200 residents accessible only by boat or planes that land, weather permitting, on the gravel runway.
Old Harbor is 70 miles south of the city of Kodiak, at the southern end of Kodiak Island. It is the closest community to the grounded Kulluk. Only the 120-square-mile Sitkalidak Island lies between Old Harbor and the stranded rig.
The Kulluk site is virtually impossible to get to right now, even from Old Harbor. The Coast Guard has declared a no-fly zone five miles around the rig and a no-boat zone one mile around it.
One way to get to the site involves a 40-minute boat ride from Old Harbor, a trip up a narrow bay, a hike through brown bear country, which requires a permit from the Native corporation, and a climb over a ridge to a stretch of shore just out of reach of high tide, said Jeff Peterson, an Old Harbor hunting and fishing guide.
But even someone willing to do all that couldn’t get to the site today, he said. Carl Marrs, the former head of the Cook Inlet regional corporation who is now chief executive of the Old Harbor corporation, told Peterson he’s stopped the issuance of any permits; the corporation is trying to get a contract to work for Shell.
WAITING FOR SHELL
On Thursday, town leaders expected Shell executives to arrive by helicopter for a community meeting, but the pilots delivering the boom said the helicopter may have been turned back by the weather.
The command team is planning a community meeting for Sunday evening at the Kodiak high school, spokeswoman Darci Sinclair said in an email.
Still, Shell executives and other leaders of the team managing the crisis have kept the community well informed, Berns said. Early on, the command team held daily telephone briefings for local leaders, including those in Old Harbor and Kodiak. Now it’s twice a day, he said. The Old Harbor Corp. declined to let a reporter sit in on Thursday afternoon’s teleconference.
“I think they’ve done the best they could for the conditions they were facing,” Berns said. “I don’t care who you are or how big you are, you aren’t going to beat Mother Nature. It just got the best of them.”
Old Harbor boasts a new dock, more boats than anywhere on Kodiak Island except the main harbor, a small school and the intricate Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church, about the only structure in town that was not swallowed by the tsunami that rose up after the 1964 earthquake. The air smells like the sea.
“There’s a couple of salmon streams out there,” said Walter Stanley, 70 and a lifelong resident of Old Harbor. “If heavy oil leaks out . . .”
Many in the village are perplexed at why Shell’s huge rig was being towed in thrashing seas to begin with. “My husband says 'baloney,’ ” said Frances French, 53, a city employee who has lived in Old Harbor her whole life. The howling winds were “spooky,” she said.
Brandon Larionoff, 17, was walking his sister’s dog, Daisy. He said he heard about the Kulluk on the news.
“It could kill off all the fish population,” he said. He said he loves growing up in the village, fishing, running around in a skiff, camping on Sitkalidak. He doesn’t know what to make of the situation. He just wants the Kulluk gone and no fuel tainting the beaches.
The mayor’s son, Travis Berns, who fishes for salmon and crab and is preparing for the Jan. 15 Tanner crab opening, said, “It sounds like they made a lot of mistakes.”
The rig is probably wedged tight onto rocks, he said. Public statements by the command team that the seafloor is sand and gravel is “sugar-coating that aspect of it.”
But Osowski, the pilot and Servant Air co-owner, speculated that the rig might be easier to pull off rocks than if it was sucked into the soft sand of Ocean Beach.
What troubles Sven Haakanson, an anthropologist who was born and raised in Old Harbor and now is executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, is how close the Kulluk came to Refuge Rock. The site of the massacre almost 230 years ago was only established by archeologists in the early 1990s.
“We discovered this site in 1991,” Haakanson said this week, pointing it out on a map in his museum office as he spoke. “This is where (Gregory) Shelikof, on Aug. 13, 1784, came in, took the women and children hostage, and claimed Alaska.” Hundreds were killed in what’s been called the Wounded Knee of Alaska, a turning point in the battle for control between Native people and the traders, according to Old Harbor Native Corp.
Once the location was known, “more of the community started to become more aware of our history, to understand, 'Hey, wait, this is something really tragic that happened here,’ ” he said.
In Alutiiq language, the site is called Awa’uq, which means “to become numb.”
“Which makes perfect sense for what happened there,” Haakanson said.
If Awa’uq is contaminated, it will only compound the tragedy, he said.