By Gabriel Scott, Alaska Report
February 5th, 2007
Alaska's newest road to nowhere is nearing a decision.
Public comments are pouring in and the town is abuzz about the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cordova Oil Spill Response Facility, a.k.a. the Shepard Point Road Project, a controversial proposed 4.5 mile road and deep water port, in Orca Inlet, Eastern Prince William Sound, several miles north of Cordova, Alaska. A decision is expected after close of public comment period, January 29th.
Long desired for the access it would offer to export resources from the Copper River Delta, now Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the behest of the Native Village of Eyak, is pushing the project forward under the guise of an oil spill response facility. They are using about $10 million from the state's 1992 Exxon Valdez settlement, and another $8 million of Federal highway funds. The facility would consist of a dock and staging area for oil spill response equipment. While everyone agrees this would be a good thing, where to put it and how to get there are highly controversial.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is weighing five alternative locations for the facility. Their preferred option is the proposed road to Shepard Point. Other options would build on existing infrastructure closer to town.
Many Cordovans, fishermen and conservation groups see the proposed deepwater "oil spill response facility" at Shepard Point as a smokescreen for private resource development, a money-losing boondoggle and public safety hazard that would weaken community oil spill response. They urge construction of the facility at the existing City Ocean Dock as a more sensible alternative.
"They can better meet all their needs, without building any road, for half the price," said Cordova musician Mike Mickelson.
The project is seen as a boondoggle, or a bonanza, depending on whom you are talking to.
"The Shepard Point option violates all parts of Governor Hammond's Four Criteria Test," says a statement from the Alaska Field Office for Cascadia Wildlands Project, in Cordova. "It won't pay for itself, it's not environmentally sound, it lacks broad public support, and it serves special interests, not the public interest."
None of which seems to bother Bob "Moose" Henrichs, president of Native Village of Eyak and a powerful director at Chugach Alaska Corp., which owns the land, coal, timber and other resources. "I have two words for the city on this," said Henrichs at a City Council meeting January 17th. "Davis Bacon."
The BIA indicates its proposal would cost taxpayers over $30.1 million, most of which would go to construction contracts for the Native Corporations. There is a shortfall of at least $12.6 million for construction and no funding has been identified for the (minimum) $514,000 needed for operations and maintenance. No likely income has been identified.
Critics, and BIA's own studies, warn of extreme avalanche danger. The proposed road crosses a gauntlet of eighteen major avalanche chutes. Avalanche debris will close the road for days to weeks each year, making emergency access difficult. Public safety is a serious concern, as three townspeople have died in avalanches over the last seven years.
One slogan floating around town goes: "Shepard Point Road: It may be expensive, but at least it's dangerous."
Ironically, BIA's option of moving facilities to deeper water at Shepard Point would slow down the first response to a spill, which would primarily be done by the town's own fleet of fishing boats. This would leave the shallow Copper River Delta more vulnerable to a spill by adding 10.1 miles to the run to respond to a spill on the Copper River flats, and 3.9 miles to respond in Prince William Sound.
Cordova District Fishermen United, representing the Copper River salmon fleet and most of the spill responders, has passed a resolution advocating the Ocean Dock Alternative, and opposing the Shepard Point location. The oil company organization responsible for spills in Prince William Sound, SERVS, has also announced an unwillingness to move their spill response equipment. Lacking support from spill responders, Shepard Point road would be a road to nowhere.
The heart of the controversy is an asserted need for a "deepwater" port for oil spill response vessels in Prince William Sound. Proponents point to a 1992 Settlement Agreement that talks about the need for a deepwater port. Critics say that was a political agreement, and point out there are no deep draft oil spill response vessels.
"Their own experts agree we don't need deeper draft for spill response, and the numbers show this," said Cordova fisherman and SERVS Tier 1 spill responder Sierra Drake. "The stubborn refusal to acknowledge this fundamental flaw speaks to ulterior motives. The public really deserves an answer."
One Eyak native believes he knows what that hidden motive is: resource extraction. "This deepwater port is the keystone to a web of threats that could destroy our way of life," warns Dune Lankard, founder of the Eyak Preservation Council and recent Ashoka Award fellow. Lankard points to the deepwater port as the lynchpin to a web of potential resource extraction schemes for coal and old-growth trees at Carbon Mountain, just east of the Copper River Delta. Plans are also in the works for a salmon hatchery along the new road at Humpback Creek, which some say could be the last truly wild run of pink salmon left in Prince William Sound. The deepwater port also could bring large-scale cruise ship tourism to the tiny town, and the road would open up land for subdivisions.
"The supposed purpose of all-tide access for deepwater spill response vessels is a fabricated rationale designed to win funding and permits," according to the Cascadia Wildlands Project. "The truth is, this is classic pork-a public money giveaway to private corporations."
The landowners at Shepard Point are Chugach Alaska Corp. and The Eyak Corp., for-profit sisters to Native Village of Eyak. If the Shepard Point alternative is selected, economic benefits would accrue to these corporations in many ways. In addition to personal benefits for certain directors and officers, the corporations own thousands of acres of developable land and vast stocks of coal and timber. Under BIA's scheme, Native Village of Eyak would get priority construction contracts, then own and operate the facility for whatever uses they desire.
"Chugach Alaska Corp. directors and executives have been in control of this from top to bottom, and are in line to win themselves a free road and port," says Scott. "Hiding behind the public façade of spill response, BIA and Native Village of Eyak, this private corporation is essentially the government decision-maker, the construction company, the eventual owner, and with their coal and forests the biggest long-term customer of the port. Pretty slick. Also, pretty illegal."
Hoping to accommodate both the corporations' desire for money and residents' desire for sustainability, some spill responders urge construction of the facility at an alternative location. This provides the same long-term jobs without the environmental and economic costs. Alternative 2 in the BIA environmental study would build on existing infrastructure at City Ocean Dock. It has won support for better serving spill response, for roughly half the price, with no new road, and without avalanches.
"There are channels we can go through to reallocate this money to improve existing facilities," said commercial fisher and SERVS responder Robert Masolini. "There has been considerable public support for this. I hope the BIA will do what's good for response, and what improves oil spill response time, not detracts from it."