Alaska Natives Visit Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

By Libby Casey

A group of Alaska Natives fighting oil and gas drilling off Alaska’s Coasts journeyed this week to the Gulf of Mexico.  There they witnessed first-hand evidence of the oil spill from last month’s rig explosion.  They’re now in Washington D-C to share what they saw with the federal agencies that make decisions about offshore drilling. 

The group was already completely opposed to offshore development in Alaska.  But the trip down to the Gulf of Mexico was like seeing their worst fears realized.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is Inupiaq, and lives in Barrow.  She remembers the Exxon Valdez oil spill 21 years ago, and says while she dreaded the trip to the Gulf, she needed to see what’s happening there.  Ahtuangaruak says what she experienced will stay with her.

It’s devastating, it’s a strong burden I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.  It brought tears to my eyes, as we landed on the shores to start the boat ride, for the fumes of the spill were permeating the air.  It got into our clothes, into your nose, into our hair.  As we traveled out into the water it increased & concentrated, and yet the people living down there have no escape.  The natural smell of the ocean was non-existent.

Ahtuangaruak and the others flew to New Orleans Monday, and toured the Gulf by sea plane and boat.  The local tribe, the United Houma Nation of Louisiana welcomed them, and environmental groups paid for their trip.

Fellow Barrow resident Martha Falk, with the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope says right away she could see the effects:

While we were out there I observed rock barriers that had oil on them, and shore birds that were walking all over on these rocks so there’s wildlife that’s already been impacted also.

Earl Kingik, an elder from the Native Village of Point Hope says he feels like he witnessed what the oil companies and the federal government pledged wouldn’t happen:  a blowout, and an uncontrollable spill.

I put crude in my hand, it smelled, oh it’s terrible, terrible smell.  I tried washing it off with water, it wouldn’t wash off.  I could just feel how the migratory birds when they get coated with oil, how they feel.  The sticky crude on my hand couldn’t be washed out just by water.  I tried paper towel, it didn’t work so I used gravel, that helped me a little bit.  And the smell of my hand couldn’t go away for many hours.  I feel real sad about the animals that got oil on them right now.

Kingik and his fellow traveler Verner Wilson say he reached down to touch the crude 45 miles away from the spill site.  They say sludge had gotten past booms and seeped into the grasses and beach.

Wilson is Central-Siberian Yupik, and comes from a fishing tradition in Dillingham.

For me what really, really struck me as a fishermen, was the guys who were just stuck on the port who couldn’t go fishing for the past few weeks because it was shut down, and then hearing our guide saying that fishermen told him a lot of people were wondering about the seafood catch, maybe not wanting to eat it because of the pollution.  That should be a concern to every fisherman, especially in Alaska, if there’s ever to be an accident it’s all about perception, it’s about the price of our fish, so that was heartbreaking for me.

Wilson says it rang home for him because his father was a plaintiff in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Finally last year he finally got a $66 dollar check.  And when I told that to the Mobile stakeholders, they were taken aback, and they gasped and were stunned in disbelief.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak says Gulf Coast residents may just be starting to experience what Alaskans lived through 21 years ago.

I was watching one of the lifts taking boats out of the marina and putting them in the warehouse.  People didn’t want their boats in the water risking contamination of their boat and their gear.  I had one fisherman say to me, I wish this spill happened before Katrina, I would’ve left, because now I’ve started to rebuild, but rebuild with what future.  My lifestyle is being erased, hour by hour, gallon by gallon.

The four Alaskans are visiting the federal agencies in Washington that make decisions about offshore development.  Soon they’ll head home, with new dedication to fight oil and gas drilling in their back yards.


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