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Mayor reflects on challenges facing North Slope Borough

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder

Editor's Note: Charlotte Brower has a lot on her mind as she starts her third year as the mayor of the state's northernmost borough. After the community of Barrow celebrated the opening of its new hospital, the North Slope Borough's top official took some time to reflect on the challenges and areas of focus for the region since she took office. This is the first of two stories looking at the state of the North Slope Borough as seen from its top office.

A changing region

Brower said overall, one of the biggest challenges she and her right-hand-man Jacob Adams faced on taking office was reviewing all the contracts and policies — but that job is now largely done, she said. Other topics arise instead, like job development, infrastructure development and the ever-ominous changes presented by the melting sea ice and climate change so prevalent in the Arctic.

Brower recently testified before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, telling Washington about the ships pulling up off her coast unannounced and asking to dock at her port. Barrow doesn't have a port. It doesn't have enough beds to house the large groups of foreign travelers coming north now that ice is receding for longer periods and adventures to the Arctic are gaining in popularity. All that presents quite a challenge for the North Slope Borough.

"One day, there was a ship out there," Brower said, waving a hand toward the ocean. "And there was no communication to our own local enforcement. The next thing you know we have 150 people all wearing the same jackets — Germans, I think — walking around. It created a big scuffle all the way to homeland security."

Brower said being prepared for such travel, not to mention the offshore development now gaining speed, is a tremendous challenge.

Arctic waters have no advisory council and few regulatory authorities save the U.S. Coast Guard, which is in the area intermittently since it moved its Arctic presence from Barrow to Kotzebue this spring. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission offers some governing authority for marine transportation issues, but all this is new to them, too. Some communities in the area are allowing visitor ships to unload, and arranging for private transportation out of the community back to main hubs in the state.

"Up here, our hunters are the first ones to say they are going to protect their ocean," Brower said, "But we find the marine transportation issue might call for another type of advisory council."

Safety in the ocean

Another issue for the North Slope region as it copes with the fast-forward motion of development and the influx of attention is developing a program to respond in the case of an incident such as an oil spill. In the lower regions of the state, private vessels contract to carry boom and be response-ready for incidents. That requires licenses, though, and up to now, the region has had few, if any, boats certified with U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

"We are like 30 years behind on that," Brower said. "We are doing catchup."

Brower said the Alaska Vocational and Technical College in Seward is being enlisted to help with that, offering vessel owners an opportunity to get licenses they might need, such as a marine pilot license. More boat regulations are coming down the wire, she said.

"That's a concern we need to be prepared for," she said.

But there are still hurtles to overcome in that regard. Communication is a big one — creating agreements with industry and tourist travelers that in the event of a spill, the appropriate agencies, including the North Slope Borough, are informed immediately.

A recent safety drill in the Chukchi Sea went well, Brower said, but past experiences such as the Repsol spill three winters ago in which a blowout spilled more than 100,000 gallons of drilling mud onto the snow, have taught the North Slope Borough to be wary.

"Communication is really important," Brower said.

Still, the lack of port in the region, and the implications for spill response as a result, is ominous, she said.

"We don't have a port, our coast line is receding, and we are trying to work with the state government and the federal government in trying to preserve our coast line but that in itself is a tremendous burden to the North Slope," she said.

Next week, Mayor Charlotte Brower covers job development and the North Slope Borough's role in Arctic policy on a national level.

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.