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We're still not ready to handle more work and play in the Arctic

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
OPINION: Carey Restino of The Arctic Sounder argues that Alaska is still unprepared for increased recreation and development in the Arctic. Pictured: Coast Guard personnel at the rescue of the sailboat Altan Girl. U.S. Coast Guard

This week, a mariner attempting to navigate his way through ice-clogged waters northeast of Barrow was rescued by one of the only active icebreakers the United States has at its disposal, which was, as luck would have it, nearby doing some scientific research. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy rescued a man piloting his 36-foot sailboat from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to eastern Canada via the Northwest Passage. His vessel became trapped in ice, and search and rescue personnel were unable to reach the man by air. Instead, the Healy broke a 12-mile path through the ice to free the sailboat.

All’s well that ends well, right? Not so much. This was just a bit of blind luck, actually. Elsewhere off Alaska's Arctic coast, mariners ran into trouble twice near Kotzebue, and were rescued both times by a fuel barge that happened to be in the region. While the generosity of the crew of the 80-foot-long Naniq, operated by Vitus Marine, cannot be overlooked, the simple fact is that in both these cases, rescue was possible only because vessels capable of performing such rescues were in the neighborhood, so to speak.

It has been several years now since Russia moved forward with plans to open up shipping across the northern waters that connect Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, Canada continues to work toward development of oil and gas resources in its northern waters, and with that comes increased traffic. And the United States will almost certainly move forward again with offshore drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, despite the delay-ridden and accident-plagued first attempt by Shell Oil.

It’s no secret that the Arctic is becoming more popular with adventurers and developers alike, and simple laws of probability dictate that this increased popularity will bring with it increased risk of shipping mishaps like we have seen along the popular and treacherous waters near Unalaska. Many a ship has made news there as it drifted closer and closer to the rocks, and more than a few have met with disaster there. But in Unalaska, there are at least a few vessels somewhat capable of helping a drifting tanker filled with diesel stay away from the shore. 

So, given the urgency of this dilemma, what are lawmakers doing right now to avert a potential disaster and prepare to protect the waters of Alaska that so many in this state depend on for their livelihood and subsistence food? They are doing what seems to be the most favorite pastime of bureaucrats:  forming new committees to talk about things some more.

The latest of these committees -- the Arctic Economic Council -- focuses on economic development and includes a representative from Crowley Marine Services, which is certainly a big player in the Arctic these days, as well as the president and CEO of the Bering Straits Native Corporation. But a third recently appointed member is a bit of an eyebrow raiser for anyone who has followed the botched attempt by Shell to operate in the Arctic.

The general manager of Fairweather LLC, Lori Davey, was appointed, which might not cause one to stop and pause until you look closer and find that Fairweather LLC is a member of the Edison Chouest Offshore companies, the very company that was taken to task handily by a U.S. Coast Guard investigation that concluded the company had erred in numerous cases, ranging from blatant ignorance about Alaska waters and conditions to some circumstances that bordered on criminal negligence.

Perhaps it is good to include those who need to learn how to operate safely in Alaska waters in a panel talking about how to encourage economic stability and growth as well as environmental protection and social development, but some might wonder first if Edison Chouest has learned anything from its foray into Alaska waters with Shell. Following the Coast Guard’s investigation into the  Shell drill rig Kulluk’s transportation out of state in the middle of a midwinter storm in 2012, neither Edison Chouest nor Shell has come out with any indication that they plan to operate differently from here on out.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, which is supposed to be coming up with recommendations for how the state should proceed with Arctic protection and development to best serve the people of the state, seems to be spending a lot of time talking among its 26 members, and not a lot of time recommending actions in the here and now that might offer our state some much-needed guidance.

The commission also seems less than enthusiastic about including Alaskans in the discussion, holding meetings geared to allow the public to comment but only giving one day’s public notice that those meetings are actually happening. In rural Alaska, news just doesn’t move that fast.

Sure, when you are tasked with recommending a comprehensive plan for state development in waters that are both dangerous and potentially lucrative, one might get bogged down in the desire to cover every angle. But the commission might have been better off approaching the needs of the Arctic from a triage-type angle. There are a few recommendations that the council could have made without a single meeting.

Alaska needs adequate emergency response vessels stationed in the Arctic, for example, and higher standards about the type of preparedness companies coming into the state to develop its offshore resources undertake, for another.

To date, no action has been taken to solve that problem because action, in this case, requires money, lots of it. This week, three disasters were narrowly averted in the Arctic by excellent luck and the generosity of those going far beyond their job description. While heartwarming, these stories do nothing to dissipate the ominous cloud of reality on the horizon. We are (still) not prepared.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times / Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary first appeared.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.