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In Old Harbor, hitting the rock

Jill Burke
A village sign on the hillside above Old Harbor. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The Old Harbor dump. Brown bears are prolific in the area, even in winter. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Bobbi Anne Barnowsky, environmental director for the native village of Old Harbor, in her office. She has an environmental response team ready to help in the Shell Oil Kulluk grounding recovery effort, but so far has not been asked to help. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Old Harbor's Three Saints Russian Orthodox church, the only building in Old Harbor to survive the 1964 earthquake. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A view from Old Harbor towards Sitkalidak Island, where Shell's Kulluk drill rig is stranded. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Old Harbor, the closest community to Shell's stranded Kulluk drill rig. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Oil spill containment boom staged in Old Harbor, the community closest to Shell's grounded Kulluk drill rig. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Coast guard and Shell Oil representatives arrive by helicopter in Old Harbor for closed meetings with the tribal council and village corporation. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Edward Pestrikoff, a fisherman in Old Harbor, is concerned about the potential environmental impact of the Shell Oil Kulluk grounding. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Old Harbor fisherman Rolf Christiansen is concerned about the potential environmental impacts of the Shell Oil Kulluk grounding. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Ravens play in a tree in front of Old Harbor's Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Wilmer Andrewvitch, a reader at Old Harbor's Three Saints Russian Orthodox church, making decorations for christmas. Russian Orthodox christmas is Jan 7-9. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Old Harbor residents decorating the Three Saints Russian Orthodox church for Christmas. Russian Orthodox christmas runs Jan 7-9. Jan 4, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

OLD HARBOR -- With a massive oil rig grounded near a coveted island beach, the families of Old Harbor, Alaska – the closest community to the site – are keeping close watch. The fishing village is located in a protected strait just beyond the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean, where the oil rig Kulluk and her escorts ran into nightmarishly foul weather that would, in the end, defeat them. Here, the leadership groups that in other villages have been known to work against each other appear to work in harmony. The tribe, the local corporation, the city – they all want the same thing: the rig off the beach and with it, any threat of contamination to salmon streams, seals, sea otters, birds, clams, urchins and any other life form – from land or sea – that might be affected by a fuel spill.

Early January in Old Harbor offers reminders that weather is a force humans are wise to respect. High winds during the same storm that wreaked havoc with Shell's oil rig caravan ripped a shed apart at the town dump, sending the roof careening into the fence they'd constructed to keep bears away. Fishermen know if they want to come home alive, they can't push their luck with angry, turbulent seas. And in this area of the coast, the sea is often roiling too much to even think about trying to land a boat on Sitkalidak Island's eastern shore, where the Kulluk remains stuck and perhaps damaged from below.

The community on the eastern side of Kodiak Island, accessible only by air or boat, is being established as a local staging area for the larger response. Boom, the material used to contain oil on the water and keep it out of streams, has been shipped in. A Shell employee and a Coast Guard member made it to Old Harbor on Thursday to talk with select people there face to face. Another team is in Kodiak waiting to helicopter in, if the weather will let them. And more equipment is said to be on the way as an armada of assist vessels makes it way to the grounding site.

The Old Harbor Native Corporation owns most of Sitkalidak Island. Because of strong surf, the beach front adjacent to the Kulluk is generally accessible only by hiking to it from more favorable landing spots on the island. Anyone who is not a tribal or corporation member needs permission to access to those trails. On Friday, four days after the grounding, it was announced that the corporation and the rig's rescuers had successfully negotiated the terms by which the unified command could gain access to the beach. Earlier in the week, there was talk that boom might have to be ferried to the mouth of some of the island's streams by four wheeler.

Meanwhile, while hours of phone time has been spent by the Unified Command doing a lot of talking to community leaders of all levels, there is regular life to attend to: children to entertain until school starts; a Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday to prepare for. Under the spell cast by the bureaucratic command set in motion when the Kulluk ran aground, it is also clear there are now two classes of people in Old Harbor – those in the know, and everybody else.

Beached on Alaska's 'mini Hawaii'

“Everything's so hush, hush,” observed Old Harbor's Wanda Price, a newly appointed city clerk and grandmother who grew up in the community. As the leaders in town busied themselves with how they might help with the Kulluk, snow dusted the island town's hills, giving way as the elevation lowered to fall colors – muted oranges and greens -- before melting into the dirt roads that had become slushy with mud and freezing rain. Cod and crab fisherman tended to their boats and pots. Lodge owners, usually closed for the winter, were opening up in preparation of housing the growing ranks of personnel said to be enlisted to aid in the overall response.

Like most everyone, she hasn't had a chance to see the grounded oil rig with her own eyes. Instead, the pictures released by the Coast Guard are her only access to the looming threat about 10 miles away.

“Everyone's worried,” she said. “We're all worried. Who knows what's going to happen if they spill oil and can't contain it.”

Fresh on her mind is an old memory, imprinted in her mind like an internal warning system, of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill from 1989. She was among the Old Harbor villagers who helped with the cleanup, keeping tabs of the oil globs and dead birds being pulled off the beach and needing to be tallied. She remembers clearly one volunteer coming into the city office, where at the time Price was working as an oil spill response clerk, with a dead eagle.

She's willing to believe officials who say the Kulluk is secure and no spills have been detected, but says her feelings are mixed. Ocean beach, where the rig is grounded, is a special place for locals. White sandy beaches, blue water and volcanic-looking cliffs create a summer vacation oasis that families flock to for camping, picnics and surfing. It's a spot where many adults here remember playing as children. Now they bring their own kids and grandchildren there.

“It's beautiful. It's pristine. It's hard to get to. It's just like a mini Hawaii,” she said.

Even if the salvage operation is successful, Price worries about the impact activity generated by the rescue effort on the island itself as ships and planes motor through and people trample over trails to get to where they need to go.

“I've got to be optimistic that they will get it off (the beach) without a spill,” said Edward Pestrikoff, another lifelong resident of the village who's made his living fishing the area's waters for crab and salmon.

The Kulluk is stuck just beyond the cliff face of the island, located between two coves – Ocean Bay and Partition Cove. There is disagreement among locals about whether she is grounded on rocks, or in sand and boulders. Pestrikoff is among those who think it's most likely dug itself into a sandy, gravel bottom. The grounding site had the potential to be much more perilous, and overall he thinks it's “in not that bad of a spot.”

Still, he shares the same fears as most here do – the wellness of spawning salmon, ducks and all other marine life people here rely upon. The unified command has said protecting Ocean Bay salmon streams with boom is a top priority before any salvage attempt will be made.

Pestrikoff questions why the rig and its tugs didn't circle up and wait out the storm, like large barges do that pass by this stretch of Alaska all the time. “Locals know when to turn around and go back into the harbor,” he said.

Rolf Christiansen also knows Sitkalidak Island. He hunts bear on it, and has taken his boats around the island while fishing and when out for recreational outings. When out on the water in his Boston Whaler, Christiansen gives the island a healthy buffer, because when he looks down into the water he can see the big boulders just below.

“I think they are more stuck than they realize,” he said, convinced that the oil rig is aground on solid rock.

At an afternoon press conference Saturday, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler confirmed the Kulluk is “on a rocky coastline.”

“We don't like (the rig) there. They screwed up and it ended up aground. I don't want it here. Get rid of it. Get it out of here,” Christiansen said a day earlier from his home in Old Harbor.

He, too, remembers the impact the Exxon Valdez had on all kinds of marine life. And although it's not carrying crude oil, and the 150 gallons of light diesel fuel the Kulluk is carrying will disperse faster, for him, the quicker Shell's high-tech oil rig is gone, the better.

A developing extraction plan

By Saturday, the Unified Command was in the process of sending more people and equipment to the site and nearby communities, and a definite uptick in activity was noticeable. A Coast Guard C-130 prepared for departure from Kodiak, as did Chinook Helicopters from the U.S. Army. Then came the announcement: as soon as tow and oil spill response equipment was in place, and at the next weather-favorable high tide, an attempt would be made to free the Kulluk and get her afloat.

In Old Harbor, the task of making sure enough resources were on hand to protect streams within the city limits continued, while unified command and the corporation hashed out how to address similar proactive measures in the immediate vicinity of the grounding.

The community has been planning an airport expansion, hopefully to entice cargo planes to come fetch its fresh seafood, and for a processor to locate on site. It's mind is on growth, continued recovery from a tsunami that nearly wiped out the town after the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, and later, the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. All are modern day disasters that came centuries after Outsiders – Russian fur traders – massacred hundreds of Alutiiq people on Sitkadilak Island. The site of the killing, a high perch known as Refuge Rock, is in Partition Cove, not too far from where the Kulluk has run aground. Rick Knecht, the archaeologist who helped examine the site in the 1980s, has termed the assault “the Wounded Knee of Alaska.”

“If something happens to our fishing industry we are toast,” said Bobbi Anne Barnowsky, environmental director for the Old Harbor tribe. “No matter how you look at it, having an oil drilling rig on your beach is not a positive place to be in.”

Barnowsky recently assembled a volunteer emergency response team – trained individuals capable of responding to floods, earthquakes, fires and oil spills. She's done what she can to let the unified command know her team is ready to help if and when they are called upon. As of late Friday, they hadn't been officially tapped, though they have been included in the Unified Command's daily debriefings.

Christmas is coming

On Friday, a handful of villagers, including children, swept floors and polished candle stands inside Old Harbor's Three Saints Church. With no priest currently assigned to the island, spiritual leadership falls to church readers and other parishioners willing to step in. On a small hill outside the front door, white crosses from the cemetery rise above the small, blue church.

Wilmer Andrewvitch and Joyce Elvehjem were overseeing the holiday preparations Friday, draping fresh evergreen garland and hunting for Christmas decorations, stored in a box they had yet to find.

Elvehjem, the village health aide, said many people in Old Harbor are curious about what's going on with the Kulluk and its rescue. The ugly memories of the Exxon Valdez Spill weigh on the minds of elders. She wondered if Shell might be willing to take the elders to the site, and let them see for themselves the rig and its location to “settle their minds” – an idea suggested by her husband.

She also thinks small town politics are interfering with the dissemination of information. Those who are politically in power are in the know, she said, while those who aren't are left with a lot of unanswered questions. There is a definite bureaucracy to the flow of information from the top officials at Shell and the Coast Guard all the way down to village staff, observable not only in Old Harbor but in Kodiak and Anchorage, too. But Elvehjem thinks more is contributing to the information choke hold. Shell will need to hire people and boats and equipment to clean up its mess. And people may be motivated to keep information about job opportunities within their private circles, to the benefit of their organizations, their family, and their friends.

Colleen McCarthy, a representative from Shell who will travel to Old Harbor as part of the Unified Command to act as a community liaison, has said efforts are being made to keep the lines of communication open. She did not know whether Shell had agreed to pay for access to Ocean Beach, but did say responders will be comprised of Shell employees trained in oil response as well as some locals.

She and a Coast Guardsman plan to hold a community-wide meeting in Old Harbor at noon on Monday. If Shell manages to get its oil rig off the beach before then, and everyone from the village can voice concerns and get questions answered, it will be a welcome gift for the start of Christmas, putting fears to rest early in the day and letting people get on with their holiday.

Old Harbor's three-day Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration begins Monday. Three hand-made wooden stars adorned with icons of the Nativity are spun by children who, with a string of caroling community members, will stroll from house to house, a symbolic welcoming of the Christ child and wise men into the home. Once inside, people sing, eat and visit, then pick up and move on to the next house.

If the stars align for the Kulluk's salvage operation, by Monday it, too, will have traveled to a new home – a temporary refuge 30 miles away in Kiliuda Bay, a sheltered, deep-water cove with a muddy bottom, beyond the village and out of the way of fishermen.

That's if, and only if, crews can be kept safe, and friendly weather graces the effort. As Christiansen, the bear hunter and fisherman, observed: “The force of nature is not going to be reckoned with.” 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com