Alaska Native peoples have survived past pandemics, and COVID-19 recalls the 1918 flu that caused near genocide of our peoples. The impact and trauma of that pandemic is remembered by many as though it were not so long ago. I fear the loss of our people, the bearers of our language and culture, as a result of this current pandemic. Our language is precious. Only 11% of Iñupiat people are fluent speakers, and they are over 50 years old. If COVID-19 were to spread in the North Slope, the one hospital for eight communities will not have enough medical gear and staff.
The community of Nuiqsut is where my mother lives and where my family is from. Seventy percent of Nuiqsut’s 500 residents are on medication to help them breathe. More than half of the community is at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and the risks compound without access to regular flights and a hospital, not to mention ventilators.
The COVID-19 response in rural Alaska has been swift and drastic to ensure the safety of Alaska Native communities. The North Slope Borough banned travel and tightened security entering all North Slope communities. The borough mayor, Harry Brower, declared a disaster emergency on March 18, and the largest rural Alaska airline carrier, RavnAir, filed for bankruptcy on April 5. Without Ravn flights, rural communities are now also concerned about access to food and basic supplies.
While communities are doing all they can to survive, the federal Bureau of Land Management has continued business as usual, hosting virtual meetings for an oil and gas project in the heart of the Arctic slope and the community of Nuiqsut.
How can our communities engage in future development permitting processes when we are focused on protecting our lives right now?
The BLM posted the supplemental environmental impact statement for the Willow Master Development Plan on March 19 with a schedule of virtual hearings starting on April 16. This supplement reflects changes ConocoPhillips made to its proposal; however, this project will still have major impacts on North Slope communities, subsistence, the land, waters and animals. Over 100 Nuiqsut residents already testified against this project, urging the BLM to choose the “no action” alternative. This project is controversial, massive and raises major concerns among diverse stakeholders, including tribal governments.
Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips demobilized its North Slope drill rigs in April in response to COVID-19. Yet the BLM is relentlessly advancing this permitting process. It appears that the BLM is using a global crisis to hinder public engagement and awareness, the opposite of their obligation stated in their mission statement and values. Amid community opposition and tanking oil prices, BLM seems to be assisting industry. The economic crash threatens the U.S. “energy dominance” goal. Oil fields are shutting down and major companies such as BP, ConocoPhillips, Hilcorp and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. are dramatically changing North Slope operations. There is even a possibility that the trans-Alaska oil pipeline will shut down. If federal agencies don’t suspend permitting processes during this global crisis, it begs the question: What agenda are they hiding from the public?
Eleven organizations from Alaska sent a letter on March 31 requesting the BLM suspend the permit process until the pandemic is over. The letter stated that communities are fearful for their health and safety and that North Slope government employees are purely focused on the pandemic response. Holding BLM hearings during a pandemic will not achieve the goals of public involvement.
Racheal Jones, BLM project manager for the Willow Master Development Plan, declined to suspend hearings, stating “Using virtual meeting technology allows for communities to request meetings at their convenience without concerns for weather or logistical costs, creating a more efficient way to provide information and receive feedback with minimal cost to the American taxpayer.”
Once again, Iñupiat peoples are sacrificed for the comfort of the American taxpayer. The BLM wrongly assumes people have adequate phone reception, let alone internet, to comment. Holding hearings ignores the life-threatening emergency the Iñupiat and the world are facing.
The BLM must adopt pandemic procedures, and its actions going forward should be ethical and humane. The BLM states its values are “to serve with honesty, integrity, accountability, respect, courage and commitment to make a difference,” but its actions do support these values. Continuing public hearings now is outrageous. Suspend the permitting process until a fair and true public process can be upheld.
Siqiniq Maupin is from Nuiqsut and Utqiagvik and grew up in Fairbanks and Anchorage. She is the art and youth community organizer for Native Movement.