News-Miner Community Perspective:
We all become dog mushers for many different reasons, but a few key elements truly bind us. We love our animals and we love experiencing the harshness and beauty of the raw wilderness. Traveling 1,000 miles across Alaska on the Iditarod trail is the ultimate culmination for challenging yourself and dog team against the harshest conditions and terrain Mother Nature has to offer. Enduring and surviving through the brutal conditions makes the finish line a true triumph, and for many, seeds the desire to do it all over again next year.
My first trip down the National Historic Iditarod Trail was in 2014, a year that even the most seasoned veterans describe as insane. It was my first 1,000-mile race, and I was pure rookie, making more than my share of mistakes along the way. Combined with the fact that I had never seen the trail, I was in for a challenge. I saw a few bumpy trails in the training and qualification process, but nothing could prepare me for the hellacious Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Burn, covered not with snow but glare ice. Speeding out of control down the side of a mountain, crashing into trees, roots, rocks, tussocks, falling into creeks, smashing body parts on jumble ice, snowhooks bouncing out of control and wedged into frozen dirt, broken sleds, broken musher friends, broken dreams, blood, sweat, tears, fears and prayers; that pretty much summarizes my first trip through the notoriously dangerous 60-mile section of trail. By the time we reached Nikolai over a dozen mushers dropped out and those that continued were beaten and battered to various degrees. I was fortunate to make it with bumps and bruises; somehow nothing was broken.
During the worst, I feared for my life and was upset that the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) had not chosen a safer alternate race route. But as the miles went by, the trauma faded. I became more and more aware of my achievement and confident in my abilities as a musher. Little did I know, that trip would be the last of its kind through the Farewell section of trail. In fall 2014, the Iditarod Trail Improvement Project was conducted. According to ITC press releases, it was an extensive logistical effort from Rohn to Farewell. Heavy equipment was flown in a C-130, 20 miles of stumps and deadfall were ground and the trail was widened. It was a major, multi-partner effort, with Donlin Gold being a contributing funder, although to what extent was not detailed. Minutes from an Aug. 2014 ITC Board of Directors meeting discuss searching for the estimated $260,000 needed to fund the project. At the time, only $10,000-$30,000 in grants from the Iditarod National Historic Trail were available. Although ITC board member Stan Foo, who also happens to be the President and General Manager of Donlin Gold, is present, no intended contributions were noted. In one month’s time, the project was funded and completed.
While mushers and race staff alike were excited to see the results of the trail improvement project, winter 2015 brought even less snow than the previous year’s disaster. There was no choice but to move the race route and skip the Alaska Range. This year, we got to see what a quarter million dollars in trail work over 30 miles can do. The results were, without doubt, dramatic. Comparatively, in 2014 I crashed close to two dozen times and drug for what seemed like miles down that section of trail. In 2016, I hit a few trees, but not one full-blown crash. I drove the same sled and ran the same number of dogs. Nobody could disagree that the trail was safer. Was musher safety Donlin’s intention when they kicked in the funds? Or was their thinking more structured around clearing a path for their future natural gas pipeline that would share a portion of Iditarod trail?
The infrastructure and maintenance required to build and operate 313 miles of pipeline across undeveloped wilderness and mountainous terrain will undoubtedly leave a mark on the landscape. A bumpy, barely wide enough to fit a sled, winding between trees, trail would change to a 100-150 foot wide, cleared road, capable of accommodating heavy equipment, trucks and other construction infrastructure. From the prospective of the musher and organizations like the Iditarod and Iron Dog, who are annually responsible for making a trail through the wild, this change is welcomed. Additionally, Donlin is committed to burying the 14-inch steel pipeline to minimize visual impact to the trail, so we wouldn’t even know it was there. What could be better? How about getting a few million in sponsorship from this great company who wants to fix the scariest, most adrenalin-pumping, eye-popping part of our trail too? It’s easy to see why ITC is so thrilled to have Donlin as a partner and interested in protecting their reputation through new mandatory rules imposed on mushers.
If I wasn’t adamantly opposed to foreign mines taking Alaska’s precious metals and leaving a mess of the waterways, thus threatening our seafood (Alaska’s most precious and renewable resource), I might welcome their support of the Last Great Race. If I hadn’t devoted most of a decade into the study of risk, hazards and disasters, I might not care about a pressurized pipeline buried a few feet below my runners that is capable of transporting 50 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, who’s path also coincides with multiple active fault zones. The problem is that I do care about the future of Alaska and the future of the Iditarod, and I believe that if a company is to inflict new hazard risks on humans and environment, they must examine every worst-case scenario of every possible risk factor that the project poses. These hazards should be made clear to the public, so that those impacted can decide what level of risk they are willing to except.
Natural gas pipelines are far from safe, whether they are in active fault zones or not. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there have been nearly 8,000 pipeline incidents since 1986 in the U.S. alone. These technological disasters have resulted in more than 500 deaths and about $7 billion in damages. Donlin’s proposed pipeline route will intersect with the Denali Fault, then run along the fault zone for about 30 miles, all within close vicinity to the Iditarod trail race route. In 2002, the Denali fault ruptured on its eastern side. The magnitude-7.9 earthquake was the largest recorded in Interior Alaska, it offset areas as much as 29 feet and was felt as far away as New Orleans. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline ran across the fault, but no oil spilled because of its design to move laterally along beams. Donlin tries to assure us in their Environmental Impact Statement that their pipeline will be built earthquake safe as well, by running the pipe above ground over the fault zones. However, there are many other places something could go wrong. According to Geo Times, a fold-and-thrust fault belt with possible recent activity in the foothills of the Alaska Range could result in the potential for more ground shaking from subduction zone events along the Denali fault. Further pipeline risks in the region come from liquidification of the ground during earthquake events and melting permafrost as a result of climate change.
The hazards of a high-pressure gas line include ignition, explosion or even a fireball. Even the earthquake we experienced here, on the Kenai Peninsula, this past January resulted in four homes being destroyed by fire. A natural gas leak caused one Kenai home to explode, which caught three more neighboring homes on fire. In New Mexico, 12 people were camping under a bridge when an El Paso Energy natural gas pipeline exploded, killing them instantly. The explosion was underground and across a river from where they camped and created a fireball visible for 20 miles.
For me, the worst possible scenario the proposed Donlin project could create is a massive pipeline explosion during the race, instantly incinerating dogs, sleds, and mushers who are camping out under the northern lights, enjoying the beauty of the Alaska wilderness. Am I being a doom-and-gloomer? Maybe, but I am also being a realist by pointing out the reality of the risk of this potential hazard. Is it true that the risk is low that such a scenario will occur? Yes, it is very low, and I am sure Donlin will be arguing why. However, is the scenario entirely possible once the pipeline is built? Yes, it is 100 percent possible, and that is a risk that I don't want while mushing down the National Historic Iditarod Trail.
Monica Zappa is a distance musher and three-time Iditarod finisher. She lives in Ninilchik.