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Deepwater dreams in Kotzebue

Ben Anderson
Cape Blossom near Kotzebue has been identified as a possible site for a deep-water port.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kotzebue mayor Eugene Smith.
Stephen Nowers photo
A cemetery in the arctic village of Kotzebue.
Stephen Nowers photo
Shore Avenue in Kotzebue is receiving a $34 million upgrade.
Stephen Nowers photo
The city of Kotzebue.
Stephen Nowers photo
A dump truck heads towards a road building site at the Kotzebue wind farm on June 23, 2011.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kotzebue elder Willie Goodwin.
Stephen Nowers photo

KOTZEBUE -- The 2010 U.S. Census put the population of the Alaska town of Kotzebue at 3,201. But if you look around this small community that sits about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Baldwin Peninsula, it looks much bigger. Kotzebue is positively bustling -- road and construction projects can be seen almost everywhere in the city. And behind all the visible hubbub, the city is dreaming even bigger, with a significant deepwater port project in the works, and proactive city and tribal governments working in tandem to create a true "hub city."

First, there are the improvements along Shore Avenue, what used to be a thin sliver of road that looks out over Kotzebue Sound. Some years, because the road was narrow and there was no barrier between the sea ice and the houses lining the street -- aside from a few feet of elevation where sea met land -- the tides would occasionally carry a huge mass of sea ice up to the homes, to come knocking at the doors. It happened as recently as this spring. Now, the street is undergoing a $34 million upgrade. It will be wider and a wall is being erected that that will hopefully keep erosion and invading sea ice to a minimum.

Derek Martin, the city's capital projects manager, notes other projects, including further road improvements. "A lot of the existing roads," he said, "as early as 1996, have started getting paved asphalt surfaces. The road base is predominantly sandy silt. Paving has a pretty sizable capital cost, but it helps the residents with their asthma and respiratory problems." A common complaint in villages off Alaska's road system is the prevalence of dust kicked up on unpaved roads, which is often viewed as an air quality and health hazard.

Martin also says that more than $30 million has gone into improving the sewer and water infrastructure, replacing the old system installed in the 1970s, when Kotzebue was half the size it is today.

The area hospital has seen considerable improvements in the past year, including a new 38-unit building constructed out of CONEX shipping containers, welded together and shipped into Kotzebue pre-assembled, according to Martin. The exterior of the building betrays nothing about its humble skeleton.

The local electric cooperative, the Kotzebue Electric Association, has a wind farm built with help from the local tribal government, the Native Village of Kotzebue, on whose land the wind farm sits. There are currently 16 windmills providing 5 percent of the community's power, but Brad Reeves, general manager for KEA, said that two new 900,000 watt windmills should be up and running by next spring.

"We're looking at putting those up in the spring of next year," Reeves said, noting that it's easier on the fragile tundra that surrounds Kotzebue to do the work while the ground is still frozen.

The new windmills would take the total power provided by the wind farm to 15-20 percent of the community’s electric needs. The community is also looking at myriad other ways to capitalize on all kinds of electricity, from solar panels on the houses of community elders ("We’re still doing a bit of debugging," Reeves said, "but that’s why they call it emerging energy") to utilizing what's known as "waste heat" from the local power plant's exhaust.

"There's no such thing as waste heat (here)," Reeves said. "We're trying to get rid of that term."

The Regional Alaska Native Corporation, NANA, is based in Kotzebue and is one of the largest Native corporations in the state, with a reported 2010 revenue of $1.6 billion. Some of that money comes from the nearby Red Dog Mine, a source of zinc and lead that opened in 1989 and continues to be a primary economic driver in the region. NANA recently completed construction on the first phase of a new 72-room hotel in Kotzebue, replacing an older one.

Cooperation and drive

Despite the rapid rate of improvements and successes so far, Kotzebue has one eye trained squarely on its future. All of the improvements so far have been done with the goal of improving quality of life and lowering the considerably high cost of living for residents, and further work hopes to continue that trend.

Much has been done to drive down the high cost of gasoline and heating oil. Martin said in late June that gasoline was sitting at $6.73 at the pump. In 2009, he said, it was $7.15.

The overhead cost of that fuel is driven by two significant factors. The shipping window in Kotzebue is limited, usually from July, when the sea ice has broken away from the shore, until September, when it closes back in. That's about a 100-day window for shipments, limiting the number of annual fuel deliveries to the community to only three.

Also adding to fuel costs is the necessity of lightering the fuel to shore, transferring it from a larger vessel onto smaller ones that are able to navigate the shallow waters of Kotzebue Sound and deliver it to the community.

Given these shipping difficulties, the city of Kotzebue has long entertained the idea of its own deepwater port, allowing barges to dock and use the more cost-effective method of trucking fuel from ship to community. The most lucrative option for this port has been identified as Cape Blossom, 10 miles south of Kotzebue's nearest road.

"We have been working on our deepwater port for 40 years now," Kotzebue Mayor Eugene Smith said recently at the Arctic Imperative Summit in Girdwood.

Back in Kotzebue, Smith said that the community has been working with several government and private entities as it continues to push toward making a deepwater port happen. Asked what it might cost, he estimated about $60 million, with the port itself costing some $30 million and a 10-mile road to Cape Blossom costing another $30 million. City Manager Derek Martin confirms that estimate, but admits that despite the years of study and interest, it's still a preliminary estimate.

"(The estimate for) the road sounds reasonable," Martin said, "but as we get more input, more studies, that could be a low number or a conservative number (for the port)." He said that it's the number that's been discussed in conversations with the state Department of Transportation, which has been involved in the study and planning process.

And it's not just the city participating, either. Cole Schaeffer, executive director of the Native Village of Kotzebue, said that the deepwater port is the result of input from several entities.

"It’s been a trilateral group on the deepwater port discussion," he said. "The traditional groups, the city, and the corporation."

If you build it, they will come

Aside from the barges bringing supplies in to Kotzebue, who would utilize a port there? Would the construction costs of a project like the port be justified in such a small community, in such a remote part of Alaska?

Mayor Eugene Smith said that Crowley -- responsible for the fuel shipments to the community -- has been part of the discussion for the port project and the depths required for a successful deepwater facility.

Martin said that the current sea floor depth at Cape Blossom is around 24 feet, according to a DOT bathymetry study done in 2009. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has plans to come in and do a hydrological survey in the summer of 2011.

There is talk of lowering the sea floor down as deep as 40 feet, what Martin refers to as "deep, deepwater."

But aside from those limited entities that already service Kotzebue, who else might take advantage of a deepwater port in this northwestern part of the state, above the Bering Strait? That's where Kotzebue is counting on worldwide growth to help support its own smaller-scale development.

While a deepwater port would be good for the community, it could potentially lead to new interest in development on land -- Kotzebue also sits near large copper and coal deposits -- and could benefit from the increased shipping activity as climate change leads to longer shipping seasons and more ships passing through the far northern waterways.

"The idea," Martin said, "is that if we build it, they’ll utilize it."

Smith said it helps that Kotzebue is already considered a "port of refuge," which might heighten interest for companies shipping through the Bering Strait, and looking for places to dock for maintenance or refueling.

Martin said although most of the money would probably come from the federal government, port backers hope the state also shows some interest in the project.

"We would hope that the state would be able to fund some of the port," Martin said. "To fund economic development and the survival of the community."

Responsible development

But as with many discussions of development in rural Alaska, there is the question of the effect on local ecosystems and especially marine life.

In rural Alaska, many people still rely heavily on a subsistence lifestyle, and they are keenly aware that development may have negative impacts on the populations and behaviors of the animals they need to support that lifestyle.

Walter Sampson, vice president of NANA, noted in a presentation the difficulty of encouraging development while simultaneously upholding a traditional way of life. "Eighty percent of the people in our region continue to live off the land," he said. "Through time, our people are changing. How they do things are changing.

"Our children are looking for an easier life," he added.

But with the potential economic prosperity comes uncertainty about ecosystems that Alaska Natives have relied on for millennia as their food source.

"During my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way we hunt," said Willie Goodwin, a Kotzebue elder. "My grandkids probably won't hunt and fish as much as I do, but they'll provide in other ways. We spend time teaching them how to subsist, but I’d like to see them go to college, to have a good job."

Goodwin expressed concerns, saying that he felt some development is being "forced down our throats." At the same time, he acknowledged the number and quality of jobs that would come with increased economic activity in the area, and how that would provide for future generations, albeit in a different way than subsistence.

Goodwin said that he's more comfortable with development on land -- since he's seen the effect of Red Dog over the years -- than anything offshore, where drilling in the Chukchi Sea and increased shipping traffic has become a concern for coastal communities reliant on marine mammals like bearded and ringed seals and bowhead whales.

Goodwin said that Shell Oil Co. has been fairly cooperative with the local subsistence hunters, even going so far as to push back their own work until after July 10, the end of the traditional hunting season. But Goodwin still expressed concern over what he believes is a dearth of possible oil spill response measures in the area, and a lack of knowledge about the effect of offshore development on marine mammal migration patterns.

Alex Whiting, an environmental specialist for the Native Village of Kotzebue, is working with organizations like the National Marine Mammal Lab, NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service) on a study that captures and tags live bearded seals in order to track their migrations and attempt to see how those patterns might be affected by increased economic development in the Arctic.  The program started in 2004 with young seals, and over time has come to target the difficult-to-capture adults. The program has captured and tagged numerous adult or sub-adult seals over the course of the years.

The 2009 study, the most recent results of the tagging program available online, reveals a wide migratory pattern for the oldest male tagged, a 4-year-old that traveled from its tagging point in Kotzebue nearly to the Alaska-Canada border in the Arctic Sea, until returning south for the winter and coming to rest for the season on the southern side of the Seward Peninsula, near Nome.

Whiting said that very little is known about most Arctic marine mammals.

"We're trying to figure out pretty much everything," he said. "Diving behavior, hauling out behavior, where they go, how long they go there. It's not like nothing is known, but they’re pretty weak for data."

As for the purposes behind the study and how it relates to development? "Bearded seals will be impacted in various ways by development," Whiting said. "General knowledge is part of it, climate change is part of it -- but all kinds of change in the Arctic is part of it. It's easy to justify research in the Arctic right now, just because not much is known.

"Without understanding basic ecological processes, it's really hard to develop mitigation plans that are useful or practical."

Whiting perhaps summed it up best when he said, "I’m not anti-development. I'm anti-irresponsible development."

For now, Kotzebue must find a way to walk that tightrope between meeting the needs of its people, who still live a mostly traditional lifestyle, and a desire for community improvements and advancement. It's a difficult position, with an eye on the future and roots in the past.

CORRECTION: This article originally reported that production at Red Dog Mine began in 1987. Construction on the mine began in 1987; production didn't begin until 1989. We regret the error.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com