Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic August 21, 2013 - 1:31 pm

Poor housing, climate change impacts, development greet ICC in Kotzebue, Alaska

Inuit Circumpolar Council officials visit huge Red Dog mine

JANE GEORGE
Inuit Circumpolar Council board members from Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia stand by the Chukchi Sea in Kotzebue last week during their board meeting in the northwest Alaska town. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ICC)
Inuit Circumpolar Council board members from Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia stand by the Chukchi Sea in Kotzebue last week during their board meeting in the northwest Alaska town. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ICC)

If you want to appreciate what’s good in Canada’s North, you can take a trip to northwest Alaska.

There, decent housing and access to the internet or cell phones are not a given, climate change now threatens entire Inupiat communities and the world’s largest lead-zinc mine has left a giant environmental footprint.

Last week, members of the Inuit Circumpolar Council executive, who represent Inuit from Russia to Greenland, gathered in Kotzebue, Alaska, a town of 3,500 known as Kikiktagruk, or “almost an island” in Inupiaq , located on the northwest coast of the state where the population is 70 per cent Inupiat.

Asked what the town, a hub for that region looks like, Kirt Ejesiak of Iqaluit, Canada’s ICC vice-president, said that “if you’re used to walking out on the beach here in Iqaluit, shacks, broken down qamutiks, garbage, if you put that all community-wide, it looks like that.”

The view is a shock “if you’re not used to that”— but it’s offset by the friendly people of Kotzebue, he said.

However, they face other challenges besides poor housing: the coast of northwest Alaska is even more deeply affected by climate change than Arctic Canada: erosion from rising sea levels and fiercer storms is threatening to relocate people.

In Kivalina, population 375, sea ice used to shield the village from cold weather storm waves and surges.

But with late-forming ice which melts sooner, Kivalina is now more vulnerable and the barrier reef where the village is located has eroded at an alarming rate, says the Nana Corp., which represents 11 villages in the region.

Residents have chosen a relocation site, southeast and inland.

But the move there— estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars — is less than certain, Nana says on its website.

At the same time that walrus are vanishing. This past summer, the villages of Savoonga and Gambell on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island as well as Chukotka are reporting the smallest walrus hunts ever — something that came up at the ICC meeting.

Membes of the ICC executive also had a chance to view resource development first-hand with a visit to the Red Dog nickel mine near Kotzebue — the largest lead-zinc mine in the world, owned by Teck Cominco, which owned the now-shuttered owner Polaris lead-zinc mine near Resolute Bay.

Cominco and Nana signed a deal in 1982 on the Red Dog mine, similar to the 1995 Raglan Agreement in Nunavik, with its package of money, environmental protection measures and guarantees for employment at the mine.

Training is offered by a nearby private college and also through an intensive on-site program.

Today, 59 per cent of Red Dog’s workers are Inupiat, who do flexible work rotations that have helped reduce turnover.

But there has been damage to the environment: in 2001, the United States National Park Service issued a report showing that levels of lead and zinc near the 60-kilometre haul road to the port on the Chukchi Sea exceed those found in “severely polluted” regions of Europe and Russia and sued the company.

“The mine regularly exceeds permit limits for discharges of cyanide into Red Dog Creek, which flows into the Wulik River, the primary source of drinking water for Kivalina,” the Kivalina Relocation Planning Committe said then in a press release.

But since 2001, Teck Cominco put US $15-million into upgrading its equipment to minimize dust, with new steel lids on trucks and a revamped barge-loading facility.

During this visit the ICC board members were told “you can drink the water coming out of the discharge.”

Mine officials told the ICC visitors say they’ve resolved problems

“It always sounds good — it’s just the things they don’t talk about,” said Ejesiak.

“it’s a huge footprint.”

During the ICC meeting, the board members also continued to discuss some of the ongoing files related to its role as permanent participant at the Arctic Council.

Among the council-related discussions, its new Arctic business forum.

But while ICC-Canada, which will take over the chair of the organization in 2014 after the ICC general assembly next summer in Nuuk, is set to play a larger role in the Arctic Council under Canada’s council chairmanship, no new money has yet come their way.

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