Alaska stays prepared

Alaska's Kenai Peninsula reacted calmly to a minor oil mishap Thursday - but should a larger disaster arrive, "we're ready," said the Rev. Jon Walters.

BY SUSAN KIM | KENAI, Alaska | February 2, 2006

"This thing could be stuck on the silt for some time."

—Jon Walters

Alaska's Kenai Peninsula reacted calmly to a minor oil mishap Thursday - but should a larger disaster arrive, "we're ready," said the Rev. Jon Walters.

An oil tanker ran aground early Thursday after an ice floe broke it from its moorings at a refinery in Nikiski, according to U.S. Coast Guard reports. A few gallons of oil leaked into Cook Inlet. But the ship was intact, and later fly-overs found little presence of additional oil in the water.

"I have just been as near to that place as you can get because of security issues," said Walters. Emergency crews will be overseeing movement of the vessel over the next few days - a tricky endeavor given that tide levels there change as much as 30 feet.

Walters - whose own quiet demeanor belies his deep knowledge of what makes his community tick - is vice chair of Relief Offered by Congregations on the Kenai Peninsula, or ROCK.

"When the ice floe comes in with the tide, it's just unbelievably strong," said Walters. "Even though this ship had its anchor down, the ice pushed it away from its mooring. It pushed the big ship up the inlet."

The ship has two hulls, a design that helps prevent leaks. Double hulls became a standard feature after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster.

It's easy to tell where the ship is located, added Walters: "The Coast Guard helicopters were circling. This thing could be stuck on the silt for some time. Probably in a day or two the media people will bring all their equipment up from Anchorage. But no one here is very excited. No one here is sounding the alarm."

Surrounded by technological behemoths, many Kenai residents try to carve out a life that balances making a living with caring for the environment.

"We have a major refinery here. We have 17 oil platforms in the Cook Inlet. We also have a gas-to-liquids plant, and the largest agricultural fertilizer plant in the world. They all sit next each other," explained Walters, a United Methodist pastor.

Tanker traffic is significant in the area, and most people are well aware of the hazards associated with oil transport. "Everybody is very alert," said Walters.

Community alertness rose after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster, he said, when the Valdez hit a charted reef and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, southwest of Anchorage.

The spill harmed the property or jobs of at least 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans when it left black glop on some 1,500 miles of coastline.

In 1994, Exxon was found liable for punitive damages. Since then, the punitive damage award has been reduced twice during appeals.

"Exxon has never settled that. Nine hundred fishermen filed claims in 1990 because they couldn't fish for up to 10 years. About half of them have died. And since the Exxon Valdez went down, every area that has potential impact has a citizen's action group," said Walters. "The Cook Inlet where we are has one. In addition to that, there is a coastal community coalition. There is also a network of people who are constantly monitoring this - people from groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace."

A local environmental group - Kenai Keeper - as well as a high school group called Caring for the Kenai also work on cleanup and environmental advocacy.

As badly as the Exxon spill scarred Alaska and its people, environmental activists aren’t necessarily pitted against the oil industry. “Some advocates for the environment work in oil-related jobs,” he said. “There is very little feeling of antagonism. It's different."

Oil has been sewn into the heart of the community for decades, Walters said. "The whole economy here is based on oil. We're called the oil capital of Alaska because the first oil in Alaska was discovered right here in 1955."

That was when momentum for statehood began, he said. "The result was Alaska became a state in 1959, much to the chagrin of many people who lived here."

But today most residents welcome communication with the "lower 48" states. And Alaska's local relief groups - such as ROCK - can stay in touch with the rest of the country, said Walters. "Fiber optics have become the norm here primarily because of the oil business and the banking business. We have high schools that are high achieving."

The central Kenai Peninsula is home to some 35,000 people, while the entire peninsula has a population of about 50,000. Church World Service has worked closely to support ROCK - an interfaith effort - from its inception. "We're a good ecumenical group," said Walters, "and we're ready."

For now, Thursday's near-miss seems to be a diversion, said Walters. "We've been so preoccupied by the eruption of the volcano here," he said. On Thursday, scientists finally downgraded the threat level of Alaska's Augustine Volcano, which has been erupting intermittently since mid-January.

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