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Op-Ed: Taking a Stand for the Chugach Shareholders, Communities, and Region

by | Dec 11, 2020 | Alaska Native, Environmental

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For most people who recall the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS), the tragedy was viewed from afar, through a television or pictures printed in a newspaper. For others, the EVOS was an employment opportunity whose collective efforts recovered a meager 10 percent of the 11 million gallons of spilled crude oil. For the Alaska Natives who stood on a dark new shore, America’s second largest oil spill in history and the largest at the time, the spill severely disrupted their connection to the waters that had provided their sustenance for more than 5,000 years.

In the wake of the spill, a portion of Exxon’s punitive damages included a $900 million settlement paid to the state and federal government. The EVOS Trustee Council, comprised of three state and three federal representatives, was formed in 1991 to oversee the settlement for the purposes of restoring the spill area’s injured ecosystem, including the human services that were impacted by the spill.

Since the council’s inception, much work has been accomplished toward this end. But for the Alaska Natives of the region, rather than restoring the equilibrium that once existed before the Exxon Valdez ran aground, much of the council’s efforts have exacerbated the wounds created by the oil spill.

The worst of these missteps occurred when the council purchased surface estates owned by village corporations in the Chugach region without regard to the regional corporation’s subsurface estates. This resulted in split estates where federal agencies now own the surface rights and our regional corporation owns the dominant subsurface rights.

This went against the intent of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which called for village and regional corporations to have joint ownership of lands for shared management and mutual benefit.

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The council’s purchase of the surface rights in some cases created division between those Natives who supported the purchase of Native lands and those who did not, severely compounding the harm created by the EVOS. Moreover, it created a rift between Chugach and the EVOS Trustee Council, the government entity that was supposed to heal the suffering caused by the EVOS.

In 2011, the council launched a “sunset” plan to spend the remaining settlement funds down to zero. Yet, today, approximately $150 million remains in the EVOS Trust. Chugach, the Alaska Native Regional Corporation in the spill-affected area representing more than 2,800 Alaska Native shareholders, believes there is better alternative. We believe there is a way to heal the wrongs created by the spill and those that have taken place after the spill to create a lasting and enduring legacy with the remaining funds.

And we’re not alone.

A Think Tank of prominent Alaskan leaders and politicians, former members or affiliates of the EVOS Trustee Council, scientists and academics, and Alaska Native leaders of every village corporation and the two regional corporations in the spill area united to create a proposal that would open the door to permanent restoration work in the spill zone.

This alternative encompasses land and wildlife protection and rehabilitation, and it contains an element that has been left out of the majority of the council’s focus: the human element and a path forward that will heal the region for the people who live there.

This is one option for EVOS Trust reform, but there are many potential avenues of reform. Developing the best solution will require open, transparent dialogue with the public and leaders within the spill-impacted areas.

Instead of engaging in this dialogue, the EVOS Trustee Council proposed four misguided resolutions for a 60-day public comment period. The introduction of these resolutions is yet another example of the EVOSTC circumventing its responsibilities and eroding public trust. The four draft resolutions, if approved, would only serve to advance the EVOS TC’s agenda to “spend down” the remaining EVOS funding with minimal oversight and little to no public participation.

These resolutions should be postponed until meaningful public participation and review of other options can be considered by community members in the spill-impacted area who were most harmed.  

The harsh reality is that oil and its harmful effects still linger in Southcentral Alaska and there remain unrecovered resources. If the council’s sunset plan is successful, the consequences of EVOS will linger long after the funds that are dedicated to restoring the injured ecosystem are gone. The money will be gone, but the oil and its impacts will remain.

The EVOS settlement trust does not have to end on an unfinished note. Nor should it with your help.

We are calling upon the public to help us change the course. Visit https://www.chugach.com/evos-trust-issue/ to learn more; and join us in making your voice heard by providing comments at https://www.newvisionforevos.org/evos-public-comment. All comments are due by December 16, 2020.

Sheri Buretta is the Chairman, President and CEO of Chugach Alaska Corporation.

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