Kivalina is on the move
As the storms of fall draw near and the village of Kivalina clings to its narrow barrier island the impasse over moving to higher ground has given way. Funding to build a road to the new town site away from the eroding shore is in hand and the project will begin.
“The waves and the storms go all the way up to the clinic,” said Millie Hawley, a Kivalina resident. “Water just comes into town now. So, we clearly can’t wait.”
As freeze-up has come later and later over the past 20 years the lack of shore ice to protect the island against early winter storms has meant the loss of land every year. In 2007 waves broke over the island and helicopters were brought in to evacuate the people to safety. This demonstrated the lack of a safe and practical method to move the population in the event of another catastrophic storm surge.
The Kivalina Evacuation and School Access Road Project addresses the need to get off the island in case of a severe storm or ocean surge and also is the first step in moving the entire community to the new town site seven and a half miles away at Kisimagiuqtuq. With a road to the new location construction of the school can begin. Part of the plan is that the new school would also serve as a full-service community emergency shelter.
After twenty years of protracted haggling and political maneuvering the move finally became possible financially. “For less money we could buy every one of these people a nice condo on Maui,” said the late Senator Ted Stevens to a reporter on a visit to the village in October 2006. The steep cost of moving the village of 375 people was a major political obstacle. The key to breaking the logjam preventing the project from moving forward was a renegotiation of the Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement (PILT) with Teck Resources, the Canadian operator of the Red Dog Mine.
Clement Richards Sr. was elected mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough in 2015. “When I got elected I was the mayor that stood up to Teck,” said Richards. “Teck wanted to give us the old PILT agreement of $8.8 million and $2.4 million to the school, which broke down to about $11 million dollars. And they wanted to extend that PILT agreement for another 10 years or so.” Richards told Teck that the original PILT agreement was never meant to be for the life of the mine. The idea was to extend a beneficial tax structure to Teck while they absorbed the start up costs of getting into production. Once that initial period was completed, the PILT agreement was meant to disengage and a severance tax would come into play. This led to a disagreement and a lawsuit by Teck. Negotiations broke down and after almost two years the two parties came to an agreement for 10 years with a five-year option to renew. “From around $10.7 million the borough now receives $14 to $19 million a year,” said Richards. Also included in the agreement was a new Village Investment Fund designed to enable the villages of the region to complete projects of their own choosing. Kivalina is one of the villages, which will benefit from the VIF.
“Before the PILT agreement our finances were not strong enough that we could get an increase in our bond,” said Richards. “The new agreement gave us the power and the ability to go to the bond bank and ask for the funds for the school match. As mayor I pushed that forward and we went to the bond bank. The bond bank looked at our portfolio and saw that it was very positive and had great potential and they agreed to go ahead and approve the bonds necessary for the school match. DOT was saying ‘We can’t give you the money because there’s nothing at the end of the road.’ DEED (Department of Education and Early Development) was saying ‘You don’t have the match because DOT is not building the road.’” With the matching funds in hand the Northwest Arctic Borough staff went to the governor and asked him to commit to building the road. The road was soon funded.
Also important in the financing of the school was the passage of House Bill 135, which extended the time period a school district has to raise its share of the matching funds. With good cause, the period can be extended for up to seven years.
“Me and my staff worked very hard, we also lobbied down in Juneau and in DC,” said Richards. “I’m really proud of my finance department and my staff and the attorneys that we have on our team.”
The contractor on the road project is Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and they intend to begin the initial preparations in the early fall. They’ll get their camp, their equipment, and stockpile as much materiel as possible before winter sets in so that at spring breakup they’ll be ready to work.
Their first objective is to construct a safe and reliable means of crossing the lagoon. This will be essentially a jetty with a break in the middle spanned by a bridge. Next they’ll build a two-lane, all-weather road to the new site seven and a half miles away.
“This has been a long time coming for Kivalina,” said borough Mayor Richards. “I’m excited.”