Native Corporations Concerned Over Dam Study Trespassing, Safety

A group of seven Alaska Native Corporations and associations are accusing the Alaska Energy Authority of trespassing as the agency does preliminary study work on the Susitna-Watana Dam project.

Seven Alaska Native Corporations are expressing concerns over trespassing and land use by Alaska Energy Authority contractors working on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric project.

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The concerns are laid out in a letter addressed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who is in charge of licensing projects such as the proposed 735-foot high dam.

The Alaska Energy Authority, AEA, is currently conducting 58 studies to gauge the environmental impact and viability of the Susitna-Watana dam. According to the letter signed by representatives of the Cook Inlet Region Native Landowner Working Group, 39 of the 58 projects will require the use of Native-owned land.

The working group expressed concerns over trespassing by AEA contractors on Native land in both 2012 and 2013.

According to the letter, two helipads were constructed without permits on land belonging to Knikatnu, Incorporated earlier this year while efforts were still being made to reconcile trespassing issues from 2012.

The working group also makes reference to the May accident in which a bulldozer broke through lake ice on the way to Stephan Lake, killing the operator. The working group says that the trespassing and safety issues, “speak to a lack of robust management, infrastructure and resources….”

Emily Ford, a spokesperson for AEA, acknowledges that the helipads were cleared on Knikatnu Village Corporation land, but that AEA is taking the matter seriously.

“AEA has made direct changes to avoid these issues moving forward. There have been some staffing changes made, and we have implemented some steps to increase accountability within the project team, and make sure there is robust documentation of landowner status and all necessary permits.”

Ford says that AEA believes it does have a robust safety structure, and that problem lies in information flow.

“Perhaps what we have not done a good enough job of is communicating what that robust process is to others. That’s why we’ve taken these extra communication steps. We have multiple layers of health and safety plans and environmental officers. There are EMT medics and crews in the field. We have numerous training for safety…”

The members of the working group have not issued permits for A-E-A studies to be conducted on their land in 2013. Ford explains how AEA is proceeding with this year’s research.

“We have structured this year’s field season not to include this access. We have all the necessary permits to execute this year’s field season outside CIRI and Cook Inlet Village Corporation lands, and we look forward to engaging with the landowners to develop a successful framework for future permitting. At this time, the project does remain on schedule.”

At this time, both sides say the process is ongoing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not made a public response to the working group’s letter.