Voices of the Peninsula: Don’t blame Alaskans for state’s environmental failures

Officials are opening doors to rampant corporate pollution under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “Unlocking Alaska” initiative.

  • By Bob Shavelson
  • Thursday, July 8, 2021 2:30am
  • Opinion

If you were alive in the 1970s, you probably remember the “Crying Native American” ad. It came in the wake of the first Earth Day, when millions of Americans flocked to the streets, driven by fresh visions of burning pollution in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River and the outrage of blackened California beaches after the Unocal oil well blow-out.

The ad remains famous today. But few recognize the deceptive purpose behind it, or how the propaganda it unleashed continues to distort our public dialogue today.

The ad featured a “Native American” (actually an Italian actor) standing by the side of a road. After a passing car tosses a bag of fast food trash at the actor’s feet, the camera zooms to an iconic image: a tear running down the face of a dejected and defeated “Native American.”

The ad hit Americans in the gut. It made us all feel guilty and responsible for our growing pollution problem.

The ad was produced by a group calling itself “Keep America Beautiful.” Most people at the time interpreted it as a powerful call to protect our environment.

Not until later did we learn the truth. “Keep America Beautiful” was actually a front-group for large beverage and packaging corporations, who found themselves under increasing public pressure to do away with disposal bottles, cans and packages.

Their goal? Shift the responsibility for wanton pollution from corporate producers to everyday consumers.

Fast forward to today. In a recent opinion piece, the commissioners of the Alaska Departments of Natural Resources and Fish & Game — Corri Feige and Doug Vincent-Lang — lectured Alaskans about littering our campgrounds.

Of course we should all be responsible Alaskans, and trashing our public use areas is wholly unacceptable. But Ms. Feige and Mr. Vincent Lang deceptively extended their argument to cast blame on Alaskans for an “anti-development” bias that hurts our Alaskan economy. And they invoke the “federal government” bogeyman to promote a guilt-laden apathy that makes us reluctant to call out corporate pollution.

Yet these same state officials are actively working to open the doors to rampant corporate pollution under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “Unlocking Alaska” initiative.

We need look at only one large development project — the proposed Donlin open pit gold mine along the banks of the Kuskokwim River — to get a sense of Alaska’s badly broken permitting system and its baked-in bias toward corporate abuse.

Ms. Feige approved a permit for the Donlin Pipeline, which would bring gas from Cook Inlet more than 300 miles to the Kuskokwim. Yet she had no idea how many of the hundreds of salmon streams the pipeline would cross, and failed to conduct even a cursory assessment of the impacts to salmon habitat from the project.

These are streams that produce the fisheries that support our families, our economies and our lifestyles in Cook Inlet and beyond.

Similarly, during a Feb. 24 hearing, Mr. Vincent-Lang told the Alaska House Resources Committee his agency would “never” allow a salmon stream to be dewatered. Maybe he was uninformed, but at the Donlin mine, not only will ADFG allow fish streams to go dry, Mr. Vincent Lang’s agency will let salmon streams to be completely dug up and destroyed.

But ADFG and DNR are not alone. The Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Jason Brune, has taken to reminding commercial fishermen not to flush their toilets in coastal waters.

Of course, that’s good advice. But Mr. Brune, who previously worked to promote the Pebble mine, repeatedly gives large corporate polluters a free pass.

Case in point: Mr. Brune recently issued a decision that ignored facts, science and law when he approved a permit for the Donlin mine’s toxic mercury dumping. The project’s Environmental Impact Statement and an Administrative Law Judge found the mine would violate Alaska laws designed to protect human health and the environment from mercury pollution. But Mr. Brune issued the permit anyway.

These officials represent a state government that is so captured by corporate money and influence they apparently can’t see these permits do more to confirm the perception of irresponsible development in Alaska than a relative handful of Alaskans trashing campgrounds.

So, let’s not be deceived by the red herrings of litter and boat sewage. Corporations make big profits off pollution, and our government bureaucrats should hold them responsible for their actions.

Alaskans want “responsible development,” and under the Dunleavy administration, they are not getting it.

Bob Shavelson is advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit organization formed by Alaskans in 1995 to protect the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains.

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