Eroding Alaska Native Village Sues Energy Companies

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 26, 2008 (ENS) – The arctic coastal village of Kivalina and a federally recognized tribe, the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, are suing two dozen oil, coal and power companies that they claim have made the climate warmer, causing their land and homes to slide into the Chukchi Sea.

Nine oil companies, as well as 14 power companies and one coal company are named in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The community of Kivalina is at
the end of this long spit.
(Photo credit unknown)

The village of Kivalina is located on the tip of an eight mile long a barrier island located between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It has been threatened by erosion caused by wave action and sea storms for several decades and a relocation committee was first formed by the community 20 years ago.

An Inupiat village numbering nearly 400 people, Kivalina is the only community in the area where people hunt bowhead whales. The hunters of Kivalina engage in spring whaling from openings in the sea ice – openings that have widened year by year until now open water appears during times when the sea used to ice over.

The original village was located at the north end of the Kivalina Lagoon but was relocated. Due to severe sea wave erosion during storms, Kivalina hopes to relocate again to a new site nearby and studies of alternate sites are ongoing.

Financing for the move is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The community has encountered difficulties in choosing a new village site and funding the relocation effort.

“An increase in the frequency and intensity of sea storms, degradation and melting of permafrost, and accelerated erosion of the shoreline have recently forced the village into a state of emergency,” according to a 2006 Relocation Master Plan written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Sea storms have eroded the shoreline out from underneath several structures and threatens the airstrip. Emergency erosion control measures are in place, but will only slow the sea’s inevitable reclamation of the island,” the relocation plan states.

Kivalina Relocation Planning Committee
from left: David Swan, Jerry Norton,
Leroy Adams, Enoch Adams, Jr.,
Andrew Koenig and Joseph Swan
Sr., meeting in Kivalina, Alaska.
(Photo courtesy Center for Race,
Poverty & the Environment)

Funding problems aside, several sites identified as potential new village sites are problematic due to geophysical incompatibility with development, susceptibility to erosion or flooding, permitting, and social and cultural objections by various segments of the community.

Climate change scientist Dr. Gunter Weller of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says Kivalina and another coastal village, Shishmaref, which is not part of the lawsuit, have suffered from erosion that he attributes to three factors, all deriving from global warming.

Permafrost has thawed, causing houses to slide off suddenly muddy cliffs, Weller said. Sea ice has thinned, creating expanses of open water that rise up in ever higher storm surges; and glaciers are melting, leading local sea levels to climb.

The townships must be relocated, at an estimated cost of more than $100 million, so they should stand a good chance of a court upholding a claim that they suffered damages because of global warming, Weller has said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kivalina by two nonprofit law groups, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund, as well as six other law firms.

Named in the lawsuit are BP PLC, BP American Inc., BP Products North America, Inc., Chevron Corp. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Oil Co.

Also named were coal company Peabody Energy Corp., and power companies AES Corp., American Electric Power Co., Inc., American Electric Power Services Corp., DTE Energy Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Holdings, Inc., Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., Mirant Corp., NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Reliant Energy Inc., The Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

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