July 8, 2011

Suulutaaq Earns Praise, Battles Flood of Criticism for Work in Napa

Flooding outside St. John's Hall in Napa, California in 2005. (Photo courtesy of NapaFloodControl.com)

An Alaska Native construction company partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a flood-control project in Napa, California has recently taken the hot seat.

Three years ago, Suulutaaq, Inc., the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Corporation, responded to a request by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a 1,900-page proposal for completing a project aimed at preventing floods that have devastated Napa for more than 100 years. In September 2008, the contract was awarded for $65 million, and in summer 2009, $54 million was provided in stimulus funds.

Napa Mayor Jill Techel calls the project “shovel-ready, green” and a job generator, reported California Watch, a news site founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “I am pleased that the Napa Flood Project has received much needed stimulus funds to provide flood protection for our community,” Techel said in a statement. “The completion of the railroad relocation will allow us to construct the critically important Oxbow Bypass Channel and ultimately help us to protect community residents, strengthen our local economy and preserve the Napa River.”

But in December, U.S. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, and Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, issued a report listing the Napa Valley Flood Control Project—often misleadingly referred to as the Wine Train Project—as number 11 among 100 stimilus projects that they disdained as a “silly” and “frivolous” and a waste of stimulus dollars, reported CNN.

“We were disappointed, obviously, that we were put on the list,” Renee Fredericks, presient of Suulutaaq, a subsidiary of The Kuskokwim Corporation, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It took away from the true focus of the project: flood control for a city.”

The goal of the project is to halt severe flooding in Napa, such as a 2005 flood that cost the city $115 million in damage repair. The project will protect more than 3,000 properties from flooding, according to NapaFloodControl.com, a site created by the project’s four partners: The City of Napa, Napa County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Suulutaaq. “Napa has been devastated by flooding almost every decade,” Fredericks told ICTMN. “It chases businesses and tourists away. There’s a reason for this project, regardless of the names attached to it—and it’s to lessen the impact of flooding on the town.”

Suulutaaq workers poured cement on bridge supports. (Photo courtesy of Suulutaaq)

Fredericks was referring to the abbreviated name for the project, the “Wine Train,” which she calls “a source of contention in the media.” The label refers to one aspect of the flood mitigation efforts: raising the tracks of the Napa Valley Wine Train that takes tourists in luxurious, restored vintage rail cars through the area’s wine country. “Currently, when it rains, the tracks block the water’s flow and flood problems are created, so the tracks must be moved to allow water to run underneath them,” explains the Operating Engineers’ local union No. 3, which represents some workers on the project, in the April 2010 newsletter Engineer News.

Criticism of the flood-control project intensified when California Watch reporter Lance Williams delved into questions about why a company from Alaska “landed” stimulus-funded work in California, and whether Suulutaaq was best suited for the job, reported the Alaska Dispatch. “We’ve had a presence in California doing smaller projects for the Corps of Engineers and the Defense Commissary Agency,” Fredericks told ICTMN, emphasizing the flood-control project is injecting money into the local economy. Suulutaaq estimates the project will spend over $50 million within 60 miles of Napa.

Suulutaaq is also performing 44 percent of the work, “building three bridges for railroad tracks and raising parts of three streets to a higher plane,” Fredericks said. That’s a far greater percentage than is typical for a general contractor and beyond the 15 percent required by federal law, according to NapaFloodControl.com.

To date, Suulutaaq has hired more than 60 subcontractors, service providers and vendors, mostly based near Napa. But some Alaska Native shareholders have picked up work in the sunshine state. “It was a great opportunity for Suulutaaq to have some shareholders come down and work on the project and have employment outside of Alaska,” said Fredericks, adding that many Alaska Natives prefer to continue living in small villages along the Kuskokwim River, practicing a subsistence lifestyle that often involves hunting and fishing. “A lot of construction projects slow down in the summer, so we have had shareholders come work down here, and they have done so very successfully,” Fredericks said.

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July 11, 2011

Navajo President Discussed Business Partnerships at ANC Conference

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly discussed energy and infrastructure development with several Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs)  at the National 8(a) Association Annual Conference in Anchorage, Alaska on June 23-25.

His hopes for for Navajo businesses to engage in similar government contracting activities as ANCs.

At the conference, Shelly and the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) President Julie Kitka discussed how the Navajo Nation and the AFN can partner on mutual economic and political issues.

“Partnering for the continued success of our Native people is not just a good thing to do,” Shelly said in a statement. “It’s critical to our survival as we see shrinking federal budgets and detrimental polices and it’s important to coordinate where there is mutual interest.”

During the three-day event, Shelly met with NANA Regional Corporation, CIRI Development Corporation, Old Harbor Village Corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Tyonek Native Corporation.

The meeting with Tyonek included a village visit to the closed community of Tyonek and a meeting with village tribal leadership.

During his stay, he also toured the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska Tribal Health Consortium.

To keep the ball rolling forward, Shelly plans to the AFN annual meeting in October.

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January 11, 2012

Russian Tanker Within 100 Miles of Nome

A tanker carrying desperately-needed fuel is closing in on Nome, Alaska, a city of 3,600 residents, more than half of whom are Alaska Natives.

Nome finds itself strapped for gas and heating oil because a tanker that was supposed to deliver a shipment in the fall was blocked from doing so due to severe storms. This time around, failure is not an option. According to an Associated Press report, a barge delivery of fuel would not be possible until the spring. If the tanker manages the delivery, it would mark the first time petroleum products had been delivered to a western Alaska community in winter, the AP said.

The fuel is being carried by the Russian tanker Renda, which is following a path cut for it through ice by the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Progress is slow and often halted by the behavior of “dynamic” ice that shifts due to pressure. As explained in the AP report, “The ice tends to close in, cutting off the path between the two ships. When that happens, the icebreaker doubles back and makes a relief cut to take pressure off the tanker and open a pathway.”

This unprecedented and suspenseful solution to Nome’s predicament didn’t come about easily. A December 30 story in the Alaska Dispatch describes how the Sitnasuak Native Corporation had to cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security to set it up, and that the maneuvering also involved members of Congress, Nome’s mayor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime administration and U.S. shippers. Under the federal Jones Act, a foreign-flagged vessel must receive clearance from the Department of Homeland Security before it can transport cargo from one U.S. port to another. On Friday, December 30, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano approved the rare Jones Act waiver.

The Renda is carrying a million gallons of home heating fuel from South Korea and 300,000 gallons of gasoline that it picked up in Dutch Harbor after crossing the Bering Sea from Vladivostok. While hopes are high that the delivery will occur, perhaps as soon as Thursday, a New York Times article tells a tale of underlying frustration that will likely bubble up once the immediate drama has finished. The Times reporter spoke with a local hockey player whose opinion may be common among Nome residents: “People need to get fired over this. … The litigation of whose fault it is will probably go on forever.”

Alaska is having a particularly harsh winter, with storms battering the entire state; in the Southcentral region, towns like Valdez and Cordova in the Southcentral have been blanketed by snow. See our earlier story: “Under 18 Feet of Snow, Cordova, Alaska Calls on National Guard (Videos)”.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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