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An Oil Rig Arrives In Alaska, On Its Way To The Arctic


A massive oil rig, contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, has arrived in Dutch Harbor - in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The rig is scheduled to head north into the Arctic this summer as part of an exploratory offshore drilling operation. The rig and its operation had been the target of protests, at least in the lower 48. But the residents of Dutch Harbor have had a slightly different response, as Emily Schwing of KUCB reports.


EMILY SCHWING: When the Polar Pioneer left Seattle, hundreds of protestors turned out in kayaks. They waved signs and tried to keep the drill rig from departing. But when it arrived nearly two weeks later in Dutch Harbor, a tiny fishing outpost in the middle of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain, it was greeted only by a brisk, nighttime wind.


SCHWING: There are no anti-Arctic drilling signs, no banners, no protestors in kayaks. Mayor Shirley Marquardt says that’s for good reason.

SHIRLEY MARQUARDT: You know, down in Seattle, there’s harbor boats and rescue boats and people to pull you out of the water all over the place. You don’t have that here. You don't. And the water is tremendously brutally cold even in the summer, and it doesn’t take much.

SCHWING: The real reason no one's out protesting is because most people here are working either on fishing boats or at one of the local fish processors. More fish come through Dutch Harbor than any other port in the nation.

SUSIE GOLODOFF: I mean, we’ve always had a healthy, wealthy place to live because we depend on the sea.

SCHWING: Susie Golodoff has lived here for 40 years. She teaches at the school and fishes with a gillnet right out her front door. The resident naturalist in town, she’s the person everyone asks when they want to identify a bird or a plant. She’s not quite sure why her neighbors aren’t more concerned about the oil rig or Shell’s summer plans.

GOLODOFF: I really - I’m kind of baffled, to tell you the truth. I think that part of it is that we’re kind of a short term community with people from other places and people just kind of think up as far as their next catch delivery, so there’s just a little bit of a disconnect maybe.

SCHWING: Currently, giant boats are at sea harvesting pollock, the kind of fish that’s eventually processed into things like fish sticks. Smaller vessels are out targeting species like halibut, and Dungeness crab for fine dining. The sight of a giant yellow and blue drill rig towering over emerald green islands and squat gray buildings isn’t new in Dutch Harbor.

In 2012, the company brought a different rig here and then sailed it nearly 1000 miles north to the Chukchi Sea. That mission ended in near disaster when it ran aground.

But no one is talking about that accident or the possibility of something worse. James Buskirk is the captain of the fishing vessel Destination. He was in port for a quick trip to stock up on supplies for his crew.

JAMES BUSKIRK: Well, geographically, you know, the Chukchi Sea is a long, long way from the eastern Bering sea where we do all of our fishing. So no, I don’t have any direct concerns. The possibility of an accident is always there when they're drilling for oil, whether on land or under water.

SCHWING: Mayor Shirley Marquardt understands the worst-case scenario, and she and other local officials have met with Shell a handful of times to discuss safety and logistics.

MARQUARDT: So we’ve been able to kind of talk to, you know, Shell and their folks and say, you know, we’ve seen this before and it didn’t work out so well.

SCHWING: Shell is still awaiting federal approval before it can send the Polar Pioneer and its support vessels nearly 1000 miles north through the Bering Strait. Until then, the rig is moored just outside the local port as fishing boats chug past to offload their catch and head back to sea for another round. For NPR News, I’m Emily Schwing in Dutch Harbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.