Electric cutoff sparks debate about hydro power in village

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2007

The Inside Passage Electric Cooperative cut electricity to Angoon's water treatment facility Tuesday after the city ran up $17,000 in unpaid bills.

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The cutoff was one more item on a long list of alarms and frustrations for folks in this Native village, who are venting their anger at a lack of power on several fronts.

They want electric power; they want water power; and they want the political and economic power to keep their town viable.

"We live in third-world conditions," said Richard George, a director of Kootznoowoo Native corporation.

Anger was boiling even before the power went out.

Two U.S. Forest Service representatives heard it when they flew in Wednesday to meet with people in this Admiralty Island community of about 600.

They came to answer questions and hear comments on a draft environmental impact statement for a $14 million hydroelectric project proposed by Kootznoowoo to relieve Angoon's dependence on shipped-in diesel fuel.

People hope the Thayer Creek Hydroelectric Project will lead to financial relief and eventually economic prosperity.

The modified "run of river" project would divert creek water through a mile-long pipe system before passing through two 500-kilowatt generators. The water would then return to the creek. No one has raised concerns about damage to fish habitat.

Angoon pays some of the highest electricity prices in the nation at a pre-subsidized rate of 62 cents per kilowatt hour for diesel-generated power - an increase of 312 percent since 1998.

By comparison, rates in Juneau, which depends heavily on hydro power, average nine to 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

Even though residential rates in Angoon are subsidized, households regularly see $500 monthly bills. Some people say they have to choose between buying food and paying the light bill.

Last year, the Eli Katanook Memorial High School's electricity bill was $120,000. A similar building in Juneau would have paid an estimated $30,000.

That money should be used to hire more teachers, said Marlene Zuboff, a lifetime resident.

Everyone who spoke at the meeting opined that the community - not outsiders - should make the call on the project.

"It's the exclusive right of Kootznoowoo and no one else," said Ed Gamble, tribal elder, city councilman and board member.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Admiralty Island is a national monument, subject to layers of bureaucracy.

"Our goal is to have hydro," said Maxine Thompson, a former mayor, city councilwoman and Kootznoowoo board member.

Economic development is awaiting cheaper power, she said. Cottage industries have failed not for want of craft skills but because of prohibitive operating expenses, she said.

"We are frustrated on this end," Thompson said.

Permission for the project was granted long go by an act of Congress, Gamble said. Local people argue that the Carter administration gave them the right to power their homes with water from the Thayer Creek project.

"I don't care what the EIS said," Gamble said. "There is no higher authority."

Erik Spillman, a visiting lands forester from Sitka, assured the audience that outsiders would listen.

"We know you support this project," he said. "It will be heard in Juneau."

During a meeting Thursday in Juneau, Floyd Kookesh, a former mayor of Angoon, said residents are frustrated that the project was first proposed nearly 30 years ago.

"They are afraid that the project will get derailed," Peter Naoroz, the president of Kootznoowoo, said Thursday.

The project itself has not drawn significant controversy. One key issue now is how much of a transmission line should be submerged.

"Under water is twice as expensive as going overland. It is an economic deal-breaker," Naoroz said.

Once a permit for the project is granted by the Forest Service, it could take two years before hydroelectricity is brought on line, Naoroz said.

"Turning the switch on is the most important thing," said Naoroz. He cautioned, however, against viewing the project as a panacea for the community's problems.

People proud of weathering hard times, hard weather and subsistence living are passionate about keeping Angoon alive and well.

"We saved this island," Zuboff said. "Now we are losing our future."

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com. Brittany Retherford contributed to this story.

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