Martha Itta, of the native village government of Nuiqsut, was sitting at her desk when a colleague burst into her office and told her about the oil breach. An oil rig just outside of the city was having a blowout, and the rig was evacuating, the worker said.
Itta scrambled to call anyone she could think of; the EPA, the North Slope Bearau. But no one picked up, she later said. Air monitoring in Nuiqsut was done by ConocoPhillips, but the monitor was down for routine maitnence at the time of the explosion.
"Our community was pretty much in panic mode. We didn't have any data—no air monitoring to show us what was out there in the air or if we should evacuate," Itta said. Villagers recall that dozens of people in the town got sick that day.
For many villagers in this community, the disaster made clear the link that of the oil companies and the illnesses that are in the area.
Now, Itta fears that in the wind, oil drilling will send pollutants down to the village via the wind. Nuiqsut is the only town planted in the midst of Alaska's most prolific oil region on the state's North Slope, which today is poised for another drilling boom.
Just 8 miles from the town, 50,000 barrels of oil (10% of the state production) are pumped from the ground each day.
That number will greatly increase with the growing number of wells in the area in the coming years. This is also greatly impacted by the Trump Administration clearing the way for more Arctic drilling.
The impacts of this drilling are clear, with air quality dropping in recent years. In addition, we know that this oil drilling spikes greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change when burned. Also, greenhouse gases are released during the drilling process as well.
Many residents of Nuiqsut have had feelings of residue illness even after their sickness has passed. That means that the air quality is a continues issue.
Sam Kunaknana of the village testified recently at the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal, an international human rights forum where Nuiqsut's concerns were discussed.
"When you talk about environmental justice, you talk about human rights, about future generations that will be dealing with industry as they move forward. I don't have a degree in anything, but I do understand what's going on"