U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan visited 11 Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages in four days last week.
"I was joking with my staff that I must have gained five to 10 pounds from all that great salmon that I ate," Sullivan joked.
He listened as villagers asked him about jobs, erosion, and discussed their concerns about the proposed Donlin mine. How to prepare for and respond to erosion is one of the biggest problems facing many communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for villages like Newtok, Napakiak, and Chefornak. Chefornak is one of those villages that Sullivan visited; it sits near the coast.
"It was a concern because some of those houses are really close to the shore," said Bernadette Lewis, the Executive Director for Chefornak Traditional Council. She claimed that some of the houses sit about 10 feet from some bodies of water and that it’s expensive to move houses.
"We don’t have funding if we’re going to move homes away from the shore," Lewis said.
Sullivan says that the main problem is getting funding that is already available delivered to those communities who need it. He says that funding was increased for the Denali Commission, a federal agency that is helping some communities move. But, he says that the best solutions will come from community members.
"One of the solutions is to build our own housing with our own materials," Sullivan said.
The Y-K Delta is one of Alaska’s most impoverished regions, and that makes job growth a top concern among residents. Again, Sullivan points to community innovation as the best solution.
One industry that could spur job growth is mining. The proposed Donlin gold mine promises more than 3,200 jobs at the height of its construction, and 1,000 annually.
Sullivan wouldn’t say outright whether he supports the mine, but he does say that the permitting process could be streamlined.
"They have to meet a very high standard. The standard is they can’t impact the natural resource that we already have out there, and that is the fish," Sullivan said. "But the way I see, it’s incumbent on the federal government to move that along."
And, he says, there were concerns about the route of the proposed gas line that would provide the fuel to power the mine’s operations. Donlin Gold, the company developing the mine, plans to build a 300-mile pipeline from Cook Inlet, across the Alaska Range, to the site.