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December 17, 2017

An Alaska village's existential dilemma

By Duff Wilson

SHISHMAREF, Alaska (Reuters) – The Chukchi Sea’s unrelenting waves were slowly ripping away the land and homes of the 600 or so residents of this Alaska Native village on a sinking barrier island. U.S. government reports determined that the community was “imminently threatened” with inundation and needed “immediate action” to move to safer ground on the mainland. Villagers voted 161-20 to relocate off the island. Shishmaref, the media proclaimed, would be the United States’ first climate refugees.

That was in 2002.

More than a decade later, the U.S. government has yet to come up with a new location. Shishmaref has stayed put, protected temporarily by a $19 million rock revetment that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished in 2009.

“You almost have to be half the way dead to get help,” said Clifford Weyiouanna, former chair of a relocation coalition.

If Alaska is a test, the U.S. is failing it. The nation lacks any designated agency to help communities relocate even if they are literally falling into the water. Shishmaref is one of three Alaska Native communities on an emergency relocation list put out by the Army Corps and the U.S. General Accounting Office, but none have been able to move.

David Williams, Army Corps project manager for Shishmaref, said the community can’t afford the local share of moving costs nor agree on where to relocate.

Alternative sites selected by federal, state and tribal officials rest on thawing permafrost. The land would slump and sink into a muddy mess unless there was sand or gravel added at great expense to stabilize it. Many residents feel safer where they are, behind the row of rocks the agency installed as a stopgap measure.

“I told them once we build the sea wall, everybody’s going to get comfortable and say we don’t need to relocate anymore,” said Tony Weyiouanna, Clifford’s cousin and president of the Shishmaref Native Corp. “But they don’t see the other problems. The sea level’s rising. It’s going to happen eventually.”

Ironically, the Iñupiats were forced to consolidate on the barrier island about 90 years ago because of federal rules requiring a centralized school. Alaska Natives spread along 100 miles of shoreline were gathered together on a barrier island.

Life here has never been easy. The Iñupiat rely on a subsistence economy, eking out a living on hunting, fishing, berry-picking and food stamps. Seal carcasses litter the town. Most homes have no running water.

The island, just a quarter-mile wide, has lost hundreds of feet of unprotected shore since the 1960s, including another 25 feet or so last year. Water creeps ever closer to the airstrip, the town’s only connection to the outside world. “We don’t have a plan if the airport were washed out,” former Mayor Stanley Tocktoo said in January at a congressional hearing on climate change.

Voting to relocate, without actually relocating, has made things only worse. Water, sewer and health systems have deteriorated; no one is willing to invest in a town that is always talking about relocating.

“The decision to move,” Tocktoo said, “has been very costly for us.”

(Edited by John Blanton)

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An Alaska village's existential dilemma

An Alaska village's existential dilemma

By Duff Wilson

SHISHMAREF, Alaska (Reuters) – The Chukchi Sea’s unrelenting waves were slowly ripping away the land and homes of the 600 or so residents of this Alaska Native village on a sinking barrier island. U.S. government reports determined that the community was “imminently threatened” with inundation and needed “immediate action” to move to safer ground on the mainland. Villagers voted 161-20 to relocate off the island. Shishmaref, the media proclaimed, would be the United States’ first climate refugees.

That was in 2002.

More than a decade later, the U.S. government has yet to come up with a new location. Shishmaref has stayed put, protected temporarily by a $19 million rock revetment that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished in 2009.

“You almost have to be half the way dead to get help,” said Clifford Weyiouanna, former chair of a relocation coalition.

If Alaska is a test, the U.S. is failing it. The nation lacks any designated agency to help communities relocate even if they are literally falling into the water. Shishmaref is one of three Alaska Native communities on an emergency relocation list put out by the Army Corps and the U.S. General Accounting Office, but none have been able to move.

David Williams, Army Corps project manager for Shishmaref, said the community can’t afford the local share of moving costs nor agree on where to relocate.

Alternative sites selected by federal, state and tribal officials rest on thawing permafrost. The land would slump and sink into a muddy mess unless there was sand or gravel added at great expense to stabilize it. Many residents feel safer where they are, behind the row of rocks the agency installed as a stopgap measure.

“I told them once we build the sea wall, everybody’s going to get comfortable and say we don’t need to relocate anymore,” said Tony Weyiouanna, Clifford’s cousin and president of the Shishmaref Native Corp. “But they don’t see the other problems. The sea level’s rising. It’s going to happen eventually.”

Ironically, the Iñupiats were forced to consolidate on the barrier island about 90 years ago because of federal rules requiring a centralized school. Alaska Natives spread along 100 miles of shoreline were gathered together on a barrier island.

Life here has never been easy. The Iñupiat rely on a subsistence economy, eking out a living on hunting, fishing, berry-picking and food stamps. Seal carcasses litter the town. Most homes have no running water.

The island, just a quarter-mile wide, has lost hundreds of feet of unprotected shore since the 1960s, including another 25 feet or so last year. Water creeps ever closer to the airstrip, the town’s only connection to the outside world. “We don’t have a plan if the airport were washed out,” former Mayor Stanley Tocktoo said in January at a congressional hearing on climate change.

Voting to relocate, without actually relocating, has made things only worse. Water, sewer and health systems have deteriorated; no one is willing to invest in a town that is always talking about relocating.

“The decision to move,” Tocktoo said, “has been very costly for us.”

(Edited by John Blanton)

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An Alaska village's existential dilemma

Japan's nuclear cleanup stymied by water woes

OKUMA, Japan (AP) — More than three years into the massive cleanup of Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant, only a tiny fraction of the workers are focused on key tasks such as preparing for the dismantling of the broken reactors and removing radioactive fuel rods.

Instead, nearly all the workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant are devoted to an enormously distracting problem: a still-growing amount of contaminated water used to keep the damaged reactors from overheating. The amount has been swelled further by groundwater entering the reactor buildings.

Hundreds of huge blue and gray tanks to store the radioactive water, and buildings holding water treatment equipment are rapidly taking over the plant, where the cores of three reactors melted following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Workers were building more tanks during a visit to the complex Wednesday by foreign media, including The Associated Press.

“The contaminated water is a most pressing issue that we must tackle. There is no doubt about that,” said Akira Ono, head of the plant. “Our effort to mitigate the problem is at its peak now. Though I cannot say exactly when, I hope things start getting better when the measures start taking effect.”

The numbers tell the story.

___

6,000 WORKERS

Every day, about 6,000 workers pass through the guarded gate of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the Pacific coast — two to three times more than when it was actually producing electricity.

On a recent work day, about 100 workers were dismantling a makeshift roof over one of the reactor buildings, and about a dozen others were removing fuel rods from a cooling pool. Most of the rest were dealing with the contaminated water, said Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, the utility that owns the plant.

The work threatens to exhaust the supply of workers for other tasks, since employees must stop working when they reach annual radiation exposure limits. Experts say it is crucial to reduce the amount and radioactivity of the contaminated water to decrease the risk of exposure to workers and the environmental impact before the decommissioning work gets closer to the highly contaminated core areas.

___

40 YEARS

The plant has six reactors, three of which were offline when disaster struck on March 11, 2011. A magnitude-9.0 earthquake triggered a huge tsunami which swept into the plant and knocked out its backup power and cooling systems, leading to meltdowns at the three active reactors.

Decommissioning and dismantling all six reactors is a delicate, time-consuming process that includes removing the melted fuel from a highly radioactive environment, as well as all the extra fuel rods, which sit in cooling pools at the top of the reactor buildings. Workers must determine the exact condition of the melted fuel debris and develop remote-controlled and radiation-resistant robotics to deal with it.

Troubles and delays in preparatory stages, including the water problem and additional measures needed to address environmental and health concerns in removing highly radioactive debris from atop reactor buildings that exploded during meltdowns, have pushed back schedules on the decommissioning roadmap. Recently, officials said the government and TEPCO plan to delay the planned start of fuel removal from Units 1 and 2 by about 5 years.

The process of decommissioning the four reactors is expected to take at least 40 years.

___

500,000 TONS

The flow of underground water is doubling the amount of contaminated water and spreading it to vast areas of the compound.

Exposure to the radioactive fuel contaminates the water used to cool the melted fuel from inside, and much of it leaks and pours into the basements of the reactors and turbines, and into maintenance trenches that extend to the Pacific Ocean. Plans to freeze some of the most toxic water inside the trench near the reactors have been delayed for at least 8 months due to technical challenges.

The plant reuses some of the contaminated water for cooling after partially treating it, but the additional groundwater creates a huge excess that must be pumped out.

Currently, more than 500,000 tons of radioactive water is being stored in nearly 1,000 large tanks which now cover large areas of the sprawling plant. After a series of leaks last year, the tanks are being replaced with costlier welded ones.

That amount dwarfs the 9,000 tons of contaminated water produced during the 1979 partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the United States. At Three Mile Island, it took 14 years for the water to evaporate, said Lake Barrett, a retired U.S. nuclear regulatory official who was part of the early mitigation team there and has visited the Fukushima plant.

“This is a much more complex, much more difficult water management problem,” Barrett said.

___

10 TRILLION YEN

An estimated 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) will be needed just for decontamination and other mitigation of the water problem. Altogether, the entire decommissioning process, including compensation for area residents, reportedly will cost about 10 trillion yen, or about $90 billion.

All this for a plant that will never produce a kilowatt of energy again.

About 500 workers are digging deep holes in preparation for a taxpayer-funded 32 billion yen ($290 million) underground “frozen wall” around four reactors and their turbine buildings to try to keep the contaminated water from seeping out.

TEPCO is developing systems to try to remove most radioactive elements from the water. One, known as ALPS, has been trouble-plagued, but utility officials hope to achieve its daily capacity of 2,000 tons when they enter full operation next month following a final inspection by regulators.

Officials hope to treat all contaminated water by the end of March, but that is far from certain.

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Japan's nuclear cleanup stymied by water woes

Bumper field for Australia's most famous yacht race

Sydney (AFP) – Some 119 yachts have entered this year’s Sydney to Hobart race down the east coast of Australia, the first time since 2004 that the field has topped 100, officials said Monday.

The size of the field for the 628 nautical mile course means there will be three start lines for the 70th edition of the nation’s most famous sailing contest, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) said.

“It’s such a high standard and represents a good cross section of yachts from all over Australia as well as 10 international entries,” CYCA Commodore John Cameron said.

The last time entrants topped 100 was in 2004 — when only 59 of the 116 boats which set sail on December 26 made it across the finish line after the fleet was hit by gale force winds and rough seas.

This year’s field is set to include five supermaxis and 10 international entries with yachts from New Zealand, the Cayman Islands, Britain, Poland, Germany and the United States.

Among those entered is race record holder Wild Oats XI which won line honours last year after completing the gruelling course in two days, six hours, seven minutes and 27 seconds.

Its close rival and fellow supermaxi Perpetual Loyal is also registered, as is Syd Fischer’s new Ragamuffin 100 which will see Fischer, 87, take part in his 46th Sydney to Hobart race.

The fleet will include boats old and new, with the 50-foot Victoire which won handicap honours this year up alongside vessels such as the 1932 Maluka of Kermandie, which is just nine metres long.

American entrant Comanche, a new 100-foot supermaxi built in Maine, has been designed to break speed records but is yet to be tested in the endurance contest after only a few weeks in the water.

The classic race departs Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day and the yachts can face treacherous weather as they sail down the coast, across the notorious Bass Strait and towards the island state of Tasmania.

In 1998 five yachts sunk and six people died when the race was hit by wild weather.

The final fleet for this year’s race will be announced on November 25.

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Bumper field for Australia's most famous yacht race

Special Report: As seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at U.S. shores

By Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson

SAXIS, Virginia (Reuters) – Chincoteague is the gateway to a national wildlife refuge blessed with a stunning mile-long beach – a major tourist draw and source of big business for the community.

But the beach has been disappearing at an average rate of 10 to 22 feet a year, as a warming planet and other forces lift sea levels. The access road and parking lot have been rebuilt five times in the past decade because of coastal flooding, at a total cost of $3 million.

Officials who run Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge say they face a losing battle against rising sea levels. In 2010, they proposed to move the beach to a safer spot, shrink the parking lot, and shuttle in tourists by bus.

The town revolted. Chincoteague wants the federal government to continue to rebuild rather than retreat. Four years on, after a series of angry public meetings, the sea keeps eating the shore, and the government keeps spending to fix the damage.

The people of Chincoteague are engaged in a battle at the water’s edge against rising seas. All along U.S. shores, people, businesses and governments are confronting rising seas not as a future possibility. For them, the ocean’s rise is a troubling everyday reality.

Reuters gathered more than 25 million hourly readings from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tide gauges at nearly 70 sites on the U.S. coast and compared them to flood thresholds documented by the National Weather Service.

The analysis was then narrowed to include only the 25 gauges with data spanning at least five decades. During that period, the average number of days a year that tidal waters reached or exceeded NOAA flood thresholds increased at all but two sites and tripled at more than half of the locations.

The coastal flooding is often minor. Its cumulative consequences are not. As flooding increases in both height and frequency, it exacts a toll in closed businesses, repeated repairs, and investment in protection. In effect, higher seas make the same level of storm and even the same high tides more damaging than they used to be.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a six-lane highway floods when high tides prevent storm water from draining into the Atlantic, making it difficult for half the town’s 120,000 residents to get to three hospitals and police headquarters.

In Annapolis, Maryland, home to the U.S. Naval Academy, half a foot of water flooded the colonial district, a National Historic Landmark, at high tide on Chesapeake Bay during rainstorms on April 30, May 1, May 16 and Aug. 12.

Engineers say there are three possible responses to rising waters: undertake coastal defense projects; adapt with actions like raising roads; or abandon land to the sea. Lacking a national strategy, the United States applies these measures haphazardly.

Congress actually recognized global warming way back in 1978 with passage of the National Climate Program Act. The law aimed to “assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications.”

But after $47 billion in direct federal spending on climate change research, Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of legislation to deal specifically with the effects of rising sea levels.

“In the U.S., you have best data set on what’s happening in the world, and yet it’s not used in public policy,” said Robert Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton in England and a contributor to the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The lack of clear policy is evident in Chincoteague, population 3,000.

Most visitors come for the mile of ocean-facing public recreational beach, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. Visitors can drive with all of their gear right up to the edge of the beach to park in a 1,000-space crushed-shell lot.

As erosion worsened, the cost to American taxpayers of repeated destruction of the parking lot and causeway from rising sea levels would only increase, Fish and Wildlife officials said. In 2010, the agency proposed moving the beach to a less-endangered site.

Town leaders pointed to a survey in which 80 percent of visitors said they would not continue coming to the beach if they had to park in town and take a shuttle. Residents also feared that Fish and Wildlife would let the southern end of Assateague Island erode away if the beach were moved.

A series of angry meetings with local Fish and Wildlife officials resolved nothing.

In 2012, Chincoteague got a hearing at the U.S. Capitol on the proposal. Wanda Thornton, an Accomack county supervisor, testified that local residents feared for their jobs.

The agency released a draft plan in May that would relocate the beach to the less unstable site, but keep the parking area at its current size, as long as there’s enough land to do so. As many residents feared, this plan would not replenish the sand at the southern end of Assateague or at the new site as they erode.

A public hearing in Chincoteague on June 26 failed to settle the matter.

(This is an abridged version of a special report. The full package, including unabridged text, interactive graphics and video, is on Reuters.com at http://reut.rs/1nyd8pK )

(Edited by John Blanton)

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Special Report: As seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at U.S. shores

Solomon Islander who helped save JFK dies at 93

Honiara (AFP) – A Solomon Islander who helped save John F. Kennedy when a Japanese destroyer sank the future US president’s patrol boat during World War II has died aged 93, his family said Monday.

Eroni Kumana and his fellow islander Buiku Gasa were out in a canoe in 1943 when they came across the injured Kennedy, who was then a naval lieutenant, and members of his crew stranded on a coral atoll.

The pair helped the Americans survive and Kennedy went on to become the 35th president of the United States, keeping a coconut from the ordeal as a paperweight on his White House desk.

Kumana’s son Esori said his father passed away surrounded by family members on Saturday aged 93 and was laid to rest on his home island of Ronongga on Monday.

“It was very sad (but) he lived a full life and we are proud of him,” he told AFP via telephone from the island, where villagers were preparing a feast in Kumana’s honour.

Kennedy’s boat PT-109 was on a night-time patrol when a Japanese destroyer suddenly loomed out of the dark and sheared the wooden vessel in half, according to the Smithsonian magazine.

Spilled fuel ignited in the water, causing both the Japanese and other US PT boats to assume the 13-man crew had all perished in the shark-infested waters.

In fact, 11 of them were still alive and when dawn broke Kennedy led his crew on a five-kilometre (three-mile) swim from the boat’s wreckage to a coral atoll.

Kennedy, who had suffered a ruptured spinal disc, towed a badly burned crewman behind him during the marathon swim.

Eventually Kumana and Gasa passed in their canoe. They helped collect food for the crew and Kennedy sent them off to get help with a message etched into the shell of a coconut, reading: “Nauru Isl commander/native knows posit/he can pilot/11 alive/need small boat/Kennedy”.

After being rescued, Kennedy retrieved the coconut and had it encased in plastic, using it as a paperweight throughout his post-war political career. It is still on display in the Kennedy Museum in Boston.

Kumana and Gasa were invited to Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration but were unable to make the trip to Washington.

Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Gasa died in November 2005.

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Solomon Islander who helped save JFK dies at 93