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Rosenfeld: Alaska is a disaster

After 11 years working in rural Alaska, I feel obligated to share my observations regarding the Third World living conditions facing more than 200 rural Native communities, and the state of Alaska’s lack of attention to the many inequities they suffer.

While Governor Palin claims “exemplary leadership” and attempts to become vice president of the United States, the truth is that rural Alaska is a disaster in multiple areas: its human health, lack of infrastructure, environment and economy are equal to that of Third World countries. Sarah Palin is a single-issue governor who fails to effectively address these critical needs.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the U.S., overflowing sewage lagoons in dozens of communities and no running water in more than 150 villages – that’s almost 25 percent of the population without running water.

Governor Palin has demonstrated how out of touch she is with Alaska while she continues to ignore the needs of the homeless; fails to recognize Third World living conditions in her home state; and ignores climate change victims, polluted waters, village health hazards and unattended military contaminant sites.

While Governor Palin claims “exemplary leadership” and attempts to become vice president of the United States, the truth is that rural Alaska is a disaster in multiple areas.

Alaska is a barometer for climate change. Access to some remote communities has been cut off, villages are flooding, landfill contents and overflowing sewage lagoons are contaminating communities, and several villages are being forced to pack up and move. Governor Palin says she doesn’t believe climate change is caused by humans. Regardless of the cause, she remains unresponsive to the needs of climate change refugees and victims in Alaska. More than 200 landfills in rural Alaska lack liners to prevent seepage, and dozens of sewage lagoons receive annual discharge permits to discharge untreated and untested sewage into Alaska’s salmon-bearing rivers.

Alaska has the highest number of military contaminant sites in the U.S., with more than 500 sites that require extensive resources to assess, monitor and remediate. Alaska also has one of the highest rates of cancer per capita in the United States. Governor Palin is silent on this issue and is solely focused on the natural gas pipeline and oil drilling in protected and fragile places.

While Palin asserts that resource extraction can be done responsibly, North Slope oil extraction has resulted in hundreds of spills and leaks monthly. On her watch, polluters have not been brought to justice and environmental regulations have been relaxed by her controversial appointee to head the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Larry Hartig, Palin’s pick for commissioner, was the lead lawyer defending Red Dog Mine (owned by Teck Cominco) which is rated as the worst mine in the country for discharging contaminants into the environment. Red Dog Mine is No. 1 on the national Toxic Release Inventory.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has continued to undermine the integrity of the Clean Water Act by ignoring the anti-degradation act, mixing zone laws and making discharge exemptions for oil companies allowing daily oil sludge discharge into Cook Inlet, resulting in millions of tons of contaminants in Alaska’s pristine waters.

Palin sued the federal government for trying to protect the polar bear population and, contrary to her rhetoric, she did accept federal dollars for the Bridge to Nowhere. Alaska has the highest gas prices in the country, exceeding more than $9 per gallon in some villages. Alaska also has the highest unemployment rates in the country, as more than 150 villages face 50 to 80 percent rates of unemployment.

Palin does not pay attention to any of the above realities as she fixates on the oil industry and has even created a renewable energy fund that allows for natural gas extraction and coal-bed methane; both of which are far from renewable resources and cause considerable environmental degradation.

Beyond the pretty face of Governor Palin rests an unaware, out-of-touch, rape-and-pillage resource extractor who is doing the bidding for the leading oil companies in the world while trying to open new areas for oil development.

Rob Rosenfeld has a master’s degree in international and sustainable development and has lived in Homer, Alaska, since 1993, working primarily with rural communities. He is a longtime advocate for human rights and fair distribution of government resources and opportunities.