It was a friendly gathering, but Alaska LNG project representatives found themselves in the hot seat on Thursday during the first of two informal community meetings planned in Nikiski.
For two hours, community stakeholder adviser Josselyn O’Connor and socioeconomic adviser Mark Jennings fielded questions ranging from how much water the proposed plant would draw out of private wells and area lakes to the economic and social impacts the community could expect from a project that could bring thousands of jobs into an area for the decade it’s expected to take to construct the liquefaction plant at the terminus of a proposed 800-mile long pipeline.
The project, if completed, is expected to deliver gas from Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson on the North Slope to the unincorporated community of Nikiski where it will be cooled, condensed and shipped to markets worldwide.
But as it has progressed, rumors about its final location, where property is being bought and sold, where the Kenai Spur Highway will be relocated and how property values will be affected brought nearly 30 people out to the Tree House Restaurant to pepper O’Connor and Jennings with questions.
“I really appreciate that you guys are kind of finally involving our community,” said one community member. “It does feel like we’ve been left behind locally. We do appreciate the input and the involvement so thank you for getting here finally.”
‘Can you tell if there’s oil down there?’
For the first 20 minutes of the meeting, ConocoPhillips civil engineer Billy Oliver talked about the 2015 fieldwork.
On Cook Inlet, crews have been collecting data on currents, sediment and obstacles on the seabed. A small jack-up rig barge has been visible on the beach and in the water along the shoreline in Nikiski as it takes core samples for studying.
In addition, crews along the Kenai Spur Highway have been conducting seismic tests while others have been taking soil samples and running geophysical studies.
“Can you tell if there’s oil down there?” asked an audience member.
Oliver laughed. “They use similar technology, but on a much bigger scale.”
Crews should be done testing along the highway by the third week of September and will move to Holt-Lamplight Road, though Oliver said that move would be dependent upon the weather.
He said the seismic testing was a requirement of the project’s permitting process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC.
“It requires us to see if there are any faults in the area where we’re proposing to maybe develop a plant,” he said.
Nikiski resident Michele Hartline asked if fault-line data would be shared with the community once it had been analyzed.
“I’m hoping we don’t find any faults,” Oliver said. “The goal is to study and say ‘Good, we’re all clear,’ for your sake as well as the project’s sake. The best answer is there’s nothing there.”
Still, any data would be available through the FERC website among the pages and pages of documents the company has to file with the commission, Oliver said.
Others asked why the study area was so much larger than the proposed footprint for the liquefaction plant.
“As a landowner, it’s scary to see the study area so huge,” said resident Louise Heite. “If it happens that my farm is your ideal place, are you guys going to come and take it away from me?”
Oliver said the companies invested in the project needed to understand the whole region, not just the site where the plant could be built.
“Right now, we’re acquiring land, we’re working on that,” O’Connor said. “We need about 800-1,000 acres. So far we’ve got about 600. But, like Billy said, you know we have to go further out to really understand and have a good solid picture of what’s happening underneath the ground to understand how we’re going to engineer this so it’s safe.”
‘Water is life’
For residents along Cabin Lake, which sits off Miller Loop Road near mile 94.3 of the Kenai Spur Highway, water levels are a hot topic.
Barbara Phegley said the water level in the lake has risen alarmingly high over the last two years — taking at least two feet of her yard with it — though it is receding this year.
“We lost our whole lower yard to that and nobody knows why it’s happening,” she said. “I’m kind of hoping that with all your studying, you’ll find out what the heck is happening to our lake.”
Oliver said many of the studies that Alaska LNG workers are conducting will have results that are available to the public as they are part of the scoping requirements through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permitting process.
Other residents wanted to know how much water the plant is going to draw down from area aquifers once it is operational.
“I’m guessing that, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, everyone here uses a well,” Heite said. Several in the room nodded. “I think something that concerns all of us is how much is a big facility like they LNG plant going to suck out of the well? How many wells are going to be rendered useless or draw water in from places we don’t like? How deep are the wells going to be?”
Oliver said he didn’t have the data to address Heite’s concerns.
“We haven’t started the studies yet. To date, all of our studies have been in the shallower aquifer. Anecdotally, I hear that a lot of folks have shallow wells and then some folks have wells in, sort of the next elevation — the next aquifer. Right now, subject to any real studies that we’ve done, the sort of concept is that if we were to use wells for water supply for the plant, it’s most likely that we would go to the third aquifer,” he said.
Heite interrupted him. “Please don’t do that. That’s where my well is.” Several people in the room laughed.
O’Connor said she would take the community’s water concerns back to the project engineers and understood that it was an important issue.
“Water is life,” said a man in the crowd softly.
“Water is life!,” O’Connor said emphatically. “I like that.”
‘Who is going to want to live where we are now?’
The Kenai Spur Highway will be unable to handle the volume of traffic that could be generated by the mega-project, but residents in neighborhoods along the highway said they were concerned that their property values and privacy would be ruined if it was moved closer to their homes.
Carol McCormick, who lives in the Foley Estates off Miller Loop Road, said she has gravel pits and other operations moving in near her home. Now, she said, she has is concerned she’ll have to contend with a new highway as well.
“I’m surrounded by this now,” she said. “I feel like the Foley Estates is kind of being sandwiched between everything and that’s a huge concern for us. I’ve got bulldozers every day behind my house now.”
O’Connor said she had heard similar concerns from other residents in the neighborhood. McCormick interrupted her.
“Are we going to bank on the housing crisis to sell our homes?” McCormick said. “Who is going to want to live there? Who is going to want to live where we are now, in the future? I’m looking at the blueprint of the new facility and the flare is like 40 acres from my house.”
O’Connor said the plant would not, as rumored, take up the entirety of the 800-1,000 acres.
“The actual plant acreage itself will be somewhere in the 200- to 300-acre range, but we’re acquiring more than that — and we have to — because we have to build in buffer zones,” she said.
McCormick interrupted her again. “My understanding is that you guys have what you need for a buffer zone. You’re saying that there’s still things up in the air?”
O’Connor said the project had not yet bought all of the property it needed to buy and is still negotiating with property owners in the area.
“I look at that map every day and I’m trying to figure out where that highway is going to go,” McCormick said. “I’m going to have highway frontage property. It’s either going to be 200 feet this way or it’s going over my house. I mean, I didn’t move to Foley Estates for this. We’re surrounded by forest now. I didn’t move there to live in an industrial zone and it’s just getting crazy now.”
O’Connor said project coordinators intended to host a meeting specifically on the highway relocation project in late October and would have maps available for potential highway routes at that meeting.
Another Foley Estates resident, Amanda Buchholz, asked if residents would be able to vote or weigh in on the final location of the highway.
“The project is moving forward and this road has to be moved in order for this project to go forward,” O’Connor said. “We’ve received great input from the borough and the DOT on the safety concerns, school bus routes and this is a huge feasibility study. I’m not exactly sure how things are going to be determined … but your input will be heard. You’ve got the opportunity to be heard and to have your voice heard.”
Jennings, who said he has worked on many projects similar to the Alaska LNG project, said residents who attended the highway relocation meeting would see several lines on a map that would represent potential spots for the new highway.
“They’re going to evaluate the impacts associated with each one of those lines,” he said. “The impacts are things like, number of potential relocations. How many private parcels will be affected? They’re going to look at the natural environment, things like habitat, unsuitable soils, those types of things.”
He said typically those questions would eliminate some of the proposed routes very quickly and then two or three alternatives would be put forward.
“We have to come up with something that still meets the needs of the community while impacting the fewest people,” he said. “It’s not like it absolutely comes to a vote, but every voice counts.”
Several people said they were concerned that their voices would not be heard as Nikiski is a small community in the way of a large project.
McCormick said Nikiski was “the end of the planet, pretty much.”
“We’re not South Dakota where there are a bunch of other arteries coming through. We’re here, so there’s going to be one highway that’s going to feed into all of this.”
Hatch said she supported the LNG project and loved the growth in the area, but wanted to see people compensated for the drastic change in their lifestyles.
“The fact of the matter is that as people get displaced out of Nikiski, they’re going to start moving into Kenai and Soldotna and all those places, so the value of your properties are going to increase, while ours decrease,” she said. “I think it’s great that we’re bringing money into the economy because I was here in the 1980s and it wasn’t so fun. I don’t necessarily think that one little, tiny community is going to be considered for the fallout of what’s going to happen.”
O’Connor and Jennings said communities all along the proposed project route would get the chance to weigh in.
“Nikiski is ground zero. It really is in a lot of ways,” Jennings said. “But this project also includes an 800-mile pipeline and we’ve got much smaller communities. So that’s a lot of input that we’re capturing. There are all these issues that we’re trying to address thoughtfully and carefully and make it as good for everybody as we can possibly make it.”
The next Coffee With Alaska LNG meeting will be held on Sept. 24 from 4-6 p.m. at the Tree House Restaurant, 51708 Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski.
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