An Alaska Native construction company partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a flood-control project in Napa, California has recently taken the hot seat.
Three years ago, Suulutaaq, Inc., the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Corporation, responded to a request by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a 1,900-page proposal for completing a project aimed at preventing floods that have devastated Napa for more than 100 years. In September 2008, the contract was awarded for $65 million, and in summer 2009, $54 million was provided in stimulus funds.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel calls the project managed by Suulutaaq—pronounced “Soo-loo-dock” which means gold in Yupik—“shovel-ready, green” and a job generator, reported California Watch, a news site founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “I am pleased that the Napa Flood Project has received much needed stimulus funds to provide flood protection for our community,” Techel said in a statement. “The completion of the railroad relocation will allow us to construct the critically important Oxbow Bypass Channel and ultimately help us to protect community residents, strengthen our local economy and preserve the Napa River.”
But in December, U.S. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, and Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, issued a report listing the Napa Valley Flood Control Project—often misleadingly referred to as the Wine Train Project—as number 11 among 100 stimilus projects that they disdained as a “silly” and “frivolous” and a waste of stimulus dollars, reported CNN.
“We were disappointed, obviously, that we were put on the list,” Renee Fredericks, president of Suulutaaq, a subsidiary of The Kuskokwim Corporation, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It took away from the true focus of the project: flood control for a city.”
The goal of the project is to halt severe flooding in Napa, such as a 2005 flood that cost the city $115 million in damage repair. The project will protect more than 3,000 properties from flooding, according to NapaFloodControl.com, a site created by the project’s four partners: The City of Napa, Napa County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Suulutaaq. “Napa has been devastated by flooding almost every decade,” Fredericks told ICTMN. “It chases businesses and tourists away. There’s a reason for this project, regardless of the names attached to it—and it’s to lessen the impact of flooding on the town.”
Fredericks was referring to the abbreviated name for the project, the “Wine Train,” which she calls “a source of contention in the media.” The label refers to one aspect of the flood mitigation efforts: raising the tracks of the Napa Valley Wine Train that takes tourists in luxurious, restored vintage rail cars through the area’s wine country. “Currently, when it rains, the tracks block the water’s flow and flood problems are created, so the tracks must be moved to allow water to run underneath them,” explains the Operating Engineers’ local union No. 3, which represents some workers on the project, in the April 2010 newsletter Engineer News.
Criticism of the flood-control project intensified when California Watch reporter Lance Williams delved into questions about why a company from Alaska “landed” stimulus-funded work in California, and whether Suulutaaq was best suited for the job, reported the Alaska Dispatch. “We’ve had a presence in California doing smaller projects for the Corps of Engineers and the Defense Commissary Agency,” Fredericks told ICTMN, emphasizing the flood-control project is injecting money into the local economy. Suulutaaq estimates the project will spend over $50 million within 60 miles of Napa.
Suulutaaq is also performing 44 percent of the work, “raising parts of three streets to a higher plane,” Fredericks said. That’s a far greater percentage than is typical for a general contractor and beyond the 15 percent required by federal law, according to NapaFloodControl.com.
To date, Suulutaaq has hired more than 60 subcontractors, service providers and vendors, mostly based near Napa. But some Alaska Native shareholders have picked up work in the sunshine state. “It was a great opportunity for Suulutaaq to have some shareholders come down and work on the project and have employment outside of Alaska,” said Fredericks, adding that many Alaska Natives prefer to continue living in small villages along the Kuskokwim River, practicing a subsistence lifestyle that often involves hunting and fishing. “A lot of construction projects slow down in the winter, so we have had shareholders come work down here, and they have done so very successfully,” Fredericks said.