Homesteaded by Emil and Fran Bartolowits in the 1940s, this land near Clam Gulch is now home to Hilcorp Alaska’s expanding oil and gas production on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo by McKibben Jackinsky)

By McKibben Jackinsky

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a 7-part series about the challenges of Alaskans living with the oil and gas industry as neighbors.

The envelope from Hilcorp Alaska on my desk demanded attention. It contained a request from the Texas-based company to lease the Ninilchik land my family and I own for the purpose of natural gas exploration and production.

Kenai Peninsula residents aren’t strangers to these requests, but, from what I was observing, our responses varied. What drove our decisions? And to what consequence?

Those were my questions for nonagenarian Emil Bartolowits when we met in February 2014 at his home.

When Emil was 8, he and his family immigrated to the United States from Austria. In the 1940s, Emil and his wife Fran left their Pennsylvania home to stake out a homestead in the sparsely populated community of Clam Gulch.

The couple worked hard, living in an unfinished basement while building their house. Emil commercial fished, he and Fran riding out the industry’s economic ups and downs. Limited income and few services were accepted hardships.

“We had no money, but we didn’t need any. It was a good life,” Emil recalled.

In June 2013, Fran passed away. A short time later, Hilcorp asked to purchase 10 acres of the Bartolowits homestead. Emil’s counter-offer was to sell Hilcorp the entire homestead minus two acres where he would build another dwelling, the price tag enough to pay for the residence and a new vehicle, was accepted.

He relocated as soon as the new house was completed and Hilcorp immediately began work.

“Because I sold, it put a lot of people to work,” Emil told me, listing local construction companies, equipment operators, and surveyors. “I don’t know why (Hilcorp was) bound and determined for that parcel. … But they felt pretty sure of that. So why should I hold it up? Hell, the few years I’m going to be here, let them continue.”

It wasn’t long before a ‘For Sale’ sign appeared across the Sterling Highway from Hilcorp’s newly developed natural gas pad. I introduced myself to the owner, Robert Correia, and his anger instantly flared when asked if selling the property had anything to do with the new neighbor. It was later that week that Robert and his wife Stacy Jo shared their story.

Robert, a third-generation commercial fisherman, and Stacy Joe, who came to Alaska when she was 2, had married in 1995. They were raising their six children plus assorted farm animals on property they described as their “sanctuary” from the rest of the world.

Unaware of Emil’s plans, the couple was surprised when Hilcorp began stripping trees, leveling the area, hauling in gravel, building a pad, and setting up drilling operations on what had been their neighbor’s land.

Incessant, round-the-clock activity and noise, as well as the halogen lighting that flooded into the Correias’ bedroom, became unbearable. Robert’s complaints to Hilcorp brought no change. When Hilcorp’s work spread into the right-of-way on the Correias’ side of the highway, Robert again complained to Hilcorp, but to no avail.

State legislators, Kenai Peninsula Borough officials, and the Alaska Department of Public Safety also disregarded the couple’s pleas for help. Frustrated, the Correias offered to sell to Hilcorp the land they thought they’d grow old on, but Hilcorp declined the offer, having already purchased the land they wanted.

On a night before one of the Correia children had a medical appointment in Anchorage, a loud chorus of back-up alarms and clanging pipes made sleep impossible. Robert begged workers for a few hours of quiet. Told that couldn’t happen, he buckled under the mounting upheaval and called a realtor.

With their home for sale and animals boarded, the Correias moved into a bed and breakfast and began searching for a new home, somewhere far away from the intrusion of oil and gas development.

I’d asked Emil if selling the homestead had been difficult.

“Yes, it was hard, but I knew I couldn’t take it with me. ... And my kids have their own places. So we agreed that was the best,” said Emil. He died in 2017.

The toll the Correias paid for Emil’s decision created a knot of anger in Robert’s stomach so intense that only moving ensured its containment. Finding perspective in his faith, Robert said of Hilcorp, “I hope they’re blessed with the understanding that we’re put on this earth to treat each other like we love each other.”

Emil’s experience illustrated the extent someone’s decisions can alter another person’s life. Robert expressed a hope that Hilcorp – and all of us – would integrate that awareness into the choices we make. Were other peninsula residents able to do that? I was yet to find out.

McKibben Jackinsky is a retired newspaper reporter, a freelance journalist and the author of ‘Too Close To Home? Living with ‘drill, baby’ on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula’.

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