Alaska News

State, Feds To Weigh Options In Exxon Valdez Case

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-03-19 10:25

Exxon Valdez tanker aground. Off-loading of remaining oil in progress. Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

The state and federal governments have told a federal judge they are reviewing information from studies on the lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and will be deciding how to proceed in a continuing legal case.

Lawsuits brought against Exxon Mobil Corp. by the governments following the 1989 disaster led to a $900 million settlement and 1991 consent decree that resolved claims related to natural resource damages. The decree, however, included what’s known as a “reopener” clause that would allow the governments to seek additional work for restoration projects.

RELATED: Talk of Alaska – 25 Years After Exxon Valdez: What Would Effective Regulation Look Like?

The governments in 2006 demanded payment of $92 million but have not asked a judge to enforce the provision.

A Department of Justice spokesman declined comment beyond what the governments said in their status report to the court.

Categories: Alaska News

State Senate Passes Bill Advancing Gasline Project

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 20:40

Sen. Hollis French speaks on the floor of the Senate during an hours-long debate on SB 138 related to an Alaska gas pipeline, March 18, 2014. (Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

After six hours of debate, the state Senate voted in favor of a bill advancing a natural gas megaproject where Alaska is a part owner. While the legislation passed with a clear majority, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports there was opposition from Democrats who had problems with the deal brokered by the Parnell administration.

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“Historic.” “Momentous.” Those were the words legislators used in the lead up to the vote.

SENATE PRESIDENT CHARLIE HUGGINS: By a vote of 15 yeas and 5 nays, committee substitute for Senate Bill 138 finance amended has passed the Senate.

The yeas came mostly from Republicans and rural Democrats. Four Anchorage Democrats and Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman – a key Republican critic of the Parnell administration’s energy policy – voted against it out of concern that the state is not getting enough out of the arrangement.

The legislation authorizes the state to partner with the North Slope producers, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, and TransCanada in construction of a natural gas pipeline that would cost at least $45 billion. The gas transported on the pipeline would be sold on the global market and a portion would be reserved for Alaska consumers along the 800-mile corridor stretching from the North Slope down to Southcentral Alaska. Some of the revenue from the gas would also be set aside to offset rural energy costs.

Sen. John Coghill, a Republican from North Pole, said that while the legislation is complex, he sees it as a way of accomplishing a popular goal in the state.

“It really comes down to some really simple basics, right?” asked Coghill. “We have gas. We want to sell it. And we want to get the benefit of it here in Alaska, whether it’s in molecules or in cash.”

But while the goal may be popular, some senators have issues with how the Parnell administration is going about it. A group of Anchorage Democrats offered 16 amendments to the bill. Though none of those amendments were adopted, the minority used them to highlight what they saw as weak spots all while stressing they wanted to see a gasline built.

A number of changes had to do with TransCanada’s involvement in the project, an arrangement that has irritated some members of both parties during committee hearings.

The state has been in contract with TransCanada and making payouts to the company since the Palin administration, when the last effort to develop a high-volume pipeline happened. Under the new plan, TransCanada would help the state finance the project and get a portion of the state’s share in the pipeline in exchange.

Minority Leader Hollis French said the state was giving them too much in this arrangement. He suggested it might even be time to break off the relationship and put the work out to bid.

“It’s just not working out, you know, it’s just not working out,” said French. “It’s time for us to go back to the drawing board, I think, to separate and let this process go forward without them taking 60 percent of my share of this pipeline.”

Sen. Cathy Giessel of Anchorage was one of the Republicans who opposed that idea. She said trying to find a new partner could slow the project down and potentially make it more expensive.

“$800 million a year adding up,” Giessel said of the added costs. “We don’t know who else would bid. Under AGIA, there was one bidder – one complete bidding package, and that was TransCanada. Why would we expect different today?”

Democrats also wanted a guarantee that municipalities along the pipeline route would not lose the ability to negotiate property taxes on land used. And they argued for upping the state’s equity in the project from 25 percent to 51 percent, in order to make Alaska a majority owner.

During that amendment, Democrats hit on two themes with their speeches. One, that the bill was not being properly vetted. And two, that the Legislature was being asked to rubber-stamp a deal already agreed to by the Parnell administration and the oil companies.

“What I heard was we can’t support this amendment because it’s outside the terms of the HOA – the heads of agreement,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski. “That’s exactly what’s wrong with this whole agreement, Mr. President. We have given our sovereignty over to four huge multinational corporations.”

In the end, none of their amendments attracted more than a couple of Republican defectors.

During the closing speeches, Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche stressed that all projects like this come with a risk. The highest projected costs for the state are upward of $10 billion, and the highest levels of returns are forecast at $4 billion. In this case, Micciche thinks the risk is worth it.

“Will it come to a final investment decision? I don’t know. We still have the AGDC project as a backup. I don’t have a crystal ball. Neither does anyone in this room,” said Micciche. “I think what’s missing from the opposition here are ideas to move us forward. And I think I have a difficult time with that.”

The bill now goes to the House. They have one month to review the bill before the Legislature gavels out.

Categories: Alaska News

With Budget Shortfalls Looming, Questions Raised About Knik Bridge Finances

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:28

A bill authorizing the state to build a billion-dollar bridge across the Knik Arm is back for consideration.

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The legislation was shelved for a year, after an audit found traffic estimates for the project were “unreasonably optimistic.” During a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, the bill sponsor dismissed skepticism that the project would pencil out. Rep. Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, said he “absolutely” believed there would be enough traffic to serve a two-mile long bridge connecting Port Mackenzie to Anchorage, so long as a Mat-Su population boom continues.

“If the Knik Area were a city, it would be one of the fastest – one of the top 50 fastest growing cities – in America,” said Neuman.

The current iteration of the bill scraps the idea of using a public-private partnership to build the toll bridge. Instead, the project would be funded through a mix of federal grants, federal loans, and state revenue bonds. Those loans and bonds would then be paid off using toll revenue from the bridge.

But rural legislators who heard the bill expressed doubt that the tolls would be enough to cover those costs. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, noted that the state would be responsible for making up the difference if there isn’t enough bridge traffic. He said if it were clear the bridge would pay for itself, there would be “broad support” for the project across the state.

“I think that was the crux of the concern: that the State of Alaska would be on the hook,” said Hoffman. “It was always portrayed that this was going to be a toll bridge, and that would adequately address the construction.”

Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat from Golovin, worries that the cost of the project — and the risk that comes with it — is too high, given that the state is looking at a period of serious budget shortfalls.

“It’s a public policy issue I’ve got a problem with where we’re dealing with state revenues going down,” said Olson. “And certainly we’ve got an excellent bond rating, but in five years when all our savings are spent and we’ve maxed up to the hilt with bonding and indebtedness that’s out there, that’s where I’ve got problems.”

To keep the project moving, the Legislature would have to appropriate $10 million for the bridge in the next fiscal year.

The Senate Finance Committee will continue discussion of the bill Wednesday morning. The House passed the bill last session.

Categories: Alaska News

With Deadline Approaching, More Alaskans Signing Up For Health Insurance

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:27

Alaskans working to sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act say they’re seeing a big increase in enrollments this month. Groups like the United Way and Enroll Alaska made the announcement at a press conference today in Anchorage. The boost comes as the March 31st open enrollment deadline approaches. Anyone who doesn’t have health insurance by that date will pay a penalty unless they qualify for an exemption.

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In all of February, Enroll Alaska signed up a little more than 200 people for health insurance. In just the first week of March, they enrolled nearly that same number. Chief Operating Officer Tyann Boling is excited to see the pace picking up:

“We couldn’t be happier with how things have gone this month. It has been an incredible busy month for us and we see we’re going to have our largest enrollment month yet.”

Boling says the six month open enrollment period has not been easy. The website was barely functional the first two months it was live. Boling says groups like hers lost momentum in those months that they may never recover. But she says it’s human nature to procrastinate and Enroll Alaska has the resources to help anyone who still wants to sign up:

“You know people will say, ‘I can wait another couple of weeks.’ And then they’re like, ‘oh my gosh, I need to make this happen.’ So some people were right there at October 1st and standing at our door at 7am and then there’s people waiting until right now to get through the door. However they get there… we just want them to get enrolled.”

And not everyone signing up this month is procrastinating. Susan Johnson is regional Director of the Health and Human Services Department. She says some people are still finding out about the benefits of the law. Johnson met a woman in Spokane recently who donated a kidney to her brother three decades ago and assumed she would be permanently excluded from health insurance because of her pre-existing condition:

“If you’ve been locked out, kept out, the door closed to you for over 30 years because you gave life to a family member, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that suddenly that door is open. It’s unbelievable. And that’s the power of this law.”

By the end of February, more than 6,500 Alaskans had signed up for health insurance on Johnson is pleased with those numbers. She says Alaska is not an easy place to do outreach work on a complicated new law:

“Using an Olympic metaphor, you’re doing a triple salchow with a wind of 70 miles per hour and the lights just went off and you’re still hoping to land that. So you have a huge degree of difficulty, we know that- no roads, often no electricity, no easy communication, off the grid with the computer.”

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been doing Affordable Care Act outreach events in rural areas of the state. Alaska Natives can file for an exemption from the individual mandate to buy insurance, because they qualify for healthcare from the Indian Health Service. But ANTHC’s Valerie Davidson says the organization is hoping some Alaska Natives will see the benefit to having insurance too, and may qualify for a substantial subsidy to help pay for it. She wants everyone to feel welcome asking questions about the law:

“Maybe English isn’t your first language-canrituq-it’s OK! Come on over anyway, we have people who will speak to you in any language you’re comfortable with so come on-taringan- we’ll understand.”

Open Enrollment closes for most Americans on March 31st and will reopen again on November 15th. But Alaska Natives and American Indians can continue signing up for insurance on the exchange all year long.

This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News. 

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Urge Gov. Parnell To Keep Flint Hills Refinery In Operation

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:26

A resolution in the legislature urges quick action by Governor Sean Parnell to ensure Alaska doesn’t lose in state refining capacity. HCR 22 by Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole, is aimed at keeping Flint Hills North Pole Refinery in operation under a new owner. Flint Hills plans to cease refining this summer in favor of selling cheaper imported fuels.

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Categories: Alaska News

Red King Crab Harvest Abysmal In Bering Straits

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:25

Earlier in March, 1.2 million pounds of Tanner crab were caught in the Southeast’s commercial fishery, the biggest haul in over a decade. But in the Bering Straits region the winter season for Red King Crabs has been abysmal.

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Categories: Alaska News

University, State Timber Offerings Planned Near Petersburg

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:24

Plans are starting to gear up for timber sales on state and university owned lands in the area of the Tongass National Forest.

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One of the planned University timber sales is on Wrangell Narrows, about 14 miles south of Petersburg. It’s covers about 368 acres of mostly hemlock and spruce forest. The second is on the southern end of the island near Banana Point, about 29 miles south of Petersburg. That parcel is has over 300 acres of old growth spruce, hemlock and yellow cedar.

Patrick Kelly is regional resource manager with the University’s statewide land management system office in Anchorage. He says helicopter logging is planned for both sites.

“Now the South Mitkof parcel has existing forest service roads and there may be some conventional logging activity on that, that’s up to the bidders to present. But the intent was a collaborative effort with the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry, there’s a helicopter in the area this summer and very limited time window for use of the helicopters,” Kelly said. ”That was one of the reasons the university put it out at this time.”

Total estimated timber volume in the two parcels is 6 million board feet on the Wrangell Narrows site and 11 and a half million at the South Mitkof site. However, Kelly says the total volume harvested will be lower than that and will be up to the winning bidder for the trees.

“They have a bottom line that they need to make it profitable for the helicopters to come in cause the helicopters are so expensive,” Kelly said. “So what it does is it really narrows down the field of what they will cut and it reduces, certainly reduces the impact to the land of the operation.”

Proceeds from the timber sales will help fund university scholarship and research programs. Kelly says these are the only two sales planned for the Petersburg area in the next five years. Logs from the sales can be exported. Once the sales are complete the university may offer firewood from the two sites. The land office hopes to award the timber sale contracts in late April.

Also this spring, a state agency is drafting a plan for the newly created Southeast Alaska state forest. That’s state land on 40 parcels covering about 48,000 acres in the central and southern Panhandle. The legislature designated the lands for timber sales in 2010 and 2011.

Jim Schwarber, forest planner with the state’s division of forestry, says one of the requirements for establishing a new state forest is writing a management plan for the land.

“And we’re currently working internally to develop that draft and are also doing public involvement outreach with scoping and seeking input from the public and agencies and other entities as we put together this first draft plan for this new state forest,” Schwarber said.

Near Petersburg, some of the parcels are on eastern Mitkof Island. Others are on the southern end of the island near the planned University timber parcel. Schwarber says the state is asking for input from people who have used the lands in the past or who know about the different areas of Southeast.

“All state forests do provide for multiple uses though it’s important to recognize the primary purpose for a state forest and in particular this state forest is timber management and timber production,” Schwarber said. ”We like to use the phrase we wanna manage it as a working forest, which basically means actively manage it for a sustainable supply of timber to help supply the local industry in Southeast Alaska.”

Other state forest lands are around Wrangell, on Prince of Wales Island and near Ketchikan. Schwarber says the state wants to identify other uses of the land and water around the timber parcels.

“For example we did have a meeting with the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association to discuss the water quality needs for the Neets Bay hatchery, which is their flagship hatchery in southern Southeast Alaska,” Schwarber said. ”So we work with other land owners other communities, other interests to ensure our final management plan does recognize and properly protect those other uses.”

The designation for state forest land also allows for second growth thinning on parcels that already have been logged.

Unlike the U.S. Forest Service, the state does not complete an environmental impact statement with multiple alternatives in its forest plan. The state planning process can take up to three years to finish. The division of forestry hopes to release a draft plan for public review later this spring.

The deadline to comment or bid on the university sales is Wednesday March 19th. Find out more about those offerings here. There’s more information about the Southeast state forest planning process here.

Categories: Alaska News

Heliskiing Guide Caught In Haines Avalanche Dies

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:23

A heliski guide caught in an avalanche over the weekend near Haines died late Monday according to a statement posted online by his family.

Aaron Karitis was guiding a group of skiers with Haines heliskiing company Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, or SEABA, on Saturday. According to the statement, which was corroborated by SEABA, he had dug a snow pit to test snow conditions and cut the top of slope to sample stability and determined conditions were safe. Karitis skied down a slope to set a track, while his clients waited on the top. An avalanche was triggered, carrying him about approximately 700 feet and burying him in several feet of snow.

Fellow guides found Karitis within 15 minutes thanks to a locator beacon he was wearing. He was unresponsive and CPR was started. He was transported to the Haines clinic then flown to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage.

The statement from his family and medical team says Karitis’ core body temperature was critically low when he arrived at Providence. He had inhaled snow, compromising oxygen flow to his brain.

Karitis is originally from Bend, Oregon and has been active in heliskiing for more than a decade. His experience includes extensive avalanche education, according to SEABA and his family.

Categories: Alaska News

DNR’s Parks Move Wood Tikchik Under Chugach Supervision

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:22

The state’s division of parks and recreation has reorganized the management structure of two of its largest parks. As part of the re-shuffling, one of Wood Tikchik’s two park rangers will be reassigned to Chugach later this year.

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Categories: Alaska News

Oosik Classic Ski Race Draws Hundreds To Talkeetna

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:21

Last weekend, hundreds of skiers descended on Talkeetna for the Oosik Classic Ski Race and Tour. Some come to compete, and others wear costumes. Everyone comes to have a good time.

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The Oosik is one of the largest classic ski races in the country. This year, just under 700 skiers came from all over Alaska to Talkeetna to participate. Just two weeks ago, however, there were serious concerns on the part of the race organizers. Temperatures were high, and the snow on the ski trails was quickly taking on the consistency of concrete. With time ticking away before the event, Denali Nordic Ski Club member Chris Mannix had some friends over to make a sacrifice to the patron god of skiers.

Men’s 50k winner Jonas Loeffler.

“We’ve done it once before, and it worked then, so we did it again. We burned skis and it snowed. Ullr smiled on us.”

With fresh snow, the Oosik was looking to proceed smoothly, that is until temperatures reached the high forties once again just a day before the race. Willi Prittie is part of the trail grooming crew, and says it took extra work in the pre-dawn hours before the race to make sure everything was ready for the noon start.

“We got up around 3:00 am this morning and gathered at about 4:00 am, and we set track between 4:30 and 9:30.”
The somewhat backcountry nature of the trail is part of its draw. U.S. Olympic skier Holly Brooks came to ski in the Oosik, and explains why the race is a favorite around the state.

“…Right now, everyone’s smiling, there’s music, there’s Christmas lights, there’s good food, people are friendly. It’s always a good time to come to Talkeetna. The course is a blast. I’m hoping there’s some narrow tree skiing, which is always fun. People dress up. It’s a good party after. I’ve had a good time swing dancing late into the night here at the [Don Sheldon] hangar, before.”

Holly Brooks is fresh off tour of skiing that included the Olympics in Sochi last month. Before the race, she said she wasn’t sure whether she would take a more relaxed pace or let her competitive spirit take over.

Women’s 50k winner Holly Brooks.

“I’m going to just go out there and see what I feel like. I’ve been home for a day and a half. I’ve been gone on the road for four-and-a-half months. [I'm] pretty tired from all the racing and jet-setting I’ve been doing.”

Holly Brooks must have still had some fuel in the tank, however, as she went on to win the women’s 50 kilometer race.

In addition to the super-competitive skiers, many participants in the Oosik don’t bother with the race itself, but rather treat it as an opportunity to have fun on skis. For many, like Kelly Donnelly, that means donning a homemade costume and hitting the trail.
“I am the universe, today. You’ll notice my space pants and my sun cape–hand made. I thought I’d go with the blue theme and be the entire universe.”

Local skiers get involved as well. Galen Johnston, who grew up skiing the trails around Talkeetna, now coaches skiing at Dimond High School. He says this year’s trail offered some variety.

“…Much more technical from a skiing perspective. [It's] still mostly double pole. That’s kind of the status quo for this race. [There] was a lot more hills than the last couple years. It was fun to mix things up. There’s more gliding. It’s not just constant double pole.”

Organizers say this year’s race was a big success. Chris Mannix says the real measure of how well the race goes can be seen on the faces of skiers as they reach the finish line.

“It went fantastically. The weather–what do you say? Last night at 8 o’clock it was raining, and then it turned around. We had a beautiful day and the course held up. It was awesome. We had a couple of glitches out there, but I saw people skiing across the finish line with big smiles on there faces, saying it was fun.”

After the race, the party hosted by the Denali Nordic Ski Club lasted well into the night. On Sunday, hundreds of cars filtered up the Talkeetna Spur, but many will be back for next year’s Oosik Classic.

Complete race results are posted on the Denali Nordic Ski Club website.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 18, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 17:00

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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Legislature Debates Gasline Project

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A debate on a gasline megaproject is currently underway.

KABATA Bill Up For Consideration

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A bill authorizing the state to build a billion-dollar bridge across Knik Arm is back for consideration.

With Deadline Approaching, More Alaskans Signing Up For Health Insurance

Annie Feidt, APRN – Juneau

Alaskans working to sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act say they’re seeing a big increase in enrollments this month. Groups like the United Way and Enroll Alaska made the announcement at a press conference today in Anchorage. The boost comes as the March 31st open enrollment deadline approaches. Anyone who doesn’t have health insurance by that date will pay a penalty unless they qualify for an exemption.

Lawmakers Urge Gov. Parnell To Keep Flint Hills Refinery In Operation

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A resolution in the legislature urges quick action by Governor Sean Parnell to ensure Alaska doesn’t lose in state refining capacity. HCR 22 by Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole, is aimed at keeping Flint Hills North Pole Refinery in operation under a new owner. Flint Hills plans to cease refining this summer in favor of selling cheaper imported fuels.

Lawmakers Mulling Anchorage Office Purchase

The Associated Press

Lawmakers are considering the possible purchase of a legislative office building in downtown Anchorage as an alternative to the current leasing arrangement that critics have questioned as extravagant.

The Senate president and House speaker requested seven working days to discuss the idea raised during Monday evening’s Legislative Council meeting with their members.

The proposal calls for authorizing the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to purchase the office building for about $28.3 million.

The council’s chair, Representative Mike Hawker, a Republican from Anchorage, said the arrangement could save about $2.4 million a year.

Red King Crab Harvest Abysmal In Bering Straits

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

Earlier in March, 1.2 million pounds of Tanner crab were caught in the Southeast’s commercial fishery, the biggest haul in over a decade. But in the Bering Straits region the winter season for Red King Crabs has been abysmal.

University, State Timber Offerings Planned Near Petersburg

Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg

Plans are starting to gear up for timber sales on state and university owned lands in the area of the Tongass National Forest.

Heliskiing Guide Caught In Haines Avalanche Dies

Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines

A heliski guide caught in an avalanche over the weekend near Haines died late Monday according to a statement posted online by his family.

DNR’s Parks Move Wood Tikchik Under Chugach Supervision

Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham

The state’s division of parks and recreation has reorganized the management structure of two of its largest parks. As part of the re-shuffling, one of Wood Tikchik’s two park rangers will be reassigned to Chugach later this year.

Oosik Classic Ski Race Draws Hundreds To Talkeetna

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

Last weekend, hundreds of skiers descended on Talkeetna for the Oosik Classic Ski Race and Tour.  Some come to compete, and others wear costumes.  Everyone comes to have a good time.

Categories: Alaska News

Mayor Sullivan Vetoes East Anchorage Park, Assembly Could Override

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 16:26

Mayor Dan Sullivan has vetoed an ordinance the Assembly passed last week that designated municipal land in East Anchorage for a park.

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Photo © Jerrianne Lowther: Realigned creek near Grass Creek Village & Begich Middle School west of Muldoon.

The municipality purchased the parcel near the intersection of Muldoon and Debarr streets in 2006 for $5 million from the federal government, which had seized it in a drug case.

Chester Creek runs through the property, and East Anchorage residents have been pushing for a park there for several years. The back part of the 30-acre property has been OK’d by the municipality for use as a park, but Mayor Dan Sullivan has fought to keep some of the land for residential and commercial use. He says he vetoed the Assembly’s decision because it did not follow the correct process.

“There’s already a tremendous amount of park land in East Anchorage, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of parks. What we are short of however is residential land,” Sullivan said. “And to just automatically, without going through a process to just say that all this land that could be developed for both small business and residential should be one hundred percent park, I think is really jumping the gun on the process.”

Sullivan says the Assembly should have waited on a decision until the East Anchorage District Plan is finished. East Anchorage Assembly member Adam Trombley, who wrote the ordinance designating the park, says the Muldoon strip is one of the most densely populated sections of town. And he says splitting the land and selling the front portions off is a bad idea.

Photos © Jerrianne Lowther: Chester Creek in natural creekbed east of Muldoon Road.

“Let’s talk about the developability of the land. The middle section is not developable, not a market prices, because of the soil,” Trombley said. “The front commercial property – nobody’s been pounding on the municipalities door, ‘sell me that property, sell me that property – I want to develop it, I want to develop it.’ So I’m not entirely sure about his justification of why he wants to do that.”

Part of the land is reportedly contaminated with pesticides from when a greenhouse operated there. Trombly argues development of a park would raise the value of existing residential property in the area and provide a common gathering place for one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Trombley is currently fighting to keep his Assembly seat in a high profile race against former legislator Pete Peterson and former NFL player and manager of the Northway Mall, Mao Tosi.

The assembly can override Sullivan’s veto with 8 votes. The next meeting of the Anchorage Assembly is Tuesday, March 25.

Categories: Alaska News

Unalaska Coast Guard Petty Officer Passes Away

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-03-18 12:17

A member of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment in Unalaska has passed away in Anchorage.

Petty Officer Michal Marciniak died at Alaska Regional Hospital on Tuesday morning while receiving treatment for a serious illness. Marciniak had fallen ill Monday morning and was medevaced to Cold Bay on a Coast Guard helicopter. A commercial medevac brought him to Alaska Regional’s emergency room in critical condition.

Petty officer Shawn Eggert says the Coast Guard is investigating what happened, but at this point, he says it’s clear Marciniak’s illness wasn’t
linked to his job.

Marciniak was a Marine Science Technician – one of five at the Unalaska MSD. He was 30-years-old.

Categories: Alaska News

State Reps Reject Measure To Extend Military Perk To Same-Sex Partners

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:20

Rep. Max Gruenberg addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, March 17, 2014. (Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Three years ago, the United States Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and allowed gay men and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Their husbands and wives are also entitled to the same federal benefits they would get if they were straight. But in Alaska, these spouses are not recognized because of a ban on gay marriage that was added to the State Constitution.

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On Monday, the Alaska House wrestled with that tension when it took up legislation extending a small perk to military families. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that a measure adding same-sex partners to the bill was rejected.

One of the facts of life in the armed services is you may be asked to move a lot. According to the Department of Defense, military families move 10 times more often than civilian families.

The “Military Spouse Residency Relief Act” was introduced to make those moves easier, and to show that Alaska wants to cater to the troops who are stationed here. All the bill does is let military spouses keep their driver’s licenses, saving them the trouble of going to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Even the lawmakers who want the bill changed like the overall idea. Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg made that clear on the House floor on Monday.

“The bill itself is non-controversial, and I strongly support the bill and will be voting for the bill,” he said.

Gruenberg saw just one problem with it.

“The only troubling aspect is the use of the single term ‘spouse.’”

Because Alaska has a ban on same-sex marriage, the term “spouse” does not allow the partners of gay servicemen to take advantage of the benefit, even if they married in another state.

Gruenberg offered an amendment to the bill making it explicit that gay military couples should get the driver’s license exemption, too. The State of Alaska already includes same-sex partners in its employee benefits because of a 2005 court decision, and Gruenberg’s measure copied that language and applied it to the military. Same-sex partners would have to meet a list of conditions to qualify, like having lived together for at least a year and co-managing their finances.

He argued his amendment is tailored to avoid getting into a debate over gay marriage in Alaska, and that it follows legal precedent and the military’s own rules.

“We’re looking at, once again, following the lead of the military – all branches of the service in this country – and I think the trend of most Americans who would like to see people treated equally,” said Gruenberg.

Other members of the Democratic minority agreed, and stood up in support of the bill. Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage framed it as a civil rights issue.

“It’s a matter of respect for people who serve for our armed forces, regardless of who they choose to love.”

But many members of the Republican-led majority were unfriendly to the amendment, including bill sponsor Doug Isaacson. He said the courts are still weighing the issue of same-sex rights, and that until they decide differently, the relationship between husband and wife should be elevated.

“Our State Constitution, as we’ve heard, makes a distinction,” said Isaacson. “We prioritize according to what the voters have told us. And the voters have told us the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Isaacson represents North Pole, and the Eielson Airforce Base is part of his district. He said there is widespread support for the bill as written.

“Even with the gay spouses, none have asked me to extend this benefit to others,” said Isaacson. “They recognize that in order to help the majority of the spouses who are affected, this is a necessary bill.”

The amendment ultimately failed on a 14-22 vote. While no Republicans spoke in favor of the measure, three – Cathy Munoz of Juneau, Mike Hawker of Anchorage, and Lindsey Holmes also of Anchorage — broke with their caucus to support it. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the majority, was the only member of his party to vote against it.

The bill itself passed unanimously, and will now be sent to the Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Austerman: Talks Under Way On Pension Issue

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:19

A co-chair of the House Finance Committee says he and fellow majority members are discussing possible options for addressing the state’s pension obligation.

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Representative Alan Austerman, a Republican from Kodiak, says “everything” is on the table, including possible contribution increases by municipalities, a proposal from Governor Sean Parnell and extending the time horizon for payments.

Austerman could not say when a firm proposal might be put forth. The session is scheduled to end April 20.

Parnell proposed taking $3 billion from savings and putting it toward addressing the state’s nearly $12 billion pension shortfall. Response to the idea has been mixed. Some lawmakers support a big cash infusion to help lower annual payments while others are wary of taking so much from savings.

Austerman says the Senate is having its own conversations.

Categories: Alaska News

State Representatives Condemn EPA Chief’s Statements

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:18

The Alaska State House unanimously condemned language used by the chief of the Environmental Protections Agency to describe gifts she received in the state.

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In the process of describing the strictness of ethics guidelines, Gina McCarthy said she received a jar of moose meat in Alaska that could – quote – “gag a maggot.” She also acknowledged throwing away a pin she was given in North Pole, and used an expletive to describe the action. The comments were reported in a profile by the Wall Street Journal.

In the official rebuke state representatives passed on Monday, they expressed concern that those comments indicate an anti-Alaska bias. The measure was introduced by North Pole Republican Doug Isaacson.

McCarthy apologized to Alaska’s congressional delegation last week.

Categories: Alaska News

IRS Gives a Little on Air Taxi Tax

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:17

The IRS has given a sliver of ground in how it has applied tax rules to air taxi flights. Sen. Mark Begich is calling it a win for small air carriers, but Joy Journeay, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, says the concession is less than it appears.

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“It is not clear at this time that it is going to help anyone,” she said.

The association has said the rules were unclear on when a small plane operator has to collect federal excise taxes from passengers. Several air taxi businesses say they didn’t know they were supposed to collect the money until they were audited and hit with tax bills that, in some cases, exceeded a million dollars.  The IRS last week wrote a letter to Begich saying it will refund any excise tax air services paid for day tours. The IRS letter doesn’t say whether it will also refund the penalties and interest audited businesses had to pay, and an IRS spokesman said the agency didn’t want to talk about its decision. But the letter says the agency is only lifting the tax retroactively. Next month it will apparently revert to its previous interpretation of the rules, which Journeay called baffling.

“The letter issued to Sen. Begich from the IRS doesn’t clear up any of the ambiguous language in the regulations or address any of the items that the Alaska Air Carriers have asked them to address for multiple years,” she said.

The IRS has previously said whether the tax applies to a day trip depends in part on the purpose of the trip. If the passengers deplane to see a glacier or watch bears, the air service doesn’t have to collect the tax, but if they land to fish, that might be taxable, if the pilots fly to the same places with some degree of regularity. The way the agency has defined regularity has also exasperated air carriers.

Journeay says as she reads the letter, the refund only applies to carriers that already paid the tax. For years, even attorneys and tax accountants advised air carriers the excise tax didn’t apply to their small planes, Journeay says. She notes small carriers would still pay a tax to the federal government in the fuel they buy.

Categories: Alaska News

Guide Critically Injured In Avalanche Near Haines

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:16

A heliskiing guide was critically injured in an avalanche near Haines over the weekend, the third avalanche in as many years to injure or kill extreme mountain skiers in the area.

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Alaska State Troopers say 31-year-old Aaron Karitis was evaluating snow conditions on a popular ski run west of Haines when the avalanche occurred about 11 a.m. Saturday. Karitis was carried about 800 feet and buried at least seven feet deep, according to trooper spokesperson Beth Ipsen

Karitis was acting as a guide on a heliski tour with Haines company Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, known as SEABA. Four clients were waiting on the top of slope and not caught in the avalanche. Other SEABA staff immediately began searching for Karitis and called in another helicopter and more guides to assist. Ipsen says Karitis was located within 20 minutes.

“If you’re going to survive an avalanche, it’s because the people you are with are going to find you in time,” Ipsen said.

Karitis was wearing a locator beacon that helped rescuers locate him quickly, Ipsen said.

“What you have is you have locator beacons on you and you have to turn it on,” she said. “You have to turn it on so it receives a signal and that’s why it kind of like a metal detector where you’re trying to receive that signal the other beacon is sending out.”

Ipsen said Karitis was unresponsive when located and CPR was started. He was flown by a SEABA helicopter to the Haines Airport and transported by ambulance to the local clinic where CPR continued. He was stabilized and medevaced to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage where he was listed in critical condition on Sunday. There was no other information about his injuries.

SEABA owners did not want to speak about the incident but issued a statement Sunday saying normal response procedures were followed. The statement also says while avalanches are inherent risks of heliskiing, the company has offered its assistance and encouragement to the guide’s family.

Ipsen said a trooper visited the scene of the avalanche Saturday and interview SEABA staff and responders about the incident. Troopers also revised a previous press release that said Karitis had determined the area unsafe to ski. Ipsen said Sunday the guide wasn’t planning on moving his clients from the area. Instead, based on the conditions, he was showing them how to ski that slope. The clients hadn’t yet descended the slope when the avalanche broke loose and took Karitis down the mountain known to skiers as Tele 2.5 near the Kicking Horse Valley west of Haines.

Ipsen said the trooper investigation is complete because they found no sign of criminal intent or negligence.

According to the SEABA website, Karitis grew up in Bend, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Utah and has been working in the heliski industry for about a decade.  He joined SEABA in 2013. Karitis has international guide and avalanche certifications, according to the website, and an excellent safety record.

Just over a year ago, another SEABA guide was killed in a cornice collapsed on a mountain near Haines. That incident also injured two skiers. And in 2012 a guide and client with another heliski company were killed in an avalanche, also outside Haines.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA Students Illuminating Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault Issues

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:15

Students at University of Alaska Anchorage are organizing a panel discussion this week to highlight the problem of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska. The conversation is part of the national “No More” campaign that uses a blue circle with a white dot in the middle as a symbol to increase awareness of the issue.

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Student Coordinator Simona Gerdts told APRN’s Lori Townsend that leading up to the Wednesday discussion she issued her fellow students a challenge.

Categories: Alaska News

2014 Iditarod Trail Awards Banquet Takes Place In Nome

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-03-17 17:14

The 2014 Iditarod Trail Awards Banquet was held last night at the Nome Recreation Center. Hobo Jim entertained the crowd as they ate prime rib and cake. And emcee of the evening – John Handeland – presented the awards earned by those who raced, and survived Iditarod 42.

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Categories: Alaska News

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