Alaska News

Grand Jury Hands Down 3 Murder Charges in White Mountain New Year’s Day Killing

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 11:33

Gilbert Olanna, Jr. faces a total of three murder charges in the death of Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM)

The man accused of killing his girlfriend on New Year’s Day in White Mountain now faces a total of three murder charges in her death.

A grand jury indictment handed down in the Nome court Tuesday charges 31-year-old Gilbert Olanna—who already faced one charge of first degree murder—with two additional charges of second degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, 40-year-old Esther Lincoln.

Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Luann Harrelson via KTUU)

The additional murder charges all point to what prosecutors claim Olanna’s intent at the time of the alleged crimes. The new second-degree murder charges claims he both intended to cause serious injury and acted with “an extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

District Attorney John Earthman said the additional charges comes from the grand jury considering each charge independently.

“There are all sorts of different possibilities when you start looking at significant alleged criminal episodes and you start applying the different possibilities,” Earthman said. “What you see in an indictment are different legal theories to try to apply to the evidence down the road at trial.”

In addition to the three murder charges, the grand jury also handed down two felony counts of tampering with evidence.

Olanna’s public defender entered “not guilty” pleas for all charges. His bail remained at 100-thousand dollars in cash. As of Tuesday, Olanna remains in custody at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center.

Ways to make donations to support the family of Esther Lincoln can be found on a Facebook page raising funds for the family.

Categories: Alaska News

Making walking in Anchorage safer

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 17:15

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation, 2014. Numbers include all injured parties involved in the incidents, not just pedestrians. 

Nearly 8 percent of Alaskans walk to work. It’s the highest rate in the nation according to American Community Survey data. The national average is only 2.8 percent.  But the state is also ranked #3 for the rate of pedestrian deaths. Three people have been killed in the past month. So what’s happening in Anchorage to help keep walkers safe?

http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/14-Pedestrians-pkg.mp3

Dressed in a heavy black jacket and dark pants, Keith Joe walks down Muldoon headed from the bus stop to his trailer as cars rush by. He’s not far from where a pedestrian was killed earlier this month and where he says a friend’s child was killed years before. It’s a trip he makes nearly everyday. He says he only has one major complaint with drivers in the area.

“They just don’t remember to look the other way. They’re just so worried about getting an opening in traffic that they pull out where they block you. They just don’t care. Or sometimes they’ll even see you and they’ll still pull out cause they just want to dive out. I just feel it’s wrong. They’re in a nice warm car and we’re walking and it’s cold. They could wait a second, you know?”

But Joe admits that sometimes he breaks the rules, too. He doesn’t like having trudge up the street to wait at crosswalks for the light to eventually change. He says if traffic flow is low, he’ll cut across the five-lane-wide street, despite the risks.

“Night time is most time we will cross right here.”

“Even though then it’s dark and people can’t see you?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, we can see pretty good…” He shrugs off the question.

State Department of Transportation data shows the number of pedestrian deaths in Alaska jumps erratically from year to year, but the trend is fairly steady– about 9 per year.

DOT Traffic and Safety Engineer Scott Thomas says part of the problem is that pedestrians think they’re visible when they’re not. ”You see the headlight on and you say ‘Well, I’m wearing brown.’ But to the motorist that is dark. And it may be competing with the oncoming headlights of other cars.”

Thomas says most pedestrian-vehicle accidents happen in the fall, when it’s dark and roads are starting to get slippery. He says things are usually better in the winter because it’s easier to see people with a white backdrop of snow. But not this year, when the grimy snow isn’t helping visibility.

So there’s recently been a slight spike in pedestrian deaths, but the number of pedestrian accidents that result in serious injury has actually been slowly trending downward since 2000.

Thomas says different design elements help. Crosswalk signals with timers reduce the number of accidents because pedestrians know how long they have to cross the street. He says medians, like the ones that will we built on Muldoon this summer, also help.

“If a pedestrian does try to cross in between an intersection, or in between a signal, then there’s a place of refuge. And it divides the crossing into two steps and makes it easier.”

Anchorage Traffic Engineer Stephanie Mormilo says city code now requires all new road projects to include facilities for walkers and bikers, like sidewalks and bike lanes. She says the municipality is becoming more aware of different needs, mostly in response to community demand.

“I guess there’s a shift in the dynamic, I think. And a lot of people are really recognizing that roads are not just for vehicles. They are not. They are transportation corridors that provide for all users.”

Mormilo says the struggle comes when trying to renovate old roads — they don’t have the right of way to add more sidewalks or bike lanes.

“When you’re reconstructing these existing roads you often have a kind of a set limit, set amount of space of what you really can do when you have all this development surrounding your roads.”

She says they try to use as many innovative designs as possible to incorporate the needs of all types of users. But she says no matter how the road is designed, drivers, walkers, and bicyclists needs to be aware of who is near them to keep everyone safe.

Categories: Alaska News

UAF Anticipates Cutting Over 200 Jobs

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:58

The University of Alaska Fairbanks anticipates cutting between 200 and 250 jobs this year. That from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, who in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday focused on the affect of slumping oil prices on state funding for the university.

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Categories: Alaska News

About 16,000 Alaskans Sign Up On Healthcare.gov

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:57

The federal government says about 16,000 Alaskans have signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov. That’s about 3,000 more than signed up during the initial open enrollment period.

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More than half of the new enrollments are likely customers renewing plans. But Susan Johnson, the regional director of the Health and Human Services Department calls the number “huge.”

“we’ve almost doubled the numbers from last month until now so it seems very strong to me,” Johnson said. “It’s not a best kept secret, I think the on the ground navigators and assistors are out and about doing work and people are showing up and wanting to get covered.”

Enroll Alaska is also pleased with the number of enrollees. Since the open enrollment period began November 15th, the company has signed up 1300 Alaskans for health insurance. Operations manager Aimee Crocker says about 75% of those enrollments are renewals. Crocker says the numbers would likely be higher they weren’t experiencing some glitches with how the federal government and the insurance carriers are processing enrollments. For example, she says a batch of enrollments from November didn’t make it to the insurers until December 31st.

“Right now we’re spending a lot of time administratively trying to make sure the clients we have assisted have their plans in place,” Crocker said. “We don’t want to take on too much and not be able to help the people we promised those services to.”

Both Crocker and Susan Johnson expect the pace of enrollments to pick up as the deadline of February 15th approaches. After that, you can only sign up for health insurance if you have a big life change like a new job.

The federal government says more than 90% of Alaskans who have signed up for insurance on the exchange qualify for a subsidy. But Crocker says even customers whose coverage is subsidized have been affected by the large price increases for this year.

“There has definitely been quite a bit of sticker shock and not understanding why the rates have increased so much,” Crocker said. “And it’s frustrating for people, people just want to have access to something they can afford.”

Crocker says some customers have opted to pay the tax penalty instead, which for the 2014 tax year will be $95 or 1% of yearly income, whichever is higher.

Categories: Alaska News

Over 40,000 Earthquakes Detected In 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:56

The Earthquake Information Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks logged more earthquakes in 2014 than in past years, a lot more. 40,000. An increase of about 10,000 from the average of the years before it. Michael West is the state seismologist at the center. He says part of the reason they counted more last year was because of better technology.

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Categories: Alaska News

New Regulations Unlikely To Change Coal Ash Disposal In Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:55

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the first ever federal standards for the disposal of coal ash by electric utilities. The toxin containing ash has gotten national attention in recent years due to spills in the Lower 48, but the situation is different in Alaska.

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Categories: Alaska News

Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Postponed

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:54

Wind, heavy rain, and temperatures at times nearing 50 degrees on the Kenai Peninsula mean the Tustumena 200 sled dog race won’t be running February 7th as planned. And race coordinators aren’t even confident it will run at all this year.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 14, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:53

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

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In Underground Rooms, Sullivan’s Senate Office Takes Shape

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like other Republicans in Congress, is on a two-day retreat in Hershey Pennsylvania. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jay Leno. Meanwhile, at his Washington office, APRN’s Liz Ruskin interviewed Sullivan Chief of Staff Joe Balash to get a status report.

UAF Anticipates Cutting Over 200 Jobs

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Fairbanks anticipates cutting between 200 and 250 jobs this year. That from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, who in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday focused on the affect of slumping oil prices on state funding for the university.

About 16,000 Alaskans Sign Up On Healthcare.gov

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The federal government says about 16,000 Alaskans have signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov.  That’s about 3,000 more than signed up during the initial open enrollment period.

Over 40,000 Earthquakes Detected In 2014

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Earthquake Information Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks logged more earthquakes in 2014 than in past years, a lot more. 40,000. An increase of about 10,000 from the average of the years before it. Michael West is the state seismologist at the center. He says part of the reason they counted more last year was because of better technology.

How Safe Are Alaska’s Pedestrians?

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Nearly 8 percent of Alaskans walk to work. It’s the highest rate in the nation according to American Community Survey data. The national average is only 2.8 percent.  But the state is also ranked #3 for the rate of pedestrian deaths. Three people have been killed in the past month. So what’s happening in Anchorage to help keep walkers safe?

Anchorage Measure Will Tax Alcohol to Pay For Treatment and Services

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Anchorage could see a new tax on alcohol. A measure introduced in the Assembly last night will put the matter before voters this April.

New Regulations Unlikely To Change Coal Ash Disposal In Alaska

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the first ever federal standards for the disposal of coal ash by electric utilities. The toxin containing ash has gotten national attention in recent years due to spills in the Lower 48, but the situation is different in Alaska.

Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Postponed

Shady Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Wind, heavy rain, and temperatures at times nearing 50 degrees on the Kenai Peninsula mean the Tustumena 200 sled dog race won’t be running February 7th as planned. And race coordinators aren’t even confident it will run at all this year.

Categories: Alaska News

In Underground Rooms, Sullivan’s Senate Office Takes Shape

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 16:23

Joe Balash, chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sullivan, in the conference room of their temporary digs.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like other Republicans in Congress, is on a two-day retreat in Hershey Penn. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jay Leno. Meanwhile,  Sullivan Chief of Staff Joe Balash  provided APRN a status report at the senator’s office.

It’s not the typical Senate office. To get there, you go past the polished marble of the Senate office buildings and down to the basement, to a tunnel that connects two buildings. In the tunnel, across from a supply room, next to a freight elevator, you’ll find a doorway that leads to Sullivan’s office suite: four windowless rooms, some with cinder-block walls. A few other freshmen senators are on the same hallway.

Balash, who officially became chief of staff barely more than a week ago, says he’s not bothered by the surroundings.

“They’re fine. They’re right on Capitol Hill. They’re indoors. They’re not the portable buildings some (Senators) have been saddled with in the past,” he said. “So we’re pleased.”

The bunker-like rooms are just temporary. But it may be a while before they get out of that basement, because a new senator can’t just take the office vacated by his predecessor. A more senior senator might want it. That swap would leave a different office empty, and again, seniority determines who can call dibs. Sullivan is dead last in seniority, so he has to wait out a lot of office swaps.

“Well, they’ve told us to expect to be here until June,” Balsah says, “but based on how long it took them to get computers, it’s probably more like August.”

Ultimately, he expects to have 30 staffers in Washington, but it’ll have to wait until after the move.

“We just don’t have enough desks here to fully round out the staff. So for now we’re going to be asking people to do more than one job, ” he said.  ”And that’s OK.”

The seven current staffers in the D.C. suite do all have computers now. They have phones. Business cards are on the way.

Meanwhile, Sullivan has co-sponsored his first bills, one approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, another to improve mental health care for veterans.

The official website is still a work in progress. Balash says they’re planning to integrate software on the website to help them handle data from constituent messages.

“As we get contacts and inquiries from the public, from the public, it’s all going through a single system so that we track and make sure we understand and are monitoring what it is people care about, what topics are hitting on particular news cycles, that sort of thing,” he said.

They’ve hired a legislative director, one of the top positions on a Senate staff. He is Peter Henry, who previous worked for Missouri senators. Balash says Henry has never been to Alaska.

“We needed, and recognized the need, for a person to come into our leg director spot who’s from the Senate, of the Senate, a creature of the Senate, and Peter’s been working in the Senate for 10 years,” said Balash.

Balash, like the new senator, is a former state commissioner of Natural Resources. He has no congressional experience, so he says Henry is just what they needed, and he added, Henry plans to visit the state next month.

The other big hire is Amanda Coyne, co-founder of the Alaska Dispatch website and, until she stopped a few days ago, a popular blogger on Alaska politics. Coyne will be Sullivan’s speechwriter and a senior advisor.  Balash says Coyne can present a different perspective to the staff.

In particular, what we were seeking was somebody who would prevent us from suffering from an echo chamber.

As he sees it, Coyne rode Sullivan hard in her blog, on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, which she favors. Back in October, Coyne wrote that Sullivan displayed a “fundamental lack of understanding of health care” and “doesn’t appear interested,” although at other times she had a lot of praise for the candidate, too.

“The big thing is Amanda is just a phenomenal writer,” Balash said, “and bringing the communications skill set to bear on his job of communicating with Alaskans, with the public, is something that will help him do a better job, help Alaskans understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it.”

He says Coyne will start in February.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Northern Dynasty Seeking New Business Partner

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-01-14 10:10

Northern Dynasty, the company that owns the proposed Pebble Mine, is bolstering its financing as it looks for a new partner.

The company announced Tuesday that it has raised $13 million by selling private shares to  investors. Northern Dynasty is in a legal and regulatory fight over the project, thought it has not yet submitted permit applications.

Fishermen and Native groups in the Bristol Bay area say the gold and copper mine is a threat to the region’s water quality and to salmon runs.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Measure Will Tax Alcohol to Pay For Treatment and Services

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 23:46

Exact numbers won’t be available until after committees and the public weigh in.

A measure introduced in the Assembly last night will put a potential tax on alcohol before voters this April.

“What we want to do is dedicate the fund-stream,” Traini explained after the meeting, “to police, to fire, to paramedics, to Health and Human Services, because we have a severe alcohol problem in Anchorage. And we can’t expect Juneau to bail us out of our problem in this town, because they don’t have the money to do it. We need to tax ourselves to take care of the alcohol problem.”

Many specifics have yet to be figured out. For example, the tax rate itself is left blank in the proposal. The Assembly’s finance committee will assess what revenues can be expected from different options, ranging from around three to eight percent.

The Committee on Public Safety is all set to discuss at the measure. As is an ad hoc committee headed by Assembly member Bill Evans that is tasked with looking into connections between homelessness and substance abuse.

Traini stressed that funds will help address the shortage of treatment options like detox centers in Anchorage. “There’s so many times people say ‘Hey, I wanna get off alcohol,’” he explained. “The problem is right now we don’t have the beds for it.”

Anchorage voters will decide whether or not to adopt the law. Public testimony on the matter is scheduled for January 27th and February 3rd. Municipal elections are April 7th.

Categories: Alaska News

Halcro Announces Candidacy for Mayor of Anchorage

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 23:22

Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president, Andrew Halcro, announced he is leaving his position in order to run for mayor of Alaska’s largest city.

Speaking to retired public employees at the Anchorage Senior Activities Center Tuesday, Halcro explained he’s filed paperwork to officially launch a bid to be mayor.

Though mentioning his intent to run a positive campaign, Halcro described the decision to run as stemming from what he described as “Tammany Hall” style politics in Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration.

“I don’t know how anyone that’s awake can be $25 million over on a $9 million project,” Halcro told the crowd, referring to the Municipality’s delays and cost over-runs bringing the new SAP payroll software system online.

Citing his business background and years with the Chamber of Commerce, Halcro said his approach to the local economy will combine fiscal prudence with adaptability to a changing revenue landscape, including expanding tourism efforts in Anchorage and finding new ways to finance capital projects.

Halcro served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1998 until 2002, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor against Sarah Palin.

Other major candidates in the mayor’s race are Assembly member Amy Demboski, as well as former Assembly members Dan Coffey and Paul Bauer.

The municipal election is April 7th.

Categories: Alaska News

State’s New Attorney General Outlines Department’s Challenges

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:58

Alaska’s new attorney general is a 39-year-old who has spent the last 10 years practicing law with Governor Bill Walker. Craig Richards grew up in Fairbanks. He’s enthusiastic about his new position.

Richards says the department of law is dealing with two big challenges right now – the first is the National Guard issue

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Categories: Alaska News

Elim Celebrates Elder’s 100th Birthday

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:54

Elim’s Eliza Katongan celebrates her 100th birthday.

Elim’s Eliza Katongan celebrated a big milestone last week: she’s officially been alive for a century, and she says it feels good.

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On Thursday, Jan. 8, friends and family travelled from all over, including Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Koyuk, and Montana, to celebrate Eliza’s 100th birthday.

Eliza’s niece, Grace Morris of Koyuk, said of her aunt, “she’s a real blessing to me and my family, and I praise God that she lived 100 years old!”

Pink and purple streamers hung in the Elim School gymnasium as more than 100 people were welcomed for the birthday celebration and potluck, featuring the Native food Eliza most enjoys.

In her 100 years, Eliza has touched countless lives. Born in 1915 at the original site of Shaktoolik, six miles up the Shaktoolik River, Eliza later settled in Elim, where she has lived most of her life. She had 14 children, and has dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great grandchildren.

Family members and friends know Eliza as a loving caretaker and a fountain of cultural and subsistence knowledge, and they were eager to share stories of how Eliza has impacted their lives.

Morris, who lost her mother at a young age, described Eliza as her “mentor.” She said, “As I was remembering this morning, I said, man, she saw a lot of changes in her lifetime, from using dog team, to snow machine and now probably truck every now and then. She’s one of the first I know of who lived this long within our area.”

Others shared stories of Eliza’s love and skill for berry picking, fishing, and sewing.

“When she was 93 years old, she used to come get me,” said Michelle Saccheus, Eliza’s great-granddaughter. “She’d go knock on the door, and she’d say, ‘Go get my Honda! Let’s go pick berries,’ or, ‘Let’s go pick greens.’”

Paul Nakaruk grew up in Elim and has known Eliza his whole life. “She has done a lot for the community,” he said. “I have some things that she made over the years, even a pair of dog mittens that she gave me from years back. She’s a real active lady, still moving around and shopping and getting around.”

Several people noted that it is Eliza’s generous, loving spirit and life philosophy of forgiveness that have helped her to live so long.

“I never in my life saw her go a day in want,” said Violet La Forge, Eliza’s daughter, during an opening prayer. “I saw she gave what she had—all the food that she put away, she gave to people in need. Because of that, she is blessed.”

Eliza’s niece, Teresa Sockpealuk-Perry, shared one piece of wisdom that Eliza has repeated throughout her life. “One of things she said was ‘Forgiveness is a great thing to live by. We need to continue to forgive people who do us wrong.’ She has had a lot of sorrow in her life and if she carried all that sorrow inside her, she wouldn’t have been this healthy.”

The celebration lasted about five hours, with live performances of some of Eliza’s favorite songs and, of course, a joyful rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song in honor of Eliza’s special day.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 13, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:53

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

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Habitat Director Out, As Walker Administration Shifts Approach To Permitting

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

When Gov. Bill Walker took office, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was in the midst of overhauling its habitat policies. Management plans for 3 million acres of fish, bird, bear, and moose habitat were being rewritten in a way that could allow more development. Division Director Randy Bates described the approach in a 2013 interview with APRN.

Meyer Decides Against Pierre Contract For Press Work

The Associated Press

The incoming Alaska Senate president has decided against hiring a former state military affairs official to help the Senate majority press office this session.

‘Hire More Heroes Act’ Passes U.S. House Unanimously

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Despite the fierce fights waged in Congress over the Affordable Care Act, a bill to loosen the employer mandate sailed through the U.S. House last week. The vote was unanimous for what’s called the “Hire More Heroes Act.” The aim is to encourage small businesses to employ veterans. The bill says veterans wouldn’t count toward the 50-employee threshold that determines whether a business is required to offer health insurance.

State’s New Attorney General Outlines Department’s Challenges

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska’s new attorney general is a 39-year-old who has spent the last 10 years practicing law with Governor Bill Walker. Craig Richards grew up in Fairbanks. He’s enthusiastic about his new position.

Richards says the department of law is dealing with two big challenges right now- the first is the National Guard issue.

Placer Mining Big Business in Alaska, Report Finds

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Most placer mining operations in Alaska are small, but combined they bring in about $100 million a year. That’s according to a new study from the Alaska Miners Association looking at the economic impact of placer mine operations across the state.

Forest Service Proposes Mendenhall Glacier Fee Increase

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The U.S. Forest Service is holding a public meeting in Juneau Tuesday to discuss a proposed fee increase at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center starting with the 2016 tourist season.

Path Cleared Through Kuskokwim Ice Jam For K300

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

After a strange freeze up and a few winter thaws, the Kuskokwim 300 will follow the Kuskokwim River exclusively from Bethel to Aniak and back on the same trail.

Elim Celebrates Elder’s 100th Birthday

Kristin Leffler, KNOM – Nome

Last week more than 100 people gathered in Elim–a small community of about 330 people on the Seward Peninsula–to be a part of a milestone for elder Eliza Katongan: a celebration of a century of life.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Hire More Heroes Act’ Passes U.S. House Unanimously

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:50

Despite the fierce fights waged in Congress over the Affordable Care Act, a bill to loosen the employer mandate sailed through the U.S. House last week.

The vote was unanimous for what’s called the “Hire More Heroes Act.” The aim is to encourage small businesses to employ veterans. The bill says veterans wouldn’t count toward the 50-employee threshold that determines whether a business is required to offer health insurance. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill.

“When they get out of the military they’re looking for employment,” Murkowski said. “We want there to be no barriers.”

The bill would apply to employers who hire anyone with heath care covered by the VA or Tricare, the military insurance program, so it appears to include active duty family members, too. In Alaska, one in 10 residents is a veteran, according to the VA. Murkowski says the bill wouldn’t diminish the health care law.

“If your federal government is caring for your health care needs in one area, do we need to do a double dip, if you will, by requiring the employer to also provide for that level of care?” she said. “So I don’t think it undercuts the Affordable Care Act in any way.”

This year, for the first time, businesses with 100 or more full-time employees are required to offer health insurance or pay a penalty. The threshold drops to 50 employees next year.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the “Hire More Heroes” bill would cost the government some $86 million a year in lost penalty revenues.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Forest Service Proposes Mendenhall Glacier Fee Increase

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:43

Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The U.S. Forest Service is holding a public meeting tonight to discuss a proposed fee increase at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center starting with the 2016 tourist season.

Not only is the agency looking to raise the fee for the visitor center itself, but for the first time it wants to charge people for the use of some nearby trails.

Visitor center director John Neary says it would be the first cost increase at the facility since 1999, and would help offset federal budget cuts.

“What Congress allocates us is in rapid decline,” Neary says. “My budget – the Congressionally-allocated portion – has dropped 50 percent in just the last couple of years, not to mention previous drops.”

Under the proposal, the visitor center entry fee would go from $3 to $5, and a new $5 fee would be charged to use the Photo Point Trail, the Steep Creek Trail, the viewing pavilion, bus shelter and restrooms.

Other areas near the Mendenhall Glacier, including the Nugget Falls Trail, the Trail of Time and the East and West Glacier Trails would continue to be free. Seasonal passes would cost $10 and the fees would be waived during the tourism off season.

While reaction on some message boards has been largely negative since the proposal was announced last month, Neary says the written comments he’s received have been 2-to-1 in favor of the increase.

“I’m aware that there’s a significant amount of people that have concerns,” he says. “I’m not hearing from them by email. So that is the official way to comment is by email, by letter or by phone call directly to us.”

Or, he says, you can go to tonight’s meeting at the visitor center from 5 to 7 p.m.

The comment period lasts through Jan. 30. After that, the agency will consider all of the comments and make a final decision later this year.

Categories: Alaska News

Placer Mining Big Business in Alaska, Report Finds

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 16:06

Placer mining operations bring in over $100 million a year in Alaska. (Photo: Alaska Mining Association)

Most placer mining operations in Alaska are small, but combined they bring in more than $100 million a year. That’s according to a new study from the Alaska Miners Association looking at the economic impact of placer mine operations across the state.

In 2013 alone, the report finds placer mining—or the mining of streambeds and other deposits carried by water or erosion for minerals—was active in nearly 300 operations around the state, about 30 percent of which are in Nome. Alicia Amberg, the deputy director of the Alaska Miners Association, said it can be difficult to describe a “typical’ placer operation, but many have elements in common.

Placer mining operations in 2014. (Image: Alaska Miners Association via the McDowell Group)

“Most of our placer mining operations in the state mine for gold,” Amberg said, referring to the new report. She added most are “in remote locations” not accessible by road, with miners relying instead on plane or ATV. “Our average amount of employees on the placer operations in the state are around four,” with many family-run operations, she added.

For years, placer mining has been a steady trade for small-scale operations, but exact numbers as to how many people engage in placer mining, and just how much money placer operations generate has been hard to know. The new study commissioned by the AMA from research firm the McDowell Group combines a statewide survey of miners with data from the Department of Natural Resources to shed light on just how big of an economic engine placer operations truly are.

“The big takeaway from this report is that there is a significant economic impact of placer mining in the state of Alaska,” Amberg said. “That’s jobs, revenue, money that is spent in our state, and that … placer mining truly is the seventh ‘large mine’ in the state of Alaska.”

The reports finds placer operations directly employ up to 1,200 workers every year. Most are seasonal jobs, and more than 70 percent of workers are Alaska residents. And the report says the operations pay well, too, with more than $65 million in goods and services spent keeping the operations going, of which nearly 90 percent is spent in-state.

Sale tax revenue from the City of Nome. (Image: City of Nome)

Barb Nickels with the Nome Chamber of Commerce said that is consistent with what they see on the ground in Nome during the busy summer mining season.

“The economic impact of mining to our Nome economy is certainly positive,” Nickels said, reading from a prepared statement. “Jobs have been created for many local residents. Multiple local businesses that provide goods and services have reported increased sales and income during these months. Even the businesses that offer the daily needs such as our grocery stores and restaurants have reported increased sales.”

That’s partially borne out by the City of Nome’s own figures, which shows a peak in collected sales tax during the summer, with the numbers generally peaking higher every summer for the last five years.

Deantha Crockett, the Executive Director at AMA, said even as placer mines disappear elsewhere in the country, the report shows they are still a viable mining option in Alaska.

“There are far fewer placer miners today in the United States than there were three or four decades ago, and frankly, 99 percent of them are in Alaska,” she said. “We’ve got this vibrant industry that, there’s a perception out there should be a historic practice … that’s not the case here in Alaska. It’s a healthy industry and it has really important economic impacts.”

The State of Alaska also makes money of active placer minds through royalties, taxes, claim rentals, and other fees, but the AMA cites “confidentiality issues and other data restrictions” as keeping an exact dollar estimate for that state revenue out of the report.

Categories: Alaska News

Path Cleared Through Kuskokwim Ice Jam For K300

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 15:53

Oscar Samuelson helped with clearing the ice jam near Kalskag. (Photo Courtesy of Mark Leary)

After a strange freeze up and a couple winter thaws, the Kuskokwim 300 will follow the Kuskokwim River exclusively from Bethel to Aniak and back on the same trail.

Race manager Zach Fansler says the giant ice jam below Kalskag near Coffee’s Bend has been cleared.

“They went through with an ATV and with a snowmachine to kind of test the depths, then they used preliminarily a dozer from Upper Kalskag, went through and kind of cleared an initial path, then they used a truck plow I think to go from Kalskag to Aniak to clear the initial pass,” Fansler said. “Then they followed that with some heavy-duty graders that were I think from the Traditional Village of Napaimute.”

Ice jam below Kalskag. (Photo Courtesy of BSAR)

The ice jam formed on the river in November and consists of about four miles of sheets and boulders of ice three to five feet tall. The Kuskokwim 300 is an approximately 300-mile long sled-dog race that usually includes some trails off the river, but with almost no snow on the ground and icy conditions, organizers decided to stick to the river. Clearing a trail through the ice jumble was made possible through joint funding and manpower from nine organizations and tribes in the area.

“It’s still bumpy and windy, were gonna keep working on improving it and the weather will help,” Mark Leary, a resident of Napaimute who was part of the crew said. ”If it snows it’ll get better, if it rains it’ll get better, and people driving on it more and more it’ll get better.”

Before they cleared a path through the ice jam, Leary says it was nearly impossible to get through it.

“Well it was hard and slow, there was no danger, there’s always some risk involved when you’re working on the ice but everybody that was involved is experienced,” he said. “We were just glad when we were through it, we were glad, everybody shook hands and we talked about how to keep working on it to make it better and safer for everybody.”

Leary says this is the third a jam like formed in his lifetime, and the first time so many village organizations have gotten involved. The Kuskokwim 300 race is scheduled to start Friday, Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. 31 mushers are signed up.

Learn more at the K300 here.

Categories: Alaska News

Meyer Decides Against Pierre Contract For Press Work

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-01-13 15:41

The incoming Alaska Senate president has decided against hiring a former state military affairs official to help the Senate majority press office this session.

Sen. Kevin Meyer last week told colleagues he had decided to hire McHugh Pierre on contract to work in the press shop. But details had not been worked out, and no contract had been signed.

Pierre last year was asked to resign his job as a deputy commissioner in the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs as part of a leadership change following a scathing report on problems within the Alaska National Guard. Pierre said he did nothing wrong.

Meyer told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Pierre could have become a distraction for the caucus.

Categories: Alaska News

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