Alaska News

Begich Pledges To Restore Veteran Benefits

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:28

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015.

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All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease.

Photo by Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC.

Senator Mark Begich today stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

At first, the cut doesn’t sound like much. It would drop a retiree’s cost-of-living adjustment one point below the inflation rate until the veteran reaches age 62. But some enlistees retire and start collecting their pensions while still in their 30s, so this COLA cut could mean diminished benefits for two and a half decades.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says for some individuals, it adds up to an $80,000 sacrifice.

“But I think most importantly it’s a broken promise,” Rieckhoff said. “This is America breaking their promise to men and women in uniform, and it’s unprecedented.”

Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, and they’re relatively young.  More than a quarter of them have served since 2001. It’s no surprise, then, that Alaska’s congressional delegation is getting an earful. Sen. Begich says he’s heard from more than 800 Alaskans objecting to the cut.

“I can tell you, the calls to me office are coming in 2-to-1, 3-to-1 over the next most popular issue, healthcare,” Begich said. “So this issue has taken front and center.”

Begich defends his vote for the budget containing the COLA cut, saying it was necessary to prevent another government shutdown. More than a dozen bills have been introduced to rollback the COLA cut. It’s a popular position in Congress, and Begich, running for re-election this year, sides with the veterans.

“When these heroes signed up and made the military a career, it’s what they were promised and what they expected, and they should expect no less now,” Begich said.

He isn’t proposing a specific way to pay for the rollback but says finding the money – $6 billion over 10 years – won’t be too difficult.

Some lawmakers are proposing to take it out of the Defense budget – exactly what the Pentagon fears. Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that something must be done to rein in personnel costs, which he says are unsustainably high. He says military compensation has been climbing since the 1990s and is now higher on average when compared to equivalent civilian jobs. Winnefeld says the growing cost threatens the Defense Department’s ability to prepare the troops.

“In the end, we believe the most important way we keep faith with the fantastic young men and women who volunteer to defend our nation is to only send them into combat with the best possible training and equipment we can provide,” Winnefeld said. “Controlling compensation growth in a tough budget environment will help us do just that.”

But even he says he can’t support the COLA cut that Congress passed.

Winnefeld says such a change should include a grandfather clause to exempt current retirees and service members.

Categories: Alaska News

USDA Under Secretary Patrice Kunesh Visits Bethel Region

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:27

Patrice Kunesh, Under Secretary of the USDA Rural Development, visited the Bethel region Tuesday to see some of the department’s projects in action.

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Kunesh and an entourage from D.C. and Anchorage toured the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, met with the Association of Village Council Presidents and stopped into Meyers Farm.

KYUK Acting General Manager, Shane Iverson, receives the grant from Patrice Kunesh with Jim Norlund looking on. Photo by Dean Swope.

Farmer Tim Meyers has grown so much local produce on the tundra in Bethel that he is exporting to Anchorage and Bristol Bay.

Kunesh says the USDA is committed to making sure locally grown foods support the community both economically and nutritionally.

“One of the things we’ve seen in some of the harshest conditions is folks just not getting good fresh food,” Kunesh says. “It compromises health, it compromises vitality.”

Jim Norlund is the USDA Rural Development Alaska State Director and was acting as tour guide.

“As Alaskans, we’re pretty good at providing protein as we have wild fish and game in our freezers but what’s really missing from a lot of rural Alaska is the access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Norlund says.

Kunesh also visited two villages: housing projects in Quinihagak and conservation projects in Kwethluk.

While in Bethel, Kunesh announced a $718,656 grant to Bethel Broadcasting, Inc. which runs KYUK. The money will expand two digital channels into eight free TV channels.

Long-time KYUK Engineer, Joe Seibert, says the grant will also buy digital production equipment to help archive 40 years of video, some of which is still on reel to reel.

“One of our main missions is to document and preserve information about the local culture and area and we have over 3,000 hours of video tape that’s slowly going bad because video has a shelf life to it. It will break down over time,” Seibert says.

The Bethel visit is part of a three-day Alaska tour. Kunesh will be in Anchorage Wednesday and Juneau Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Drug Court Could Offer Jail Alternative

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:26

A Fairbanks substance abuse counselor is pushing for the state to consider an alternative to jail for drug offenders. The effort is in response to a steady stream of young heroin addicts, some of whom end up in jail.

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Categories: Alaska News

Temperature Records Fall Across Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:25

UPDATE: Alyeska Resort’s Chair 6, Tram, Ted’s Express, Quad, and Magic Carpets will reopen Thursday, 1/30/14 at 1:00 p.m.

Temperature records fell across the state yesterday. With highs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, much of the state is experiencing weather that feels more like May or June than January.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

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Port Alsworth, on Lake Clark, was the warmest spot in the state Monday at 62 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska in January. Nome hit 51 degrees, the highest mid winter temperature recorded there.

Rick Thoman is Climate Program Manager for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. He says a big high pressure system has been stuck over most of the state.

“It’s lasted almost 10 days now so this has provided a lot of time for warm air to be moved north, to melt snow in places that normally have snow this time of year and produce lots of temperature extremes,” Thoman said.

Seward hit 61 degrees on Monday. It was 57 in Homer. Even the Brooks Range has seen temperatures in the 40s.

The length of the warm spell is noteworthy. Thoman says you have to go back to the late 1970s or early 80s to find anything similar.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

“This is one of those dramatic excursions that kind of get weather people excited,” Thoman said.

In Girdwood, home to Alyeska Ski Resort, this ‘dramatic excursion’ from normal winter elicits a different reaction.

“I just looked up the mountain and it’s frightful right now,” Stefanie Flynn, who co-owns The Bake Shop, a popular restaurant at the base of Alyeska, said.

The ski resort will be closed until Thursday, due to poor conditions. Flynn says The Bake Shop will stay open, but business has been slow.

“We see very unhappy, sad looking customers, but we also see that of course the numbers are lacking, we don’t get as many people into our restaurant for lunch or breakfast so we do see the impact here, especially on the weekends,” Flynn said.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

Flynn says the raspberries in her yard are leafing out. She’s hoping winter will return quickly with a healthy dump of snow. But Rick Thoman, from the National Weather Service says that’s not likely any time soon. He says the warm temperatures will begin to moderate, but snow isn’t in the forecast for at least the next few weeks.

“It really does not appear that we will see significant snowfall over most of Alaska so that places that have lost their snow cover or have a serious ice cover on their snow are not likely to get much relief from that,” Thoman said. “And really at this point, in the next two weeks we don’t see temperatures dramatically below normal most anywhere in Alaska.”

A recent Facebook post offered what may be the shortest and most accurate way to describe the unusual weather- June-uary.

Categories: Alaska News

Warm Winter Brings Open Water To Y-K Delta

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:24

Kuskokwim River at Bethel on January 25, 2014. Photo by Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel.

Record warm temperatures have depleted Alaska’s snowpack and melted river ice. And residents of the YK Delta have noticed more open water in recent weeks. It’s not technically breakup, but in many places, it sure looks and feels like it.

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George Bright Senior is a VPSO in Goodnews Bay. He woke up Monday morning and saw open water.

“I mean it’s like springtime, said Bright. “Open water.”

He says Goodnews Bay and all three rivers that combine and empty into Goodnews Bay are open.

“The news has spread, so we might have some people going out seal hunting, going upriver and seining for trout, stuff like that,” said Bright.

James Charles lives in Tuntutuliak. He says there’s open water in front of Tuntutuliak slough from Helemik point on down to the mouth of the river.

“See it usually freezes by this time and has been frozen by December or January. But this time it’s open all the way,” said Charles.

He says people are not traveling by snowmachine on the river, but are going on a tundra trail instead. He says high tides are leading to extensive overflow in some low areas.

Scott Lindsey is a hydrologist for the Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center. He says the warm temperatures and rain are certainly unusual, but the Kuskokwim as a whole is not immediately at risk of breaking up.

“In order to really get breakup going, we’d have to have either a big rainfall even like we had several years ago, or temperatures where you had above freezing at higher elevations. There’s still lot of snow up in the mountains. In order to start breakup to really push down the river, you’d have to have a push of snowmelt coming from the mountains, and I don’t anticipate that’s going happen now,” said Lindsey.

Bethel can expect above normal temperatures through out the week, with highs above freezing through Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Biofuel Could Help Lessen Rural Energy Costs

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:23

The community of Tok hosts a thick, growing forest of spruce trees, and a thinning, shrinking population of people and businesses. Like elsewhere in rural Alaska, high-energy costs and a lack of jobs are causing people to leave. But the trees may be the solution to bringing people back.

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Categories: Alaska News

NIOSH Tackling Fishing Industry Injuries

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:22

For more than 20 years, NIOSH has been working to prevent accidental deaths in the fishing industry. Now, these safety experts are tackling injuries – the kind fishermen are used to getting every season.

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In her time at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Jennifer Lincoln says she’s found a common cause behind the most serious fishing accidents.

“If you ask me what leads to fatalities in the fishing industry, it’s drowning,” Lincoln said. “It’s vessel losses and falls overboard.”

Lincoln directs the Alaska field office for NIOSH.

Their commercial fishing experts have been studying fatal accidents since 1991. Using their research, they’ve come up with a slew of mechanical gadgets – like door monitors and emergency winch stops – to make boats safer.

But Lincoln says it’s not clear if there’s a button or sensor out there that can keep fishermen from getting hurt.

“What we don’t know – what we don’t have as much information about – are non-fatal injuries,” Lincoln said.

Injuries aren’t tracked like fatalities – in part, because they are so common. But getting hurt can have big implications for a fisherman, like lost time and wages,” Lincoln said. “If a problem goes untreated at sea for too long, it can lead to more serious ailments.

And that can be painful. Jake Jacobsen has fished in the crab fleet. He can rattle off some gruesome accidents.

“I know guys that have had their foot smashed and bones broken when we were fishing way out west in the Aleutians, and they just stayed on the boat and wrapped it in a plastic bag, and ran the crane until they get to town and have a doctor look at it,” Jacobsen said.

Unalaska’s clinic sees a lot of those patients. That’s why Lincoln, from NIOSH, teamed up with a state epidemiologist to study the local patient load.

Lincoln says they looked through the Unalaska clinic’s medical charts from 2007 to 2008.

“What was interesting to me is that, in that two-year time period, a fisherman came in every other day to the clinic to be treated for a traumatic injury,” Lincoln said.

Most of the time, it was a sprain or contusion. It usually happened while they were catching fish or processing it.

“They were hit by something, or struck by something, or crushed by something,” Lincoln said.

That could be fishing gear, or even a box of frozen fish stored aboard a processing vessel.

Those are pretty basic observations. Lincoln says there are some useful takeaways.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of time that goes by before they’re seen at the clinic,” Lincoln said. “So the people on the vessel need to be properly trained in managing the injury.”

Lincoln is sharing these results with safety officers at fishing companies. Eventually, she wants to be to find the patterns in how fishermen get injured.

That would require a bigger pool of data, which Lincoln says NIOSH can get by teaming up with the state Fishermen’s Fund and the Coast Guard. Once they figure out the underlying causes, NIOSH can start suggesting tools to cut down on accidents.

But they’re never going to be able to eliminate them, says Jake Jacobsen.

He started out as a fisherman and now oversees about 80 crab boats in the Inter-Cooperative Exchange. Jacobsen says ending the derby-style fishery made crabbing safer. But still:

“You get knocked around a bit out there, out on deck,” Jacobsen said.

That leads to lots of small injuries. When accidents happen:

“If they’re little things, fishermen are kind of disinclined to talk about it anyways,” Jacobsen said. “You get over it.”

And even if you can cut down on the risk of accidents, it’s a lot harder to change the culture of fishing — the expectation of long hours, big payoffs, and the battle scars to show for it.

Stephanie Joyce contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

High Tech Trackers Gather Info On Cook Inlet Kings, Reds

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:21

The Alaska Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the Cook Inlet fisheries in Anchorage next week. One of the more difficult issues before the board is the declining King salmon runs and demands by sports fishing interests to shut down the commercial catch of reds to let every precious king into the Kenai River system.

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In Cook Inlet, the  statewide decline of King Salmon has raised the long running Cook Inlet Fish Wars between commercial and sports fishermen to a fever pitch.

Last summer east side setnetters became the latest casualty as their fishery was shut down by a fish board dominated by sports fishermen.

In the middle of that battle, working almost unnoticed was a group of scientists wielding high tech tools.  David Welch’s company “Kintama”  deployed receivers and inserted internal radio tags into two species of Cook Inlet salmon: the  Sockeye reds targeted by commercial fishing fleet and the Chinook Kings treasured by sports fishermen to gather data on where these fish are as they swim to spawning grounds in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.

“Well, it’s basically the size of a tube of lipstick,” Welch said.

Last week Welch presented an animated map showing the path the salmon took.  The data he gathered documented in real time how far each tagged fish was from shore and how deep it swam.  Fish biologists have know for a long time that Chinooks prefer the bottom and sockeyes like the surface, but till now they have not had hard data.

On the map, the tagged sockeyes marked in red swam off shore till they got close to the river’s mouth and then they would home in.

“My suspicion is that the sockeye are found even further off shore, but of course we don’t have data beyond where we have the instruments,” Welch said. “But then when they are coming into the Kenai River they move quite quickly into the Kenai.”

That behavior contrasted with the Chinooks who stayed close to shore and tended to hang out there for 20 days before making a dash into the river.

“On a flood tide basically so they probably get away from seals and other predators that are waiting at the river mouth,” Welch said.

Welch’s study is good news for the Cook Inlet drift fishermen because it shows little potential for Chinook interception in their fishery, but the picture for east side setnetters is less clear.

There’s a big problem in Welch’s work. There were no receivers in the mile and a half segment right off the shore where setnets sites are located.

“We can do that but we just didn’t have enough time to build the equipment that’s needed cause that a very tough area,” Welch said. “It’s very shallow, big tides, big waves, so we have to build specialized containers for the receivers so they’ll survive long enough.”

Welch hopes the state will give him the money to capture better fish behavior data to help resolve the allocation battles in Cook Inlet to the benefit of all Human users.

“One of the things we hope we can do is to use the depth data so that the sockeye fishermen can design their nets so they can catch the sockeye while minimizing interceptions of Chinooks,” Welch said. “So hopefully we can put the data on the table so the folks can sit down and figure out what might be done.”

Until now, no one has bothered to ask the salmon what they think of the Fish Wars but there may be a hint in Welch’s study, which found two Kings that wanted no part of it.  They head out as far and as fast as they could.

“We got a call while we were still out tagging that it was caught in Uyak bay in the northern part of Kodiak Island,” Welch said.

The other rogue King headed south where he was found two months later in the mouth of Columbia River.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 28, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:01

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 alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Begich Pushing To Restore Veteran Benefits

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015. All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease. Senator Mark Begich today stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

USDA Under Secretary Patrice Kunesh Visits Bethel Region

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Rural Alaska’s infrastructure is young. Many homes still use honey buckets. A lot of the funding to build the infrastructure comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA funds water and sewer projects, as well as housing, energy, and communications projects and even ones that support growing local food.

Drug Court Could Offer Jail Alternative

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Fairbanks substance abuse counselor is pushing for the state to consider an alternative to jail for drug offenders. The effort is in response to a steady stream of young heroin addicts, some of whom end up in jail.

Temperature Records Fall Across Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Temperature records fell across the state yesterday. With highs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, much of the state is experiencing weather that feels more like May or June than January.

Warm Winter Brings Open Water To Y-K Delta

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Warm temperatures have depleted Alaska’s snowpack and melted river ice.  And residents of the Yukon Kuskokwim delta have noticed more open water in recent weeks.

Biofuel Could Help Lessen Rural Energy Costs

Anne Hillman, APRN – Anchorage

The community of Tok hosts a thick, growing forest of spruce trees, and a thinning, shrinking population of people and businesses. Like elsewhere in rural Alaska, high-energy costs and a lack of jobs are causing people to leave. But the trees may be the solution to bringing people back.

NIOSH Tacking Fishing Industry Injuries

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

For more than 20 years, NIOSH has been working to prevent accidental deaths in the fishing industry. Now, these safety experts are tackling injuries – the kind fishermen are used to getting every season.

Board Of Fish Ponders Low Salmon Run Solutions

Johanna Eurich, APRN Contributor

The Alaska Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the Cook Inlet fisheries in Anchorage next week. One of the more difficult issues before the board is the declining King salmon runs and demands by sports fishing interests to shut down the commercial catch of reds to let every precious king into the Kenai River system.

Categories: Alaska News

9 People Apply For Alaska House Vacancy

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 11:53

Nine people have applied to fill the vacancy in the Alaska House left by last week’s resignation of Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat.

The list, released by the Tongass Democrats, includes Ken Alper, a former Kerttula aide who works as an oil and gas analyst for minority Democrats.

Other applicants are Nancy Barnes, James Betts, Sara Hannan, Jesse Kiehl, Sam Kito III, Tim Lamkin, Kim Metcalfe and Catherine Reardon.

All applicants were given a questionnaire to complete by noon on Friday. Tongass Democrats say public interviews of the candidates are planned this weekend, with plans to forward a list of three finalists to the governor.

House Democrats will have to ratify the appointee.

Kerttula last week stepped down as minority leader and resigned to take a fellowship with Stanford University.

Categories: Alaska News

Sea Lion Lunges At Sitka Fisherman

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 11:20

A 19-year-old Sitka man had a run-in with a sea lion at Seafood Producers Cooperative on Saturday.

Sea lions touch noses as one clambers onto a buoy in Sitka Sound. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau.

Alaska State Troopers say the man was sitting on the railing of a fishing vessel when a large bull pounced. The sea lion jumped out of the water and attempted to bite him — on the behind, causing the man to fall forward into the vessel.

The bitten man was a crew member on the Sitka-based Fishing Vessel Confidence, which was offloading bait herring at the time, according to State Troopers Spokesperson Megan Peters.

Julie Speegle, a spokesperson with the National Marine Fisheries Service says the man did not require medical attention.  “There were no puncture wounds, just abrasions,” she said.

According to Speegle, quote,  “it isn’t unheard of for big and powerful wild animals to habituate to humans, and see us as a food source.” Troopers do not believe that the crew was feeding sea lions, but, just to be safe, officials are reminding fisherman and hunters to dispose of waste properly, rather than dumping carcasses or scraps in the harbor.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Begin Review of Gasline Project

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 19:37

It took Gov. Sean Parnell three years to get his oil tax overhaul through the Legislature. Now, the goal is to pass a bill setting the terms for a massive natural gas pipeline in 90 days. Hearings on the project started today, and a half dozen more are scheduled through this week alone. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The gasline bill that Gov. Sean Parnell produced Friday is long and detailed. So detailed in fact that the title alone takes up two pages.

But here are a few highlights: The legislation taxes natural gas at a rate of 10.5 percent starting in 2022. It allows for those taxes to be directly paid in gas instead of money. It expands the powers of the natural resources commissioner and the revenue commissioner to work out a deal with all the other parties involved. The governor has said this is the sort of stuff that needs to get turned into law if the North Slope producers are going to lock themselves into a project that’s expected to cost upwards of $45 billion.

For lawmakers to lock themselves into the project as well, they want to be assured Parnell’s arrangement is going to work.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Monday morning, Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer wanted to know what made this gasline proposal better than all the other plans he’d seen. He likes the idea of the state partnering with the North Slope producers and getting an ownership share in the projects, but needs to hear a little more.

“This one is a little different, and so I am trying to get excited – I am excited – but is there anything else you can share to help my excitement?” asked Meyer. “I’m getting old, I’ve been hearing this too many times, and I’m done doing cartwheels. But I do want to see a gas pipeline in my lifetime.”

Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash says there are two big reasons why this gasline is more likely to be built. One, the legal settlement over gas at Point Thomson has made Exxon more eager to develop their leases there.

And two:

BALASH: In the past, when the companies have evaluated various opportunities to commercialized North
Slope gas, they’ve had to take into account the oil that would not get produced if the gas was blown out and sold.

Balash says that’s not the case anymore.

“What we see in the next decade is that we are approaching the turning point in the field’s economics in the recovery of gas versus oil.”

While that answer satisfied some questions about the viability of a natural gas megaproject, it triggered a whole different set of questions about the state’s energy outlook. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican, pointed out that just last session, the Legislature passed Parnell’s oil tax bill on the premise that it would boost production of that resource.

“The exercise that we went through last year, how does that jibe with the gas approach this year?” asked Dunleavy. “In other words, we are anticipating and hoping for more production. Does that more production in oil is that predicated on the long use system of re-injecting gas, or is there another approach?”

Balash responded that the oil tax act they voted on last year will accelerate this transition to gas by encouraging Exxon, Conoco, and BP to produce more oil now. Mike Pawlowski, a deputy commissioner with the Department of Revenue who was also testifying on the project, added that the whole Prudhoe Bay Unit still has areas with untapped oil within it that don’t fit in within that oil-gas trade-off.

The bill is slated to be heard in the resource and finance committees in both chambers, as well as the House Labor & Commerce Committee.

Categories: Alaska News

State, Valdez Officials Assess Richardson Highway Avalanches

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:22

UPDATED 4:22 p.m. - Alaska Department of Transportation continues to monitor the Richardson Highway after avalanches over the weekend cutoff road access to the city of Valdez.

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Officials gave an update on the situation during a teleconference earlier Monday afternoon.

Valdez may not have road access, but progress has been made to provide transportation to its residents.

Following an aerial assessment of multiple areas, the Alaska Department of Transportation determined that some mountains along the Richardson Highway are still fairly active.  DOT maintenance engineer Jason Sakalaskas said once those areas are deemed safe, crews will begin work on the northern end of the avalanche area near Milepost 39.

“On the north side we do not see a lot of large avalanches, which is good,” Sakalaskas said. “So the cleanup efforts in that location should be fairly minimal, or fairly expeditious.”

As for the Keystone Canyon area, there is still a significant amount of water behind the north side of the dam created by Saturday’s slide. Sakalaskas said there is no safe way to approach relieving the water without removing it from the downstream side.

He did see one positive from the area. The Lowe River in the canyon has begun flowing again.

“We do this as a positive measure because obviously it will drain the impounded flow, but also will be a controlled release of the water, which is on the north side of the canyon,” Sakalaskas said.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 20s and 30s for the rest of the week, but DOT officials are hoping for cooler temperatures to help stabilize avalanche conditions especially at higher elevations.  They don’t expect find any road damage from the slides.

Valdez is still accessible by ferry and plane. The Alaska Marine Highway System modified its schedule to three direct trips between Whittier and Valdez.  Normally, the ferry Aurora sails clockwise from Cordova to Whittier to Valdez and back to Cordova.  DOT Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost explains…

“On Tuesday there will be a trip in each direction starting in Valdez to Whittier, then back from Whittier to Valdez. Thursday, we’ll have the normal Whittier to Valdez sailing; Friday we’ll have a Valdez to Whittier Sailing; Saturday, another Whittier to Valdez and finishing up Sunday with a Valdez to Whittier.”

Era Alaska also added a fourth flight between Valdez and Anchorage.

A voluntary evacuation advisory from the city is still in effect for residents of the Nordic and Alpine Woods subdivisions of the 10 mile area.

The Valdez City Council plans to hear an update on the situation during a special meeting tonight.

Original Story:

Valdez remains cutoff by road from the rest of the state due to avalanches and flooding over the weekend.

Progress has been made in clearing some of the debris on the Richardson Highway, but crews still have a long way to go.

Crews from the Alaska Department of Transportation spent Sunday stabilizing slopes along the Richardson Highway. They were also able to clean up some debris around the 39 Mile area.

DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow says no progress has been made near the Keystone Canyon due to a lake forming behind an avalanche damn.

“The water is coming out of the old railroad tunnel and so water is flowing, which is good news,” Woodrow said. “Though it would be more helpful if the water were decreasing at a faster rate than it is.”

The Nordic and Alpine Woods subdivisions in the 10 Mile area have been under a voluntary evacuation advisory as a result. Valdez Public Information Officer Sherri Pierce says the city is closely monitoring the area.

“We’ve asked them to be prepared if we have any reason to believe that they’re in any sort of imminent danger,” Pierce said.

City officials are working with the Alaska Marine Highway system to increase ferry service to Valdez.

A DOT maintenance engineer arrived Sunday night to assess to the situation as is expected to make a report the findings Monday afternoon.

Valdez City Manager John Hozey, Valdez Police Chief Bill Comer, and Valdez Fire Chief George Keeney plan to do their own assessment via helicopter.

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan, Treadwell Address Variety of Topics At Anchorage Chamber of Commerce

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:21

Two of the Republican candidates vying for U.S. Senator Mark Begich’s job, presented their records and thoughts on a range of issues for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce lunch crowd today.

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Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell and former Attorney General and DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan agreed on all of the topics. From supporting a gas pipeline to denouncing federal overreach and the NSA. Both men are pro-life and both say the Environmental Protection Agency’s watershed assessment in Bristol Bay was too early.

Treadwell says the state invited exploration of the potential for a copper mine in the Bristol Bay region and the EPA made a bad decision. He said the state needs to fight back.

“Because we do protect the environment here. I’m very proud of my record on the environment but I’m very proud of Alaska’s record on the environment. And don’t let them tell you, you aren’t smart enough,” Treadwell said. ”The EPA was looking for a sponsor for a long period of time. With about a million and a half dollars of research they said, we can overcome close to $150 million worth of science on a half trillion dollar project. It’s wrong, we have to fight it, and we have to be outraged. I am.”

Sullivan says the state has the highest standards in the world and companies should be allowed to go through the permitting process. He says the EPA completing a watershed study before there was a Pebble mine proposal was unprecedented.

“They’ve never done it before. And when I was Attorney General and DNR Commissioner, most recently a joint letter from me and Attorney General Geraghty, we asked the EPA, where do you get this authority? They never answered,” Sullivan said. ”And whether you are for Pebble or against it, and I know it’s a controversial project, no Alaskan should be for an EPA that believes it can preemptively look at any project in the state, on state land and tell us whether or not we can move forward on it.”

Anchorage Chamber officials say candidate Joe Miller was invited but declined to appear today. Miller’s spokesman Randy DeSoto says the campaign not aware of an invitation until it was too late to participate.

Categories: Alaska News

Researchers Explore Polar Vortex

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:20

With unseasonably warm weather reaching all the way up into the Brooks Range in Alaska and bitterly cold weather dipping deep into the Lower 48 states, everybody wants to know more about the Polar Vortex – the jet stream that wobbles around the Arctic. Last month in San Francisco a team of scientists with the Byrd Polar Research Center came out with a study that takes one more step toward better understanding that wobble by putting a lot more detail into high-latitude weather records of the past.

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Categories: Alaska News

Admiral Ostebo Discusses Future of Port Clarence

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:19

The U.S. Coast Guard owns Port Clarence, and many entities want a piece of the property, but the Coast Guard intends to hold on to at least some of the real estate.

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As marine traffic escalates through the Bering Strait, the passage is gaining global prominence. And nearby on the Seward Peninsula sits Port Clarence, one of Alaska’s few naturally deep water ports.

The Coast Guard owns the real estate—around 2,500 acres— and was set to divest the property after the site’s LORAN station shutdown in 2010. However, Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Nome recently and said with the port’s strategic proximity to the Arctic and Bering Strait, the branch is keeping some of the land.

“The Coast Guard would like to retain a portion of that property as a hedge for you all, for the federal government, for the people of the U.S. to have a piece of property that’s right adjacent to what could become the most important international strait north of the Panama Canal,” Ostebo said.

The Coast Guard isn’t the only entity interested in Port Clarence. Ostebo says federal agencies, the state, corporations, and industries all want a piece of the property. One of those parties is the Bering Straits Native Corporation. Matt Ganley, BSNC Vice President of Resources and External Affairs, says the Corporation claimed the land in 1977 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the property is one of the final pieces to the Corporation receiving full entitlement.

Ostebo says the Coast Guard will be divesting an undetermined amount of Port Clarence, but couldn’t provide a timeline. He is encouraging interested parties to negotiate agreements amongst themselves before approaching the Coast Guard with an offer.

“My number one objective is that at the end of the day, everybody wins. And I think there’s an everybody wins solution here with the Coast Guard retaining a piece, the state getting a piece, industry maybe getting a piece, other federal agencies getting a piece,” Ostebo said. “And it’s going to take a while.”

In the mean time, Ostebo says the site is well preserved and in working order.

This summer the Coast Guard will station a patrol boat at the port to monitor Bering Sea waters, respond to offshore incidents, and assist with local vessel boardings.

Categories: Alaska News

PILT: Local Municipal Officials Hope Congress Will Fund Federal-Aid Program

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:18

The Army has 657,000 acres of training ranges around Fort Greely, next door to Delta Junction. Because Delta is not located within a borough, the feds gives PILT funds to the state to distribute.

City and borough government officials here in Alaska are a bit on edge about Congress’s failure to provide funding for the PILT program, which helps local governments with a lot of federal land in their areas. The program is especially critical to smaller communities like Delta Junction.

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Local governments can’t impose property taxes on federal land. So, since the late 1970s, the federal government has been paying counties around the country – or boroughs here in Alaska – to compensate them for revenues that they otherwise could’ve generated through property taxes on that land.

That’s the PILT program – it stands forPayments in Lieu of Taxes. It’s not a big program, by federal standards – it totals about $400 million this fiscal year, of which Alaska would get about $27 million.

But Delta Junction Mayor Pete Hallgren says it’s very important for small communities like his, which gets most of its revenue from PILT.

“We’re looking at somewhere close to two-thirds of our income is from the federal PILT,” Hallgren said. “So you can see that the PILT is extremely important to the city.”

But Delta, which is flanked on the south and west by Fort Greely and Army trainingranges, may not receive the $930,000 or so that it’s slated to get from PILT this year. Because, Congress did not include funding for the program in the big omnibus spending package it passed last week.

That’s worries local government officials around the state, including Denali BoroughMayor Clay Walker. He says his borough will lose about a tenth of its revenues if it doesn’t receive the $300,000 that it was scheduled to get through PILT this year.

“Boy, the idea of 10 percent of your budget just getting whacked with no advance notice or planning is just a tough one to swallow,” Walker said.

Walker says the Denali Borough Assembly passed a resolution earlier this month calling on Congress to fund the program. He says the borough counts on PILT to supplement emergency services and solid-waste disposal. It provides those services to both the borough and facilities in the adjacent 6-million-acre Denali National Park.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough stands to lose only about $400,000 if Congress fails to fund PILT. But Mayor Luke Hopkins says the borough is already making painful budget cuts. And borough officials don’t want to ask borough taxpayers to fill a gap created by the lack of PILT revenue.

“Payment in Lieu of Taxes is certainly an important program,” he said, “And we don’t want to see it expire.”

Hopkins says this isn’t the first time that Congress has been slow in funding PILT. The degree of partisan budget battling of the past few years, however, makes this delay disconcerting.

“But this is – this one is getting down really close to the wire,” he said.

The uncertainty is especially worrisome because local governments must soon begin working in earnest on the next fiscal year’s budget.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich says he’s optimistic about the chances of Congress restoring funding for PILT, because it appears to have bipartisan support.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Begich said. “This is about fairness, when the federal government has possession of so much acreage within Alaska, they need to pay for some of these services.”

Begich says members of a House-Senate conference committee that’re working on the Farm Bill have resolved almost all of their differences, and will send the bill back to each house soon. He expects the Senate will then act quickly to work out remaining differences and approve the measure when lawmakers return to Washington next week.

“We have and I have advocated to get this up on the floor of the Senate in short order, because I think we’re close enough that we can resolve these issues,” he said.

Begich says the Farm Bill will also, of course, help Alaska’s agricultural industry. And he says there’s funding for water and sewer systems, as well.

Categories: Alaska News

Western Alaska Residents Await Disaster Relief Money

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:17

President Obama has declared November’s storms in Western Alaska a natural disaster.

The storms inflicted heavy damage on Kotlik and Stebbins, and created problems in other Bering Straits communities.

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Jeremy Zidek with the state Department of Homeland Security says the announcement is significant because it means the U.S. government will foot 75 percent of the bill for public repairs.

“Damages to roads, boardwalks, utilities, other public infrastructure, critical facilities – perhaps like a clinic or school that was damaged, so it’s really to help the community to recover,” Zidek said.

The state provides assistance to individuals and households to help re-coop lost property. Those funds have not yet made it to people in Stebbins. Part of the reason is that the state extended the deadline for applying for assistance until last Friday.

Leaders in Stebbins are finalizing a list of funding priorities for public assistance money. that list includes building a new mitigating seawall, plotting a second evacuation route and accelerating air-strip and water system updates.

Categories: Alaska News

Program Could Loosen Water Pollution Regulations

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:16

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are joining in a new program that allows water polluters to gain clean water credits without reducing the amount of effluent they produce. The deal is not used in Alaska yet, but it allows a permitted facility to purchase pollutant reduction credits from other users within the same watershed. And clean water advocates in the state say the arrangement is missing the point of the Clean Water Act.

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Categories: Alaska News

Chythlook-Sifsof Left Off Olympic Roster

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-27 18:15

A snowboarder with deep ties to the Bristol Bay region will miss out on a return trip to the Olympics.

Girdwood’s Callan Chythlook-Sifsof had hoped to make the U.S. snowboardcross team but when the team was announced on Saturday she was left off.

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Chythlook-Sifsof is now 24-years old and she grew up in Aleknagik and Dillingham before moving with her mother to Girdwood to be closer to the Aleyeska Resort. She was in the running for one of the 3 spots on the women’s snowboardcross team but was edged out by two snowboarders from Vermont and a snowboarder from Utah.

Chythlook-Sifsof was hoping for a return trip to the Olympics. She made the snowboardcross team in 2010 and became the first Alaska Native to compete in the Olympic Winter Games.

Via Facebook, Chythlook-Sifsof issued a statement about missing the Olympics. In that statement she noted that she has been struggling through two consecutive seasons of injury and recovery and she labeled this as one of the toughest seasons yet. She stressed that she’s looking forward to cheering on her teammates in Sochi.

Chythlook-Sifsof suffered a season ending knee injury in February of last year and she battled other injuries this season.

While Chythlook Sifsof will miss the Olympics, she was able to compete in the just-completed X-Games in Aspen. She placed 10 in the women’s snowboardcross competition.

The members of the snowboard cross team that will head to the Olympics were selected based on their World Cut results and Chythlook-Sifsof had finishes of 15th, 19th, 23rd, and 24th.

There are 4 members of the men’s snowboardcross team. Two of the riders are from California, one is from Vermont and the final rider is from Maine.

The head coach of the Olympic Snowboardcross team is Peter Foley who said the U.S. will have a strong team with a mix of seasoned veterans plus some new athletes who are riding very fast.

Categories: Alaska News

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