Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 24, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 16:53

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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Ferry Dock In Skagway Sinks

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

The state ferry in Skagway remains underwater and is closed indefinitely.

Southcentral Foundation Reaches Historic With IHS

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Anchorage based Southcentral Foundation announced a settlement with the Indian Health Service over contract payments that at $96 million represents the largest IHS settlement in history.

Lawmakers Make Tentative Deal On Education Bill

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Negotiators from the State House and Senate have reached a deal on the governor’s education bill, and it includes a mix of permanent and one-time funding increases.

As Legislature Make Progress On Adjourning, KABATA Bill Falls Apart

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Less than two hours after the combative House and Senate seemed to reach a truce on education, a bill dealing with the proposed Knik Arm Bridge fell apart on the House floor.

Investigation Attributes USCG Death To Faulty Equipment, Work Practices

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

The Coast Guard has finished investigating a Bering Sea rescue that left a 28-year-old crewman with fatal head injuries late last year.

According to a review board, faulty equipment and work practices developed by the crew of the cutter Waesche put Petty Officer Travis Obendorf in harm’s way.

Customers Suing GCI For Poor Cell And Data Performance

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

GCI is facing a lawsuit filed by customers along the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska.  The suit alleges that the communications company has been ripping off customers in the YK Delta.

Alaska Food Policy Council Hosts Bethel Town Hall Meeting

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

Members of the Alaska Food Policy Council hosted a town hall meeting in Bethel last week to gather information they’ll use to guide statewide food policy.

NOAA Investigating Rare Whale Beachings

Anna Rose MacArthur, KNOM – Nome

Three rarely seen whales beached on Alaska’s coast last year, and NOAA Fisheries is investigating whether human activity contributed to the strandings.

More Tourists Expected In Petersburg This Year

Angela Denning, KFSK – Petersburg

More tourists are expected to visit Petersburg this summer than in recent years. Located on Mitkof Island, the small town cannot accommodate large cruise ships because of the shallow channels. But that’s just the sort of thing that some visitors are looking for.

Categories: Alaska News

Ferry Dock In Skagway Sinks

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 16:00

The AMHS dock in Skagway sank overnight. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

The Skagway ferry terminal dock is fully submerged, according to state transportation officials.

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DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says an engineer is on his way to Skagway to find out what happened. Apparently the dock started to sink overnight and by early this morning it was totally underwater.

The 160 foot by 120 foot dock is about 12-feet deep. It is made of 24 individual concrete chambers.

“The words that the engineer used is he’s perplexed,” Woodrow says. “We actually have inspected everyone of those individual chambers in the last year and there was no indication of any wear.”

Woodrow says the cause of the collapse remains a mystery until an engineer gets on site and a diver gets an underwater look.

No ferries are scheduled into Skagway today (Thursday), but the LeConte is to sail there tomorrow. Woodrow says marine highway officials are working out a plan.

This is a breaking story. Check back for details.

Note:  Previous reports indicated the dock had collapsed. That connotes structural failure and DOT’s Woodrow says the extent of the damage is still unknown.

Categories: Alaska News

Investigation Attributes USCG Death To Faulty Equipment, Work Practices

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 15:32

The Coast Guard has finished investigating a Bering Sea rescue that left a 28-year-old crewman with fatal head injuries late last year.

According to a review board, faulty equipment and work practices developed by the crew of the cutter Waesche put Petty Officer Travis Obendorf in harm’s way.

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Obendorf and the rest of the Waesche crew had been on patrol in the Bering Sea for three months when they were called to help the Alaska Mist. It was a large fishing vessel that lost propulsion and started drifting near Amak Island.

Cutter Waesche. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The Waesche reached the fishing boat on November 11. Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy says the situation was urgent.

“They had 22 mariners on board; they were disabled,” Conroy said “The Coast Guard needed to get the non-essential personnel off the Alaska Mist.”

Although they had access to a helicopter, Conroy says the Waesche crew wanted to send their rescue boat to pick up the crew. It’s a 24-foot inflatable Zodiac, with hard sides.

Conroy says the crew conducted a risk assessment of their rescue plan.

“With this particular mission, they had already done so many small boat operations in the environment that they were in on November 11 that they were more concerned about rescuing these people, and they were comfortable with conducting the operation,” Conroy said.

The Waesche had used the small boat 130 times during their patrol in the Bering Sea. It always went smoothly – except for the fact that the boat launch and recovery system was broken.

It was a capture net and line, designed to snag the rescue boat when the crew it back into its compartment at the back of the cutter. The system was supposed to secure the vessel without any human intervention.

But on the Waesche, it only worked about 40 percent of the time. The other two national security cutters also had problems with this system, but not as consistently.

Chief Warrant Officer Conroy says the cutters formally requested improvements to the boat capture system about four years ago.

“The safety implications were not evident at that particular time,” Conroy said. “Of course, retrospectively, the changes were incorrectly prioritized among numerous high-priority configuration change projects.”

In the meantime, the Waesche decided to work around it.

Conroy says they started posting a crew member at the very front of the small rescue boat. That person would manually secure the vessel after a mission. It wasn’t common practice, but it worked – until it was time to rescue the Alaska Mist.

Petty Officer Travis Obendorf – a 28-year-old Idaho native – was assigned to sit at the front of the rescue boat. They gathered five non-essential fishermen off the Alaska Mist and started to take them back to the Coast Guard cutter.

According to the Coast Guard’s investigation report, they faced rough seas – worse than what the rescue boat was rated to operate in. That made it hard steer the back into the compartment aboard the Waesche.

The rescue boat was halfway inside when a series of swells washed in behind it. The boat slid underneath the capture net, and the net shoved Obendorf backwards. He was slammed into the center console of the rescue boat and lost consciousness.

Obendorf had been wearing a helmet, but he still had severe head injuries. A medical crew aboard the Waesche responded as soon as possible, and Conroy says they called for a medevac.

“He was then medically evacuated from the Waesche and taken to Cold Bay,” Conroy said. “From Cold Bay he was taken to Anchorage; after Anchorage, he was then transported to Seattle for continued care.”

“And then, on December 18, he died in a Seattle hospital.”

Conroy says the Coast Guard started making changes to its national security cutters almost immediately after Obendorf was injured. They got rid of the rescue boat that the Waesche crew had been using and replaced it with a slightly larger model.

“There’s also been guidance put out that commanding officers are not to put any crewman forward of the center console, which is what happened in the incident with Petty Officer Obendorf,” Conroy said.

But Conroy says that within a few months, there shouldn’t be a need to put crew members in that position anymore. The Coast Guard is going to fix the system for launching and recovering rescue boats from cutters, so it’s fully automatic.

The repairs are similar to what the national security cutters requested back in 2010. And Conroy says that fact has prompted the Coast Guard to rethink the way they prioritize upgrades to their fleet.

“They are taking a closer look at the recommendations that are coming into the field, and specifically looking to see if they have a safety aspect and reevaluating those recommendations,” Conroy said.

In the end, Conroy says the Coast Guard is not taking disciplinary action against any personnel connected to the rescue operation or the accident. And Conroy says there haven’t been any lawsuits related to it, either.

Categories: Alaska News

NOAA Investigating Rare Whale Beachings

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 15:13

Three rarely seen whales beached on Alaska’s coast last year, and NOAA Fisheries is investigating whether human activity contributed to the strandings.

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The Stejneger’s beaked whales beached last fall: one on St. Lawrence Island and two in Valdez. Neither of those places are where Stejneger’s are usually found, and each animal showed indications of trauma.

A Stejneger’s beaked whale from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Marine Mammal Program, (Photo courtesy of Toshio Kasuya)

“They had bubbles of air within the blood vessels,” Dr. Kathy Burek Huntington, from the Alaska Veterinary Pathologist Service, said. “And this is true in all the cases—the animals in Valdez and also the animal up in the St. Lawrence Island area. You know, this is just a classic lesion that you see when there’s an animal that suffered from barotrauma.”

Huntington performed the necropsies on the whales and said barotrauma is like the bends in humans— often caused by rising too quickly to the surface from a deep dive. But Stejneger’s are built for deep dives. They’re usually found over a half mile below the water.

“They should have certain behaviors that should allow them to avoid that situation if they’re acting normally,” Huntington said.

Loud noises can send the whales rocketing to the surface, and seismic activity can also damage barriers within the whales’ bodies between gas-filled areas and the bloodstream. Both situations can cause trauma. “For example,” Huntington explains, “if there’s blasting going on in an area, underwater blasting, that can create this kind of thing. It’s thought that really high intensity sonar is another possibility. “

Beaked whales’ tendency for deep dives makes their presence in the shallow waters of the Bering Strait Region and Valdez unusual. Aleria Jensen, the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for the Alaska Region, said beachings occur for many reasons, like disease, entanglement, and ship collisions.

So far, she said there’s no evidence of any of those in these whales.

“So it leads us back to the gas bubbles pointing to some kind of acoustic trauma, so we want to see what was going on in the area during that time,” Jensen said.

NOAA Fisheries is investigating the cause of the strandings and if noise from human activity contributed.

Huntington said there were reports of seismic activity in Valdez in the area of the beaching, but the investigation is ongoing.

Categories: Alaska News

Customers Suing GCI For Poor Cell And Data Performance

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 15:09

GCI is facing a lawsuit filed by customers in Bethel and along the Kuskokwim. The suit alleges that the communications company has been ripping off customers in the YK Delta.

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The complaint was filed in the Bethel Courthouse on Tuesday, April 22, by The Law Office of Jim Valcarce and the Law Office of David Henerderson. Henederson says the allegations against GCI are over the poor quality of their data plans and cell phone service, despite advertising that both are fully functional.

There are four plaintiffs currently listed including Mary Pete, Robert Sundown, William Howell and Lynda Kvamme. They allege GCI has been advertising their 3G network in rural Alaska, and specifically the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta regardless of the fact that their smartphone and data plans were not supported by sufficient infrastructure.

The suit alleges GCI’s data almost never works and that dropped call rates are often between 50 percent and 100 percent.

Henderson says they are petitioning the court to make the suit into a class action suit that could affect thousands of customers in YK Delta

GCI did return a call from KYUK by print time.

Categories: Alaska News

Kotzebue Man Charged With Animal Cruelty For Shooting Dogs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 15:06

A Kotzebue man is behind bars and faces a felony animal cruelty charge after State Troopers say he killed four sled dogs while drunk.

Alaska State Troopers say 42-year-old Carl Henry Jr. showed up drunk at a family member’s cabin about 23 miles east of Kotzebue around 7:30 on the night on April 9.

The family member got in a fight with Henry, who Troopers say then left the cabin.

Photo of Kotzebue. (Photo by Neal Herbert/National Park Service, Alaska Region)

That family member then went out to feed a lot of sled dogs, only to find blood on the ground and four dogs missing.

The family member told Troopers Henry shot the four dogs and then dragged them away on his snowmachine. The family member told police they feared what Henry might do if he returned. Troopers say the family member then walked the two miles from the cabin to Camp Ivik to call for help.

When officers responded around 11:30 that night they found a second man—whose name is being withheld because he has not been charged with a crime—who told Troopers he and Henry had been drinking.

That’s when the man said Henry became angry that the dogs wouldn’t stop barking. The man told Troopers Henry began to “shoot his gun up in the air to scare them to shut up.” When the dogs wouldn’t quiet down, the man said Henry shot four of them.

Troopers found several dogs tied to trees, but noted four were missing. Troopers said Wednesday they were not able to find the remains of the dogs Henry is accused of shooting, but said all four are presumed dead. The dogs were worth about $500 apiece, the family member told Troopers.

Troopers weren’t able to find Henry at the scene and subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest. A Monday Trooper dispatch shows he was arrested by a Village Public Safety Officer in Koyuk—about 142 miles South of Koetzbue—on Sunday afternoon. Court records show he was taken to Nome before being formally charged in Kotzebue on Wednesday.

Henry faces two felony charges, one for criminal mischief and another for cruelty to animals. He faces a third misdemeanor charge for assault.  His bail was set at $2,500 and requires a court-approved custodian.

Categories: Alaska News

As Legislature Make Progress On Adjourning, KABATA Bill Falls Apart

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-24 12:01

Less than two hours after the combative House and Senate seemed to reach a truce on education, a bill dealing with the proposed Knik Arm Bridge fell apart on the House floor.

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The House rejected the Senate’s version by one vote on Wednesday night. Because 21 votes are required to pass legislation, the bill came up short when it got 20 yeas and 18 nays. Six Republicans broke ranks with their party to oppose the bill. They were Mike Hawker of Anchorage, Mia Costello of Anchorage, Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage, Kurt Olson of Kenai, Eric Feige of Chickaloon, and Paul Seaton of Homer. Two Republicans who were expected to support the bill were not present because of excused absences. Rep. Bob Lynn of Anchorage was excused for a family illness, while Rep. Lora Reinbold of Eagle River was absent because of a planned vacation.

While the bill originated in the House, it was dramatically changed in the Senate after an audit suggested that the project may be uneconomic. The new version sets up a financing plan for the billion-dollar bridge that involves a mix of federal highway grants, federal loans, and state bonds.

Because the House failed to concur, the bill may be sent to “free” conference committee with the power to rewrite it – just like was done with the education bill this week. That could extend a legislative session that has already gone three full days over its statutory deadline. While the Senate still needs to agree, the House has already named Kodiak Republican Alan Austerman, Chugiak Republican Bill Stoltze, and Anchorage Democrat Harriet Drummond.

The bridge bill is a major priority of Senate President Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Make Tentative Deal On Education Bill

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 22:19

Negotiators from the State House and Senate have reached a deal on the governor’s education bill, and it includes a mix of permanent and one-time funding increases.

The compromise was announced on Wednesday night, three days after the Legislature had blown its adjournment deadline because of disagreement on the bill. The conference committee in charge of rewriting the legislation has decided to add $300 million to the education budget, spread out over three years.

Half of the money will come as one-time grants for education programs. The other half will come through the “base student allocation,” the amount of money a school gets for each child enrolled as part of the education funding formula. The new draft of the bill raises the BSA by $150 the first year, and by $50 in years two and three.

The new proposal is a blend of the House and Senate approaches to education funding. Even though both chambers are led by Republicans, the two bodies had different philosophies on education funding. Where the House wanted a slightly smaller amount that came through a more permanent source, the Senate was willing to spend more money but without putting it into the funding formula.

Sen. Kevin Meyer is an Anchorage Republican who is involved in the negotiations. He says that even if the compromise seems obvious now, it was not so clear on Sunday when the Legislature was facing its adjournment deadline.

“Well, you know, I think it took a couple days to realize that — that there’s an easy solution here,” says Meyer. “You know, we can meet halfway on the funding, that overall $100 million. And ultimately, we figured out, ‘Hey, we can meet half way on what’s in, what’s out, and we can be done and out of here.’ So, sometimes it just takes a couple days, and they you go, ‘Wow, Why didn’t we think of that?’”

The funding plan still does not meet the demands of education advocates, who pushed for a BSA increase of $400 this year alone. They argue that the state needs to give school district $450 million over the next three years, if teacher layoffs are to be avoided.

The conference committee also hammered out disagreements on more than a dozen other parts of the bill. They brought back Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal to repeal the high school exit exam and require students to take the SAT, ACT, or WorkKeys test in its place. They also removed a section of the bill that would have required urban teachers to go through a longer probationary period before they get tenure.

The conference committee is expected to advance the bill on Thursday, the 94th day of the 90-day session.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Passes Bill With Aid For State Refineries

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

The legislature has passed a bill containing aid for in state oil refineries.

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The package, which includes state income tax credits and other provisions, was forwarded by Governor Sean Parnell as a means to ensure Alaska retains its refining industry as cheaper Lower 48 oil makes shipping fuel into the state an option.

HB287 also includes a provision that would allow state oil lease holders, who sell crude to an Alaska refiner, to use the agreed to contract price for calculating state royalty payments, a change aimed at making selling oil to Alaska refiners more attractive. The incentives in HB287 would be in effect for five years, and could provide up to $20 million annually to an individual in-state refiner.

In an announcement about the bill’s passage, Governor Parnell says healthy in state refineries support a strong military presence in Alaska and jobs. Critics of the bill characterize it as an industry bail out.

Categories: Alaska News

Report Not Anticipating Near-Term Arctic Increase In Commercial Shipping

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

Despite reports of a boom in Arctic ship traffic, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office concludes commercial industries aren’t planning to boost shipping through the Bering Strait or elsewhere in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

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While some federal policymakers say now is the time to start building infrastructure to take advantage of shrinking sea ice, the GAO says deep-water ports, mapping and other infrastructure improvements will only go so far in attracting more ships.

For the container ship companies, one problem is that Arctic routes would be seasonal, while that industry needs steady year-round schedules. And the cruise industry says mainstream cruise lines aren’t drawn to the Arctic because, according to the GAO report, the 10-day journey is too long, the scenery unvarying and interesting ports too scarce.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement disagreeing with the main message in the report, saying she believes Arctic maritime activity is on the rise and the U.S. needs to think long-term.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta VPSOs Prepare For Firearms

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

When Governor Sean Parnell signs House Bill 199, approved earlier this month by the Alaska Senate, Village Public Safety Officers can legally carry firearms. The Yukon Kuskokwim region has the largest number of VPSO’s in the state.

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Categories: Alaska News

Survey Finds Mat-Su Residents Want To Maintain Rural Profile

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

A survey sponsored by the Nature Conservancy indicates that Matanuska-Susitna Borough residents want to maintain a rural profile a quarter of a century from now. The Institute of Social and Economic Research collected the data used in the survey. The results were released last week.

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Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Hatchery Opening Doors To Public

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

The Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery in Fairbanks will open its doors to the public during this weekend’s Outdoors Show. Public outreach and education are part of the $46 million state hatchery’s mission, and a visitor’s center is required by its borough land lease. The hatchery has been operating for more than 2 years but the visitor’s center hasn’t opened.

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Categories: Alaska News

Moviegoers Get Glimpse Of Katmai Grizzlies In Disney’s ‘Bears’

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:48

Moviegoers across the country got an up-close look at the wild Grizzly bears of Katmai National Park over the weekend. After a two-year shoot at Hallo Bay Bear Camp, Disney’s wilderness feature “Bears” opened Friday.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 23, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 17:04

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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What Needs To Be Done To Respond To An Arctic Oil Spill?

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

Today the National Research Council released a report on what needs to be done in order to respond to oil spills in Arctic waters. Environmental groups were quick to counter that so much needs to be done, it would be better to not drill at all.

Report Not Anticipating Near-Term Arctic Increase In Commercial Shipping

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Despite reports of a boom in Arctic ship traffic, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office concludes commercial industries aren’t planning to boost shipping through the Bering Strait or elsewhere in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

While some federal policymakers say now is the time to start building infrastructure to take advantage of shrinking sea ice, the GAO says deep-water ports, mapping and other infrastructure improvements will only go so far in attracting more ships.

For the container ship companies, one problem is that Arctic routes would be seasonal, while that industry needs steady year-round schedules. And the cruise industry says mainstream cruise lines aren’t drawn to the Arctic because, according to the GAO report, the 10-day journey is too long, the scenery unvarying and interesting ports too scarce.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement disagreeing with the main message in the report, saying she believes Arctic maritime activity is on the rise and the U.S. needs to think long-term.

No End In Sight For Alaska Lawmakers

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

It’s day 93 of the 90-day legislative session, and there’s still not an end in sight. A deal has not yet been made on Gov. Sean Parnell’s education bill. The committee tasked with brokering a compromise has not met at all today, after a series of delays.

All this has resulted in canceled plans, canceled plane tickets, and a lot of frustration in the Capitol. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez talked with people still working there to see how they feel about the hold-up.

Legislature Passes Bill With Aid For State Refineries

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The legislature has passed a bill containing aid for in state oil refineries.

The package, which includes state income tax credits and other provisions, was forwarded by Governor Sean Parnell as a means to ensure Alaska retains its refining industry as cheaper Lower 48 oil makes shipping fuel into the state an option.

HB287 also includes a provision that would allow state oil lease holders, who sell crude to an Alaska refiner, to use the agreed to contract price for calculating state royalty payments, a change aimed at making selling oil to Alaska refiners more attractive. The incentives in HB287 would be in effect for five years, and could provide up to $20 million annually to an individual in-state refiner.

In an announcement about the bill’s passage, Governor Parnell says healthy in state refineries support a strong military presence in Alaska and jobs. Critics of the bill characterize it as an industry bail out.

YK Delta VPSOs Prepare For Firearms

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

When Governor Sean Parnell signs House Bill 199, approved earlier this month by the Alaska Senate, Village Public Safety Officers can legally carry firearms. The Yukon Kuskokwim region has the largest number of VPSO’s in the state.

Survey Finds Mat-Su Residents Want To Maintain Rural Profile

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A survey sponsored by the Nature Conservancy indicates that Matanuska-Susitna Borough residents want to maintain a rural profile a quarter of a century from now. The Institute of Social and Economic Research collected the data used in the survey.  The results were released last week.

Fairbanks Hatchery Opening Doors To Public

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery in Fairbanks will open its doors to the public during this weekend’s Outdoors Show.  Public outreach and education are part of the $46 million state hatchery’s mission, and a visitor’s center is required by its borough land lease. The hatchery has been operating for more than 2 years but the visitor’s center hasn’t opened.

Moviegoers Get Glimpse Of Katmai Grizzlies In Disney’s ‘Bears’

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

Moviegoers across the country got an up-close look at the wild Grizzly bears of Katmai National Park over the weekend. After a two-year shoot at Hallo Bay Bear Camp, Disney’s wilderness feature “Bears” opened Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

What Needs To Be Done To Respond To An Arctic Oil Spill?

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 13:36

Oil and gas planning areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Oil and gas lease areas are shown in
orange, with seismic survey areas shown in gray. Selected oil and gas wells, some in Alaskan state waters and some in federal waters, are shown as purple dots. Some coastal communities and cities are also shown. (Image from the National Research Council)

The National Research Council released a report on what needs to be done in order to be able to respond to oil spills in Arctic waters.

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Environmental groups were quick to respond that so much needs to be done that it would be better to not drill at all.

The report has been a year and a half in the making and involved 14 experts from science and industry and hearings in Alaska and elsewhere. It gets deep into the details of what capabilities and knowledge exist and how limited they are. It deliberately avoids the question of whether to drill or not drill in Arctic waters.

The panel’s chairwoman, New York risk analyst Doctor Martha Grabowski, calls the report balanced, and says it shows many things are needed for oil spill response in the arctic that we do not yet have.

“Increased data needs, more research in terms of countermeasures, better understanding of logistics, operations and co-ordination, and then decision strategies that bring all interested parties to the table in a transparent process,” Grabowski said.

The panel recommends that authorities spill real oil into real Arctic waters to do some real testing of burning and dispersants. Studies in tanks can only go so far, says Mark Myers, research vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“To really understand and be best prepared, we’re going to have to do some controlled releases,” Myers said. “Obviously that’s an important decision to make and we recommend a process for doing that.”

“These tests we consider very important; some of the people on the panel had been involved with the earlier tests all the way going back to the 1970s, I believe, and the tests in Europe and Canada, so there’s a lot of experience and a lot of judgment on the committee and there was consensus  that this was an important finding.”

The report says not nearly enough is known about how crude oil degrades in Arctic waters or what it does to the food chain. Myers says some of that has been studied, but not enough.

“A much broader more robust testing program we thought was important,” Myers said. “The work that’s been done up in Barrow is actually quite good, but it’s not as much as we’d like to see, nor is it necessarily enough of the species that we would like to see.”

Two North Slope Borough scientists were included on the panel. Coastal villages are included in the recommendations to have spill response equipment and a trained work-force available.

“Pre-deployment of those assets and budgets to maintain those assets so they don’t diminish over time is an important facet of the report,” Myers said.

The panel urges more cooperation with Russia and that language translators be identified. And it says the Coast Guard has nowhere near what it needs to do its job and has basically been piggybacking on military operations or diverting resources from other programs to support what activities it has conducted to try to be more prepared to oversee Arctic oil and gas and shipping activities.

“The gap between the activities and Coast Guard ability to support its mission for oil spill response and for vessel navigation, the gap is large and it needs to be closed,” Myers said.

Environmental groups were quick to respond to the report. Doctor Chris Krenz of Oceana says it shows our resources to deal with spills are “woefully inadequate.”  Lois Epstein of the Wilderness Society, a petroleum engineer, said it looks as if they won’t have adequate preparation for Arctic offshore spills in our lifetimes, and she would like to have seen some policy conclusions.

“I find that extraordinarily unsatisfying,” Epstein said. “I’m an engineer; I’d like to see technologies used and be effective, and this report says there is no effective technology.”

Epstein put out a press release saying the report should give the industry cause to think twice about whether the payoff of any arctic offshore drilling plans would really be worth the risk.

Categories: Alaska News

Soldier Faces Hearing In Killings Of Iraqi Boys

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 09:55

There is a preliminary court martial hearing scheduled today in Washington state for Sergeant First Class Michael Barbera, formerly of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson on murder charges.

Barbera was charged after an expose ran in a Pittsburgh newspaper about the killing of two unarmed teenage boys as they herded cattle in Iraq seven years ago.

Not much has been said about it by the military. The hearing is at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Categories: Alaska News

Rescue Helicopter Blows Deflating Raft Ashore

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-04-23 09:52

The Air Force, Coast Guard and Alaska State Troopers have worked together to rescue a man who found himself on a deflating raft in Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

The Coast Guard got a request for help Tuesday evening from troopers who reported the man was in trouble. That agency launched a helicopter crew from Kodiak.

Then the Air Force advised that it had both a plane and a Black Hawk helicopter about five minutes away.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Diana Honings says the Black Hawk crew used the helicopter’s rotor wash to push the man’s deflating raft to shore, where he was met by troopers. They flew him to a hospital for evaluation.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Still Working To Make Deal On Education Bill

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-22 17:46

The Alaska State Legislature is still at an impasse over the Governor’s education bill.

A committee tasked with brokering a deal met for the first time today — about 36 hours after the Legislature blew past its deadline for gaveling out.

The “free conference” committee has the power to rewrite the education bill entirely, and it’s made up of three House representatives and three senators. The House named Anchorage Republican Mike Hawker, Wasilla Republican Lynn Gattis, and Juneau Democrat Sam Kito III as its representatives. The Senate sent Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer, Mat-Su Republican Mike Dunleavy, and Bethel Democrat Lyman Hoffman.

The group spent the day trying to find places where they could agree. They debated whether students should be able to test out of pottery classes, and whether the state should change the rules on teacher tenure.

But as Committee Chair Mike Hawker laid out, the real question is education funding.

“Probably the largest sticking point between the Senate approach to this legislation and the House approach was the House’s desire to include some element of funding within the [base student allocation] and the Senate’s preference to not put that money in the BSA, but yet to make substantial commitments for the next three years outside of the BSA,” said Hawker, an Anchorage Republican.

When Hawker means by the “base student allocation” is the amount of money a school gets for each child enrolled. That has sat at $5,680 for four years. The House version of the bill adds $185 per student to that formula, and they’ve budgeted about $225 million over three years for that increase along with $30 million in one-time funding for this year. The Senate included even more money — $330 million over three years — in their bill, but they left it outside of the formula.

Education advocates, the state’s biggest teacher’s union, and the Legislature’s Democratic minority have all pushed for putting the money in the BSA, because they believe it gives school districts more security in crafting their budgets. They also believe the proposed education funding boosts don’t go far enough to prevent layoffs, because it’s been years since the Legislature increased the BSA.

Legislative leadership has said whatever compromise they broker should include some money inside the BSA and some out of it.

But when that deal will be brokered is unknown. Committee Chair Mike Hawker said they want to take the time needed to rewrite the bill in a way that makes both chambers happy.

“This is not going to be something that we rush through,” said Hawker. “It will come together really as quickly as we can find consensus in the building over today, tomorrow, or throughout the coming week.”

While the Legislature has already gone two days over their statutory deadline, they can meet for 29 more days without running afoul of the Alaska Constitution.

Categories: Alaska News

BP Sells Some North Slope Assets To Hilcorp

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-22 17:21

BP announced Tuesday it’s selling some of its assets on the North Slope. The company will sell to aging oil fields – Endicott and Northstar – to Hilcorp, a company that is developing oil and gas wells in Cook Inlet. Hilcorp will also buy a 50 percent interest in two other fields- Milne Point and Liberty.

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Dawn Patience is a spokesperson for BP Alaska. She says the sale is an opportunity for Alaska to bring new partners to the North Slope.

“This is part of BP’s corporate wide view that we are good at managing and operating giant oilfields like Prudhoe Bay and we have a lot of interest in gas value change such as the Alaska LNG project,” Patience said.

Patience says BP is committed to increasing production under Governor Parnell’s oil tax reform, including adding two new rigs at Prudhoe Bay by 2016.

Hilcorp came to Alaska in 2012, and now operates 18 oil fields in Cook Inlet, after acquiring leases from Chevron and Marathon Oil. Lori Nelson manages external affairs for the company in Alaska. She says Hilcorp wasn’t necessarily looking to enter the North Slope.

“The acquisitions that we made in Cook Inlet were kind of a full plate,” Nelson said. ”But when opportunities like this come around, it’s not our timing, it’s the sellers and we were certainly open to that opportunity and here we go again.”

Nelson says the company plans to extend offers to the vast majority of the 250 BP employees associated with the oil fields Hilcorp is buying.

She says the North Slope is a completely different operating area than Cook Inlet, with a separate tax structure. But she says the company is excited by the opportunity.

“Long range we’re aiming to reduce operating costs and extend the field life,” Nelson said. “We certainly intend to increase capital investments in hopes of developing additional oil reserves from the Slope.”

Nelson says venturing on to the North Slope won’t detract from Hilcorp’s assets in Cook Inlet. Both BP and Hilcorp are hoping to close the deal by the end of the year, pending regulatory approval.

BP also announced today it will submit a new development plan for the Liberty field, which Hilcorp will own 50 percent of, by the end of 2014. The company suspended work on the offshore project two years ago because of financial and other concerns. The development is on a man-made gravel island four miles off Alaska’s shore.

Categories: Alaska News
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