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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 27 min 7 sec ago

Salmon Signs Appear And Disappear In Bethel

Wed, 2014-06-25 16:43

Salmon signs began appearing along Bethel roadsides in June. (Photo By Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

Brightly colored wooden fish signs have been posted along Bethel roads this summer. The signs, with conservation messages, come in a year of king salmon closures never seen before on the Kuskokwim River. But just as quickly as the signs went up, they’ve been disappearing.

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Reyne Athanas’ white Subaru is loaded full of colorful salmon-shaped signs as she heads towards Bethel’s boat harbor. Kids painted one side during a recent Saturday market. On the back are messages that she hopes will build awareness about conserving Kuskowkwim King salmon.

“Well, we’re at Watson’s corner and we’re heading toward the boat harbor and we’re passing some fish right now that say, ‘save today, more tomorrow’. Just meaning that if you conserve a little bit now and let there be some escapement, eat some of the other fish that we have like whitefish that are in the river we’ll have more fish in the future for my grandson.

As we pull up to the boat harbor, Athanas’s grandson, Landon, and her son, Ryan Burke jump out to help her put up the signs.

After 2013 showed the weakest King salmon run on record, and not having made escapement in two of the past four years, managers of the Kuskokwim River fishery are not allowing directed king salmon fishing. They’ve been trying to get enough Kings to spawning grounds before opening the fishery to nets targeting salmon. Many in Bethel, like Athanas, and her son support the conservation measures.

Burke says the message of the guerilla public art project is important.

“I’m helping my mom out as a volunteer to put up these signs to let people know we should conserve our fish for future generations cause I think if we overfish em and they’re all gone and they won’t come back there’s not gonna be any more fish for people, especially Kings. From what I’ve been told we’re running low on Kings and we’ve got to conserve them or they’re gonna be gone forever.”

The mother-son-grandson team nail the wooden fish onto small posts and pound them into the sandy bank, placing rocks at the base of the signs to keep them from blowing over. When they’re done, the four signs they’ve pounded in read: “Let’s Save Kusko Kings.”

Just then a truck pulls up from Bethel’s Tribe, ONC.

“My name is Roberta Chavez and I’m the partners fisheries biologist for ONC. We were just talking about who was putting up these fish signs cause ONC is really supporting the conservation measures of the Chinook Salmon so we’re happy that these fish signs are going up.”

But not everybody likes the signs.

Critics of the closures say that Alaska Natives subsistence fishers who depend most on the fish are unfairly burdened with the brunt of conservation measures and believe that managers should do more to crack down on commercial bycatch. During a recent tribal fish forum of the Yupiit Nation, a consortium of federally recognized tribes pushing for more tribal sovereignty, Ed Johnstone, a leader with Quinalt Indian Tribe and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said the signs are divisive.

“I see the signs out her that are along the road that say, you know, that King salmon are important and let ‘em grow. I’m gonna say that’s not really a good thing. It pits people against each other. It starts the talk about, ‘oh well, if you just don’t catch any King salmon then things are gonna be good. That’s not true. We don’t know what the problem is, as I hear it. We don’t know whether it’s the upriver habitat and the spawning grounds or the marine survival rate in the ocean.”

Whether it’s people who agree with Johnstone or simply vandals, many of the signs have gone missing in the past couple of weeks. Some have been strategically removed to reverse the message — like one along the highway that used to read ‘Eat More Chicken’ and then read ‘Eat More’. Another said Extinction Is Forever’, but the only remaining sign now says just ‘Forever’. And the ones that Athanis put up with her son and grandson near the boat harbor went down four or five days after they put them up.

Athanis says she’s done putting signs along the roads and instead plans to make them into a more permanent art installation in a more protected location.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: June 25, 2014

Wed, 2014-06-25 16:34

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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City of Bethel Investigation Reveals Improper Contracts and Perks

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

The Bethel City Council has released a redacted version of its investigation into city contracts, nepotism, and personnel issues.  The investigation led to the firing of Bethel’s city manager in May.

NOAA Considers State’s Petition To Delist Humpback

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will look into whether to take the Central North Pacific humpback whale off the Endangered Species list.

The State of Alaska submitted a petition to remove the whale from the list at the end of February. NOAA announced today it has enough information to warrant further research. This is the second petition NOAA has received to take endangered protections away from the humpback whale.

Pavlof Volcano Downgraded To Lowest Alert Level

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

The Alaska Volcano Observatory has downgraded Pavlof to the lowest alert level. Volcanologist Tina Neal says the volcano isn’t producing new lava flows. And it hasn’t released much ash since early this month.

Questions Remain Despite Successful Missile Defense Test

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists is calling the Ground Based Midcourse Missile Defense System, less than proven, despite Sunday’s successful test over the Pacific Ocean.

National Parks Prohibiting UAVs

Aaron Berner, KUAC – Fairbanks

A new National Park Service policy prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft. It’s intended to give the agency time to assess the risks and benefits of allowing UAV’s in Parks.

Alaska’s STD Rates Increase

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The state’s Department of Health is reporting an increase in sexually transmitted diseases in Alaska. In 2013, Gonorrhea and syphilis infections were up more than 50 percent from 2012. Alaska was ranked first in the nation for Chlamydia infections in 2013. And in just the first five months of this year, 23 new cases of HIV have been diagnosed and reported. That’s one less than last year’s total.

State Scores Well On Long-Term Care Report Card

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Alaska ranked 5th in the nation in a recent state scorecard on long-term services for older adults, the disabled, and family caregivers. However, local experts say gaps in the system can cause big problems.

Salmon Signs Appear And Disappear In Bethel

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

Brightly colored wooden fish signs have been posted along Bethel roads this summer. The signs, with conservation messages, come in a year of king salmon closures never seen before on the Kuskokwim River. But just as quickly as the signs went up, they’ve been disappearing.

Categories: Alaska News

Clean-Up Continues for Norton Sound Hospital Fuel Spill

Wed, 2014-06-25 12:10

Clean-up efforts continue beneath Norton Sound Regional Hospital after a spill of hundreds of gallons of heating fuel.

Tom DeRuyter is the State On-Scene Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. In a status update Tuesday, he said, “They’re removing the contaminated soil as much as possible right now. But it is right next to the building and next to the pilings, so we do not want to destabilize the structural supports on the building.”

(Photo via KNOM)

A report from the DEC says 600 cubic feet of soil has been removed so far.

Last week, anywhere from 800 to 1,200 gallons of fuel leaked from the hospital tank farm after a fill valve failed, causing a fuel tank to overflow. The hospital estimates the spill covers 2,500 square feet of land.

“When the discovered the overfill, they shut off the power,” DeRuyter said, “and that effectively controlled the source and stopped the release.”

The Norton Sound Hospital did not respond to requests for comment. But a report from the DEC says those inside the hospital could smell a “diesel odor” during the spill. As of Monday, “indoor air monitoring [has shown] no evidence of diesel vapors inside the” building.

“Fortunately,” DeRuyter said, “the hospital is built on pilings, so there’s plenty of air movement underneath the building, and that mitigates the problems that can be associated with indoor air quality.”

Hospital staff laid absorbent pads and boom to soak up pooled fuel following the spill. The DEC report says, whether or not groundwater has been contaminated is unknown, and there have been not reports of wildlife being affected by the spill.

Air monitoring and excavation of the site is ongoing.

Categories: Alaska News

Community Leaders Flying to Kotzebue for Meeting on Ambler Road

Wed, 2014-06-25 10:41

AIDEA is holding a large community meeting, it’s 30th in the outreach process ahead of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement. Earlier this month there was a tri-village meeting in Kobuk. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, KNOM News)

Starting Wednesday, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority—or AIDEA—is holding two days of meetings in Kotzebue about a proposed 200-mile road through the interior to the Ambler Mining District.

“We’re pulling together community leadership from the stakeholders in the proposed corridor, as part of our community outreach. And we’ve had a lot of interest and are expecting really good participation,” said Karsten Rodvik, AIDEA’s head of external affairs. The agency is flying in representatives from almost all the communities along the road’s potential route from the Dalton Highway, through the Interior, and to the Kobuk Valley—all as AIDEA moves forward the Environmental Impact Statement for the road.

But PJ Simon, second chief for the community of Allekaket, says leadership there isn’t sending anyone, out of protest. When AIDEA held it’s first and only meeting in Allakaket last year, Simon remembers leaders felt the agency and other representatives did not adequately listen to local feelings about the road.

“You guys say you…are here to hear our concerns, but yet none of you even have notepads out,” Simon recalls, “and it doesn’t seem like you guys are going to listen to us.”

Local leadership in the Koyukuk region opposes the road—and has issued resolutions saying so—and that’s why Simon thinks AIDEA’s holding the meeting in Kotzebue, which isn’t along the road’s propose route.

“They never go to Allakaket because they know we have a firm stance against the road. So we feel that we’re not getting heard. And having a meeting in Kotzebue, of all places—nothing wrong with that—but it’s away from the road. It’s not ground zero. You won’t be able to see what is affected,” he added.

Rodvik disagrees. He says Kotzebue has the facilities to hold a gathering of this size. Those facilities include conference rooms at the Nullagvik Hotel, which will also lodge many of the representatives coming to the meeting. The hotel is owned by the NANA Development Corporation; NANA, for its part, says it supports AIDEA’s environmental review of the potential road but hasn’t made a decision on the road itself.

Rodvik explained that AIDEA has worked hard to connect with communities as the process has advanced.

“This meeting is consistent with our community outreach,” he said. “We’ve had numerous meetings in communities and have publicized those meetings in the community. And through local tribal and city councils. So, we feel that we are reaching out.”

Despite that outreach, few details about this week’s meetings were publicly available ahead of time. AIDEA has a websitedevoted to the Ambler Road, but nothing about the meeting or it’s agenda are posted there.

Rodvik says the intention is not to shut anyone out, but to make sure the conversation takes place between what he calls the most “immediate stakeholders.”

“Well there’ll be representatives from NANA and Doyan Regional Corporations, Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Park Service, and others. Again this is a meeting involving stakeholders—theimmediate stakeholders I should say—in the proposed corridor.”

But the definition of a stakeholder isn’t so clear: while nine communities lie along the road’s proposed path, there are also business owners, wilderness advocates, and subsistence users claiming they’ll be impacted by any industrial road through the region.

Wednesday’s meetings in Kotzebue starts at noon and last through Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Hatchery Chum Salmon Forecast Close To 2013 Levels

Wed, 2014-06-25 10:40

Salmon jumping out of the water at Amalga Harbor during last year’s opening. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The first returns of hatchery chum salmon are showing up in fishing nets in Southeast Alaska this month. Summer chums play an important part in the early season for net fishing fleets and the troll fleet as well. Hatchery officials are forecasting runs close to last year’s.

A little lost in last year’s record setting pink salmon haul in Southeast was a strong catch for chum salmon. Last year seiners, gillnetters and trollers brought in 12.5 million dogs in the region. The bulk of those fish start their lives in hatcheries around the Panhandle and most return earlier in the summer than pinks. Fishery managers expect nearly as many chums this year but nowhere near last year’s record setting pink catch.

Juneau-based Douglas Island Pink and Chum expected a good year last year with a forecast of 2.7 million chums – but the actual returns were DIPAC’s biggest ever at nearly five million. Whether or not 2014 lives up to that standard, DIPAC executive director Eric Prestegard expects a strong run.

“Well the forecast is up from last year’s forecast. But last year came in well above forecast, so it’s below what returned last year but what we would call a very good forecast about 3.3 million.”

A big portion of DIPAC’s returns are expected back to release sites in Lynn Canal. And Prestegard thinks there are some good early signs for this year’s chums.

“The first gillnet opening certainly it looked pretty good from our eyes. That was about twice what we kinda would have forecasted to have happened. Again that’s just sort of built on some averages and what not so it’s not great data but it’s reasonable. So we thought that was good.”

On the flip side, Prestegard says trollers targeting chum along the Home Shore area of Icy Strait are not having the big season they had last year. Nevertheless, he says it’s the time of year to wait and see what comes back.

“Now’s when you sort of chew on your fingernails and wait for the days they fish and look at that data. You know we did take some samples from the first opener there in Lynn Canal. They were big beautiful fish, 10.9 pound average, which is very large for us and mostly five year olds. So that’s a good sign.”

Trolling has been open for spring fisheries in May and June, while gillnetters and seiners had their first openings in mid June.

Closer to Sitka, one point one million chum are forecast to return to Hidden Falls and Medvejie Deep Inlet. Those are two sites operated by the Sitka-based Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, or NSRAA.

Last year Hidden Falls saw a run of 1.3 million. Medvejie Deep Inlet doubled last year’s forecast with a return of 2.2 million. NSRAA general manager

Steve Reifenstuhl says he’d be happy with three percent survival rate for the chum released each year.

“And that would put the Medvejie run around 1.5 to 1.8 million annually and Hidden Falls, closer to, with three percent marine survival closer to two million annually. You know we’d love to see bigger than that but that’s what my hope is.”

Fishing started slow for seiners catching chum returning to both sites but Reifenstuhl was hopeful catches would be increasing. And Like Prestegard, Reifenstuhl says the fish so far this year are large.

“At this point all the data says the fish are big, over 10 pound average, which is fairly unusual and suggests they’re five year old fish. The bulk of the fish are typically four year old fish.”

Further to the south, the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association forecasts three point two million chums back at four different release sites around Ketchikan and Wrangell.

The largest return anticipated is 1.8 million at Neets Bay off of Behm Canal north of Ketchikan. Last year that run saw a return of just under a million fish.

The Ketchikan-based association’s Susan Doherty says they’re forecasting an average survival rate for summer run chum at four different release sites. If the forecast holds up it would beat last year’s summer chum total of just over two million. Other SSRAA fish return to Kendrick Bay on southern Prince of Wales Island, Anita Bay close to Wrangell and Nakat Inlet south of Ketchikan. Those returns typically start showing up a little later in the summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Hatchery in Kake closing June 30th

Wed, 2014-06-25 10:33

(Photo from Gunnuk Creek Hatchery website)

A hatchery in the Southeast community of Kake is closing its doors this month and has released its final chum, pink and coho salmon. There’s still some hope that a larger regional hatchery organization can figure out a way to restart the salmon enhancement program there.

The Gunnuk Creek hatchery started in 1973 as a Kake High School project. Community members formed a non-profit and incorporated in 1976. General manager John Oliva says they’re boarding up the hatchery this month and will close the doors June 30. He said the Kake Non-profit Fisheries Corporation did not have enough money to keep operating.

“The corporation owes like $22 million to the state,” Oliva said. “About half of that, maybe a little more than half of that is actually deferred interest, going back to 1981.”

Oliva noted the state could not provide additional funding and the non-profit was forced to close.

“The corporation’s shut the doors voluntarily signed over all the assets to the state. So as of right now, we’re boarding up everything,” Oliva said. ”The state’s sold off a good portion of the equipment, incubators, net pens, net pen complexes, anchor systems, forklifts, trucks, stuff like that to NSRAA.”

NSRAA is the Sitka-based Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. That regional non-profit was already partnering with Gunnuk Creek on a chum project off of nearby Kuiu Island. Now NSRAA is considering whether it should operate the Kake hatchery after Gunnuk Creek closes its doors.

NSRAA general manager Steve Reifenstuhl said they’re evaluating whether it pencils out to install new equipment to re-circulate and regulate the water in Gunnuk Creek.

“So that we can number one clean up the water quality and then deal with the extremely cold temperatures in winter and the extremely high temperatures in summer,” Reifenstuhl said. ”And by reducing the amount of water we need and recirculating it, we think that we can do a much better job at raising high quality eggs and fry.”

Gunnuk Creek has been logged and has increased sediment and greater temperature fluctuations. Reifenstuhl said the high cost of energy in Kake also will enter into the decision. They’re looking into a small hydro electric turbine to generate the needed electricity. They also have to consider the impact to NSRAA’s facility at Hidden Falls hatchery on Baranof Island where chum are raised. Reifenstuhl said it’s difficult to put additional pressure on the production at Hidden Falls.

“It’s difficult for staff to manage another 55-60 thousand broodstock fish. It’s tough on the seiners to pull all those fish out of their fishery. And the facility wasn’t built for anywhere near that much,” Reifenstuhl said. ”We can do it. But it would be better if we could do it in Gunnuk Creek.”

Ultimately it’s a decision for the NSRAA’s board of directors, based on information from engineers and staff. Meanwhile, that regional non-profit is going forward with new chum production nearby Kake at Southeast Cove. That program will mean 35 million chum released there next year, and 55 million the following year.

Staff at Gunnuk Creek released their final chum, pinks and coho in late May and early June. Gunnuk Creek’s Oliva thinks some of the salmon could continue to spawn after the hatchery shuts down.

“I think there’s a good chance the pinks and the coho will,” Oliva said. “The pinks and the coho came from this creek. The coho definitely are a native Gunnuk creek stock. And the pinks, the hatchery back in the 90s was doing pinks and they stopped and the pinks continued to come so they may come back still. The chums on the other hand may be a different story.”

“You know we put our weirs down and removed all our barriers so the fish can go upstream but there’s going to be limited spawning habitat up there for ‘em. So we still might get some chums to come back but I don’t think there’ll be any great numbers.”

The hatchery was impacted when the Gunnuk Creek dam broke in 2000, leaving the community without a water supply for several days. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the dam but Oliva said that too caused problems.

“Basically had a full building full of alevins and they killed them all off with the construction,” Oliva said. ”xLost all of our water and stuff when they were doing the construction. So we actually had to start rebuilding again and it was just a battle. You know this last year we’re finally seeing some good returns come back but it was a day late and a dollar short basically.”

Oliva says Gunnuk Creek has four full time employees and 10-12 season workers, mostly local kids who help with the egg takes each year. The fish returning to the area are caught by Southeast’s fishing fleets. The bears that congregate on the creek each year, drawn by the returning chums, have also been an attraction for smaller cruise ships.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Assembly approves new fire station, delays other decisions and discussions

Tue, 2014-06-24 21:38

The Anchorage Assembly approved the purchase of land to relocate Fire Station #3 at last night’s meeting. But they postponed most of the other major decisions and discussions, including the public hearing on the city’s labor laws.

Fire Station 3 is currently located near Merrill Field in Airport Heights. It’s in need of major repairs. Municipal staff says moving it to Bragaw between 4th and 6th Avenues will be cheaper than fixing the old building and make it easier for firefighters to reach both Mountain View and Airport Heights.

But Assembly Member Pete Petersen expressed some concerns over the new location. “I do think it’s important if they could figure out some way to route either the entrance or the exit off of Bragaw because of traffic congestion. Also if school happened to be getting off at the same time as there was a call, it could create a dangerous situation for pedestrians.”

The new 3-bay fire station will be next to the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School.

Despite those concerns, the Assembly unanimously approved the $1 million land purchase for the station during Tuesday’s meeting. They also passed the amended Anchorage School District budget, which the School Board approved it back in May.

The Assembly planned to hold a public hearing on AO-37 and Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston’s newer version of the labor law. But it was put off until the July 22 meeting to allow for more discussions. A repeal of the controversial law could still be included in the November ballot.

The Assembly also delayed making a decision on the Anchorage Wetlands Management plan. It will be discussed again on July 8. About ten people spoke against the plan’s new language.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: June 24, 2014

Tue, 2014-06-24 17:36

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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Shipping Safety Advocate Criticizes Arctic Preparedness Plans

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

As the summer arctic shipping season gets underway, a member of a group that formed after the Selendang Ayu ran aground a decade ago, is calling for more rescue tugs, monitoring and risk management measures in the Bering Strait and Unimak Pass.

New Placer Mining Permits Proposed

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Interior miners aren’t happy with changes proposed to federal permits for small scale placer operations that impact water resources, including wetlands. Dozens attended an Army Corps of Engineers public meeting in Fairbanks last week on the proposals.

Groups Ask Seek Endangered Species Protection For Yellow Cedar Trees

Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg

Conservation groups are asking for endangered species protection for yellow cedar trees in Alaska. The trees have been dying off in portions of Southeast over the past century.  Scientists say it’s likely due to a warming climate and lack of snow cover for vulnerable roots.

Lobbying Efforts Galvanize Unalaska Hospital Project

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

Tribal and federal officials say the plan to build a regional hospital in Unalaska is closer than ever to reality.

Should E-Cigarette Vapors Be Treated Like Tobacco Smoke?

Jeremy Hsieh, KTOO – Juneau

The Juneau Assembly is considering a ban on e-cigarette vapors in nearly all indoor public spaces.

The local chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence led the push at an Assembly Committee meeting Monday. A council representative argued that the new tobacco alternative is being marketed to youths and misrepresented as harmless.

In First Drift Opening Near Bethel, Managers Balance Chinook Conservation With Opportunity

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

After months of planning and studying the numbers, state and federal managers okayed the first six-inch-drift gillnet opening today on the most densely populated stretch of the Kuskokwim river. The fishing will be aimed at chum and sockeye salmon, but managers are moving cautiously to make sure enough king salmon make it to spawning grounds.

Anchorage Celebrates World Refugee Day

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Anchorage residents gathered at Mountain View Lions Park on Friday to celebrate World Refugee Day. The day honors people who have fled their home country, often because of war or ethnic persecution. About 120 refugees are resettled in Anchorage every year as part of a national program.

Categories: Alaska News

Shipping Safety Advocate Criticizes Arctic Preparedness Plans

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:51

(Graphic from Marine Exchange of Alaska)

As the summer arctic shipping season gets underway, a member of a group that formed after the Selendang Ayu ran aground a decade ago, is calling for more rescue tugs, monitoring and risk management measures in the Bering Strait and Unimak Pass.

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In letters to the Coast Guard, Rick Steiner with the Shipping Safety Partnership, says the money to address these concerns could come from the 3.5 billion-dollar Oil Spill Liability Trust fund the Coast Guard has.

“It’s used almost exclusively for spill response, but we all know spill response simply doesn’t work, so we’re arguing that this fund should be broken open and used to charter these rescue tug assets during the summer shipping season through the arctic and then they could relocate this tug to the Dutch Harbor, Unimak Pass area for the winter which is where the risk increases down there.” Steiner said.

The Coast Guard has no deepwater port north of Dutch Harbor, so it has to deploy its assets north seasonally. It has ramped up its presence there over the past three shipping seasons with a program called Arctic Shield. Before leaving for his new post in Washington DC, Seventeenth District Commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Dutch Harbor with Senator Mark Begich. Ostebo said the Coast Guard is focused on the Bering Strait and northern sea route. Ostebo says response preparation is key but the U.S. can’t govern the Bering Strait.

“The Bering Strait is an international strait. Anybody who wants to can go through that. We don’t own it, we don’t control it, we don’t have a toll booth there, we don’t manage that. The northern sea route, also an international strait overseen very heavily by the Russians obviously, but what I like people to first realize is, we don’t control this, so all of this is going to happen whether we want to play or not and our involvement in this I think needs to be appropriate for the likely hood of a mishap.”

This is a very different Arctic presence for the Coast Guard than what Ed Page remembers from his thirty years of service

“When I was in the Coast Guard, the arctic was, we spent no time up there. It was totally off the radar screen.”

Page now heads up the Marine Exchange, a Juneau based vessel tracking organization that has 95 real time monitoring stations in Alaska. Page says back in the day, there was none of that.

“And if you would have asked me where the ships were in the arctic or the Aleutian islands, I go, well, we’ll put a plane up tomorrow, we’ll look out the window and I’ll get back to ya. Today the Coast Guard can say, well, I got it on my iphone or ipad or my desktop, I can tell you exactly where the vessels are right now because, through international treaty, international maritime organization has required that all vessels, larger vessels, commercial vessels have this technology, transponders much like aircraft have.” 

Page says the vessel’s name, speed, dimensions are displayed and are tracked. Vessels are now required to stay farther off shore. This allows more time to get help if they have engine problems, before they run aground. Page says if this system would have been in place when the Selendang Ayu had trouble a decade ago, they would have known immediately rather than 19 hours after the vessel lost engines, because it would automatically have triggered an alarm in the operations center.

If the vessel doesn’t respond, the Marine Exchange notifies the Coast Guard. Page says he appreciates the concerns of Steiner and other environmentalists who want to protect the fragile arctic ecosystem but he says although arctic vessel traffic has increased in the last decade, its still relatively low compared to other shipping routes.  He says if vessels had to pay a fee to support rescue assets, it would be high based on the few transits. He worries they may then decide to go to Canada and bypass Seattle, allowing them to transit Alaskan waters on innocent passage. Besides, He says, other coastal states wouldn’t want to use the Coast Guard’s spill response fund to bail out Alaska.  His biggest concern is with enormous cargo vessels. Ships that are 1300 feet long, carry thousands of containers and have hundred thousand horsepower engines. If they have trouble in a storm, there’s no tug large enough that can help.

“Absolutely no tug. It’s gonna go wherever Mother Nature decides it wants to take that ship. That’s the concern I have. You just watch it unfold, because you can’t do anything about it, they’re so big.”

But Rick Steiner insists there’s still a lot more that can and should be done and he’s persisting in urging that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund be reprogrammed to include prevention.

“The greatest missing link here is the political will to drive the risk as low as possible. I get the sense that the Coast Guard and the state of Alaska and the shipping industry are willing to roll the dice and hope for the best and just expect that this won’t happen on their watch. But what if it does?” Steiner said.

Whoever’s watch it may be, the system has been evolving, and will continue to. The Coast Guard hopes to have a voluntary vessel separation scheme in place through the Bering Strait before long, and while Congressional funding for more icebreakers may be nowhere in sight, other ice hardened vessels are being tried. Ed Page says the Coast Guard has not secured funding from Congress to build a vessel tracking network for Alaska, making the Marine Exchange’s monitoring program all the more critical for observing who is transiting the vast and remote waters of the arctic.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

New Placer Mining Permits Proposed

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:50

Interior miners aren’t happy with changes proposed to federal permits for small scale placer operations that impact water resources, including wetlands. Dozens attended an Army Corps of Engineers public meeting in Fairbanks last week on the proposals.

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Categories: Alaska News

Groups Ask Seek Endangered Species Protection For Yellow Cedar Trees

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:49

Conservation groups are asking for endangered species protection for yellow cedar trees in Alaska. The trees have been dying off in portions of Southeast over the past century. Scientists say it’s likely due to a warming climate and lack of snow cover for vulnerable roots.

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The groups say logging also poses a threat to the cedar trees on the Tongass National Forest.

Kiersten Lippmann is a biologist with The Center for Biological Diversity and says the cedar decline in Southeast Alaska is drastic.

“The reason we’re doing this now is we’re seeing, especially in Alaska, the timber industry is targeting the remaining living cedar,” Lippmann said. “It’s kind of like when the buffalo were dying out, people would go out and hunt the last buffalo because it was their last chance to get them.”

Other petitioners are the Boat Company, Greenpeace and the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will review the petition to determine whether the species status deserves further review. That finding is supposed to take 90 days.

There’s only one plant in Alaska on the endangered species list – that’s the Aleutian shield fern, which is found on Adak Island.

Categories: Alaska News

Lobbying Efforts Galvanize Unalaska Hospital Project

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:48

Tribal and federal officials say the plan to build a regional hospital for the Southwest in Unalaska is closer than ever to reality.

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For most locals, the idea of a full-size hospital in Unalaska has always been little more than a pipe dream. But not for Tom Robinson of the Qawalangin Tribe. He’s been trying to make the hospital happen for more than five years.

Unalaska’s Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital was bombed by the Japanese during World War II. (Courtesy: National Library of Medicine)

“We noticed that we really needed a medical facility in Unalaska,” Robinson says. “And with the course of events of losing some of our elder a couple years ago, the [Qawalangin] tribe really pressed the issue.”

They teamed up with their tribal health provider, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, to put new energy into lobbying for a hospital. Now, the APIA’s primary care services administrator, Jessica Mata-Rukovishnikoff, says that work is paying off.

“It is definitely the closest we’ve been in all the years since we first started the project in 2008,” she says.

That’s thanks in part to Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. He’s lobbying for up to about $100 million in federal funds for the project. Mata-Rukovishnikoff says the APIA would be happy to see even part of that sum, and they’re asking local groups to chip in, too.

“They’re more likely to see and pass and give money based on support from the community,” she says. That includes more than just tribal stakeholders. The hospital will be designed to serve everyone in the region — locals, veterans, fishermen and other industry workers and tribe members.

So the APIA is casting a wide net to look for funding. Meanwhile, other details of the project are still coming together. There’s no location for the hospital in Unalaska yet. And housing for its 200 or so expected employees is still up in the air.

In terms of services: Mata-Rukovishnikoff couldn’t say yet how many beds the hospital would have. But she says it should offer a 24-hour emergency room, basic surgeries and a range of specialists.

She’s also hoping they can provide prenatal and maternity care. That would mean expectant moms wouldn’t have to spend weeks in Anchorage when it was time to give birth, which, she says, “would be something of a major accomplishment.”

For outpatient services, the new facility would absorb Unalaska’s two existing clinics — the APIA’s Ounalashka Wellness Center, and the Iliuliuk Family & Health Services community clinic.

IFHS director Eileen Conlon-Scott expects to move all her staff, services and grant funding over to the new hospital. The clinic’s current building might become an administrative office.

Scott says the merger would be a big step forward.

“We have people that don’t get health care services because they can’t afford to fly off the island,” she says. “[At IFHS], we’re trying to bring consultants to the island at least to get an initial check-up by a specialist, but to have some of these specialists here the whole time — it’s much better for our community.”

For Tom Robinson of the Qawalangin Tribe, flying to Anchorage for routine care has been the norm for far too long.

“If you look at what the locals in the region have to go through to get primary care — it’s very tough,” he says. “And this’ll also serve our elder — can you imagine the stress that our elder have to go through to travel to get primary care?”

Robinson says the hospital would serve about 2,000 tribal members, and as many as 10,000 Aleutian, Pribilof and Southwest residents in total.

It would also make good on a decades-old loss — by replacing the native hospital destroyed in Unalaska during World War II.

“Our hospital was bombed by the Japanese … and then burnt down by the military. And thereafter, it was never rebuilt,” Robinson says. “Really, there wasn’t any effort put back into — or there wasn’t the initiative to have it rebuilt until recently.”

Even if everything goes according to plan, Unalaska won’t see its new hospital until about 2018 — and Robinson is confident it’s going to happen. The tribe has already started doing community outreach in Unalaska. They’re planning on more as they start looking at locations for the hospital later this year.

Categories: Alaska News

Should E-Cigarette Vapors Be Treated Like Tobacco Smoke?

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:47

Robert Rodman, owner of Percy’s Liquor Store, shows how an e-cigarette works. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly is considering a ban on e-cigarette vapors in nearly all indoor public spaces.

The local chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence led the push at an Assembly Committee meeting Monday. Kristin Cox, a naturopathic doctor and the council’s tobacco prevention program coordinator, argued that the new tobacco alternative is being marketed to youths and misrepresented as harmless.

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“So e-cigarettes: They’re new, they’re blue, but will they still kill you?” Cox asked.

She didn’t exactly say yes – the research world is playing catch-up with the products as more parties enter the marketplace and innovate – but Cox did warn that the widespread claims that e-cigarette vapors are harmless and an effective way to help someone quit smoking are both scientifically unproven, and may be entirely wrong.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recently published a review of 84 e-cigarette studies in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association. They found a chaotic marketplace filled with a range of unsubstantiated claims and quality control issues with the products themselves.

Results of trials comparing the toxicity of various e-cigarette vapors to traditional tobacco smoke varied wildly. For example, one study of a particular brand discovered toxic metals at levels higher than in regular cigarette smoke, likely coming from the e-cigarette’s metal heating elements. Other studies bore out claims that e-cigarette vapors were less harmful than tobacco smoke, but not harmless.

“You know, middle school kids think they’re harmless. They’re using these devices, they think they’re really harmless. There’s harmless water vapor is what their inhaling. And that’s not the case.”

Cox says big tobacco companies have been pumping a lot of money into buying e-cigarette companies and beefing up their advertising campaigns with youths in mind. E-cigarette juice, vaping liquid or e-liquid, is being made in candy and fruit flavors.

Cox says it’s an initiation tool to introduce youths to nicotine addiction and tobacco use.

“This is a really, really serious issue. It’s re-normalizing cigarette smoking in public. Little kids can’t distinguish between what’s a traditional cigarette and what’s an e-cigarette,” she said.

Under the ordinance the Assembly is considering, the vapors would be treated the same as tobacco smoke, which Juneau banned from virtually all indoor public spaces in 2008.

If the Assembly adopts the ordinance, Cox said, “It’s going to signal to people that these are dangerous, they’re not harmless.”

A few blocks away from City Hall, Robert Rodman has sold e-cigarette products for about a year in his store, Percy’s Liquor.

He’s more or less indifferent about the possible ban.

“I don’t think it’s a huge issue one way or the other,” he said.

Rodman keeps an e-cigarette for himself in the shop to demonstrate how it’s used. His looks like a fat pen. One end houses a battery and heating element. The other end has a vial with the e-liquid in it. The liquid he uses has no nicotine.

“Yeah, I’m not a smoker. I have no interest in nicotine,” Rodman said.

Then, Rodman used one of the lines Cox was worried about.

“It’s just flavored water, basically,” Rodman said. “You know, in that case, you know, there’s no harm.”

In fact, the base in most e-liquids is a common food additive the Food and Drug Administration says is safe to eat, though researchers warn drawing it into your lungs as an aerosol isn’t the same and can cause respiratory problems.

Rodman pushed a button and breathed in. A moment later, he puffed out wisps of a white, scented vapor that hung in the air a few moments before dissipating.

“You’re not really inhaling it. So, I dunno, it’s just a pleasurable sensation,” Rodman said. “You know, you get a little bit of mouth feel with it, you know, in your throat. And with the flavors, you know, you get some taste. I mean, this is coffee. You know, it’s kind of a cool thing.”

The Assembly will hold a public hearing on the e-cigarette vapor ordinance at its next meeting, June 30.

Categories: Alaska News

In First Drift Opening Near Bethel, Managers Balance Chinook Conservation with Opportunity

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:46

After months of planning and studying the numbers, state and federal managers will open the first six-inch-drift gillnet opening on the most densely populated stretch of the Kuskokwim river. The tremendous fishing power will be aimed at chum and sockeye salmon, but managers are moving cautiously to make sure enough king salmon make it to spawning grounds.

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No one will know for sure until well after the king salmon have stopped running, but State Kuskokwim Area Management biologist Aaron Poetter says the early conservation measures seem to have successfully moved king salmon past many of the river’s 2,000 subsistence households.

“We feel pretty comfortable with making the call that we have enough fish upriver to at least make the lower end of the goal. We want to ensure that those fish do make it to spawning grounds so we will tread lightly and implement chinook conservation as we provide additional opportunities,” said Poetter.

After not meeting escapement in two of the past four years, the priority this year is hitting the midpoint of the river’s escapement goal, about 85,000 fish. 2014 was expected to be a weak run, between 71 and 117 thousand kings. Nobody has been allowed to fish for kings since May 20th, but managers briefly opened a portion of the lower river to fishing for other salmon species last week.

Managers say Friday evening’s four-hour opener on the lower river brought out just under 200 boats. They estimate that of 11-thousand salmon caught, about 670 were king salmon. With many more boats anticipated out of Bethel and nearby communities, Federal In-Season Manager Brian McCaffery says kings will be caught in the six-inch, 25-fathom nets.

“I would anticipate this next opening that there will be some thousands of kings taken by all the boats, but given where we are in the run, we’re pretty confident the run can handle it given how many fish have already gone by,” said McCaffery.

Managers don’t have a great estimate how many boats will drop their nets in at 10 a.m. Tuesday, but Poetter says fisherman will be out in force.

“The 130 four-inch whitefish nets are probably going to pale in comparison to what we’re going to see,” said Poetter.

Restricting nets to 25 fathoms instead of the usual 50 fathoms, managers can further fine tune the amount of harvest. The latest data from the Bethel Test Fishery on Sunday shows that the chum and sockeye ratio to king salmon is about 9 to 1.

Poetter will attempt to get a rough sketch of the harvest Tuesday morning and how many kings were caught in the net before setting the next opening.

“I do expect more openings this week, we’re looking for something a little bit later on this week as we continue to roll opportunity up the river and continue to liberalize opportunity down on this lower section,” said Poetter.

The full regulations are here

Categories: Alaska News

Fuel Spill Reported At Nome Hospital

Tue, 2014-06-24 16:25

Up to 1,200 gallons of home heating oil is estimated to have spilled at Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome.

According to a situation report from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Norton Sound Health Corporation hired Bering Straits Native Corporation to conduct indoor air monitoring in the hospital. As of Monday, the monitoring showed no evidence of diesel vapors inside the hospital. About 200 cubic yards of contaminated soil also had been removed.

The department says the spill was discovered early Friday morning. Norton Sound Health Corporation estimates 800-1,200 gallons of diesel had leaked from an above-ground storage tank.

The department says it will continue to monitor cleanup activities.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage celebrates World Refugee Day

Tue, 2014-06-24 15:58

Anchorage residents gathered at Mountain View Lions Park on Friday to celebrate World Refugee Day. The day honors people who have fled their home country, often because of war or ethnic persecution. About 120 refugees are resettled in Anchorage every year as part of a national program.

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Netra Dhakal dances during the World Refugee Day celebration in Anchorage.

Netra Dhakal dances to music from his home country of Bhutan. The song tells a story familiar to his parents- a boy who left his village and misses his home. Dhakal’s family was forced to leave Bhutan when he was three years old.

“The Bhutan government said, ‘You are Nepali,’” he explained. “’Because you eat Nepali, you speak Nepali, you wear Nepali dress and everything. But you are in Bhutan. So you should go to Nepal.’ They forced us to leave Bhutan so we went to Nepal. But Nepal government said, ‘You came from Bhutan. So you are not Nepali citizen, so you should go back to Bhutan.’”

The family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years.  Dhakal said they couldn’t work and didn’t have access to things like radios, electricity, or cars. Organizations donated food, schools, and health care for the camp of 140,000 people. In 2010, they were finally relocated to Alaska.

“In the beginning it was a little hard because of English problem,” Dhakal said. “It was hard to communicate with people, go shopping, travel from place to place.”

But now, Dhakal has earned his GED and is teaching English as a Second Language.

Abdikarim Mohamud arrived in Anchorage from a refugee camp in Kenya in 2011. He was originally from Somalia. When he learned he was moving to Alaska, he said people warned him.

“People, they say, ‘You go to cold Alaska. It’s very far.’ But now I live here. It’s nice–winter and summer.”

Mohamud says he never wants to go back to live in East Africa. “No, no. I’m living here. America. I like it, so much,” he exclaimed as Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” blasted out of the sound system.

Women from Somali take photos during the celebration.

He shares his enthusiasm with other Somali refugees by greeting them as soon as they arrive at the airport. Catholic Social Services’ refugee assistance program named him one of their volunteers of the year.

But many refugees pointed out that the celebration also recognizes nearly 17 million people worldwide who are still refugees. And with the new conflicts in Iraq, Ukraine, and South Sudan, the numbers are rising.

Peter Rom’s family fled southern Sudan into Ethiopia before he was born. He resettled in the United States 13 years ago.

“I would say thank you for God bring me here to America,” he said. “And also I feel bad for what happen in my country. A lot of people are in rural area, remote area. Yeah, it’s very difficult.”

Rom said the people there can easily get sick from malaria or diarrhea. Now, because of the war, it’s hard for them to get money or food. Rom has returned a few times on mission trips to try to help, but he says his home is now the United States.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that more than 58,000 refugees were accepted into the country in FY2012. Only a small number can be resettled in Anchorage because of housing constraints.

Categories: Alaska News

The Top-10 Alaska Books (And Tons More) To Add To Your Reading List

Tue, 2014-06-24 14:30

Before this week’s Talk of Alaska about the best Alaska-based books, we opened up voting to the listeners to get their input into what the top-10 Alaska books should be.

We received tons of feedback and compiled a full list, which you can find here.

Here are the top-10 results based on online voting, comments, emails, social media, and calls we have received…starting with #10:

10) Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life along the River (Sidney Huntington)

In his dramatic autobiography, Alaskan elder Sidney Huntington, half-white, half-Athabascan, recounts his adventures, tragedies, and ultimate success.

 

 

 

 

 

9) One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey (Richard Proennecke)

This best-selling memoir from Richard Proenneke’s journals and with firsthand knowledge of his subject and the setting, Sam Keith has woven a tribute to a man who carved his masterpiece out of the beyond.  To live in a pristine land unchanged by man . . . to roam a wilderness through which few other humans has passed . . . to choose an idyllic site, cut trees by hand, and build a log cabin. . . to be self-sufficient craftsman, making what is needed from materials available…to be not at odds with the world, but content with one’s own thoughts, dreams and company.   Thousands have had such dreams, but Richard Proenneke lived them. This book is a moving account of the day-to-day explorations and activities Dick carried out alone….alone in the wilderness…and the constant chain of nature’s events that kept him company.

8) The Firecracker Boys (Dan O’Neil)

In 1958, Edward Heller, father of the H-bomb, unveiled his plan to detonate six nuclear bombs off the Alaskan coast to create a new harbor. However, the plan was blocked by a handful of Eskimos and biologists, who succeeded in preventing massive nuclear devastation potentially far greater than that of the Chernobyl blast. An unprecedented account of one of the most shocking chapters of the Nuclear Age.

 

 

7) The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

6) Two Old Women (Velma Wallis)

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.

Though these women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community and forgiveness “speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness and wisdom.”

5) Two in the Far North (Margaret Murie)

This enduring story of life, adventure, and love in Alaska was written by a woman who embraced the remote Alaskan wilderness and became one of its strongest advocates. In this moving testimonial to the preservation of the Arctic wilderness, Mardy Murie writes from her heart about growing up in Fairbanks, becoming the first woman graduate of the University of Alaska, and marrying noted biologist Olaus J. Murie. So begins her lifelong journey in Alaska and on to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where along with her husband and others, they founded The Wilderness Society. Mardy’s work as one of the earliest female voices for the wilderness movement earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

4) Where the Sea Breaks its Back (Corey Ford)

Author Corey Ford writes the classic and moving story of naturalist Georg Whlhelm Steller, who served on the 1741-42 Russian Alaska expedition with explorer Vitus Bering. Steller was one of Europe’s foremost naturalists and the first to document the unique wildlife of the Alaskan coast. In the course of the voyage, Steller made his valuable discoveries and suffered, along with Bering and the cred of the ill-fated brig St. Peter, some of the most grueling experiences in the history of Arctic exploration. First published in 1966, Where the Sea Breaks Its Back was hailed as “among this country’s greatest outdoor writing” by Field & Stream magazine, and today continues to enchant and enlighten the new generations of readers about this amazing and yet tragic expedition, and Georg Steller’s significant discoveries as an early naturalist.

3) Coming into the Country (John McPhee)

Coming into the Country is an unforgettable account of Alaska and Alaskans. It is a rich tapestry of vivid characters, observed landscapes, and descriptive narrative, in three principal segments that deal, respectively, with a total wilderness, with urban Alaska, and with life in the remoteness of the bush.

Readers of McPhee’s earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course of this volume we are made acquainted with the lore and techniques of placer mining, the habits and legends of the barren-ground grizzly, the outlook of a young Athapaskan chief, and tales of the fortitude of settlers—ordinary people compelled by extraordinary dreams. Coming into the Country unites a vast region of America with one of America’s notable literary craftsmen, singularly qualified to do justice to the scale and grandeur of the design.

2) The Raven’s Gift (Don Rearden)

John Morgan and his wife can barely contain their excitement upon arriving as the new teachers in a Yup’ik Eskimo village on the windswept Alaskan tundra. But their move proves disastrous when a deadly epidemic strikes and the isolated community descends into total chaos. When outside aid fails to arrive, John’s only hope lies in escaping the snow-covered tundra and the hunger of the other survivors–he must make the thousand-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness for help. He encounters a blind Eskimo girl and an elderly woman who need his protection, and he needs their knowledge of the terrain to survive. The harsh journey pushes him beyond his limits as he discovers a new sense of hope and the possibility of loving again.

1) Ordinary Wolves (Seth Kantner)

In the tradition of Jack London, Seth Kantner presents an Alaska far removed from majestic clichés of exotic travelogues and picture postcards. Kantner’s vivid and poetic prose lets readers experience Cutuk Hawcly’s life on the Alaskan plains through the character’s own words — feeling the pliers pinch of cold and hunkering in an igloo in blinding blizzards. Always in Cutuk’s mind are his father Ab,; the legendary hunter Enuk Wolfglove, and the wolves — all living out lives on the unforgiving tundra. Jeered and pummeled by native children because he is white, Cutuk becomes a marginal participant in village life, caught between cultures. After an accident for which he is responsible, he faces a decision that could radically change his life. Like his young hero, Seth Kantner grew up in a sod igloo in the Alaska, and his experiences of wearing mukluks before they were fashionable, eating boiled caribou pelvis, and communing with the native tribes add depth and power to this acclaimed narrative.

Categories: Alaska News

All Hope for Knik Bridge Rides on Federal Decision

Tue, 2014-06-24 05:26

Alaskans who want to see a bridge across Knik Arm would have envied Los Angeles last month. In a U.S. Senate hearing room, California representatives were high-fiving themselves for winning more than $2 billion to extend a subway to the city’s Westside.

“Listen to these numbers. They’re even big by Washington standards,” California Sen. Barbara Boxer boasted. “In addition to the $1.25 billion, full funding grant agreement … the Purple line extension project is also benefiting from an $856 million loan made possible by the TIFIA Program.”

That program, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance in Innovation Act, is the one Alaska hopes will lend the state more than $340 million for the Knik Bridge.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Friday signed a bill to finance a $900 million bridge across Knik Arm. A decade ago, bridge proponents hoped to fund the project entirely with federal earmarks. But then Congress banned earmarks, in part due to public outrage over this bridge and another in Ketchikan, both derided nationally as “bridges to nowhere.” Now, the Knik project all depends on winning a low-interest TIFIA loan.

Boxer is one of the chief proponents in Congress of the increasingly popular lending program. Year after year, demand for TIFIA funds far outstrips supply. As Boxer explains it, the program is designed to lend the money needed to get a project started while other revenues roll in more slowly.

“Because when you put together projects like this, they’re enormous, and they’re enormously important, so you gotta use all the options at your disposal,” she says.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who flew to Washington to celebrate the federal funding agreement, thanked his senators but says the real reason his city got the money is that Angelenos reached into their own wallets first. Garcetti commended local voters for approving a 30-year sales tax to pay for transportation.

“We’re not coming here hat in hand with an empty hat. We come here to get it topped off,” he said at the podium in the U.S. Senate hearing room. “We know that in this changed landscape you have to bring something to the game in order to get more, and we consistently do.”

Alaska isn’t coming entirely hat in hand to the feds, either. A few years ago, Knik bridge proponents asked TIFIA to finance nearly half the bridge costs. But federal officials said they wanted to see more of a state commitment — more “skin in the game,” to use the metaphor that’s ubiquitous in TIFIA discussions. So now the state is asking TIFIA to cover about a third. Another third would come from other federal transportation dollars. And for the state’s third, it plans to issue up to $300 million in bonds, but only if it gets the TIFIA money first. The plan is to pay it all off with tolls, estimated at $5 per car.

If there’s not enough toll revenue left after operation and maintenance, the state treasury might be on the hook for the bonds — but not the TIFIA loan. Alaska debt manager Devon Mitchell told the state Senate finance committee this spring if tolls fall short, the feds would have to negotiate some other option.

“None of those options is going to include the state of Alaska appropriating money to pay that TIFIA debt,” he said.

Alaska Transportation development director Jeff Ottesen told state legislators the financing plan is smart for the state.

“We’re getting a chance to build this and, quite frankly somebody else is going to pay a large piece of the tab,” he said.

Ultimately, the U.S. Transportation Secretary decides which projects TIFIA will fund. The department made no one available to interview for this story. But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says the very reason Alaska might like the plan – limited financial commitment — makes it unattractive to federal policymakers. Ellis says Alaska isn’t really bringing revenues to the deal; it’s bringing more debt.

“People may argue these bonds are skin in the game,” he said, “but in reality it’s still somebody else’s skin.”

His group claims credit for pinning the “Bridge to Nowhere” label on the Ketchikan bridge and helped spread the taint to the Knik project as well. Last year Taxpayers for Common Sense gave the Knik project a second “golden fleece award,” a badge intended to highlight wasteful federal spending. Ellis predicts the U.S. Transportation Department won’t like the loose repayment terms Alaska is proposing.

“Certainly if you’re saying that whatever scraps are left will go to pay off the TIFIA loan, that’s going to raise up the hackles of the feds,” he says.

Knik bridge proponents shouldn’t count on Sen. Lisa Murkowski intervening with the department. She says she has concerns about the cost, the routing and the fairness of the project to other parts of the state. As far as winning TIFIA funds, she thinks it’s an uphill battle. Murkowski says it’s unfair, but nationally “big Alaska bridge project” remains synonymous with pork.

“That has clearly stuck, and you can open a newspaper here in Washington, D.C. today and you will still see reference to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’” Murkowski says.

A spokesman for Alaska Congressman Don Young says he’ll support the bridge for TIFIA funds. But he notes Young sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the state to build the bridge back in 2005.

“Unfortunately, the State of Alaska chose to spend the majority of that money on anything but the Knik Arm Bridge,” Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said in an email, “and now, nearly a decade later, they are scrambling to fund the project and squabbling over financial measures that require them to beg President Obama’s bureaucrats for even more federal dollars.”

Categories: Alaska News

8.0M Quake Puts Aleutians on Tsunami Watch

Mon, 2014-06-23 17:15

The tsunami advisory in Unalaska has ended, after a powerful underwater earthquake in the Western Aleutians triggered tsunami alerts for parts of the Aleutian Islands Monday afternoon.

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No damages were reported after the magnitude 8.0 quake, recorded just before 1 p.m. on Monday. It happened about 30 miles northwest of Amchitka, about 60 miles underwater.

Residents in the Western Aleutians reported feeling shaking during the quake, according to the Alaska Earthquake Information Center. And the quake has set off a series of aftershocks, some as strong as a magnitude 6.

The earthquake also generated a tsunami warning from Attu to Nikolski and in the Pribilof Islands for about two hours Monday. It was then downgraded to an advisory.

The Unalaska area, from Nikolski to Unimak Pass, was also under an advisory for part of Monday afternoon. It ended around 4 p.m.

The tsunami alerts stemmed from the force of the quake. But the Earthquake Center’s Natasha Ruppert says tremors at such a depth don’t often create tsunamis.

“Based on its magnitude, there is definitely potential for tsunami in the Aleutian Islands,” she said Monday afternoon, while the alerts were in effect. “But based on its depth, I do not expect that there will be a significant tsunami from this earthquake.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed tsunami waves about a foot in height or less in Unalaska, Adak and other islands in the region. Those waves are measured at the highest water level above the tide level. They weren’t high enough to do any damage.

Unalaska’s Department of Public Safety told residents to avoid beaches and harbors during the advisory, but there was no full-scale evacuation to high ground.

Categories: Alaska News

Medicare Will Penalize Alaska Hospitals For Patient Safety

Mon, 2014-06-23 17:14

The four largest hospitals in Alaska are facing Medicare payment penalties for the quality of their care. Providence, Alaska Regional, Alaska Native Medical Center and Fairbanks Memorial are all in the bottom 25% nationally for the number of infections and serious complications patients get in their hospitals, according to data analyzed by Kaiser Health News. The penalties are part of a focus on quality care that’s included in the Affordable Care Act. 

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Central lines are IV’s inserted in veins that lead right to a patient’s heart. Infections in those lines are serious. And in 2012, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage had 17 of them in their Intensive Care Units.

For each hospital in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ analysis, Medicare calculated a preliminary “hospital acquired-condition” score from 1 to 10 (10 is the worst.) Hospitals getting the penalty, will lose 1 percent of each Medicare payment from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2015. This data was analyzed by Kaiser Health News. (Graphic by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

“There was no one single thing, there’s no smoking gun, we were not doing x.”

Dr. Dick Mandsager is Providence’s hospital administrator. He says the hospital recognized the infections as they were happening and started paying attention to every detail for patients with central lines. In 2013, Providence had six central line infections instead of 17.

“It’s making sure that the whole bundle of care is done every single time, all the time, regardless of how pressured you are, regardless of how many things you’ve got on your mind.”

The spike in central line infections in 2012 helped push Providence into the lowest quarter of hospitals nationally for safety measures Medicare is tracking. The analysis is preliminary, but the fines are unlikely to change when the final numbers are out later this year. In Alaska, Providence has plenty of company. The state’s three other big hospitals; Alaska Native Medical Center, Fairbanks Memorial and Alaska Regional are all receiving penalties for patient safety. As a result, the hospitals will lose 1% of their Medicare payments for a year starting in October.

Julie Taylor is the new CEO of Alaska Regional. She says her hospital’s poor score is due in part to an increase in post surgical blood clots- seven total- during the year the Medicare data was pulled from.

“If you look at the percent of our total surgeries, this number isn’t alarming. But if it’s my mom, that number is alarming, even one.”

Taylor says Alaska Regional has emphasized training to bring down the rate of blood clots and other complications, which is especially important given a staff turnover rate of 20 percent annually at the hospital:

“What that means to you is that we have to retrain staff who are coming in, make sure they understand all the protocols, because this takes hard wiring. It’s not by happenstance that these things are prevented, it absolutely has to be hardwired and that’s why orientation and training and vigilance has to take place.”

Taylor applauds Medicare’s effort to track patient safety and penalize the worst performing hospitals. That’s a point all of the hospitals agree on, including Fairbanks Memorial. Gena Edmiston is Chief Nursing Officer there. She says during the last year, the hospital has had a new focus on patient safety:

“We meet every two weeks, look at every single safety incident in the hospital. We address them and then very consciously look for results.”

Edmiston says Fairbanks Memorial has seen steep drops in some areas, like central line infections. Other problems, like patient falls, have been harder to address.

All the hospitals pointed out potential problems with the way Medicare measures quality. Alaska Native Medical Center’s Jay Butler chairs the infection control committee there and says his hospital’s poor score flagged one main problem:

“The one that really stands out to us is the catheter associated urinary tract infection rate.”

Butler says many of the cases were from a type of bug that colonizes the urinary tract without causing an infection. Basically something that looks and acts like an infection, but isn’t one.  He says the hospital will address how those cases are handled.  He says the way Medicare issues hospital penalties isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing:

“We’ve got to track how we’re doing otherwise we have no idea whether or not we’re making progress. We wouldn’t even know whether or not we’re providing good care.”

But a Harvard health policy expert has big problems with the way Medicare is measuring quality. Professor Ashish Jha says large teaching hospitals and urban hospitals tend to get the bulk of the penalties. He thinks that may be because they’re doing a better job documenting complications compared to hospitals that aren’t even aware of errors:

“What you end up doing is penalizing hospitals that are more vigilant, that are paying closer attention, are documenting the complications and coding them in their billing data.”

Still, Jha thinks infection rates, which do not come from billing data, are important quality measures. He says hospitals should have close to zero central line infections, the problem Providence struggled with, if they’re following standard practice.

Dr. Mandsager, from Providence, says the hospital’s goal is zero central line infections, but it’s a challenge:

“I could not have predicted 20 years ago, in the measures that get publicly reported, how close you have to be to perfection otherwise you’re doing poorly comparatively. Do I feel bad about our current performance? Absolutely.”

Mandsager is confident Providence will not be in the same position during the next round of Medicare penalties. In the meantime, he says the 1% cut in Medicare payments is significant. The hospital estimates it will lose more than $500,000 in federal payments. Fairbanks Memorial Hospital calculates its lost payments could be as much as $400,000. Both Alaska Regional and Alaska Native Medical Center estimate their penalties will cost them around $200,000.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News
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