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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: 14 min 58 sec ago

Draft petition calls for a third city in Ketchikan

Mon, 2015-08-03 16:01

North Tongass Fire and EMS. (KRBD file photo)

Consolidation has failed in Ketchikan many times in the past. Now, a group of people in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s North End is trying something completely different: They want to create another city in the borough, which would add a fourth local government in a community of about 13,000 people.

The draft petition calls for creation of the City of Ward Cove, using roughly the same boundaries as what is now the North Tongass Service Area. The home-rule city would begin where the City of Ketchikan’s ends, a little north of the Shoreline Drive area, and would extend to Settlers Cove State Park on the far north of the road system.

The draft petition argues that the proposed new city is distinct from the City of Ketchikan geographically and culturally. Also, mountains and streams limit the ability of the City of Ketchikan to expand utilities for North End residents. Becoming a city would allow those residents to improve utilities on their own.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst said the petitioners have consulted with him while drafting the petition. He said areawide powers, such as public education, transit and the airport, would remain with the borough. But the petition calls for transferring a number of non-areawide powers to the new city.

“The ones that are currently provided in that area by the borough include library, sewage disposal, solid waste, regulation of the sale or possession of drug paraphernalia, regulation of possession and sale of fireworks, the North Tongass Fire and EMS Service Area, the Ward Creek Road Service Area and the Mud Bight Water and Utility Service Area,” he said.

Settlers Cove State Park. (KRBD file photo)

Library funding has been a point of contention between some borough residents and

the City of Ketchikan. The city operates the Ketchikan Public Library, and has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Under that MOU, the borough provides per-capita funding to the city for library services, and to collect that, charges a fee on a non-areawide basis.

Based on that agreement, the borough provided about $400,000 for the library this year.

Bockhorst says that agreement applies only to borough residents who don’t live within any incorporated city.

“So, if a City of Ward Cove were to form, our power to provide library services would be restricted to exclude that area,” he said. “So, there would be an adjustment in terms of not necessarily the formula of how the borough pays, but there would be a rate adjustment.”

The petition estimates that the population of the proposed City of Ward Cove would include 3,250 permanent residents. That equals roughly $256,600 of this year’s borough contribution to library services.

The proposed new city would encompass 42 square miles of land, three square miles of water and tidelands; and property with an assessed value of $350 million.

Knudson Cove is on Ketchikan’s North End. (KRBD file photo)

The petition does not propose any change in the current property tax rate, which now is 5 mills for the borough, and 2.4 mills for the service area. There also is no proposed sales tax for the new city, beyond the current 2.5 percent boroughwide sales tax.

The petition calls for a strong-mayor form of government, which means the mayor would act as the city manager. The city also would have five elected council members, serving two-year terms.

Bockhorst said if the City of Ward Cove does eventually form, it will be an interesting development for the borough.

“It will have an effect, and not necessarily a negative effect,” he said. “At this time, I do not have any concerns about that.”

Bockhorst adds that the petitioners seem to have drafted a clean, well-thought-out petition.

“They are consulting with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, as they should be,” he said. “And they’re planning to consult with the City of Ketchikan and also with the North Tongass Service Area Board.”

Petitioners named in the document are Trevor Shaw, who is a Ketchikan School Board member, and Jason Harris. Neither returned a call seeking comment by deadline for this story.

The petition is still in draft form, and has not yet been formally submitted to the state Local Boundary Commission. The petitioners will need to gather signatures of at least 15 percent of voters in the last election before officially submitting the petition for review.

Once that has taken place, the LBC will decide whether to move forward with an incorporation election for what would be Ketchikan’s fourth local government. The other three are the borough, the City of Ketchikan, and the City of Saxman.

Categories: Alaska News

Pregnant Kotlik Woman Loses Child After Assault

Mon, 2015-08-03 14:23

State Troopers are investigating an assault in Kotlik after a pregnant victim’s baby died.

Troopers say a family member assaulted the pregnant woman and following the assault, the woman’s child was lost due to “unknown circumstances.”  They’re looking whether the loss of the fetus was connected with the assault.

Troopers learned of the incident Thursday morning and responded to the village. The alleged assault took place last Monday. The investigation is still underway, according to a trooper dispatch.

Troopers say any charges, if warranted, will be send to the district attorney’s office.

Categories: Alaska News

Q2 Earnings Reports Show It’s a Tough Time for Oil

Mon, 2015-08-03 14:17

As Shell’s Fennica icebreaker endured a standoff with Greenpeace protesters in Oregon last week, the company was also contending with the release of a dismal second quarter earnings report.

Shell logged quarterly earnings of $3.8 billion – nearly 40 percent lower than earnings for the same period last year. That’s actually an improvement over first quarter earnings, which were down more than 50 percent.

The bearish report puts scrutiny on Shell’s appetite for the Arctic, where the company has invested billions in recent years.

Shell declined an interview request, but sent a statement from the company CEO Ben van Beurden’s shareholder briefing. Van Beurden says, “Alaska is a long-term play, that’s the way you have to look at it.”

Van Beurden also added that the area Shell plans to drill in the Chukchi, the Burger prospect, has the potential to be multiple times larger than the biggest fields in the U.S.’ Gulf of Mexico.

Shell is not the only oil company to see its profits slide this quarter. ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil lost earnings at a similar rate, while Chevron fared marginally better.

Shell reported nearly a 40 percent dip in earnings in its second quarter report released July 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Summer work underway at Red Devil Mine in advance of big cleanup

Mon, 2015-08-03 12:01

Crews last year built a channel at the old Red Devil mine site. 2015’s work is leading up to water and sediment clean-up. (Photo courtesy BLM)

Crews are sampling water and sediments this summer near the site of the old Red Devil mercury mine in the middle Kuskokwim. It’s work that comes in advance of a large clean up project.

Work has been underway for years to study how to clean up the abandoned mine. And there’s still more to learn. Mike McCrum is Project manager for the Red Devil project with BLM in Anchorage.

“We still had unanswered questions with regard to tailings that have made their way into the Kuskokwim River. We also had unanswered questions for groundwater on the mine site,” said McCrum.

Researchers are putting in monitoring wells at the site and soon will sample sediments in the Kuskokwim.

The clean up work is split into two big phases now as leaders finalize a feasibility study for cleaning up the quarter million cubic yards of tailings that have been leaking mercury, arsenic, and antimony into the Kuskokwim river for years. It’s leading up to a multi-million dollar project to stop the tailings from releasing hazardous metals.

“In the end the most important thing is to address the tailings. They’re still piled up next to Red Devil creek, and that’s not a good place for them to be. The issues we’re working on now are not whether we’re going to do anything. The issues are more: what are we going to do, what’s the most efficient and optimal thing to do,” said McCrum.

Last summer they completed some work re-grading tailings piles so they were not so steep, excavating a new channel, and creating an area of still water in which sediments could drop out before reaching the Kuskokwim River. The options under consideration now include simply fencing off the site, or digging up the tailings.

“To do a pretty extensive excavation in the Red Devil Creek valley. Removing virtually all of the tailings that are there, removing the soil that’s been impacted by the tailings, scraping off the top of the barge landing and placing that material in a repository on the north side of the site that at a higher elevation and and away from surface water. We would cap that with a very low permeability cap,” said McCrum.

Keeping water out would stop leaching. The final and most expensive option, by far, would be to actually barge out the material and take it to a hazardous waste facility in Northern Oregon. The barging alternative would involve 123 barge transits and cost $285 million. Keeping the material on site would cost $35 million.

“It’s common to simply remove them from the location where they’re creating an environmental issue. In this case it’s being near the water, it’s the aquatic ecosystem that’s the most sensitive to the metals being released by the tailings. So, getting those tailings up and away from the water is probably the single most important thing you can do,” said McCrum.

The BLM plans to take a proposed plan out to Kuskokwim communities early in 2016. A final decision is expected next year and the agency hopes to complete the work within the next few years. The sediment work would come later.

The Red Devil mercury mine operated from 1933 to 1971. By the 1980s it was considered abandoned and the government began the long process of cleaning up. Studies have found buildup of metals in fish nearby. The State has issued a warning to residents not to collect subsistence foods nearby.

They also warned pregnant women and young children to avoid large-sized pike and lush. Those are predators that can accumulate mercury over many years.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska power plants exempt from new greenhouse gas emission rules

Mon, 2015-08-03 11:32

Alaska will be exempt from new federal rules aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she got word Monday in a phone call from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The rule requires other states to eliminate about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030. Murkowski told the EPA administrator at a hearing in April the target was impossible for Alaska, in part because the state’s electric grid is so limited.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Assembly considers $1 million hit to Juneau seniors’ sales tax perk

Mon, 2015-08-03 11:04

City Manager Kim Kiefer charts out one solution to gradually raise the eligibility age for the senior sales tax exemption with Assemblywoman Mary Becker. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly advanced a series of policy changes Thursday that would leave lower-income seniors entirely exempt from paying city sales tax, while reducing wealthier seniors’ benefit. Several other sales tax proposals failed.

The city’s finance officials forecast the changes will raise an extra $1 million a year from local seniors. Currently, all resident seniors are eligible for exemption from Juneau’s 5 percent sales tax.

The package the Assembly backed Thursday would keep the exemption in place for seniors with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That cut off varies from year to year and by household size. For a single senior this year, it works out to $36,800.

Wealthier seniors would still be eligible to skip sales tax on essentials: food, residential electricity, heating fuel and municipal water and sewer fees.

“The low-income seniors, those on fixed income, are also protected by the measure we just took,” said Assemblywoman Kate Troll. “So the seniors have been very well taken care of.”

The sales tax changes were considered at the committee level and are not final. They still must be drafted as an ordinance, presented in a public hearing, and read and voted on twice by the Assembly.

Two other sales tax changes were considered that failed. Mayor Merrill Sanford proposed increasing the eligibility age of the senior sales tax exemption from 65 to 70 over five years. The phase-in was intended to soften the blow, and the Assembly initially backed Sanford’s motion in a 5-4 vote.

But, over the next 25 minutes, they worked out a logical problem with that phase-in; since we all age on pace with the phase-in, no one would actually be phased in.

They’d already moved on to other changes when Assemblywoman Karen Crane said, “They’re not getting a double whammy, they’ve had a total whammy. Nothing for the next five years.”

With a fresh, multicolored chart by City Manager Kim Kiefer on the white board, the Assembly voted unanimously to reverse on raising the eligibility age.

Another net-positive sales tax proposal by Assemblyman Loren Jones failed by one vote. He sought a ballot question asking voters to exempt everyone from paying sales tax on food while raising the overall sales tax rate to 6 percent.

Assemblywoman Debbie White voted no.

“There’s talk about an upcoming state sales tax. We’re going to increase the cost of living for everybody by doing that. And right now, I don’t see this getting past the voters.

Assembly members on both sides of the vote agreed that taxing food was regressive, meaning it puts a disproportionate burden on the poor.

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl was the swing vote. He was sympathetic to eliminating the tax on food, but said raising the overall sales tax rate would put Juneau service providers and retailers at a greater disadvantage, particularly against tax exempt online retailers.

“I don’t want to push people any faster toward buying outside than we have to,” Kiehl said.

Next year, Kiehl said he intends to propose less capital spending so the sales tax can be lowered to 4 percent.

Categories: Alaska News

Former NICU Parent Helps Other Families Navigate A Stressful Time

Mon, 2015-08-03 11:00

Most people working in a Newborn Intensive Care Unit have some type of advanced medical degree. But one employee at The Children’s Hospital at Providence in Anchorage has a very different set of qualifications. Ginny Shaffer spent more than three months in the NICU as a parent, with her daughter who was born at 23 weeks. Now she helps other parents through one of the most stressful times of their lives as a Parent Navigator.

A mini chalk board outside Emily Bressler’s NICU room playfully charts her ‘escape attempts’ from the hospital. Her mom Liz says she’s come close to going home at least a dozen times in the last four months.

“Someone would come into the room and they’d say well you could be outta here in two weeks, she’s doing good right now,” Bressler says. “And then at the end of two weeks, something would happen, I called them her medical temper tantrums and it was just enough to keep her here.”

Emily had her first medical temper tantrum the day after she was born- a hearty eight pounds, one ounce- in Fairbanks. She started vomiting, couldn’t poop and was medevaced to the Providence NICU in Anchorage. Emily was diagnosed with Hirschsprung’s Disease, which affects the colon. She needed surgery- three in all- to be able to pass stool.

Bressler’s husband had to stay home in Fairbanks, caring for the couple’s three other young kids.

“I kind off keep my sanity by cracking jokes. And we make the best signs,” Bressler says. “Emily has one that says ‘kiss my little red wagon’, and ‘if you wake me, you take me.’ And it’s great to have that lightness.”

The other half of that ‘we’ Bressler is talking about is NICU Parent Navigator Ginny Shaffer.

“If I can make her smile with a sign, then we’re going to make as many signs as possible,” Shaffer says.

Shaffer has also helped Bressler find a spot for her espresso machine, a vital piece of equipment when your home is a hospital room. And then there’s the tougher stuff. Shaffer is someone Bressler can talk to when Emily has surgery or a setback. She also helps Bressler advocate for Emily’s unique care needs with doctors.

Shaffer says every family needs help in different ways.

“I want to walk into a room and I want somebody to see that there’s somebody that’s going to help them and it’s just their needs I’m looking to support,” Shaffer says.

Ten years ago, Shaffer was the one who needed support. She was 23 weeks pregnant with twins- a boy and a girl, when she felt funny and went to the hospital. Her tiny babies (both weighed less than 1.5 pounds) were born five hours later. Her son Bryson experienced seizures, brain bleeds and problems with internal organs. When he was 45 days old, Shaffer and her husband made the difficult decision to remove life support.

The day after Bryson died, a nurse suggested a first bath for their daughter, Holland.

“And they got out this little bitty pink hospital basin, this little tub that was too big for her and this heat lamp and we got this really great photo,” Shaffer remembers. “The nurse said, ‘how many people does it take to give a two pound baby a bath?’ And we’re all smiling- ‘five!’ And that was a really pivotal moment in our life because I didn’t really know how to go forward.”

Holland spent 99 days in the NICU. After that experience, Shaffer was glad to be home, but she missed the daily connections with hospital staff and other NICU families. When Holland was two years old, the NICU Parent Navigator job opened up and it seemed like a natural fit for Shaffer, even though her background is in real estate, not healthcare.

Eight years later, Shaffer’s office- with huge glass windows, is the first thing you see walking into the unit. It’s filled with stuffed animals, infant clothes and a bowl of chocolate to entice parents to sit down and talk. Shaffer also works to get families connecting with each other:

“We try and get creative with some of our offerings,” Shaffer says. “We’ve done National Fried Chicken Day- a quirky celebration, but it kind of creates a giggle and then people are curious, ‘the NICU’s celebrating National Fried Chicken Day? Let’s go see what it’s about.’ And connections are made.”

Another piece of Shaffer’s job is advocating for families with hospital administrators. She helped design the new NICU that opened two years ago to be as parent- and baby- friendly as possible. Right now, she’s pushing for a more relaxed visitors policy. No visitors are allowed at shift change, when confidential information is exchanged. It’s a holdover from the days when the unit was open, with no private rooms.

“If my neighbor is here and she’s my best friend and she can help me or get me a tissue or a drink, then why not let her stay? You can shut my door and give me some privacy and then I won’t overhear the confidential exchange of information that happens at shift change,” Shaffer says.

But one of best job perks for Shaffer is celebrating family milestones. And a recent day brings a big one. A parade of doctors and nurse are stopping by Emily Bressler’s room to say goodbye and take pictures. After 127 days in the NICU, she is finally making her escape.

Bressler is thrilled to be going home to her husband and kids, but sad too- to say goodbye to the support network of Shaffer and all the NICU staff. She says it’s a little like trading one family for another.

Categories: Alaska News

Labor Rights FAQ Translated to Tagalog

Mon, 2015-08-03 10:55

Not all employees in Alaska speak English proficiently, but the State Department of Labor and Workforce Development wants to make sure that all of them understand their rights. The department recently released several translations of its employee “frequently asked questions” pamphlet in different languages, including one in Tagalog.

According to the United States Census Bureau, Kodiak has a significant Filipino population. In 2010, Asians were the largest racial minority in the Kodiak Borough at almost 20 percent of the population with Filipinos making up around 17 percent.

The statewide supervising investigator for the Wage and Hour Administration, Joe Dunham, says the 23 questions in the pamphlet are an overview of basic wage and hour laws for overtime and minimum-wage eligible employees.

“What is minimum wage? What about overtime? Who gets overtime, who does not get overtime? Can I be paid salary? What about my final paycheck?” says Dunham. “Can they make deductions from my wages without my permission? So, it’s just simple everyday wage and hour questions that most of us come into contact with those questions at any particular job.”

While wage theft and labor abuse can occur, Dunham says some workers’ ignorance about United States labor laws could also be a matter of cultural difference.

“What turns out to be common in their culture turns out to be a violation in ours and very often, neither the employer nor the employee even knows about it,” says Dunham. “These questions are just something where employer-employee can look at this and say ‘Wow, I never knew that, maybe I should call up the Department of Labor and sit down and talk about it.’”

In the case that an employee feels they are being taken advantage of, they can report the issue to DOL investigators.

Categories: Alaska News

Officials announce Yukon Quest purse of at least $115,000

Mon, 2015-08-03 10:53

Race officials will offer at least $115,000 to the winner of the 2016 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that race officials announced the purse on Friday.

Last year’s purse was $127,110, including $12,110 left over from the 2014 race. Fundraisers and sponsorships help fill out the purse.

The announcement from race officials came the day before in-person signups for the 1,000-mile sled dog race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon. The Yukon Quest is scheduled to being on February 6, 2016, in Fairbanks.

Officials also say Doug Grilliot of Willow will be the race marshal for the fourth year in a row. The head veterinarian will be Cristina Hansen and the race manager will be Alex Olesen.

Categories: Alaska News

Seward Highway crash leaves one dead, several injured

Mon, 2015-08-03 10:51

A multi-vehicle crash on the Seward Highway Friday has left one person dead and several others injured.

According to Alaska State Troopers, the crash was reported just after noon on Friday, at mile 80 of the highway in Girdwood.

A tour bus traveling north on the Seward highway reportedly hit another northbound vehicle which was stopped, waiting for cars to turn into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

It caused a pileup involving the bus and five vehicles, two of which were towing trailers.

Alaska Dispatch News reports Alaska Tour & Travel operates the Park Connection Motorcoach involved in the crash. It services national park areas and was headed from Seward to Anchorage with 42 passengers on board.

Troopers responded to the crash along with the Anchorage Police Department and Girdwood Fire Department.

55-year old John Zollner III was pronounced dead on scene. Next of kin was also on scene and was notified.

Two other people were transported by Life Med helicopter to Anchorage with serious injuries. Additional motorists were transported to nearby medical centers with less serious injuries.

According to Troopers, an investigation is underway. Commercial Motor Vehicle inspectors are assisting.

The road remained closed for about 10 hours, backing up traffic until late evening.

Categories: Alaska News

July was wettest on record for Juneau, says weather service

Mon, 2015-08-03 10:49

The National Weather Service says this July was the wettest on record for Juneau.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the weather service announced Saturday that it recorded 10.4 inches of rainfall at Juneau International Airport last month.

Until now, July 1997 was considered the wettest July in Alaska’s capital city. The weather service says 10.36 inches of rain fell that year.

Anchorage only saw 2.34 inches of rain last month. Its wettest July on record was in 2001, with 4.49 inches of rainfall.

The weather service recorded 2.78 inches of rain in Fairbanks this July. The record for that city was set in 2003, with 5.96 inches.

Categories: Alaska News

Attorney General Says Tribal Protection Orders Deserve Equal Recognition

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:54

Law enforcement must uphold tribal protection orders the same as it does state protective orders, regardless of whether the order has been registered with the state, the attorney general announced in an opinion issued Thursday. The AG also encouraged the legislature to amend Alaska law to bring it into compliance with the Violence Against Women Act.

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Attorney General Craig Richards says the Violence Against Women Act clearly supersedes Alaska’s conflicting law requiring registration of tribal court and so-called “foreign” protection orders. The opinion basically affirms VAWA’s provision that tribal court and out-of-state protective orders need not be registered with the state in order to be enforced — a provision with which the Parnell administration refused to comply.

“I’m very excited to see this. I think it’s a step in the right direction in rural/tribal justice,” says Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska.

“It’s going to really, I think, have great impact and effect on our tribal court system and will have a great impact on tribal courts.”

Peterson says Tlingit and Haida is looking forward to more positive action from the Walker administration on tribal issues such as land into trust and transboundary mining.

Nick Gasca, associate council for the Tanana Chiefs Conference based in Fairbanks, also says that the opinion is an indication of the thawing relationship between the state and Alaska tribes.

“This again no doubt reflects his position that with applicable law instead fighting tribes at every case despite the fact that the law says otherwise at least in this case, that he’s moving forward to correct the department’s previous position and reconcile relationships with tribes.

The provision in VAWA requiring states to honor protective orders issued by other states and tribes was included when the act was first passed in 1994. When Congress reauthorized the act in 2013, a disagreement between the state and the Department of Justice regarding the validity of unregistered protective orders intensified.

In a December 2013 letter to Indian Law and Order Commission Chairman Troy Eid, then-Attorney General Michael Geraghty said that while tribal court protective orders must be registered with the state to be enforceable, Alaska State Troopers could — “without the formality of (s)tate court registration” — choose to enforce the order if “confronted with an emergency or tense situation.”

After a June 2014 meeting with Tony West — then an associate attorney general with the Department of Justice — Geraghty sent a follow up letter listing things the federal government could do to “help address public safety issues affecting Alaska Natives,” and Native youth. The letter requested more funding for tribal courts, prevention efforts and support for Village Public Safety Officers, among other things.

About a month later West responded to Geraghty’s letter. He acknowledged Geraghty’s suggestions, but focused on how Alaska’s law requiring registration of tribal protective orders was directly in contradiction to federal law. West offered to discuss with Geraghty way to bring Alaska into compliance with federal law and offered training on the provisions of VAWA.

The opinion doesn’t address tribal jurisdiction issues and does leave some issues left to be decided. Jacqueline Schafer, an assistant attorney general with the State of Alaska, says the nice thing about the opinion is that it doesn’t address issues regarding tribal jurisdiction. The opinion also makes clear that officers can enforce orders that are clearly intended to be protective orders even if they are not explicitly labeled as such.

“It’s really just saying that as long as the order is clear that the issuing court says that it had jurisdiction and that they provided due process and that the order meets the requirements of VAWA then the officer will enforce that order on the ground. It doesn’t matter if the order was registered or not.”

Schafer says there is no set protocol for a situation in which a victim claims to have a tribal protection order, but doesn’t have a copy of it and hasn’t registered it with the state. She says she could imagine the officer simply contacting the tribal court in that case to ensure that the order exists.

“That would be and easy resolution… it would be most protective…”

The opinion does mention that orders must meet the requirements of VAWA in order to be valid. One condition is that the order must provide the person the order is issued against due process. The also points out, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated a tribal court’s obligation to provide due process does not mean tribal courts must use the same procedures as state or federal courts. What constitutes due process could be a point of contention for someone who wants to challenge a protective order issued against them, but Schafer says this also is an area of the law that is yet to be determined.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Friday, July 31, 2015

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:52

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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Shell Begins Exploratory Drilling in the Chukchi Sea

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

Arctic drilling is under way. Shell Oil confirmed Thursday night that its Polar Pioneer rig sent a drill bit spinning into the floor of the Chukchi Sea about 5 p.m. Alaska time.

Attorney General Says Tribal Protection Orders Deserve Equal Recognition

Jennifer Canfield, KTOO – Juneau

Law enforcement must uphold tribal protection orders the same as it does state protective orders, regardless of whether the order has been registered with the state, the attorney general announced in an opinion issued Thursday.

At Least 7 Vehicles Involved In Fatal Seward Highway Wreck

Associated Press

Alaska State Troopers say one person is dead and numerous others are injured in a highway crash involving at least seven vehicles, including a tour bus.

15-Year-Old Plane Crash Survivor Honored By Coast Guard

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The 15-year-old survivor of a plane crash near Juneau was recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday for helping to save the other three passengers despite his own injuries.

Yukon King Run Stronger Than Expected

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A stronger than expected run of Yukon River Chinook salmon is allowing fishery managers to loosen subsistence harvest restrictions on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the river.

Strange Orange Robots Sail Into Dutch Harbor… Just What Are They Up To?

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

Aquatic robots have been spotted in the Aleutian Islands.  Two ocean-going drones were seen sailing into Dutch Harbor Monday night with no one on board.

AK: At A Lonely Lighthouse, Cruise Tourists Bring A Welcome Dose of Noise, And Cash

Joe Sykes, KFSK – Petersburg

For most of the summer the three people who live in Five Finger Lighthouse only have each other and the local wildlife for company. They’re there to look after the lighthouse and do research on the humpback whales who surround the island. But that costs money. So for the first time this year they invited a cruise ship, laden with yoga loving tourists, to ferry its passengers onto their rocky shores.

49 Voices: Albert Gamboa of Anchorage

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

This week we’re talking to Albert Gamboa, who was fishing on the banks of Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage. He’s originally from the Philippines and has lived in Anchorage on and off since 1989.

Categories: Alaska News

Strange Orange Robots Sail Into Dutch Harbor… Just What Are They Up To?

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:47

Aquatic robots have been spotted in the Aleutian Islands. Two ocean-going drones were seen sailing into Dutch Harbor Monday night with no one on board. Just what are these orange robots doing out there–and should we be alarmed?

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These robots are 18 feet tall. Each one has a bright orange wing of carbon fiber sticking up from a floating platform. At sea, they look like oversized windsurfers.

Using the wind for propulsion, and solar panels for their electronics, they’ve been traveling thousands of miles in the Bering Sea all by themselves.

It’s almost like they have minds of their own.

But these robots are working for good, not evil–we think.

Saildrones Inc. CEO Richard Jenkins turns his back (unwisely?) on two of his creations in Unalaska. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.

Richard Jenkins is their creator. He’s the CEO of Saildrone, Inc., in California.

Jenkins: “They’re autonomous. You send them waypoints and a corridor, and they won’t venture out of the corridor regardless of wind or tides. They’re self-controlling. You just need a human to tell them roughly where to go.”

Hmm. Self-controlling. Not sure I like the sound of that.

Jenkins came up to Unalaska to take his robots out of the water and send them home after a three-month science mission.

Jenkins: “On the mast there, that little square thing pointing down? That is a laser, so it is an infrared camera, you could say. What it does, it tells you the sea surface temperature at the very top micron of the water.”

Great. Robots with lasers. What could possibly go wrong?

If these self-controlling machines haven’t gone rogue, they’ve been using their instruments to measure temperature, acidity and 20 other conditions in the rapidly changing Bering Sea.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Washington are collaborating on the high-tech project.

They say each drone can carry more than 200 pounds of scientific instruments. They can cruise the open ocean at up to 14 knots. They can boldly go where it would cost a lot more to send a ship full of human beings.

At a busy fishing dock on Unalaska’s Captain’s Bay, Jenkins says he launched the two sail drones from the very same dock in April.

Jenkins: “We sent them out of here into 45-knot headwinds. From here, they went to St. Paul, then up through the Bering Sea up to Nome, then over to Norton Sound. We mapped the Yukon delta. Then they sailed back to Dutch Harbor. So 4,500 miles on each drone.”

Jenkins says the last time humans surveyed the sea floor of the Yukon delta, the year was 1899.

Scientists hope new data from the drones can further human understanding of problems threatening Bering Sea fisheries. Problems like climate change, retreating sea ice and ocean acidification. Problems that humans, not robots, have caused.

Ryan: “Who’s more intelligent, your drones or you?”

“[Laughs] Drones, for sure. No, Drones aren’t intelligent. Drones are robots that follow simple rules.  They’re not able to make decisions for themselves. That’s all done back at base. You don’t want to have a whole heap of computer power on the drones because it’s a low power device. You only get so much energy from the sun, and computing power equals power consumption.

“This is just a pretty simple brain that actually just gets you from A to B and takes measurements.”

I guess that’s reassuring.

NOAA scientists say the drones’ biggest challenge isn’t subjugating the human race to their will, but dealing with cold water, limited sunlight and jellyfish.

Large numbers of jellyfish can clog the drones’ water intakes.

Isn’t that like War of the Worlds, where the attacking aliens were felled by bacteria?

Jenkins says his creations handled the jellyfish and algae and storms of the Bering Sea beautifully.

Jenkins: “If these vehicles can survive the Bering Sea, they can survive any place on Earth.”

Great. So if the drones do rise up against their masters, there’s no place to hide.

Next year, scientists hope to send the drones beyond the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean. Here’s Dr. Strangedrone, I mean, Richard Jenkins again.

Jenkins: “The Arctic is one of the cutting edges of climate change now. So getting to the Arctic to measure how fast the ice is melting and what happens to the ocean when it does melt is huge. Normally, that would be very, very expensive. You would need a big icebreaker. It’s a long way to go and very remote, whereas we can send these at very low risk and very low cost into some of harshest parts of planet.”

But what it the drones get sick of being sent to the harshest parts of the planet?

2001 movie clip: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”

Of course, that’s just science fiction.

2001 movie clip: “I know that you and Frank were going to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

In science non-fiction, Jenkins disassembles his sail drones on the busy fishing. He straps them down into their shipping crates on a busy dock. They don’t seem to put up any resistance.

Maybe they are just useful tools for gathering important data about our rapidly changing oceans.

Maybe.

Categories: Alaska News

At Least 7 Vehicles Involved In Fatal Seward Highway Wreck

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:34

Alaska State Troopers say one person is dead and numerous others are injured in a highway crash involving at least seven vehicles, including a tour bus.

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Troopers say the crash occurred earlier today on the Seward Highway in the Portage area south of Anchorage. Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters says she doesn’t know how many people have been sent to hospitals other than three people in critical condition.

Anchorage police say the highway in the Portage area is expected to remain closed for several hours.

Categories: Alaska News

15-Year-Old Plane Crash Survivor Honored By Coast Guard

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:33

The 15-year-old survivor of a plane crash near Juneau was recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard Thursday for helping to save the other three passengers despite his own injuries.

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Jose Vasquez was on the Wings of Alaska Cessna that crashed into a mountain 18 miles west of Juneau, killing the pilot. Vasquez lives in Puerto Rico and was in Juneau visiting his godparents. All three and another passenger were traveling to Hoonah.

Coast Guard spokesman Grant DeVuyst says Vasquez used survival skills he learned as a Boy Scout.

“He had multiple injuries but he still went through many steps to make sure the other passengers got the help they needed,” DeVuyst says.

Vasquez had broken ribs and a collapsed lung, according to his godfather.

Jose Vasquez and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Dan Abel on Thursday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Alaska)

Vasquez put layers of clothing around his godmother Sandra Herrera Lopez to preserve body heat. He lifted cargo boxes that had fallen on another passenger, Ernestine Hanlon-Abel of Hoonah.

DeVust says Vasquez then found three cell phones and called 911. He used a phone app to determine the latitude and longitude of the crash site and passed them on to emergency operators.

“When he heard one of the first helicopters from Temsco nearby, he started using smoke signals and then later when the Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene, he started waving a silver thermal blanket to attract attention and that successfully vectored them in for what was the rescue of the passengers,” DeVuyst says.

He says Vasquez’s efforts accelerated the search and rescue.

“There was the emergency beacon aboard the aircraft, but without his precise location, because of how heavily wooded everything was, it would’ve taken longer for rescue crews to locate them,” DeVuyst says.

The Coast Guard honored Vasquez during a ceremony closed to media at Juneau’s Federal Building. DeVuyst says about 50 people were there, including family and friends, and Coast Guard personnel. His godfather Humberto Hernandez, another passenger on the flight, is a Coast Guard doctor.

Hernandez says he’s getting physical therapy. He has a swollen leg, back pain and will have to have some teeth removed. Wife Sandra Herrera Lopez had been medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He says she had several fractures to her head, arm, ankle, collarbone and ribs. She’s since been transferred to another hospital in Seattle.

Hoonah resident Ernestine Hanlon-Abel is still at Harborview. Her husband Tom Abel says she’s undergone multiple operations and has both legs in casts. He hopes she’ll be able to leave the hospital soon, but will likely stay in an assisted living facility before returning to Hoonah.

Vasquez is awaiting clearance from his doctor before going home to Puerto Rico.

Categories: Alaska News

Yukon King Run Stronger Than Expected

Fri, 2015-07-31 16:32

“Chinook salmon, Yukon Delta NWR.” Photo: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Via Flickr Creative Commons.

A stronger than expected run of Yukon River Chinook salmon is allowing fishery managers to loosen subsistence harvest restrictions on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the river. The better-than-anticipated run is still small by historical standards, but may signal that Yukon King stocks are beginning to rebuild.

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Nearly 65,000 kings had passed the state’s sonar counter near the U.S. Canada border at Eagle as of Wednesday, enough to exceed key milestones, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt.

The harvest sharing agreement divides the number of kings in excess of the escapement goal between Alaska and Canadian fishermen.

Schmidt says there has already been some king harvest by Alaska subsistence fishermen, including a reported 3,000 incidentally caught in the commercial summer chum fishery. She expects a similar conservative catch in Canada.

This year’s return is the second in a row that appears to show some movement toward rebuilding a run that once totaled 3 hundred thousand but has struggled for the past two decades due to over harvest and suspected environmental factors. Beyond the raw return number, Schmidt says this summer’s Yukon King run also showed another positive sign.

Schmidt says this summer’s kings are also bigger, cautioning that’s in line with a substantial contingent of larger age 6 fish returning.  She says a salmon research project near the river mouth is seeing more young Chinook than in past years, a potential sign more could come back in future years, depending on environmental conditions.

Categories: Alaska News

Trooper search warrant finds Nome pair with 21 pot plants, $32k in marijuana

Fri, 2015-07-31 12:08

An Alaska State Trooper cruiser parked on Nome’s Front Street in January 2015. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.

Alaska State Troopers said two Nome-area residents are facing drug charges after they say they found an illegal marijuana grow in their Dexter and Triple Creek-area home.

Troopers with the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team—or WAANT—wrote in an online dispatch they executed a search warrant into a home outside the Nome subdivision Thursday.

It was the home of 53-year-old Anthony Shelp and 34-year-old Esther Olanna. Troopers said the investigation found 21 mature marijuana plants being grown in two separate areas of the house.

They also found six immature starter plants, about one pound of “bud” marijuana, and various pieces of grow equipment, including lights, timers, chemicals, and more.

Troopers said the pair was at the home during the search but were not arrested.

The nearly two dozen plants yielded about 2.3 pounds of dry, processed marijuana, which Troopers said has a value on the streets of Nome around $32,000.

A voter referendum decriminalized marijuana in November, changing state law to allow for up to six flowering marijuana plants and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. A 1975 state Supreme Court case, Ravin v. Alaska, saw the court rule that an individual’s right to privacy under the state constitution includes the right to use and consume a personal, non-commercial amount of marijuana.

Both Shelp and Olanna were already on release, with court-specified conditions, for prior offenses. Troopers said charges for the marijuana grow—including misconduct involving a controlled substance and violating conditions of their release—have been sent to the district attorney’s office.

Categories: Alaska News

The future of Alaska’s megaprojects

Fri, 2015-07-31 12:00

The six so called megaprojects that Governor Walker put on hold soon after taking office have already received millions in state and federal funds but would take billions to actually complete. Where would the money come from? If the state stops them completely will the federal money have to be repaid?

HOST: Lori Townsend

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Categories: Alaska News

Health nonprofits strained by delay in grant payments

Fri, 2015-07-31 10:29

Some of Alaska’s social service agencies say they are feeling strained finances caused by delayed state grant funding caused by the Legislature’s late budget and expenditures on a new state computer accounting system.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that state health officials said Wednesday that the Department of Health and Social Services has only awarded about 45 percent of its grant, compared to nearly 96 percent of grants awarded at this time last year.

Department of Administration spokesman Andy Mills says the health department warned grant recipients about possible delays caused by the new accounting system in May. Those challenges were made worse when the legislature took extra time to pass a budget.

Health department officials say struggling nonprofits should contact program managers in state government for help.

Categories: Alaska News

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