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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: 55 min 22 sec ago

2014 Permanent Fund Dividend Will Be $1,884

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:16

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and Commissioner of Revenue Angela Rodell announce the amount of the 2014 Permanent Fund Dividend. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN- Anchorage)

In an announcement Wednesday, Governor Sean Parnell told Alaskans something they have been waiting to hear for months…the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend. 

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“Alaskan’s 2014 dividend amount is….$1,884,” Governor Sean Parnell said to the cheers and applause of a packed room at Anchorage’s Atwood Building.

This is the third-largest total in the 33-year history of the Permanent Fund Dividend.

Governor Sean Parnell says of the nearly 675,000 who applied, the state estimates close to 641,500 will qualify to receive this year’s payout.

“The oldest applicant…109-years-old,” he said. The youngest include 26 children who were born on December 31, 2013…just before the deadline.”

Governor Parnell says over 500 non-profits will benefit from this year’s Pick-Click-Give contributions.

“This year, 26,850 applicants pledged 44,693 contributions..that’s a new record. Over $2.8 million was pledged,” he said.

The 2014 Permanent Fund Dividend will be distributed to Alaskans beginning October 2nd.

Categories: Alaska News

Feds Investigate University of Alaska For How It Deals With Sexual Assault

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:15

First snow outside the UAA/APU Consortium Library in Anchorage in 2006. (Creative Commons Photo by Mel Green)

The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office will be visiting four campuses of the University of Alaska next month to check if the school is handling sexual violence complaints according to federal law.

The University of Alaska system is on a list of 79 post-secondary institutions around the nation being investigated for possible violations, but university officials aren’t sure why.

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The Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges under investigation. The list includesHobart and William Smith Colleges, Amherst College and Florida State University – schools that have been in the national spotlight for potentially mishandling sexual assault complaints.

Rules governing how schools deal with sexual violence complaints fall under Title IX. The federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs and activities that receive federal funding.

A few days after the original list was released on May 1, the Department of Education launched an investigation on the University of Alaska.

“We’re not being investigated because we did anything wrong,” says Michael O’Brien, an attorney for the university. “They’re looking into how we handled Title IX to see that we’re doing everything right. There isn’t some active violation.”

In a press release, the Department of Education says the list includes investigations stemming from complaints to the Office of Civil Rights and investigations initiated by the office as compliance reviews. O’Brien wants to make it clear that University of Alaska is on the list for the latter reason.

“To add us in with schools, some of which are accused of some pretty egregious sidestepping of Title IX, is really unfair to the University of Alaska. In my opinion, there should’ve been two different lists,” O’Brien says.

About 35,000 full- and part-time students attend the University of Alaska system, which has three main universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast. The system’s 16 campuses all have a Title IX investigator.

According to O’Brien, the university has had 257 complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault since 2011. Almost all came from UAA and UAF. Eight came from UAS.

As part of the compliance review, the Office of Civil Rights asked for 35 items, including details of each sexual assault complaint since 2011. University of Alaska responded with over 10,000 pages of documents.

O’Brien says the university takes complaints seriously and follows federal law when dealing with them.

“There isn’t a problem that I see that’s unaddressed or something that’s been covered up. We’re very proactive about dealing with these cases and recognize that we have to do everything we possibly can to prevent this sort of situation on our campuses,” O’Brien says.

A letter from to the university the Department of Education says schools are chosen for compliance review “based on various sources of information, including statistical data and information from parents, advocacy groups, the media, and community organizations.”

A spokesman with the Office of Civil Rights declined to comment and says the office doesn’t give interviews or disclose information about the schools under investigation.

O’Brien says the office won’t give him a specific reason why the University of Alaska was targeted, but he thinks it likely has to do with Alaska, as a state, having high rates of sexual assault.

“It’s not like there are no problems in this state, so it makes sense to take a further look at how educational institutions here are handling the problem,” O’Brien says.

Along with the list, the federal government came out with updated guidelines describing how schools must address sexual violence, including Title IX training.

For this school year, UAS required faculty and staff to attend Title IX training sessions. They were offered over the summer, at the start of the school year and online. Last year, none of these trainings took place.

O’Brien says the university welcomes the scrutiny and looks forward to the campus visit portion of the compliance review. In October, the office of Civil Rights will talk to students, community members, university faculty and staff at University of Alaska campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel.

Categories: Alaska News

State OKs Linc Energy’s Tyonek Coal Exploration Plan

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:14

The state has given the OK to a plan by Linc Energy to explore for coal in the Tyonek area. Last month, Linc submitted an application to drill at least five exploratory wells in an area about seven miles from Tyonek, on the West side of Cook Inlet.

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 Russel Kirkham is the state’s coal regulatory program manager, says the application is to dril five exploratoin holes for coal seams within the Tyonek,and Beluga area.

 ”It doesn’t allow any other activity except for that work.  It is for a  two year period, and after that two year period, Linc Energy can apply for another application to do additional drilling if they need to.”

Kirkham says the state is asking for a reclamation bond of more than 95 thousand dollars for cleanup of the exploration activities. He says the exploration permit is specific as to what types of equipment Linc Energy is allowed to use.

  “(If) they want to change their equipment, they would have to come back to the state to have it approved and we would review that and make sure it is within the scope of the work.”

Linc Energy specializes in coal to liquids technology. The underground liquification process is used to make synthetic gas, according to Paul Ludwing, Linc Energy’s general manager of stakeholder relations.   Ludwig says Linc Energy has licenses for more than 107 thousand acres of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority land, issued in 2011.  The Tyonek/ Kenai coal is buried over 2, 500 feet deep and hosts seams 25 – 30 feet thick which are potentially suitable for coal to gas technology, Ludwig said in an email. The exploration  permit will allow Linc to drill cores samples of the coal seams, and to study the coal quality to make sure the coal is suitable for the process. 

 The Alaska Mental Health Trust owns both the surface and the subsurface rights in the exploration license area. If exploration is successfull, and if Linc is issued a mining permit, the Trust will set a royalty rate for the coal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Energy Development Proponents Meet In Anchorage

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:13

Proponents of energy development are in Anchorage for the 10th annual Alaska Oil and Gas Congress. Canada’s Northwest Territories Premiere Bob McCloud says Alaska and the Territories have a lot in common – great resources that are stranded in remote locations.

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Premiere McCloud says he is closely watching how Alaska goes about pushing for marketing LNG. McCloud says it’s frustrating that the Northern Gateway pipeline and the Keystone pipeline are not moving forward. The McKenzie Valley pipeline in his region has been in development for decades but is also on hold.

“Now it’s proven uneconomic because the world price of natural gas because of the preponderance of shale gas is not high enough to make that pipeline economic,” McCloud said. “So the key for us is to find other markets.”

Such as Asia or Europe, McCloud says. He says after last year’s resource congress, he went back to Canada and instituted a new energy program.

“We decided to do a pilot project and haul LNG from Delta BC to Inuvik and use it for electrical generation,” McCloud said. “We found out it was cheaper to do that, haul it all that distance rather than use expensive diesel. Now we’re planning on using LNG for all the communities that have road access.”

The pilot project hauls LNG more than 1500 miles.

McCloud says in talks with former Governor Frank Murkowski this week – Murkowski encouraged him to research trying to get oil and gas from the southern part of the Northwest Territories to the existing TransAlaska Pipeline to Valdez.

McCloud says the Northwest Territories struggle with the same economic problems as rural Alaska. High energy costs and low employment opportunities. The Oil and Gas Congress runs through Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Uber ride-sharing enters Anchorage market

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:12

A ride-sharing service called Uber will start operating in Anchorage this week. Instead of calling a taxi, people who need a ride can use a smartphone app to hail a nearby private vehicle. But taxi companies in Anchorage and around the world say it’s unfair competition. 

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I took a conventional taxi to my interview with Uber. I called the taxi company, and the driver arrived right on time in a sweet-smelling Toyota Prius. The ride downtown cost me $17 including the tip. That’s about how much the Uber app estimates using their service would cost as well. So why would I use Uber? Their West Coast general manager Steve Thompson says it’s because of convenience and safety.

A screenshot of the Uber app on an iPhone.

“You sign up, pinpoint your location, click a button that says ‘Request my Uber’ to come pick me up, and from there you can track your ride, to come directly to you. See them street by street. Know exactly who your driver is by photo, name, vehicle make and model number, license plate number. And within the same app you can actually contact your driver.”

Thompson says all drivers have to pass rigorous criminal and traffic safety background checks. They don’t employ any one who was a sex offender or has had a DUI. They also require the vehicles to have 19 point inspections, and the drivers and vehicles have $1 million insurance policies when they’re on the job.

But the cars are not required to have permits from the municipality like conventional taxis, and the drivers don’t have to undergo municipal training and testing. Jim Brennan, who represents the Anchorage Taxi Cab Permit Owners Association, says that’s not fair.

“This would be a blatantly illegal competitor to the local Anchorage taxi cab chauffeurs and owners of the taxicabs who are required to comply with extensive municipal laws which are there for the benefit both of the Anchorage customers of taxicab services and also for the general public.”

So is Uber legal in Anchorage?

“Well, under our existing codes, probably not,” says municipal transportation director Eric Musser. He says that doesn’t mean they aren’t open to the idea of ride-sharing services.

“As with most areas of the country, we’re wrestling with how we want to welcome them into this market.”

Musser says the city recognizes that the transportation industry is changing.

A screenshot of the Alaska Yellow Dispatch app.

Local companies realize it, too. Alaska Yellow Dispatch, the largest taxi company in Anchorage, released an app that works like the Uber app. You can order and track vehicles, and request special items, like a car that is authorized to go on Base or carries a car seat for children. At this point, though, you cannot pay through the app. Uber is completely prepaid through the app.

Yellow Dispatch CEO Sloane Unwin says the major difference is, once the payment feature is working properly, their company is permitted in Anchorage.

Uber’s Thompson says they are already working with the local government to make sure the company can legally operate in the city. He says they’ve already received over a 100 applications for drivers, some of whom already work for taxi companies.

“It’s complete flexibility for moms who drop their kids off at school and just drive during the day. Retired individuals who want to make extra income. Or even students who are paying off loans. So a big part of what we’re focused on is a very dynamic driving community.”

He says they’re appealing to veterans and service members as well. In some parts of the country, however, they are facing lawsuits from drivers who say they are not given the tips they are promised.

Once the interview is over, I need to find a way back to the studio. I figure that being in downtown Anchorage, it should be fairly easy.

I walk straight up to an empty taxi.

“Hi! Are you available?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the driver replies enthusiastically.

“Great!”

And I head back to the studio, chatting with the driver, my smartphone tucked into my bag.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

‘Polaris’ Sculpture Is New Fairbanks Centerpiece

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:12

The city of Fairbanks has a new centerpiece sculpture. The assemblage of silver steel spires stands between the Cushman and Barnett Street bridges, along the Chena River downtown. The sculpture called “Polaris” was created by a pair of Vancouver based artists to mirror the local environment.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s Glaciers Shrinking Faster Than Expected

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:11

Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking faster than scientists had thought, but glaciers that terminate in the ocean may be relatively resilient to climate change in comparison to their land-locked counterparts. The data comes from a multi-year airborne survey conducted by NASA.

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Categories: Alaska News

Youth Climate Lawsuit Dismissed

Wed, 2014-09-17 17:10

Nelson Kanuk, seated, and Katherine Dolma, standing, were two of the six young plaintiffs who sued the State of Alaska, demanding it take action on climate change. The pair are pictured here in Barrow, following a Supreme Court LIVE hearing at Barrow High School. (Photo by Jeff Seifert/ KBRW)

The Alaska Supreme Court last week dismissed a case brought by six young Alaskans, demanding the state take action on climate change. The suit was one of several filed nationwide, and the first to take its argument to a state supreme court. In dismissing the case, the Court said that climate policy isn’t an issue the judiciary can decide – it must go through the political process.

But, for the young plaintiffs and the nonprofit supporting them, the ruling included some silver linings.

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Nelson Kanuk was 16 when he sued the state of Alaska along with five other minors, ranging from infants to teenagers. The six young Alaskans argued that the state has an obligation to do more to halt climate change.

Each of the children named in the suit cited direct impacts from climate change, but Kanuk’s were maybe the most immediate. The river in front of his family’s home in the Western Alaska village of Kipnuk was carving away the melting permafrost beneath their land.

This is Kanuk speaking with KCAW’s Ed Ronco in early 2013, after a year in which his family lost eight feet of their yard to the river:

Kanuk: … as the summer progressed, we lost another five feet…

Ronco: How much is left before it gets to your house?

Kanuk: Last fall, before I left, there was about 40 feet, or so, but when springtime comes, there’s definitely going to be a couple more feet that will be lost.

Now, Kanuk is 20, and a sophomore at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. And his family’s house? It’s uninhabitable. In the last year, his family moved first to Bethel, and then to Kenai, driven both by the loss of their home and the escalating cost of food and fuel in Kipnuk.

Kanuk says it’s been a huge change, especially for a family that’s used to getting much of its food from the land.

“We aren’t able to just hop on a boat and go out and catch our dinner that night,” he says. “You know, our subsistence lifestyle changed. Now we’re forced to go to Fred Meyer or Walmart. It’s a big change.”

It was to draw attention to the situation of families like his that Kanuk first joined the suit against the State of Alaska in 2011. The plaintiffs are backed by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has worked with kids in several states and at the federal level to bring similar lawsuits. The Alaska case is the first to reach a state Supreme Court on its merits.

And this month, the justices dismissed the suit. But Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust, says the court “left the door open” on several key issues.

“The exciting part about the Supreme Court’s decision, is that they said the youth had made a good case,” Olson says. “They noted that the climate science is compelling, it demonstrates real significant impacts to the people of Alaska, and that the plaintiffs had direct injuries…So it did all sorts of really important things. The one thing it didn’t reach was, well, what role does the court have to play?”

Assistant Attorney General Seth Beausang argued the case for the State of Alaska. He saw the ruling in more limited terms.

“The appeal was about where the plaintiffs’ concerns about global warming should be heard,” Beausang said. “Whether it should be heard in court or in the political arena. And the court held that the claims were not the kind of claims that can be resolved in court.”

Claims such as: the state should reduce emissions by at least six-percent a year. That kind of specific policy, the court ruled, should be left to the political process.

But the plaintiffs also asked the court to rule on whether the atmosphere is part of the “public trust.” This is a concept embedded in the Alaska Constitution.  Things like water, wildlife, and fish, are all publicly owned, with the state holding them in “trust” for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Beausang says the plaintiffs suggested a whole new take on the idea of the public trust.

“It was trying to argue that under the doctrine, the state has an affirmative duty to protect public trust resources from harm,” Beausang said. “That is a novel spin on the public trust doctrine.”

The court tip-toed right up to the edge of declaring the atmosphere an asset of the public trust, writing, “the plaintiffs do make a good case.” But, in the end, the court said that a ruling wouldn’t give the state clear direction on what to do next, and wouldn’t give the plaintiffs immediate relief. So while it could issue a ruling, it wouldn’t — not in this particular case.

Olson says the plaintiffs will ask the court to reconsider that decision — specifically, she thinks the court can do something right now, on greenhouse gas emissions.

“Even if it’s the court directing the other branches of government to do the work to set a safe level or a safe standard,” Olson said. “It doesn’t have to be the court that does it, but somebody needs to do it, because no entity within government is doing that right now, and that’s a tragedy.”

As for Kanuk, he says he’ll keep working to bring attention to the issue of climate change in Alaska. For his part, he doesn’t have any choice but to adapt.

“To me, it’s kind of like, [laughs] jumping into a fast-flowing river,” Kanuk said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s tough, but you have to adapt to the new way of life that we’re forced to live now.”

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 17, 2014

Wed, 2014-09-17 16:59

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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2014 Permanent Fund Dividend Will Be $1,884

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

In an announcement Wednesday, Governor Sean Parnell told Alaskans something they have been waiting to hear for months – the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend.

Walker-Mallott ‘Unity Ticket’ Faces Legal Challenge

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

An officer of the Alaska Republican Party is suing Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and the Division of Elections for the decision to allow independent candidate Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott to merge their campaigns.

Feds Investigate University of Alaska For How It Deals With Sexual Assault

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office will be visiting four campuses of the University of Alaska next month to check if the school is handling sexual violence complaints according to federal law.

The University of Alaska system is on a list of 79 post-secondary institutions around the nation being investigated for possible violations, but university officials aren’t sure why.

State OKs Linc Energy’s Tyonek Coal Exploration Plan

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The state has given the OK to a plan by Linc Energy to explore for coal in the Tyonek area.  Last month, Linc submitted an application to drill at least five exploratory wells in an area about seven miles from Tyonek, on the West side of Cook Inlet.

Energy Development Proponents Meet In Anchorage

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Proponents of energy development are in Anchorage for the 10th annual Alaska Oil and Gas Congress. Canada’s Northwest Territories Premiere Bob McCloud says Alaska and the Territories have a lot in common – great resources that are stranded in remote locations.

Ride-Sharing Service Uber Coming To Anchorage

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

A ride-sharing service called Uber will start operating in Anchorage this week. Instead of calling a taxi, people who need a ride can use a smartphone app to hail a nearby private vehicle. But taxi companies in Anchorage and around the world say it’s unfair competition.

‘Polaris’ Sculpture Is New Fairbanks Centerpiece

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The city of Fairbanks has a new centerpiece sculpture. The assemblage of silver steel spires stands between the Cushman and Barnett Street bridges, along the Chena River downtown. The sculpture called “Polaris” was created by a pair of Vancouver based artists to mirror the local environment.

Alaska’s Glaciers Shrinking Faster Than Expected

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking faster than scientists had thought, but glaciers that terminate in the ocean may be relatively resilient to climate change in comparison to their land-locked counterparts.  The data comes from a multi-year airborne survey conducted by NASA.

Youth Climate Lawsuit Dismissed

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

The Alaska Supreme Court last week dismissed a case brought by six young Alaskans, demanding the state take action on climate change. The suit was one of several filed nationwide, and the first to take its argument to a state supreme court. In dismissing the case, the Court said that climate policy isn’t an issue the judiciary can decide – it must go through the political process.

But, for the young plaintiffs and the nonprofit supporting them, the ruling included some silver linings.

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Health Services Gains ACA Grant

Tue, 2014-09-16 18:22

 The Health Resources and Services Administration announced the awards on Monday, as part of the 295 million dollars in Affordable Care Act funds that is being distributed to more than 11 hundred health centers throughout the United States.  HRSA is an agency within the federal Health and Human Services Administration.

 Mat Su Health Services received more than 197 thousand dollars.  CEO Kevin Munson says the grant will enable expansion of primary care services.

 ”Well, we are a community health center, so we are already funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, and we will be using those additional funds to hire additional staff to expand our hours. “

 Munson says more staff will translate to evening availability.

“We’ll be looking to hire a half time practitioner, probably a mid -level physician’s assistant or family nurse practitioner, and then we’ll also be hiring some additional support staff to enable us to extend our hours, and we will be also be hiring a mental health clinician who will be working in our primary care clinic.”

 Munson says the funding opportunity was offered by HRSA based on how many patients the clinic sees that are uninsured or underinsured. Mat Su Health Services has been serving the area since the 1970s, starting as a community mental health center. In 2005, the facility became a primary care clinic

 ”So we have been operating as a primary care clinic with a sliding discount and access for all people in the community now for a little over nine years. And we certainly have seen and experienced the significant growth in the community, which has been clicking along for a little over 4 percent a year for better than a decade. So we provide a wide variety of essentially primary health care services to the entire community with a target focused on the uninsured and the underinsured. “

 Munson says some of his staff are dedicated to helping people sign up for the federal health care subsidy under the Affordable Care Act.

 HRSA secretary Sylvia Burwell announced the awards, saying the funds overall are expected to create close to 5, 000 new jobs, and to help health clinics to reach about 1 point 5 million new patients.

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Supports State Minimum Wage Boost He Once Opposed

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:40

In a reversal, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan says he supports a ballot measure that would  increase the state minimum wage.

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In a pre-Primary debate in Fairbanks, Sullivan and then-candidate Joe Miller both said they oppose Ballot Measure 3, which would increase the state’s minimum wage by $2 over two years.

But Sullivan, in a story published online Monday by the Wall Street Journal, said he now supports the ballot measure.

“Because it is a state-driven initiative, I do support the motion to place a minimum wage question directly to the people of Alaska, and I personally intend to vote for it,” Sullivan said in a written statement.

He says he still opposes a national minimum wage increase, saying Alaskans know best how to strengthen their economy.

The campaign of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Begich,  promptly issued a press release noting Sullivan’s change of position. Begich supports both Alaska’s Ballot Measure 3 as well as a bill in Congress to boost the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

The Sullivan campaign told the Journal the candidate changed his mind after he had a chance to read the initiative.

Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami accuses Sullivan of flip-flopping.

“Dan Sullivan appears to be able to read polls and knows that opposition to the wage increase might have helped him in a closed primary, but it hurts his appeal to general election voters,” the labor leader said in a press release.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, since 2002, every ballot measure to increase a state’s minimum wage has passed, most by wide margins. The paper also reports that such measures typically increase voter turnout by 1 percent and there’s no evidence the increase helps Democrats, as commonly believed.

Categories: Alaska News

Towing Drill Tests Emergency Mooring Buoy

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:39

The Sea Trader (left), seen from the deck of the tug James Dunlap, waits to be tied on to Unalaska’s emergency mooring buoy. At center, the city’s harbor patrol boat stands by to assist. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

After seven years, Unalaska’s emergency system for towing stranded vessels away from shore is finally complete. A new dedicated buoy for disabled ships got its first full-scale test during an annual drill last week.

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For tugboat captain Leonardo Asayama-Lucena, conditions couldn’t have been better: clear skies, calm seas and next to no wind.

“This is the best-case scenario: the weather is perfect, the boats aren’t drifting around too much,” Lucena said during last week’s drill. “It’s not gonna get any easier.”

A real-life rescue might happen at night, or in a storm — but this morning is just a drill, the first one Lucena and his tugboat, the James Dunlap, have been a part of.

“It definitely breaks the monotony of our daily routine that we usually have,” he says. “I’m actually glad we’re doing it, because in the event of an actual emergency, you know, practice makes perfect, so we could all use this practice.”

The Dunlap is going to use Unalaska’s equipment to help the Coast Guard tow a fake-stranded vessel to safety. The 277-foot freighter Sea Trader is acting as the disabled ship. It’s supposed to end up at Unalaska’s new emergency mooring buoy, which has been in place since late 2012, but wasn’t ready for a major test until now.

[USCGC Alex Haley crew member on radio]: Sea Trader, Alex Haley. Just got word the helo should be airborne in about five to 10 mikes…

That’s the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, talking to the Sea Trader on the tugboat’s radio. All three vessels are sitting out in Unalaska Bay, getting ready to start the drill.

The Alex Haley’s helicopter has to drop the emergency tow package onto the Sea Trader. Then, the freighter will use it to link up with the cutter.

[helicopter hovering]

It’s a tight fit, but the helicopter sticks the delivery. The Sea Trader’s crew starts working on connecting to the cutter. And that’s Capt. Lucena’s cue to wake up his deckhands.

Lucena [speaking to crew member]: Hey, John, if you wouldn’t mind — once they get their eyes open and coffee down the hatch, have ‘em come up here and we’ll all have a little meeting…

In a real situation, the Coast Guard would tow the disabled ship to the Dunlap. Then, the tug would hook on and take the vessel to the mooring buoy. The Coast Guard’s just practicing setting up its tow line today — but the Dunlap will be doing the real thing.

Adam Downing is a deckhand on the tug. He’s glad for the chance to try out the emergency system.

“I mean, it’d be crazy not to have one of these, I think,” he says. “Because if anything happens, like, you get those big ships out there, you’re asking for a catastrophe.”

As growing industries bring more ship traffic to the Aleutians, that risk is on the rise — and so is the need for practice. Today, Capt. Lucena and his crew will try out a tool they haven’t used before. It’s Unalaska’s line gun, a rifle for shooting a tow line to another ship.

Lucena [speaking to crew]: You know, just take our time. I’m gonna position ourselves — basically like this but closer, off the starboard bow of the Sea Trader, using the wind to help us shoot it over the bow. You can see, you’ve got lots of room — don’t aim for the house. [crew laughs]

With the Coast Guard out of the way, the tugboat sounds its horn to let everyone know the shot is coming.

[horn blasts] [gun firing]

The tow line sails over the Sea Trader and drops onto it deck. Now the freighter can tie on to the tug, and together, they can head for the mooring buoy. It’s floating offshore like a big plug in a bathtub drain. Lucena explains that it gives disabled ships a safe place to await repairs.

“So they would hang out there on this long tow line to the buoy, and they can spin around the buoy in deep water and not have to worry about going around,” he says. “And when the weather subsided, if they still weren’t able to get underway on their own power, they would … just attach themselves directly to the mooring buoy, and we’d take the tow line away.”

Even in the best conditions, though, things can still go wrong. When the ships get to the buoy, they find a soggy mooring line that’s a little tough to wrangle. But in the end, they get the Sea Trader tethered, and for Lucena, the drill is a success.

Lucena: ”Especially for me, this being my first time, I learned a lot. And I can now pass that on. … Familiarity, I think — knowing what to expect when you get into this … makes it quicker and just gives you that much better level of safety.”

And all those lessons will go to make the buoy and the whole towing system better in the future — whether for a real emergency, or just next year’s drill.

Categories: Alaska News

Friday Is Deadline To Comment On EPA’s 404-C Determination

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:38

The EPA’s proposed restrictions on development of the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region are currently open for public comment. But the deadline to comment is this Friday.

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Categories: Alaska News

Wasilla Officer-Involved Shooting Leaves 1 Dead

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:37

Two Wasilla police officers are on paid administrative leave after a Monday shooting that left one man dead. The names of the officers have not been released, in line with police policy.

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According to Wasilla police, the two officers responded to a possible domestic disturbance in the early hours of Monday. The officers had responded to a 911 call, which had been disconnected. The two officers had to force their way into the home, where they encountered 23-year-old Michael Bonty, holding a weapon and threatening a female in the house. Bondy refused to put the weapon down, and officers fired, killing him.

Alaska State Troopers are heading the investigation. Police policy requires names of the officers involved in the shooting to be released 72 hours after the incident. Bonty’s only police record is for minor traffic offenses.

Categories: Alaska News

Pinks Come In Better Than Expected In Southeast

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:36

A seine fishermen closes up his net.

The summer purse seine season for pink salmon has wrapped up and the harvest is better than expected.

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Dan Gray works for the State’s Fish and Game office in Sitka as the Management Coordinator for Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries.

“We did great,” Gray says. “You know, coming in almost 10 million over forecast is a good thing.”

The pink harvest also topped what federal managers had projected. The National Marine Fisheries Service forecast around 30 million.

Gray says the exact harvest number is about 31.6 million. That’s nothing compared to last year’s harvest of over 90 million, which was an all-time record. Last year, fishermen were still hauling in pinks well into September. However, this year wasn’t expected to be the same for a couple of reasons. Pinks run on a two year cycle and this is an even year which means the numbers are always lower. And last year was just unexpectedly excellent.

This year’s catch happened mostly in the southern portion of the region. Gray says it probably made up about 70 percent of the overall harvest in Southeast.

“That’s kind of interesting in itself since southern Southeast carried the load last year as well,” Gray says.

Gray says harvests in districts one through four near Ketchikan and Prince of Wales were “excellent” and says harvests on the outside were “okay to good”. He says they don’t know why the pinks were concentrated in the Southern areas.

“I mean, it’s got to be largely environmental,” Gray says. “Certainly, we do look at parent year escapement, and a good parent year escapement bodes well for the return but, yeah, a lot of that is out in the deep blue sea and we just don’t really understand it all that well.”

Some seiners have moved on to fall chums, which started August 31.

The state’s forecast for next year’s pink season will be distributed in December.

(This story has been corrected from a previous version)

Categories: Alaska News

Mexican Tall Ship Cuauhtemoc in Seward

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:35

The ship glided into Resurrection Bay wreathed in mist, looking much like a sight out of the past. The Cuauhtemoc is painted white, and it would have appeared ghostly in the driving rain and low clouds, except for the lively Mexican music playing as members of the crew, stationed at attention  along five tiers of spars,  sang songs as the ship approached the harbor.

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 To says the ship is impressive is an understatement. It’s  masts reach over 30 feet.  Colorful regatta flags flew from the rigging, as sailors wearing yellow rain gear scrambled  down the lines from the spars to help tie up the ship and lay out the gangplank.  Seward mayor Jean Bardarson met ship officials at the dock, along with Consul Javier Abud, the Mexican government’s official  in Anchorage.

 Then the party was welcomed aboard.

It was not a coincidence that the ship arrived on Mexican Independence Day.  Captain Juan Carlos Vera- Minjares  says it’s been planned for a year.

“It is interesting for us to visit Alaska. So we wanted to bring [a] friendship message to share with the Alaskan people That’s why we come. So we plan to arrive on September 15 to make a celebration with Mexican citizens.”

 The Cuauhtemoc, which takes its name from the last Aztec emperor, was built in Bilbao in Spain in 1981, and has been used by the Mexican Navy since 1982 as a training vessel for cadets. The  visit to Alaska is part of the ship’s Cruise of Instruction for 2014. Captain Vera says the 1800 ton vessel started it’s voyage in Acapulco, Mexico in April and visited ports in Central America and the Carribean, before returning to the Pacific coast, where it made stops from Peru to Seward. The ship is home to 245 men and women  sailors during the training voyage. The naval cadets are in their last year of school, and must serve 4 months aboard the ship before graduation. Captain Vera says the training is crucial.

 ”They know how to deal with elements at sea, they know how to sail with astronomical navigation, they know how to deal with magnetic compases, so they become a real sailor to command the Navy units.”

The Cuauhtemoc  had covered 14 thousand nautical miles before reaching Seward. Captain Vera says it encountered every type of weather, so recent winds and Seward’s drenching rains were no problem. He says the tall ships have value in that their old traditions make true sailors out of cadets.

“They practice on board on keeping contact with the natural elements, for example, the wind, the waves the snow. They embark as teenagers and they come back as real sailors. “

 The Cuauhtemoc has traveled the globe, participating in tall ship parades and races as far away as China, Japan and Finland.The ship has won many awards for it’s presentation and speed. Captain Vera says the ship’s travels also serve to bring a bringing a message of peace and Mexican culture around the globe.

 This is the second visit by the Cuauhtemoc to Seward in a decade. The ship visited first in 2005. A public reception was held at  the Alaska Railroad cruise ship dock in Seward Monday evening. The ship is available for free public tours from 11 to 6 through Thursday.  The Cuauhtemoc departs Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Upper Valley Agriculture: Yaks at Sunny Hill Ranch

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:34

(KTNA Photo)

There is growing emphasis in Alaska on locally produced food, including meat. Some cattle are being raised in the Upper Susitna Valley but many species of cow are not adapted to the severe cold of an Alaska winter. There is another animal that is suited for the conditions, though- yaks.

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Anita Hill is the “Yak Lady.”  It says so right on her custom license plate.  She and her husband Steve Hill have operated Sunny Hill Ranch for about four years.  After I arrived, they took me to a large pen, where I could already discern dark, furry shapes moving around.

For those who have never seen a domestic yak in person, they resemble something of a cross between a

bison and a cow, but considerably lighter, and with much shorter legs.  Steve Hill says a large yak bull might get up to 1500 pounds.  Compare that to a brahma bull, which can weigh upward of a ton.  As the more tame members of the herd approached the fence to greet me, the Hills explained why people raise yaks.

STEVE: “Meat and Fiber.”
ANITA: “Some People ask me about milking.  I only milk them when I have to.”

The fiber gets brushed off of the animals and washed so it can be spun into yarn.  As for the meat, Anita and Steve Hill say that the market is growing.

“There’s a good market for it, because it’s very lean.  There’s no fat on it; it’s not marbled like beef.”

Anita Hill says the meat can largely be used as a substitute for beef in recipes, although it does cook somewhat differently.  Right now, the Hills sell their meat primarily at farmers markets, but that may change in the future.  Steve says that one day they would like to:

“…get some restaurants in Talkeetna serving yak burgers…If you’re going to get them doing that, you have to have the supply to meet the demand.  You can’t say, ‘Here’s one, and I’ll have the next one six months from now.’”

Steve says that it would take a herd of about fifty animals in order to consider selling on that scale, which he estimates will take another two or three years.  That plan almost got yanked out from under the Hills with a recent, sudden change from the USDA, however.

“About two weeks ago, the USDA, all of a sudden…out of the blue, said ‘Yak’s not an amenable species.  We’re not going to inspect it any more,’ which would have taken this herd…and all of a sudden now it’s worthless.  I can’t sell it to the public.”

That’s because a USDA stamp is required for commercial sale of meat.  Fortunately for the Hills and other yak ranchers, there was help to be had.  Jim Watson is board president for the International Yak Association, or IYAK.  He spoke to me from his ranch in Montana about the potential impact of the unexpected change.

“It resulted in the almost immediate cessation of interstate commerce in yak meat and yak products, which disrupted the business models of yak ranchers throughout the country, because they had standing orders to go to grocery stores, restaurants, and distributors which were suddenly not valid any more.”

Watson says IYAK rallied its members through email and social media, and encouraged them to write to members of Congress, specifically those on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“…Apparently, that worked very well, because the USDA contacted me a few days later and provided us with the alternative we requested.”

While a final decision is still pending, Watson says it’s looking good for yak ranchers.

Back at the Sunny Hill Ranch, my yak education continues.  One of the reasons that yaks are an attractive species to raise in Alaska is their resilience to cold.  Many types of yak originate in the Himalayas, and Anita Hill says they are a major asset to the people of the area.

“In Tibet, they use them for everything.  They are the family animal.  They use them for packing; they use them for meat.  They use them like oxen.  They’re actually called ‘the grunting ox.’”

Tibet can get pretty cold, so yaks adapted over time to tough out frigid winters with their thick coats of fur.  Anita Hill says yaks as young as a week old can survive

temperatures well below zero because the herd will work to keep them warm.

That strong herd mentality also comes in handy with one of the other hazards to raising livestock in the Last Frontier.

“The yaks will attack a bear.  They’ll attack anything that comes in harm’s way…even the dogs.  Annie [the yak] was up–I had just her and two younger ones–and a coyote came and harassed them.  She bent the fence trying to get to that coyote, so they’ll attack a bear.”

Steve Hill says, between the yaks and the family’s three large dogs, he hasn’t seen a bear on the property in the four years he and Anita have lived in the Susitna Valley.

For Steve and Anita Hill, their yaks are like an extension of their family.  Every one has a name and a personality.  Twice during my tour, yaks would come to the fence and poke their heads through, hoping I would scratch them behind the ears.  While many of them are destined for a dinner plate eventually, it’s clear that they’re happy with the life they live at Sunny Hill Ranch.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 16, 2014

Tue, 2014-09-16 17:06

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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Sullivan Supports State Minimum Wage Boost He Once Opposed

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan has changed his mind and now says he supports increasing the state minimum wage.

BP Plans Alaska Layoffs

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

Monday, BP announced it will cut its workforce in the state by nearly a fifth – 200 employees and contractors will be absorbed by Hilcorp as part of a North Slope asset sale, and another 275 will be laid off.

Towing Drill Tests Emergency Mooring Buoy

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

After seven years, Unalaska’s emergency system for towing stranded vessels away from shore is finally complete. A new dedicated buoy for disabled ships got its first full-scale test during an annual drill last week.

Friday Is Deadline To Comment On EPA’s 404-C Determination

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The EPA’s proposed restrictions on development of the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region are currently open for public comment. But the deadline to comment is this Friday.

Wasilla Officer-Involved Shooting Leaves 1 Dead

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Two Wasilla police officers are on paid administrative leave after a Monday shooting that left one man dead.  The names of the officers have not been released, in line with police policy.

Cheaper Turboprops Lower Some AK Jet Fares

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Cost-cutting on an Alaska Airlines railbelt route is lowering fares in statewide.

Pinks Come In Better Than Expected In Southeast

Angela Denning, KFSK – Petersburg

The summer purse seine season for pink salmon has wrapped up and the harvest is better than expected.

Cuauhtemoc Docks In Seward

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The three-masted tall ship Cuauhtemoc docked in Seward during a Monday morning downpour. The Mexican training ship was greeted by Seward city officials and by the Mexican consul in Alaska. It will be open to the public for viewing through Thursday.

Upper Valley Agriculture: Yaks at Sunny Hill Ranch

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

There is growing emphasis in Alaska on locally produced food, including meat.  Some cattle are being raised in the Upper Susitna Valley but many species of cow are not adapted to the severe cold of an Alaska winter.  There is another animal that is suited for the conditions, though- yaks.

Categories: Alaska News

BP Plans Alaska Layoffs

Mon, 2014-09-15 18:55

BP plans to cut its Alaska workforce by 17 percent by early next year.

The oil company announced on Monday that it will reduce its staff by 275 employees and full-time contractors to match a “reduced operational footprint” in the state. BP will offer early retirement and severance packages to employees who choose to take a buyout option.

Spokesperson Dawn Patience attributes the layoffs to the sale of four North Slope assets to Hilcorp, a smaller oil company with a growing presence in Alaska. The deal, which was announced in April, includes the Endicott and Northstar fields, along with 50 percent interest in the Milne Point and Liberty fields. BP is transferring 200 field workers to Hilcorp as a result of the agreement, in addition to the 275 support staff they plan to lay off.

Patience describes the 275 positions as “overhead” that is no longer needed with a smaller presence on the North Slope. She says the company intends to focus more on oil production in Prudhoe Bay and development of a natural gas megaproject.

“BP’s operations may be shrinking in Alaska, but we announced $1 billion of additional investment in Prudhoe Bay, and the addition of two rigs –- one this year and one the year after — and those commitments stand,” says Patience.

BP informed Hilcorp of their additional staff cuts on Monday, after they told employees.

Hilcorp spokesperson Lori Nelson says the BP announcement was unexpected because only 250 employees were directly associated with the purchased assets and Hilcorp agreed to absorb most of them.

“The number today was a bit of a surprise, but that’s BP’s decision,” says Nelson.

The layoff announcement arrives less than a month after Alaskans narrowly voted to maintain a capped tax rate on oil production. As one of the three major players on the North Slope, BP contributed nearly $4 million to fight the ballot referendum on Senate Bill 21.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat who advocated for repeal of Senate Bill 21, calls the BP’s announcement “disturbing.” He notes it comes just as fellow North Slope producer Exxon is projecting a continued decline in oil production in Alaska.

“We were promised a lot of things during the [Senate Bill 21] debate, and one of the most powerful things was jobs,” says Wielechowski. “And here we are, a couple weeks after the people of Alaska voted on this, thinking they were going to get a lot more jobs [and] thinking they were going to get a lot more production. And we’ve already had sworn testimony by Exxon that we’re getting less production and then we’ve got BP saying they’re laying off hundreds of Alaskans and contractors.”

Wielechowski also finds the timing of BP’s announcement “suspect.”

“Had the referendum passed, they probably would have blamed these layoffs on the referendum passing,” says Wielechowski.

In a press release, Gov. Sean Parnell also stated he “extremely disappointed” by the announcement, and noted that oil and gas employment in the state was otherwise strong with 15,000 working for the industry.

Categories: Alaska News

State Files To Participate In Big Thorne Lawsuits

Mon, 2014-09-15 17:26

The State of Alaska filed motions in federal court Monday to participate in lawsuits that seek to halt or delay the U.S. Forest Service’s planned Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island.

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The state’s action is meant to “protect the State, its political subdivisions and its citizens against the monetary and socioeconomic impacts of interference with timber supply in Southeast Alaska…”

The filings also claim that Alaska’s interests might not be adequately represented by federal defense attorneys.

The state asks for the right to participate at least as an amicus – or friend of the court. That is someone who is not a party to the case, but offers information that might be useful.

The final decision to move forward with the Big Thorne project was announced in late August, and five conservation groups immediately filed lawsuits protesting that decision.

The proposed timber harvest would include about 6,000 acres of old-growth rainforest. Environmental organizations say that acreage is critical habitat for deer and wolf populations.

The Forest Service is moving away from old-growth logging, but the switch to second-growth will take time. Federal officials and pro-logging groups say that old-growth harvests will need to continue during that transition for mills to survive.

Categories: Alaska News
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