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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: 23 min 59 sec ago

EPA Settles Over Lead Dust Violations At Governor’s Mansion

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:29

(Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Throughout his administration, Gov. Sean Parnell has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of “overreaching” on Alaska affairs. Now, it looks like the EPA may have reached into Parnell’s own home. The Governor’s Mansion appears on a list of construction projects requiring EPA intervention for lead violations.

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Lead poisoning is nasty business. It can cause headaches and seizures, and result in miscarriages. If you’re a child, the symptoms are especially bad.

“Lethargy. Inability to pay of attention. At high enough levels, it can cause death,” says Wallace Reid.

Reid works out of the EPA’s Seattle office, and his team handles investigations into lead violations. Because a lot of modern cases of lead exposure are caused by home repairs, the EPA implemented a rule in 2010 requiring contractors to be certified in lead paint removal if they’re working on a house that was built before 1978.

Like the Alaska Governor’s Mansion.

The building is a century old, and the state hired Alaska Commercial Contractors to restore the whole exterior a couple of years ago. And that meant removing lead paint, which the company was not certified to do at the time.

“We first became aware of it – this problem in Alaska – because of an anonymous tip and complaint that this work was going on and that there were problems associated with it,” says Reid.

Reid says that as soon as the EPA learned of the violation, they sent two inspectors to check the area for lead paint. They found paint chips on the lawn and on the street.

“When we do this kind of work, all of the lead paint chips and dust has to be maintained within a contained area,” says Reid. “In this case, it was not. And the company was not certified, and the employees were not trained. So those were fundamental violations of our rules.”

Because of the violations, Alaska Commercial Contractors ended up settling with the EPA for $32,000. Their subcontractor, Van Pool Painting, was also dinged $10,000. While the settlements were finalized in September, the EPA only recently made the violations public.

Alaska Commercial Contractors declined to do a taped interview for this story, because there are still outstanding legal questions related to the construction project. But in a written statement, company president Doug Courtney emphasized that Alaska Commercial Contractors cooperated fully with the EPA, and that they became certified in lead paint removal shortly after the incident.

So, why did the state hire a company that was not certified in lead paint removal in the first place?

When asked about that, Administration Commissioner Curtis Thayer declined an interview because of ongoing challenges related to the contract. At $1.5 million, Alaska Commercial Contractors was the highest bidder for the project, and two rival contractors whose bids came in under $1 million appealed the award. The Office of Administrative Hearings rejected both of those protests, but Silver Bow Construction is appealing the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Alaska Commercial Contractors has also requested that the State pay out $150,000 to cover their EPA penalties and legal fees, because they allege that Department of Administration misled them on the scope of the project. The Department of Administration found no merit to that request in January, but the decision is subject to appeal.

Gov. Sean Parnell also declined repeated requests for an interview. Instead, his office referred questions to Larry Hartig, the commissioner of Environmental Conservation.

Hartig says his department’s involvement in the renovation problem was limited. They mostly helped the EPA get access to the governor’s home to make sure the lead paint didn’t pose a health hazard.

“Obviously, there was concerns about the safety of the governor’s family,” says Hartig. “And so they were interested in what was going on – we all were – in making sure that if there is an issue here that would impact the governor and his family, we wanted to be on top of that.”

Hartig says there was no real risk to the Parnell family. He says even the governor’s yellow Labrador, the most frequent user of the mansion’s backyard, was kept safe from lead exposure.

“Annie’s doing fine the last time I saw Annie.”

Categories: Alaska News

Former Crime Lab Employee Charged With 6 Felonies

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:28

A former employee of the State Crime Lab in Anchorage has been charged with six felonies, including drug misconduct and tampering with evidence.

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The Department of Law in says 53-year-old Stephen Palmer was arrested today.

He’s charged with scheme to defraud, drug misconduct and four counts of evidence tampering. He’s also charged with four misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.

Alaska State Troopers launched an investigation seven months ago after detecting irregularities in lab reference standards, the controlled samples of illegal drugs kept at the state crime lab.

Prosecutors say investigators also determined drug evidence was missing in cases worked by Palmer.

Prosecutors say they don’t believe the irregularities discovered in reference standards affected the validity of testing performed by other analysts.

Categories: Alaska News

Mayors Seek Assurances On Gas Line Project

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:27

Borough mayors are asking to be part of the discussions on terms related to a mega-liquefied natural gas project that will affect local communities.

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An agreement signed by the state and companies pursuing the project says subject to consultation between the state and local governments, payments in lieu of property taxes would be paid by the companies.

The mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Mike Navarre, told the Senate Finance Committee that consultation is not a strong word.

The mayors are seeking greater assurances for the level of input they will have as the process moves forward.

The committee is weighing a bill that would make the state an equity partner and allow for the project to move into a phase of preliminary engineering and design.

Categories: Alaska News

King Resting At Ruby, Competitors Close In

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:26

Jeff King is resting at the Yukon river checkpoint of Ruby. The four time Iditarod champion is technically in the lead at this point, but Martin Buser, Aliy Zirkle and Robert Sorlie are closing in, and they’ve already completed their 24 hour layovers. Once teams leave Ruby, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of any remaining speed they have on the flat river miles ahead.

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Categories: Alaska News

Five Nations Tentatively Agree To Arctic Fishing Ban

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:25

The United States and four other Arctic nations have tentatively agreed to prevent commercial fishing in the high Arctic.

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The Canadian Press reports that Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia signed on to the ban after three days of meetings in Greenland last week. The measure was originally pitched by the United States, and it didn’t have support from Norway or Russia until now.

The details of the ban are still being worked out. But the basics are clear: The countries have to do more scientific research on Arctic fish stocks. In the meantime, they will not engage in commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean outside their 200-mile exclusive economic zones.

In the United States, that area begins at the northern edge of Alaska. Fishing has already been banned within the American Arctic since 2009.

Because this new moratorium applies to international waters in the Arctic Ocean, there’s no guarantee that other countries will choose to honor it.

The next step is to get more nations on board beyond these five Arctic states. In a statement, the Arctic group said they plan to spend the rest of the year lobbying for broader support.

Categories: Alaska News

Dipnets May Be Allowed On Kuskokwim

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:24

Kuskowkim fisherman are expected to face serious restrictions on subsistence salmon fishing this summer in efforts to bring more king salmon to the spawning grounds. With fishing closed possibly all of June, the working group is asking that dipnets be used selectively to harvest non-Chinook salmon.

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Categories: Alaska News

Delta Western’s Pro-Union Fuelers Strike Again

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:23

For the past month, a group of fuel supply workers in Unalaska have been trying to unionize. And they’ve also accused their employer, Delta Western, of mistreating them for it.

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The workers took to the picket line on Tuesday to protest with other local union members.

Leo Dacio is a driver for Delta Western, and a spokesman for the pro-union workers.

He alleges that the company cut off their access to some facilities after they walked off the job the first time, in February.

Photo by Pipa Escalante, KUCB – Unalaska.

“They changed the locks on the break room and on the shop, and at the shop — that’s where we wash our clothes, our work clothes. And that’s the only shower,” Dacio said.

The only emergency shower, to wash off chemicals in a hurry. The washing machines are there so employees don’t have to worry about getting toxic or flammable substances in their machines at home.

Dacio alleges that the only people who lost access to those facilities were the workers who wanted to join the Inlandboatmen’s Union. He says they didn’t get new keys again until Friday — and they only got them then because they asked their manager.

“They did have some issues with the lock and they changed it,” Kirk Payne, the president of Delta Western, said. ”But this facility is open [from] 7 in the morning to 7 p.m. every day, to where you don’t need a key. And when somebody needed access or needed a key, they were given it.”

In the last month, Payne and the president of Delta Western’s parent company have both visited the island to talk with their employees. Brian Bogen is the head of North Star Petroleum, and he was in town just hours before Tuesday’s strike.

At this point, Delta Western workers says they are still waiting for the company to formally respond to a written request they made in February — to be recognized as union members.

Payne, the president of Delta Western, says that’s not going to happen.

“What the union needs to do is to file a petition with the NLRB that says, ‘Hey, these guys want to be represented,’” he said.

The National Labor Relations Board would run the rest of the unionization process, possibly leading up to a formal vote.

Adam Dalton is an organizer from the Inlandboatmen’s Union. He’s been in Unalaska for the past two weeks, and he says the workers are getting ready to file a petition with the NLRB sometime soon.

In the meantime, Dalton says he’s convinced that changing the locks at Delta Western did keep union supporters from accessing facilities. And Dalton says that that violates the National Labor Relations Act.

“Basically any change to the workers’ conditions — to the conditions of their employment — that they had access to before, would be an unfair labor practice,” he said.

Dalton says the union is adding this alleged violation to a complaint they filed with the NLRB last month. At that time, the Inlandboatmen’s Union accused Delta Western of trying to intimidate and punish its pro-union workers.

That kind of behavior is what the workers said they were responding to when they walked off the job on Tuesday.

About a half a dozen Delta Western employees joined the picket line, despite the fact that the company’s fuel barge had just arrived to deliver a shipment.

Delta Western rounded up a crew to unload the fuel. But they also called the police.

Unalaska police sergeant Bill Simms says the picketers were technically trespassing as they stood at the mouth of Delta Western’s fuel dock.

The protesters moved, the police didn’t get any more complaints, and the strike went on as planned.

“Delta Western, you don’t care. Unsafe, unfair. Delta Western, you don’t care,” the crowd chanted.

Delta Western has roughly 18 workers at its fuel shop in Unalaska. Right now, about seven of them want to join the union.

Categories: Alaska News

State Bans Importation, Sale Of Certain Elodea Plants

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:22

The state has taken steps to ban the importation and sale of some aquatic plants that are commonly found in aquariums. Elodea is a plant used in fishbowls that has become a big problem in Alaska, and is considered an invasive species. Last year, the state began working to eradicate the plant from areas in Fairbanks and in Anchorage.

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Categories: Alaska News

Kikkan Randall Secures World Cup Sprint Title

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:21

Kikkan Randall has a lock on her 3rd straight World Cup sprint title. Randall did not make the finals in a classic technique sprint in Drammen Norway Wednesday, but her seventh place finish there mathematically clinches the season title. Just one sprint race remains. Retaining the title as the world’s top woman sprinter is some consolation for Randall who struggled at last month’s Sochi Olympics, where she’s d hoped to medal.

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Categories: Alaska News

Cyclist Obliterates Iditarod Trail Invitational Record

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:20

Most speed records are broken by seconds or minutes. Wednesday, a Fairbanks cyclist demolished the Iditarod Trail Invitational record by almost a full week.

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After pedaling almost 1,000 miles from Knik Lake to Nome, Jeff Oatly rolled across the finish at 4:53pm Wednesday, totaling 10 days, 2 hours, and 53 minutes. The previous record was 17 days and 2 hours.

“It’s fun. I had a great time the whole time,” Oatly said. “There was not a lot of times out there when I was thinking I wish I was at my desk doing work. I was having a blast.”

This was Oatly’s first race all the way to Nome. But Oatly is no rookie. He’s completed the 350-mile route to McGrath 10 times. Only this year he rode with a different goal in mind.

“The mentality going in it is, I’m going to get to Nome. No matter what. I’ll get to Nome,” he said.

Oatly is not the only one who broke a record this year. So did Heather Best, Oatly’s wife. Best completed the 350-miles to McGrath in 2 days, 13 hours, and 14 minutes, undercutting the shortest time in the women’s division by over 27 hours. This year’s shattering speeds are attributed to the lack of fresh snow. Dirt and ice—a lot of it glare ice— covered most of the trail, and the snow that did appear was mostly hard-packed. Oatly says, the trail offered little reason to slow down or dismount, an option he welcomed when it came along.

“I was not unhappy when I had to get off a few times to walk up hills and things like that. I didn’t want any snow to slow me down, because I was enjoying going fast,” he said. “But when you never get off the bike, when you’re just riding fast all the time, you get to the point where everything hurts from that, too. So it’s nice to change things up and get off the bike and walk.”

But this toll, Oatly says, is only temporary.

“Well, you do it for fun. It’s a recreation, you know. And stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the body or mental stress,” he said. “It’s just sort of a state that you’re in, and then you have to recover from.”

Though racers who complete the Invitational to Nome travel almost 1,000 miles of Alaska’s wilderness, winners receive no prizes, no money, no compensation. But Oatly says the race itself is its own purse.

“Like life is very simple when you’re doing that kind of racing. You’re just riding and eating and sleeping. And that’s it. And it has a very nice rhythm, and it’s fun. And you’re out in just awesome, incredible scenery,” Oatly said. “And you get out here to the coast…but it’s so stunningly beautiful, and it’s just so hostile. I mean the wind just seems like it’s just eating at you from every direction all the time. It’s an experience. It’s fun.”

And as far as shattering records goes, well, Oatly remains unfazed.

“I mean, people can say whatever they want. It’s just a record. It’ll get broken eventually,” he said.

Sixteen competitors remain on the trail to Nome. Eleven are on bikes and four on foot. They come from seven different countries.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 6, 2014

Thu, 2014-03-06 18:10

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Governor’s Mansion On List For EPA Intervention

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Throughout his administration, Gov. Sean Parnell has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of “overreaching” on Alaska affairs. Now, it looks like the EPA may have reached into Parnell’s own home. The Governor’s Mansion appears on a list of construction projects requiring EPA intervention for lead violations.

Former Crime Lab Employee Charged With 6 Felonies

The Associated Press

A former employee of the State Crime Lab in Anchorage has been charged with six felonies, including drug misconduct and tampering with evidence.

The Department of Law in says 53-year-old Stephen Palmer was arrested today.

He’s charged with scheme to defraud, drug misconduct and four counts of evidence tampering. He’s also charged with four misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.

Alaska State Troopers launched an investigation seven months ago after detecting irregularities in lab reference standards, the controlled samples of illegal drugs kept at the state crime lab.

Prosecutors say investigators also determined drug evidence was missing in cases worked by Palmer.

Prosecutors say they don’t believe the irregularities discovered in reference standards affected the validity of testing performed by other analysts.

Mayors Seek Assurances On Gas Line Project

The Associated Press

Borough mayors are asking to be part of the discussions on terms related to a mega-liquefied natural gas project that will affect local communities.

An agreement signed by the state and companies pursuing the project says subject to consultation between the state and local governments, payments in lieu of property taxes would be paid by the companies.

The mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Mike Navarre, told the Senate Finance Committee that consultation is not a strong word.

The mayors are seeking greater assurances for the level of input they will have as the process moves forward.

The committee is weighing a bill that would make the state an equity partner and allow for the project to move into a phase of preliminary engineering and design.

King Resting At Ruby, Competitors Close In

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Jeff King is resting at the Yukon river checkpoint of Ruby. The four time Iditarod champion is technically in the lead at this point, but Martin Buser, Aliy Zirkle and Robert Sorlie are closing in, and they’ve already completed their 24 hour layovers. Once teams leave Ruby, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of any remaining speed they have on the flat river miles ahead.

Five Nations Tentatively Agree To Arctic Fishing Ban

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

The United States and four other Arctic nations have tentatively agreed to prevent commercial fishing in the high Arctic.

The Canadian Press reports that Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia signed on to the ban after three days of meetings in Greenland last week. The measure was originally pitched by the United States, and it didn’t have support from Norway or Russia until now.

The details of the ban are still being worked out. But the basics are clear: The countries have to do more scientific research on Arctic fish stocks. In the meantime, they will not engage in commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean outside their 200-mile exclusive economic zones.

In the United States, that area begins at the northern edge of Alaska. Fishing has already been banned within the American Arctic since 2009.

Because this new moratorium applies to international waters in the Arctic Ocean, there’s no guarantee that other countries will choose to honor it.

The next step is to get more nations on board beyond these five Arctic states. In a statement, the Arctic group said they plan to spend the rest of the year lobbying for broader support.

Dipnets May Be Allowed On Kuskokwim

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Kuskowkim fisherman are expected to face serious restrictions on subsistence salmon fishing this summer in efforts to bring more king salmon to the spawning grounds. With fishing closed possibly all of June, the working group is asking that dipnets be used selectively to harvest non-Chinook salmon.

Delta Western’s Pro-Union Fuelers Strike Again

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

For the past month, a group of fuel supply workers in Unalaska have been trying to unionize. And they’ve also accused their employer, Delta Western, of mistreating them for it. The workers took to the picket line on Tuesday to protest.

State Bans Importation, Sale Of Certain Elodea Plants

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The state has taken steps to ban the importation and sale of some aquatic plants that are commonly found in aquariums.  Elodea is a plant used in fishbowls that has become a big problem in Alaska, and is considered an invasive species.  Last year, the state began working to eradicate the plant from areas in Fairbanks and in Anchorage.

Kikkan Randall Secures World Cup Sprint Title

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Kikkan Randall has a lock on her 3rd straight World Cup sprint title. Randall did not make the finals in a classic technique sprint in Drammen Norway Wednesday, but her seventh place finish there mathematically clinches the season title. Just one sprint race remains. Retaining the title as the world’s top woman sprinter is some consolation for Randall who struggled at last month’s Sochi Olympics, where she’s d hoped to medal.

Cyclist Obliterates Iditarod Trail Invitational Record

Anna Rose MacArthur, KNOM – Nome

Most speed records are broken by seconds or minutes. Wednesday, a Fairbanks cyclist demolished the Iditarod Trail Invitational record by almost a full week.

Dogs Fare Better Than Mushers Over Rough Trail

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

In the sled dog version of the Iditarod, teams remain large.  Most mushers are still running with 14 or more dogs. Mushers are surprised at how many dogs fared through the rough trail early on:

Categories: Alaska News

Dogs Fare Better Than Mushers Over Rough Trail

Thu, 2014-03-06 13:00

Jeff King. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

Iditarod teams remain large.  Most mushers are still running teams of 14 or more dogs. Mushers are surprised at how many dogs fared well through some of the roughest trail they’ve seen in the race’s history.

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Four-time champion, Jeff King has towed a large trailer behind his sled since the start of the race. He carries one or two dogs in it at a time while the rest of the team travels down the trail.

Michelle Phillips. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“I’m using it both proactively for a dog that’s super important to later on in this race and in the event I see one that has a little tick of lameness, the first thing I do is give it a ride and then evaluate it so that if there’s something there, it’s not aggravated,” he said.

King has been resting his dogs en route for years.  He says it saves energy for later in the race and takes some wear and tear of his equipment.

Wear and tear is something this year’s mushers know plenty about. They faced miles of rough and rugged, snow-free trail early on.  But Canadian Michelle Phillips says mushers are definitely roughed up more than then the dogs.

“It seems that way, yeah.  Definitely,” she said.

Her legs are covered in huge purple bruises. Phillips pulls a little blue vial out of her pocket. It’s medicine for both her and her dogs.

“It’s a homeopathic remedy arnica,” she said. “I’ve gone through half a bottle and anyone that’s stiff or sore is taking it as well.”

She is known for the homemade remedies she uses to treat stiff and sore dogs.

“It’s a whole blend that I roll on and I make my own massage oil and foot ointment that’s got emu oil and a bunch of herbs and essential oils,” Phillips said.

Hans Gatt spent some of his 24-hour layover massaging and walking his dogs.  He still has his full team.  He says he’s not letting anyone go until he has to.

“I’m not dropping anybody if they don’t have to be dropped,” Gatt said. “It would be a hoot to get to Nome with 16, but I know it’s not going to happen.”

Well over half the field still has teams numbering in the teens.  Those with 16 dogs will have plenty of speed and power as they push forward toward the Yukon River.

Categories: Alaska News

Jeff King Leads Teams Into Ruby, Claims ‘First Musher To The Yukon’ Award

Thu, 2014-03-06 11:48

Jeff King waves to fans as he leaves Willow at the beginning of the 42nd Iditarod. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King led mushers into the Ruby checkpoint at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, claiming the First Musher to the Yukon Award.

Two Rivers musher Sonny Lindner rode into Ruby an hour after King.

Martin Buser, Aaron Burmeister and John Baker round out the top-5.

Last year’s two top mushers, Aliy Zirkle and Mitch Seavey, are running in 11th and 15th place, respectively, and are currently between the Ophir and Cripple checkpoints.

Categories: Alaska News

Iditarod Teams Rest Up for A Big Push as They Near the Yukon

Thu, 2014-03-06 11:16

As teams come off their mandatory 24-hour rest and head for the Yukon River, they’ll be thinking of how best to pick up the pace in what is turning out to be one of the most dramatic, but also the most competitive races in Iditarod history.

Hans Gatt. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Teams haven’t yet reached the halfway mark. Twelve-time finisher Hans Gatt says even though he’s running a competitive team, he hasn’t even thought about racing yet.

“Well, usually you try to figure out any time after the 24-hour layover, but we’ll probably have to wait until we get to Ruby,” Gatt said.

Ruby is nearly 500 miles into the race. Gatt would have liked to there before he rested his team for 24 hours.

“I had to kind of patch up the dogs a little bit,” Gatt said. “I had some sick dogs that didn’t eat so I had to 24 here, otherwise, I’d be way down the trail.”

But a stopover in Takotna was exactly what Aliy Zirkle had planned.

“I always get to Takotna on my own schedule and never look at what’s happening,” she said. “I’ve looked and seen what people are doing and it’s pretty interesting. I guess I’m going to stick on my own schedule until the Yukon and then see where it works out.”

Her team was parked right next to defending champion Mitch Seavey’s.  The two worked in the dog yard side-by-side, but shared few words as they focused on feeding their teams and packing their sleds.

Ray Reddington Jr. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“We’re running our own dogs right now, so if you kind of start with what your own dogs can do and then get out a little bit later and see where you’re standing compared to everyone else, I guess that’s what we’re doing,” Zirkle said.

Unlike other mushers, Zirkle says she isn’t scratching her head over the big, early push made by Martin Buser.

“It shouldn’t be surprising after what he did last year,” she said.

It’s the second year in a row Buser has set a hard and fast pace early.  Zirkle says she, like many, had expected Norwegian Robert Sorlie to be something of a rabbit this year.  His team was parked further up the hill, also resting for 24 hours.

“I think this is the best team I’ve run ever, so far but you never know.”

Sorlie’s team is energetic, boisterous and powerful. They’ve pulled him speedily over rough trail and dragged him through checkpoints, eager to keep moving down the trail.  He says they haven’t even begun to race.

“I have not pushed them yet. I have not pushed them.  I will not push them before I get to Ruby and after that I think,” he said. “They can go their own speed. That is the best for them, o go their own speed. They know best what they can do, not me.”

Sorlie’s approach involves fast runs and lots of rest. He doesn’t like to change his ways.  A tried and true race plan is something former champion Dallas Seavey also likes to stick with.

“Just because Aliy, myself, my dad – oh wait a second is that the first and second place mushers from the last two Iditarods? – Now what are all of us doing?  We’re not doing a flashy race, but I can guarantee you, we’re all going to be there at the end,” he said.

The younger Seavey likes to keep things relatively simple.

Dallas Seavey. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“A lot of times when I see mushers do big moves now, what it tells me is they’ve used their joker, they’ve played that card, they don’t have that card to play on the coast,” he said.

Regardless of where mushers start to make strategic moves, they will eventually have to cut a little rest if they want to stay competitive.  It’s something Ray Reddington Junior is well aware of.

“Well, I’d like to start doing it somewhere along the river and I’m going to have a little bit of fun here myself and get a little pressure off the dogs,” he said. “Hopefully our run times will stay up and some of these guys will slow down a little bit.”

This is Reddington’s 13th Iditarod.  He’s climbed his way into the top-10 the last three consecutive years, but he says he can’t let his guard down.

“I mean how many of us when you figure it out is within an hour or two of each other right now,” Reddington said. “You can’t mess up.  If you mess up now, you might have ten teams go by you just for one little hiccup.”

Teams have a quick jaunt over to Ophir out of Takotna where they can readjust their plans and take care of dogs.  It’s still more than 140 miles to Ruby where the race meets the Yukon River and teams will presumably start to pick up the pace.

Categories: Alaska News

King Charges to Lead in Iditarod; First Out of Cripple

Thu, 2014-03-06 07:06

Jeff King – Photo by Patrick Yack, Alaska Public Media

Jeff King took the lead in the 2014 Iditarod when he charged out of Cripple Wednesday night ahead of Sonny Lindner. King left about 8:30 and Lindner followed at 9:09. Both were racing with 14 dogs.

Aaron Burmeister, John Baker, Paul Gephardt and Martin Buser trailed the leaders and were still in Cripple early Thursday morning. Buser is among 26 mushers who have taken their 24-hour mandatory layover. Neither King nor Lindner has taken the long layover.

Katherine Keith resumed the lead among rookies. She was out of Ophir.

Last year’s winner, Mitch Seavey was out of Ophir, too, and in 15th place. Aliy Zirkle, who finished second last year, was in ninth place and out of Ophir.

Rookie Lev Shvarts scratched Wednesday night in Rohn.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Aaron Burmeister First to Cripple, Leads Iditarod

Wed, 2014-03-05 22:03

Aaron Burmeister was the first musher to Cripple Wednesday afternoon, about an hour ahead of Jeff King. Burmeister arrived about 3:26 with 13 dogs. King had 15.

Sonny Lindner also reached Cripple Wednesday afternoon. He was racing with 16 dogs.

Paul Gebhardt was in fourth place and out of Ophir. John Baker trailed Gebhardt.

Martin Buser – who has taken his 24-hour mandatory layover was in sixth place and out of Ophir.

Charley Bejna lead the field of rookies. He left Takotna Wednesday night.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Could Slash Salaries For Alaska Ferry Workers

Wed, 2014-03-05 20:01

For nearly 40 years, ferry workers who are Alaska residents have gotten a cost-of-living adjustment, allowing them to be paid more than those who don’t live in the state. Now, a bill getting rid of that salary bonus is moving through the Legislature. And the way it’s advanced has raised hackles.

Because it stretches from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington, the Alaska Marine Highway is one of the few arms of the state that employs outsiders. It’s also the only branch of state government that sets its minimum salary on Seattle’s cost of living, instead using Anchorage or Juneau as a base. The idea is that in-state workers should have a cost-of-living differential added on. That difference can end up being $10,000 or more.

A bill moving through the State Senate would strip that provision.

Bill sponsor Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, says the legislation is not about the difference between Alaska workers and Washington workers — it’s about getting ferry workers in line with the rest of state government.

“My view is it brings more fairness and consistency into those contracts,” says Dyson.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, doesn’t agree. He’s got a few problems with it. For one, he sees it as an attack on Alaska hire.

“The effect of the bill is it gives everyone that works for the marine transportation system that lives in Alaska a pay cut and keeps the salary the same for those living in Seattle,” says Wielechowski.

Wielechowski is also unhappy with how the bill’s moving forward.

The bill comes as the marine transportation unions are negotiating their contracts for the next three years. If the bill passes before an agreement is reached, Alaskan workers could lose $8 million in wages, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Because the bill affects so many people’s paychecks, dozens of ferry workers came to testify before the State Affairs Committee last week. There was a nine-page list of names of people who called in to oppose the legislation. Only four got to speak before testimony was closed to the public.

Wielechowski says he’s never been a part of a committee where that’s happened.

“I think it makes the public cynical when we don’t even give them the right to have two minutes to tell us how they feel about a bill that’s in front of us,” says Wielechowski.

Dyson, who chairs the committee, says closing testimony was a matter of pragmatism. The committee has 30 other bills it’s assigned to hear before the session wraps up, and he says people had the opportunity to offer written testimony or call in if they were not heard.

“We got a lot of work to do, and I doubt if any new information has come out,” says Dyson. “So, we got to limit it somewhere.”

For their part, the ferry workers who showed up were disappointed that they didn’t get to speak, because they have an even bigger concern about process.

Ben Goldrich represents the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and he says cost-of-living adjustments have traditionally been fodder for the bargaining table.

“It’s very strange to be up on the Hill talking about an issue that normally we would be dealing with in negotiations,” says Goldrich.

Goldrich worries that the Parnell administration is using the bill as leverage. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect immediately after being signed into law. That could put pressure on unions to accept a deal before that date to avoid losing the cost-of-living differential during the upcoming contract period.

“If somebody from the Department of Administration were to shop a bill on the Hill, that might constitute what we call an unfair labor practice,” says Goldrich.

The Department of Administration addressed the role compensation played in the Alaska Marine Highway budget during presentations to the Legislature this year. Dyson says that the administration also spoke with him about the cost-of-living differential.

Andy Mills, a special assistant in the Department of Administration, says that does not constitute an unfair labor practice. He says legislators are within their rights to bring labor bills forward, and that the leaders of both chambers have encouraged the Department of Administration to address the cost-of-living differential as a way of tightening the Marine Highway budget in a year where the state is looking at a $2 billion deficit.

“Collectively bargaining agreements is separate and apart from legislative changes to statute,” says Mills.

But Mills says yes, the legislation could affect the bargaining timeline.

“This probably adds pressure to get an agreement before a certain timeline, and we’re having those discussions at the negotiating table and hoping to reach a balanced and neutral agreements with the units,” says Mills.

Mills adds that if the bill passes and an agreement has not been reached, the Department of Administration would be more likely to negotiate for a wage freeze as opposed to an immediate salary cut.

The current union contract expires in June.

The bill was moved out of the State Affairs committee Tuesday, and it got a referral to the Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Considers Changing Autopsies In Rural Alaska

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:20

When a person dies under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state has an obligation to make sure that evidence is processed and that they can protect the victim and their family.

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In rural Alaska, that means sending the body to the medical examiners office in Anchorage. If the legislature acts on a bill, part of that examination could take place locally.

The state covers some of the costs, but family members often end up paying large sums to funeral homes to prepare the body and transport it. Bodies are sent to anchorage for autopsies. They often end up paying $500 so-called taxi fees to move the body between the Medical Examiner’s office and funeral homes. That’s added to the freight costs of shipping a casket back to a village. Bethel Representative Bob Herron is sponsoring legislation to make it easier on families when they have to navigate those choices in a time of grief.

“They’re making this decision under duress, because you want to start this grieving process right away. You wan to know why the family member died, and that takes time, but sometimes it’s needless. That’s what this is about, it’s about having a process that is fair,” said Herron.

Herron wants better explanation of the costs and options for taking care of a body so a family doesn’t end up paying for some service they don’t want. Testimony in Juneau from AVCP indicated that funeral homes were “holding bodies hostage” as families scrambled to find money for embalming or caskets.

“Reputable, or whatever you want to do, people in private business are holding a body until they get payment. It’s apparently a fact of life,” said Herron.

Another change would require the state to pay for embalming if required by regulation for transportation on air carriers. A next step would be finding a way to use the region’s telemedicine facilities to do autopsies or pre autopsies remotely.

“Where you can bring the body to Bethel, generally that’s what happens anyway, and they can put it in the morgue, and set up a time to visit with the medical examiner via teleconference. And the doctor or PA can take the camera and walk through it. After the first hearing, I’m real hopeful,” said Herron.

Herron is proposing a pilot project in the region, but there’s nothing in the bill to establish one. Another part of the bill would allow local officials to be able to issue death certificates in some cases instead of having it done in Anchorage. The house bill is currently in the Health and Social Services committee.

Categories: Alaska News

Mandatory 24-Hour Rest Playing Into Race Strategy

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:19

Nome Musher Aaron Burmeister has the Iditarod lead. He pulled into the remote checkpoint of Cripple at 3:25 this afternoon. Jeff King followed 40 minutes later. A number of mushers appear to be taking their 24 hour lay overs in Takotna, including Aliy Zirkle, Robert Sorlie and Dallas and Mitch Seavey.

A dozen mushers have scratched, many with bruised bodies and battered sleds from the rough and snowless trail into Nikolai.

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Iditarod teams are making their way across the Interior region where the trail is soft, smooth and covered in snow – a far cry from the rough and rocky trail that took many mushers out of the race earlier this week.

Four-time champion Martin Buser is one of only a few mushers to have completed his mandatory 24-hour rest. He blew through McGrath this morning on what he calls an unorthodox race plan.

“More bigger better faster!” Buser said. “No, I’m, just going to go out here and take a camp and just camp my way to Nome!”

Pete Kaiser. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Buser’s energetic dogs trotted quickly out of the checkpoint after a quick stop for water.  They blew through Takotna where 26-year-old Pete Kaiser of Bethel decided to take his 24-hour rest.

“It was one of the plans I had.  I was set up t do it other places also, but I decided to do it here,” Kaiser said. “It was hard to pass up and I didn’t really see it as a benefit to this team to go any farther.”

Kaiser has run the race four times, but eight of Kaiser’s dogs are rookies to the Iditarod trail.

This is a young team this year that I am driving and they look pretty good now and I just figured let’s stop while the look good and just see how the rest of the race goes,” Kaiser said.

Most of the teams coming into Takotna are still large. Most mushers left the start line with 16 dogs. There’s currently only one team among the top-30 that is running fewer than 13 dogs.

Curt Perano, the Kiwi musher, says he’s surprised considering how rough the first 200 miles of trail were.

“I would have thought we would have had a lot of shoulders and wrists but the funny thing is even though we hate it, the dogs just love that sort of stuff,” Perano said. “They just love that windy fast trail I mean you can see they just dig in harder and you ask them to stop and they just want to keep going and their attitudes!”

With just over 300 miles behind them teams will still have to contend with the Interior, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero tonight.  The Yukon River also lies ahead before teams reach the Bering Sea Coast.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA Panel Discussing Pros, Cons Of Pot Legalization

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:18

Tonight the University of Alaska Anchorage will feature a panel discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Last night we brought you the perspective of a legalization advocate and this evening we offer the opposing side. Dean Guaneli is a retired assistant attorney general for Alaska. Guaneli says there is confusion over the current law regulating marijuana here. He says because of the privacy clause in the state constitution, a 1976 decision by the Alaska Supreme court made it impossible for the state to enforce the law for small amounts in one’s home. But he says in 2006, the legislature clearly re-criminalized marijuana.

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Categories: Alaska News

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