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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: 44 min 18 sec ago

300 Villages: Kobuk

Fri, 2014-05-23 16:15

This week, we’re heading to Kobuk in northwest Alaska. The village of about 200 people is steadily growing, nearly doubling in size since 2000. A resident says that’s in part due to reliable seasonal work and efforts to mesh traditional lifestyles with modern ones. Beatrice Barr is a tribal clerk in Kobuk.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Edition: May 23, 2014

Fri, 2014-05-23 07:14

Forest fires fill Southcentral Alaska with smoke. Providence Hospital is opposing MLP’s proposed rate increase. The Anchorage School Board has passed a budget that would restore some teaching positions. More and more farmers markets are accepting food stamps. The Native village of Eklutna has received regulatory help from the Anchorage Assembly. Senate candidate Joe Miller raises global warming as a primary issue. Promoters of the legalization of marijuana hold a seminar on how to get into the business if legalized. People bike to work in Anchorage – but just how many. There’s a lot of negative advertising on TV this political season. How do voters find out what is accurate?

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HOST: Michael Carey

GUESTS:

  • Steve MacDonald, Channel 2 News.
  • Suzanna Caldwell, Alaska  Dispatch/ADN.
  • Anne Hillman,  APRN

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, May 23 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 24, at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 24  at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

With Senate Change, State House Feels Ripple Effects

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:05

When the Bipartisan Coalition lost control of the State Senate in 2012, it was a given that its Democratic members would see a big drop in the number of bills they got through. But that loss of clout may have also affected Democrats in the House. With the Legislature adjourned and a pile of bills awaiting the governor’s signature, here’s looks at how power shifted in the Capitol.

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Rep. Chris Tuck sponsored about a dozen bills this past legislative cycle. Only a couple of those items ever got hearings, and just one – a bill dealing with craft distilleries – actually passed. As far as Democrats go, Tuck considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“You’d hope it would be like four to one, but unfortunately we feel blessed to even have a bill passed,” says Tuck.

Tuck is used to it. Democrats have been the minority party in the State House ever since the Nineties, and their caucus only occupies 10 of the House’s 40 seats right now.

Since 2006, the House Minority would get one bill passed per member, if you average it out. That’s only a small fraction of the legislation that gets passed, but it was something.

This Legislature, that number dropped. Instead of one bill a person, it’s now about half a bill. If you were a member of the Majority this Legislature, you were six times more likely to get a bill through.

So, what changed? While the composition of the House didn’t shift much in the last election, the makeup of the Senate did.

“It does have an effect that bleeds over to the House,” says Tuck.

Instead of having a Republican House working with a team of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate, the Legislature effectively switched to one-party government with the last election.

Tuck thinks that means Minority members are less likely to have ownership over some of their policies, even if they introduced them first. For example, a bill requiring babies to be screened for heart defects was originally introduced by a House Democrat, but the version that passed was offered by a Senate Republican.

“It’s not as much about the policy as who gets credit for it,” says Tuck.

There are a few possible reasons for this. If a bill doesn’t have your name on it, it’s harder to campaign on it as a legislative accomplishment. It’s also easier to get a minority bill through one adversarial chamber than it is to get it through two of them. If a Democratic bill made it through the House during the Bipartisan Coalition days, then there was probably a sympathetic ear for it in the Senate.

These days? Not so much, says Tuck.

“A lot of people that were in the minority in the 27th Alaska Legislature are in the majority this year, and it’s all about retaliation in some form,” says Tuck.

In total, the House Minority got six bills passed this Legislature, and Senate Minority got zero. That’s out of nearly 200 bills.

In a lot of ways, that’s just the way the game is played. Wasilla Republican Charlie Huggins currently serves as the Senate President, but before the 2012 election, he was part of the Senate’s small conservative minority caucus.

“Obviously, in the minority you get to do a lot of observing – maybe grit your teeth every once in a while,” says Huggins.

Under the Bipartisan Coalition’s leadership, the Senate Minority fared a little better than the current Democratic Minority, but not by much.

Instead of getting zero bills through, they managed to pass anywhere from one to three bills per Legislature. On the rare occasions they were able to get their bills through the more Democratic Senate, those measures sailed through just fine in the Republican-led House.

THIRD TIME’S A CHARM

Now that Republicans lead both chambers, some of the bills favored by the old conservative minority cleared the Legislature just fine. Huggins points to his bill naming an official state firearm as something that went nowhere in the Senate under the Bipartisan Coalition but passed handily this time around.

That bill wasn’t the only one that Republicans had previously pushed that passed this time around.

Of the 191 bills that passed this year, 21 had been introduced in the past but were effectively blocked by the Bipartisan Coalition.

“There was a lot of pent up frustration by average Alaskans that things weren’t getting through that they thought had merit, and we turned that around,” says Huggins.

Most of those bills were passed by the Republican House but then held up in Senate committees which were often run by Democrats.

The House passed a Stand Your Ground bill twice during the Coalition days, and only got it through this time around. A bill the puts time restrictions on foreign nationals’ drivers licenses also got new life. So did a bill furthering the development of the Knik Arm Bridge.

Legislation regulating abortion also passed for the first time in about a decade. Anchorage Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Hollis French says that would have “never gone anywhere” under the Bipartisan Coalition that he was part of. Abortion was one of the issues they specifically avoided to keep harmony in their ranks.

“The ground rules were that each party would set aside the extreme measures from each end of its own political spectrum. Which means that the Right would not be pursuing anti-abortion bills, the Left would not be pursuing say legalization of marijuana,” says French. “We would work from the middle, pursue ideas from the middle, pursue ideas that we could all agree on – building infrastructure, education, crime bills, and so forth that were mainstream.”

Huggins says the current Senate Majority doesn’t have any terms of engagement like that, mostly because they don’t need to as a Republican-led caucus. While there are differences of opinion within the caucus, many of top leadership positions are held by people who are ideologically aligned.

“You know, I think by and large the biggest contrast between the Bipartisan Coalition and what you saw in the last two years is you probably had more like-minded people who were in leadership and more influential in the body,” says Huggins.

GOOD YEAR FOR THE GOVERNOR

Of all the legislation that had been tried before under the Bipartisan Coalition, arguably the most significant one to pass was a variation Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan.

During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, Parnell repeatedly clashed with the Bipartisan Coalition over his vision of oil tax reform, with the Senate ultimately blocking his attempts to cut taxes on oil production at high prices. With the 2012 election, six of the Bipartisan Coalition’s 16 members lost their seats under a new political map. Within one session of the new Republican members being sworn in, Parnell’s most recent version of his oil tax plan passed.

Parnell generally did better under the new Legislature, and he has frequently complimented the current political leadership. During the 27th Legislature, five out his 16 personal bills failed. This Legislature, just two of his 17 bills did not make it through the process – a water rights bill that received vocal public opposition, and a timber sale bill that his administration didn’t actively push for.

Huggins says there was frequent communication between the Parnell administration and legislative leadership, which resulted in less political gridlock.

“The governor provided some good input and gave a third set of eyes, if you will, on the administration’s standpoint on a number of issues,” says Huggins.

On top of passing more items from the governor’s agenda, the 28th Legislature passed more bills overall, exceeding the previous body output by 76 bills.

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Panel Approves Labeling for GM Salmon

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:04

A U.S. Senate panel today moved to require labeling for genetically modified salmon, if it’s approved for sale in this country.

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski told the Senate Appropriations Committee she hopes the FDA never allows genetically modified salmon to reach supermarket shelves.

“But we haven’t been able to get the FDA able to slow down off their track of approval,” she said.

So, Murkowski says, they should at least require “that they put on the package of fish: This is a genetically modified salmon.”

But mandatory labeling repels senators from farm states, who fear it’ll lead to labeling of GM crops. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska defended genetically modified food at the hearing, saying it can help sustain the world’s ever- growing population.  Johanns says labeling would be a compliance nightmare, with consumers footing the bill.

“There’s a cost to that, for no basis in science,” he said.

The company that wants to produce the AquAdvantage salmon says its farmed fish would be just like a conventional Atlantic salmon. Sen. Mark Begich, who co-sponsored Murkowski’s labeling amendment, says the company should just be upfront with consumers.

“If their fish product is so good, then tell us,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking.”

Appropriations Committee passed the amendment on a voice vote with only one audible “nay.” Still, it’s a long way from law. Alaska’s delegation to Congress has fought to require labeling in the past, only to see it stripped out of the final legislation. The bill next goes to the full Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Funny River Fire Consumes Nearly 50k Acres

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:03

The Funny River fire that has been burning on the Kenai Peninsula since Monday has grown to nearly 50,000 acres.

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A helicopter drops water on the fire near Soldotna Monday night (Ariel Van Cleave photo)

Dan Nelson, the Health and Safety Officer for Central Emergency Services out of Soldotna, says the fire is about five percent contained.

“What you’re seeing today, a little shift in action from a game plan and trying to get priorities set and figuring out what’s going on to an actual going out there and attacking the fire,” Nelson said. “We have over 150 people on the ground and numerous aircraft out there. The priorities have not changed. The priorities are still keep the fire away from the Funny River community and the Kasilof community.”

Fire crews from across the state had set up a communications center at Skyview High School in Soldotna.

The fire is still not an immediate threat to life or property. Community meetings were being held Wednesday night for people closest to the fire.

No evacuation orders have been given, as the fire continues to spread into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Categories: Alaska News

Tyonek Fire Grows To 1,800 Acres

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:02

Two Southcentral Alaska fires have grown in size since Wednesday afternoon, covering the Anchorage area in smoke Thursday morning.

Tyonek Fire

On the western side of Cook Inlet, the Tyonek Fire has grown to over 1,800 acres.

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Pete Buist, a fire information officer with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, says most of the recent activity has been on the north end of the fire.

“Most of that fire growth is due to what we call spotting, where sparks and embers from the main fire are carried on the convection column up into the air a ways and drop out in front of the main fire,” Buist said.

Though the main fire hasn’t progressed much closer to Beluga, Buist says crews are conducting burnout operations around power lines and oil and gas infrastructure.

“It means that those crews got in around some of the infrastructure there and started little fires on their own burning out towards the main fire, so that if the main fire was to get there, it would have less fuel up close to those things that they want to protect,” he said.

There are 108 firefighters working on the Tyonek fire.

RELATED: Incident Meteorologists Help Crews Predict Fire Paths

No evacuation orders are in effect for Beluga or Tyonek.

Funny River Fire

Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula has grown to nearly 50,000 acres since Wednesday afternoon.

Buist says three things affect fire growth: weather, topography, and fuels. For the Funny River fire, he says all three factors contributed almost equally.

“The fire is burning on the southwest and burning uphill towards the mountains, so you’ve got that topographical consideration. You’ve got just miles and miles of black spruce and beetle-killed white spruce and Sitka spruce and Lutz spruce in there – so there’s some pretty heavy fuels involved.”

“And, of course, the weather is still conducive to fire.”

The Funny River fire is still entirely within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Buist says up to this point, no communities or structures have burned down or are imminent danger.

There are 168 firefighters working on the Funny River fire. Four scooper aircraft arrived from Alberta, Canada on Wednesday and will likely focus on the western side of the fire.

Buist says more assets will be added before the fire is contained.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Wildfire Smoke Cloaks Anchorage

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:01

A thick haze of smoke covered Anchorage and much of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Thursday morning.

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The smoke, from both the Tyonek and Funny River wildfires, was heavy over Anchorage in the early hours, although a light breeze helped to push the smoke away by afternoon.

But Christian Cassell, with the National Weather Service’s Anchorage office, says winds now helping to clear smoke away from the city, are about to change

“The next 24 hours or so through, let’s say, [Friday] afternoon are looking pretty good, with north winds that’ll gust 20-25 miles per hour. So we’re looking at the smoke being pushed off to the south of Anchorage,” Cassell said. “As we get into [Friday], however, the wind is gonna start reversing again and it’s going to start coming out of the south, and that’s gonna start pushing the smoke up towards Anchorage’s way again. And, unfortunately, it looks like we’re gonna be in that pattern through the weekend.”

Cassell says the worst smoke conditions are generally in the late night and earliest morning hours, because of an inversion created when the ground cools faster than the air above it.

Categories: Alaska News

Rep. Young Pushing Land Bill for Port Clarence Site

Thu, 2014-05-22 17:00

Congressman Don Young is introducing a bill in Washington, D.C. to speed up development in an area of the Seward Peninsula that many are eyeing as one piece of a future Arctic Port.

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Representative Don Young speaking in Washington, DC. (Photo: Don Young congressional webpage)

House Resolution 4668 would divide about 2,500 acres of federal land among the Coast Guard, the State of Alaska, and the Bering Straits Native Corporation.

The idea is to hasten infrastructure development by creating a public-private partnership.

“The Coast Guard has no money,” Young said. “The [Army] Corps [of Engineers] has identified this one area as a public-private participation—so any facilities should be, very frankly, financed privately with the public input.”

Under the resolution BSNC would take over 2,381 of the land–the overwhelming majority. Matt Ganley works with resources for BSNC, and said by email Tuesday that the corporation has been “discussing the Point Spencer lands with Congressman Young and his staff” since 2010, when the Coast Guard decommissioned it’s facilities in the area.

Ganley added that BSNC “fully support[s]” Young’s legislation.

The acreage that the Coast Guard and the state will receive are comparatively small, but vital for infrastructure development. The Coast Guard has identified the area from an airstrip to the shoreline as essential to future operations. And while there isn’t yet a draft map accompanying the resolution, Ganley says the legislation aims to anticipate future needs and partition the lands accordingly.

Point Spencer is the curved spit closing in the waters West of Teller and Brevig Mission.

It’s one of the geographical features that makes up Port Clarence, which, along with the harbor in Nome, will likely be part of a proposed deep draft port.

Young believes freeing up land the federal government has failed to so far take advantage of is the first step towards building vital infrastructure.

“This has been identified as one of the more likely areas by the Coast Guard and the Corp of Engineers,” Young said. “I’m not going to pick the areas, I’m just trying to provide the areas necessary to have a deep water port—and we need it badly up there because of the arctic participation. And this is the first step.”

Ganley wrote that during a meeting last February residents and leadership in Brevig Mission and Teller supported the prospect of jobs and economic opportunity nearby development could bring. Attendees also raised serious concerns about the effects to subsistence resources. Though the resolution has a special provision recognizing archeological and cultural heritage in the region, there is no mention of subsistence anywhere in the legislation.

The US Army Corp of Engineers is scheduled to release a report with recommendations for an Arctic deep draft port in the region by the end of the summer.

There’s no timeline as yet for how Young’s legislation will advance in the House.

Categories: Alaska News

Congress Passes Water Bill with Alaska Amendments

Thu, 2014-05-22 16:59

Congress has passed a $12 billion water resources bill that may help Alaska gain a deepwater Arctic port, although it doesn’t actually fund one.

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The provision, supported by the entire Alaska congressional delegation, would allow the Corps of Engineers to provide technical assistance to local or tribal governments who want to develop an Arctic port, and accept money from them. For other harbors around Alaska, the bill allows the Corps to consider subsistence use, not just economic development, when selecting projects to fund.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act authorizes more than 30 major projects in the lower 48, such as harbor dredging and flood control work.

It now goes to the president for his signature.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: May 22, 2014

Thu, 2014-05-22 16:59

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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Shifting Power In Alaska’s Legislature

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

When the Bipartisan Coalition lost control of the State Senate in 2012, it was a given that its Democratic members would see a big drop in the number of bills they got through. But that loss of clout also affected Democrats in the House. With the Legislature adjourned and a pile of bills awaiting the governor’s signature, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez looks at how power shifted in this Legislature.

Senate Panel Approves Labeling for GM Salmon

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A U.S. Senate panel today moved to require labeling for genetically modified salmon, if it’s approved for sale in this country. The labeling mandate is now part of an Agriculture appropriations bill pending in the Senate.

Funny River Fire Consumes Nearly 50k Acres

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai

The Funny River fire that has been burning on the Kenai Peninsula since Monday has grown to nearly 50,000 acres.

Tyonek Fire Grows To 1,800 Acres

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

On the western side of Cook Inlet, the Tyonek Fire has grown to more than 1,800 acres.

Wildfire Smoke Cloaks Anchorage

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A thick haze of smoke covered Anchorage and much of the Matanuska Susitna Borough Thursday morning.

Rep. Young Pushing Land Bill for Port Clarence Site

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

Representative Don Young has introduced a bill that would help clear the way for a deepwater port outside of Nome.

Congress Passes Water Bill with Alaska Amendments

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Congress has passed a $12 billion water resources bill that may help Alaska gain a deepwater Arctic port, although it doesn’t actually fund one.

Money, Drugs Missing From Barrow Police Station Evidence Locker

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Money and drugs went missing from the evidence room at the police station in Barrow last year—and now the North Slope Borough is launching an investigation into what happened.

UAF Expecting Over $12 Million Budget Deficit

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A University of Alaska Fairbanks committee is recommending cuts to close an expected 12 to 14 million dollar FY 15 budget deficit. The Planning and Budget Committee was charged with developing options to address rising costs and decreased state funding.

New President At Premera Alaska Will Be Based In Seattle

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska has a new president. Jim Grazko is replacing Jeff Davis, who held the job for 17 years and is retiring at the end of June. Premera Alaska is the largest health insurer in the state, serving more than 100,000 customers.

Bethel Elders Home Certified

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

The Y-K Delta’s first skilled nursing facility is open and just received the federal certification necessary for payment from for Medicare and Medicaid. The certification comes just as the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which runs the Elders Home, faces an 11.7-million-dollar budget shortfall.

Categories: Alaska News

Money, Drugs Missing From Barrow Police Station Evidence Locker

Thu, 2014-05-22 16:58

Money and drugs went missing from the evidence room at the police station in Barrow last year—and now the North Slope Borough is launching an investigation into what happened.

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Categories: Alaska News

UAF Expecting Over $12 Million Budget Deficit

Thu, 2014-05-22 16:57

A University of Alaska Fairbanks committee is recommending cuts to close an expected 12 to 14 million dollar FY 15 budget deficit. The Planning and Budget Committee was charged with developing options to address rising costs and decreased state funding.

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Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Elders Home Certified

Thu, 2014-05-22 16:55

YKHC has paid $2 million dollars to keep the Elders Home open since October while officials tried to get a federal certification allowing Medicaid and Medicare billing.

The Y-K Delta’s first skilled nursing facility is open and just received the federal certification necessary for payment from for Medicare and Medicaid.

The certification comes just as Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which runs the Elders Home, faces an $11.7 million budget shortfall.

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The entryway at the Elders Home in Bethel. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

Today the staff of the Elders Home in Bethel is celebrating their recent certification with a party. YKHC CEO Dan Winkelman steps away from the celebration and into the airy entryway of the newly constructed Elders Home in Bethel, which is decorated with a mural depicting the seasons.

“You’ll see a seal hunter with his catch there and his kayak and you’ll see a berry picker as you go in a clockwise direction and she’s picking salmonberries and then you’ll see some swans flying across the tundra,” Winkelman said.

The nursing home, which looks more like a fishing lodge from the outside, is a project of YKHC that’s been planned for decades to give elders in the Delta care closer to home.

YKHC is grappling with an $11.7 million budget shortfall due to revenue collections issues and sequester cuts to Indian Health Service funding. YKHC has been picking up $2 million in operating costs since the home opened in October because it lacked certification, said Winkelman.

The home attempted certification twice: In October there were 17 deficiencies and five in December, when they tried again. The home finally passed federal certification in April, allowing Medicare and Medicaid billing.

Gerald Hodges manages the Elders Home. He leads me from the entry into a hallway that separates two wings of the home, past a chapel on our left and a therapy room with exercise equipment to the right and into a common area.

A Hallway at the Elder Home in Bethel is decorated with a photo of fish. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

“As we go here then to the right in this side here we have a total of eight rooms. We also have right in front of us here is an area we call our native kitchen and we have a stove with a commercial hood microwave, refrigerator, freezer and a sink. And it’s designed so that family members can come in and prepare foods for their elders,” Hodges said.

Elders recline in cushy chairs watching a DVD of Camai Dance Festival on large screen TV. Signs around the building are in Yup’ik and English and several of the staff speak Yup’ik.

The idea, Hodges says, it to improve quality of life for the aging population of he Y-K Delta region, by allowing them to stay closer to home to receive culturally relevant care. The closest skilled nursing homes are in Nome and Kotzebue. Previously, residents who needed nursing home care had to relocate to the road system. Hodges leads me into a resident room.

“Here’s our typical private room.  We have a bed. We have a dresser. Each room has a countertop with a sink. The other nice feature we have in all the room is that we have an overhead lift. A lot of the elders aren’t able to get themselves out of bed or they need help getting into a chair an this electric lift is so nice, it comes over, it comes around and it actually drives itself along the track and the track goes all the way around and into the bathroom,” Hodges said.

The state’s older population is expected to more than double in the next 20 years from around 72,000 to more than 150,000 in 2030.

Denise Daniello with the Alaska Commission on Aging says more facilities like the Elders Home in Bethel are needed. She cites data showing Alaska has the fastest growing senior population in the nation, and the fastest growing segment includes those 85 and older.

“Currently we have about 5,900 people age 85 and older that is projected to more than triple over the next 20 years to 18,800 people age 85 and older. And this population is the most vulnerable and also most at risk for developing chronic disease conditions as well as Alzheimers disease related dementia.” Daniello said.

Winkelman says the Elders home has received more than 30 applications for the twelve remaining rooms and he says once people see how homey it is, he thinks they’ll be a waiting list.

“That’s the idea with the home is you want to make it nice so people can live here an that ‘s what it’s all about is for the clients to come in and feel comfortable and make it their own home,” Winkelman said.

YKHC worked with senator Lyman Hoffman and representative Bob Herron to secure appropriations for the Elders Home. Construction cost $16.3 million dollars.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Air Quality Impacted By Regional Wildfires

Thu, 2014-05-22 11:00

UPDATE (5/22 – 11 am): The air quality in Anchorage and Eagle River is considered unhealthy for everyone according to the municipality’s Department of Health and Human Services due to smoke from wildfires near Tyonek and Funny River on the Kenai Peninsula. However, the air quality hotline reports that conditions are improving.

The department advises that all people stay indoors if possible and avoid strenuous exercise. They recommend keeping windows closed and avoiding burning things like candles and cigarettes. Vacuuming can also stir up particles and reduce air quality.

The department adds that typical dust masks or surgical masks won’t help to keep out the smoke. You would need a special mask marked “N95.” They can be purchased in some hardware stores.

The hotline number is 343-4899. They will provide another update by noon.

Smoke is expected through the holiday weekend. 

ORIGINAL STORY: Smoke from the wildfire in Tyonek blew into parts of Anchorage Wednesday morning causing concerns about air quality. By mid-afternoon most of the smoke had cleared, but it could be back.

Matt Stichick with the Anchorage Air Quality program said some smoke could blow in Thursday morning, but winds from the north will reduce the impact. However, with fires burning in Tyonek and at Funny River Road on the Kenai Peninsula, he said the problem is not resolved yet.

“Certainly we’re not in the clear yet,” he explained. “And actually there’s a much better chance that smoke from the Kenai Peninsula will be reaching Anchorage by Memorial Day weekend. It sounds like this situation could be with us for a while yet.”

Stichick said the best way to judge if the air near you is hazardous is to measure the visibility. If you can’t see a point that you know to be about 3 to 5 miles away, then you need to be careful. He said people who have heart or lung problems should avoid being outdoors where the smoke is bad and visibility is reduced. He said likely south Anchorage and lower Hillside will see the most impacts.

The Air Quality Hotline is 343-4899 and will be updated throughout the weekend.

Categories: Alaska News

New President At Premera Alaska Will Be Based In Seattle

Thu, 2014-05-22 10:17

Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska has a new president. Jim Grazko is replacing Jeff Davis, who held the job for 17 years and is retiring at the end of June. Premera Alaska is the largest health insurer in the state, serving more than 100,000 customers.

Davis lived in Anchorage and was actively engaged in health care issues in the community, serving on several boards. Grazko will be based in Seattle and the company says he isn’t likely to have the same public presence in the state as Davis. Eric Earling is Vice President of Corporate Communications for Premera. He says Grazko will travel to Alaska frequently and if anything, he expects an increased focus on the market in the state:

“I wouldn’t put the expectation that because there’s a change in one position that there is a substantive impact in how we serve the market as a whole. I think a number of members of our team are going to be collectively more active in Alaska than they may have been in the past because of some things we want to do to serve the market better, regardless of who holds the title of President of Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska.”

Earling says the biggest issue Grazko will face is the rising cost of medical care in Alaska and the impact that has on health care coverage.

Grazko has been with Premera since 1999 and was previously vice president for underwriting at the company. Lon Wilson is President and CEO of the Wilson Agency, a brokerage firm that works closely with Premera. Wilson says he knows both Davis and Grazko well and he thinks the change is a positive one:

“We’re losing somebody in Jeff Davis who spent many many years here in Alaska and knew the market really well. We’re also gaining somebody who has been with Premera for 15 plus years and knows the company very well and is very knowledgeable about the business in Alaska even though he hasn’t physically been here.”

Premera has 35 employees in Alaska. The company doesn’t expect to make any other changes at the Alaska office.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Investigators Find No Cover-up at Alaska National Guard

Wed, 2014-05-21 17:28

An Army Inspector General found no fault with how the Alaska National Guard handled reports of sexual assault and harassment.  At least, that’s how the Inspector General’s office for the Defense Department explained it in a letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski says she asked for the investigation last year after hearing troubling reports from two Guard chaplains. She says she won’t comment until she gets a chance to see the IG report for herself.

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The one-page letter to Murkowski  says the Army Inspector General’s investigation ended last month. Its focus was whether the Alaska Guard allowed a management climate that wasn’t conducive to reporting sexual assaults, and whether officials tried to cover up any accusations.  The letter to Murkowski says the Army IG didn’t find evidence of a cover-up.  It also says Guard commanders didn’t identify any concerns about the reporting of sexual assaults during “climate sensing sessions” with the troops.

The letter confirms some of the broad outlines of the case. It says the Guard’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator received 11 allegations of sexual assault since 2012. They were forwarded to civilian police, but only two were substantiated, and none were prosecuted in court. The letter from the Pentagon IG seems to clear the top officer of the Alaska Guard, Thomas Katkus. It says he delivered administrative punishment on the only two cases he could, by discharging one of the accused from Guard service and initiating the departure of another. Another DoD oversight branch, the Directorate for Investigations of Senior Officials, reviewed the Army IG report and concurred, the letter says.

Major Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Guard, says nine alleged sexual assaults by Guardsmen have been reported to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator since 2009. She doesn’t know why the letter mentions 11 cases just since 2012. She says, though, the response coordinator takes reports from Guard victims regardless of whether the person they accuse was in or out of the Guard.

One more investigation into the Alaska National Guard is still underway. It’s by the Office of Complex Investigations, part of the National Guard Bureau.

Categories: Alaska News

Funny River Fire Takes 20,000 Acres, More Firefighters On The Way

Wed, 2014-05-21 17:27

Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Now in its third day, the wildfire burning on the Kenai Peninsula has consumed 20,000 acres.

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By Wednesday afternoon, more than 200 firefighters had been sent in to control the blaze. Even though the size of the fire is now more than 30 square miles, it’s still contained within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and so very little property was being threatened.

Crews are using water almost exclusively to fight the fire. Doug Newbould is the Fire Management Officer on the Refuge. He says water is preferred over chemical retardants.

“Fish especially, those are the aquatic resources we’re trying to protect by not using retardant, however, we also understand and are fully supportive of the policy and the and the practices of protecting communities. If you have to use retardant, if that’s the best tool at your disposal or even a last resort sometimes, then yeah, use retardant.”

Newbould says the Refuge signed off on very limited use of retardant Tuesday, just enough to keep the fire from damaging the historic Nurses Cabin.

Extremely dry weather, high winds and low humidity proved the perfect mix for creating such a big wildfire. And Newbould says that if life and property aren’t threatened, a fire in the Refuge can have some positive benefits. But it really depends on the cause. He says they’re not sure yet exactly what started this fire, but it was likely man-made.

“Fire is an ecosystem process. And when it’s natural, we like to support it and use it where we can to accomplish resource objectives, but our only objectives on this fire are protecting communities and keeping the fire within the Refuge boundaries.”

The state division of Forestry says that recent efforts to clear beetle-kill spruce from the Refuge have removed fuel that could have made the fire spread farther and faster. Forestry spokesperson Andy Alexandrou says it’s not time to relax yet, though. Crews worked early Wednesday morning to keep the fire from jumping Funny River Road.

“We’re trying to keep that road open. We do suggest that you use extra caution as you’re driving around in that area between miles 5 and 8 (of Funny River Road). There is a fair amount of equipment there, people walking and working, staging for apparatus, so use a little extra caution as you pass through there.”

He says the incident management teams that arrived Wednesday morning will be completely set up and able to get more information out Thursday.

As the fire continues to burn, air quality is becoming a big concern. The Department of Environmental Conservation still has an air quality advisory in effect. The strong northerly winds that had been sending the smoke to the southern peninsula have calmed down, and now most of that smoke has settled between Sterling and Kenai, forcing Central Peninsula Hospital to stop surgical operations Wednesday afternoon, as a precaution to make sure air handlers were working properly.

As the fire speads, questions about possible evacuations from Funny River to Kasilof abound, and at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting, Borough Emergency Management Director Scott Walden explained how those decisions are made.

“In a situation such as this, Department of Natural Resources,  (Division of) Forestry would be the ones to order an evacuation, if necessary.Our job would be to develop plans to put in place with Forestry and the State Troopers,” Walden said.

The Borough has a hotline set up to field evacuation questions and other general questions about the fire. That number is 714-2495.

Categories: Alaska News

Tyonek Fire Grows To 1,500 Acres

Wed, 2014-05-21 17:26

A fire near the village of Tyonek has grown to approximately 1,500 acres.

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Pete Buist is a Fire Information Officer with the Alaska Inter-Agency Coordination Center. He says most of the activity is at the north end of the fire, which has reduced the danger near Tyonek:

“We’re not completely out of the water there, but we are concerned this morning about Beluga and the power station there and the gas lines, and oil and gas infrastructure that’s there,” Buist said.

No evacuation is in effect for Beluga, but Buist says some residents may have opted to leave. Tyonek’s evacuation order has been lifted.

Buist expects increasing fire activity in the area during the afternoon.

“The height of the burning period is generally in the afternoon, when temperatures are highest, and relative humidities are lowest, and the wind is more active,” he said.

Approximately 90 people and two helicopters are working to contain the fire.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Scientist Studies Ancient Cancer For Clues To Modern Disease

Wed, 2014-05-21 17:25

Cancer is often described as a modern disease. But the skeletal remains of our ancient ancestors are marked by the ravages of cancer. And an Anchorage scientist- who’s a cancer survivor, thinks those prehistoric bones could hold clues to understanding how the disease works today. It’s an emerging field though, that has some critics. 

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Paleo-oncologist Katie Hunt. Photo by Annie Feidt.

This is what happens when Katie Hunt tells people what she does for work:

“I get a lot of head nodding and then confusion.”

Hunt is a new kind of scientist. She studies ancient cancer.

In 2012, she co-founded the Paleo-oncology Research Organization. The group wants to develop standards for detecting and diagnosing cancer in ancient skeletons. Hunt is convinced tracking the evolution of the disease will help scientists understand modern cancer.

“We basically have a lot of information from the last 70 years or so. But can you imagine what it would be like to document cancer from the last ten thousand years?”

As a kid Hunt was obsessed with archaeology. She filled binders with her favorite National Geographic stories on ancient worlds. At the end of her sophomore year in college in Washington state, Hunt went on her first dig in Egypt. She spent five weeks excavating a site in the Nile Delta where an ancient beer factory had been built inside a temple:

“Because the priests were paid in beer, food and beer.”

In the rubble of the beer factory, Hunt came across a single burial site. She carefully preserved a layer of pure white matting. Then she brushed away the dirt to reveal a partial skeleton from a woman who lived roughly five thousand years ago. It was the moment she knew she wanted to study human remains:

“I got very excited and it was just kind of this suddenly, like oh, this is what I’m supposed to do in archaeology, this is why I’m so drawn to archaeology.”

At the time, Hunt didn’t even know the field of paleopathology existed. But she wanted to know more about how this woman lived and why she died. She went back and forth to Egypt, and started learning how to study disease and trauma in ancient skeletons.

Then life interrupted.

At the end of the school year in 2009, Hunt had bloating and swelling in her stomach, with some intense pain. She assumed it was a stress induced ulcer:

“Things just got so bad that I ended up going into the emergency room and they discovered the tumor.”

After emergency surgery, doctors told Hunt she had a rare and aggressive type of ovarian cancer. She was just 22 years old. Hunt spent the summer enduring a series of marathon inpatient chemotherapy sessions.

The treatment worked. In October, a month after she finished chemotherapy, Hunt went back to Egypt for more field work. This time she was working in the Valley of the Kings, analyzing the bones of several skeletons that suffered from a mysterious disease:

“That was kind of that moment where I was like, what if cancer did exist in ancient societies and if it did, how did they deal with it?”

Holes that are evidence of cancer in an ancient skeleton from Sudan. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum

The skeletons didn’t turn out to have cancer. But the experience prompted Hunt to write an undergraduate thesis showing cancer did exist in ancient times- Hippocrates wrote about it and even gave cancer its name. She wanted to turn that research into something more tangible and actually find cancer in skeletal remains. When the disease metastasizes to the bone, it leaves behind either holes or a buildup on the skeleton.

Hunt enrolled in graduate school in paleopathology in England with a focus on ancient cancers:

“Almost nothing had been done up to that point.”

But there were some documented cases of cancer in skeletal remains. Hunt spent two years compiling every ancient cancer case study she could find into a database. In all, she came across 230 individuals who likely had cancer. Hunt wants to use the database to develop standards for diagnosing ancient cancers.

She thinks paleo-oncology is key to tracing how cancer developed through big events in human history, like the transition to agricultural societies:

“If we are able to document cancer through that time period we might be able to see changes in how it was manifested in the human body. So tracing those and understanding the development of cancer through these big periods can really help us understand the causes of cancer today.”

Hunt is getting a lot of attention for her work. She gave a TED talk in Vancouver in March. And earlier this month, Fast Company put her on it’s list of the 100 most creative people in business. But she has critics too.

“Paleo-oncology is not going to help us understand how to diagnose or treat  modern cases of cancer. It just won’t.”

Robert Weinberg is a professor and cancer researcher at MIT who wrote a book on cancer biology. He’s worried paleo-oncology will draw public funding away from research that holds more promise. He says a lot of cancers aren’t preserved in skeletons:

“Cancer is ultimately a disease of living tissues and you can’t study old bones to understand the origins of those cancers and how they actually formed.”

Hunt says finding cellular evidence of cancer in skeletons is difficult. But she says newer technology like next generation DNA sequencing is making it possible. And she expects new techniques in development will make it even easier down the road.

Still, she understands the criticism and even welcomes it. But Hunt is determined to prove the potential of paleo-oncology.

Right now, the field is tiny. Like, fit inside a compact car tiny:

Reporter: “So how many people?”

Hunt: “Maybe three or four right now.”

Reporter: “So you’re saying you’re one of three or four people in the world who are doing this?”

Hunt: “Who are doing primarily this.”

For now, Hunt is okay with tiny. She’s riding a wave of momentum that has her dreaming big about what her organization can accomplish in the next few decades. Her main goal is to persuade more archaeologists to think about the possibility of cancer when they’re examining skeletal remains.

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

 

Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim Working Group Grapples With Fishwheels, Threatened Weirs, And Confusion

Wed, 2014-05-21 17:24

On the day that the summer’s king salmon restrictions began, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group met to hash out the details of this summer fishing plans. Managing a precarious king salmon run along 700 miles of river will be anything but simple.

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After months of in depth discussions leading up to the closures, 12 hours in, some working group members were still confused.

Kuskowkwim Working Group Members, managers, and the public meet to discuss salmon conservation. (Photo by Ben Matheson/KYUK)

“What about now, is it wide open it now to any type of gear, or drifting or what? That’s the confusion we have,” said Aloysius..

Bob Aloysius is from Kalskag. Part of that confusion come from the different geographic jurisdictions. Federal managers control the waters in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge from the mouth to Aniak. The state manages below the mouth and above Aniak.

There are a few key differences in regulations, especially around the middle river. Unlike the federal rules, the state would allow drifting with 4” nets. And they do not plan to allow fishwheels above Tuluksak during times of king salmon conservation, whereas the feds would with certain protections for kings. That comes as bad timing to several Middle River villages which, through the Kuskokwim Native Association, are investing in fish wheels. Lisa Feyereisen is from Chuathbaluk.

“It absolutely does not make sense that we could sit out there drifting with 4” mesh and keep incidental kings when we’re more than willing, we’ve purchased the material, we have people monitoring the fish wheel, and we’re releasing every single king, and that’s the goal of it, to release every single king,” said Feyereisen.

Chuathlbaluk was hoping to have a fish wheel running for the first time in 25 years. The working group passed a motion in support of allowing fish wheels on state waters. As it stands in the management plan, fishwheels operations are linked with 6” mesh openings, which would only be done when there are very few kings in the river.

Federal in Season Manager Brian McCaffery shared details on what’s hoped to be a small social and cultural harvest opportunity of about 1,000 kings total. He says it would be on a per capita basis for 31 of the 32 eligible communities. Each village get a dozen to several dozen fish, but Bethel would not be not proportional to population and may receive around 100 kings.

“Our primary goal again this year is conservation. And we want to give people an opportunity, we hope to work with the tribal council here in Bethel to find ways to provide community opportunities,” said McCaffery.

But the run has to be strong enough to support that limited harvest. To gauge that and considering this year’s early breakup, the Bethel Test Fishery will be starting a few days early, around the 27th.

And just days before the run hits in earnest, managers are worried about two weirs that are hanging in balance. The villages of Tuluksak, Kwethluk, Akiak, and Akiachak signed a letter saying that that if they can’t fish for kings for sometime in June, Tuluksak and Kwethluk would break contracts for operating the Tuluksak and Kwethluk river weirs. Steve Miller is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“But we’re hoping right now we can resolve that and get a contract in place. We’re required by law to conserve the fish on this river. That takes data, and those two systems are the only two systems on the lower river and our plan is to operate both weirs,” said Miller.

The group passed a motion supporting the operation of all the river’s weirs to count escapement. The next working group meeting will be at call of chairs.

Categories: Alaska News
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