One of Alaska’s tourism pioneers passed away over the weekend. Stan Stephens was 79-years-old. He was known for his popular charter boat line that provided tours in the Prince William Sound.
As scientists attempt to better understand the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale, they are taking a closer look at what the whales eat, but studying the dining habits of beluga whales is harder than you might think.
Sue Saupe is scientific director for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council – or CIRCAC. She and other scientists have been working on a study of beluga whale prey since 2008, attempting to measure the levels of harmful pollutants in the food that ends up in the whale’s bodies.
Saupe says one pollutant is of particular concern when it comes to beluga whales – polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs.
PAHs occur in deposits of oil, gas and coal and can be harmful in high concentrations. Saupe says PAHs are often more abundant in near-shore areas, where beluga whales tend to congregate. The data on PAHs in Cook Inlet is very limited, says Saupe, and the CIRCAC-funded beluga whale prey study is the first real attempt to measure them in whales.
The idea is to measure the pollutants in the prey that beluga whales eat. Saupe says that in the summertime, that’s not much of a problem. With funding from CIRCAC and the National Marine Fisheries Service, scientists conducted the first prey study in 2008 and 2009.
Saupe says the results of that study, along with tissue samples taken from the whales’ livers and blubber, did not show that PAH levels were affecting the beluga whale stock.
“We do not have that kind of information but concerns about PAH levels and concerns about beluga whale reproductive success warrant further study and likely mitigation,” Saupe said.
And so the focus turned to wintertime prey of beluga whales.
A winter beluga whale prey study was funded primarily by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and was supposed to begin in the fall of 2011.
Saupe says the study ran into problems right away, when a planned trawl survey in November had to be cancelled when ice clogged the upper inlet during a run of high winds and cold temperatures.
Trawl surveys were a bit more successful in the spring and fall of 2012 but even then, trawling in the northern inlet turned out to be a challenging and dangerous undertaking. Saupe says bad weather, quick-moving currents and a maze of well heads and pipelines on the ocean floor all made for tough going trying to trawl for sample fish.
“It’s extremely treacherous conditions and that’s why we can find no good resident fish for this area of Cook Inlet,” Saupe said.
As a result, the results of the wintertime beluga whale prey study are inconclusive, at best. Saupe says one thing the study shows is that perhaps the stock of potential prey in northern Cook Inlet is low and that beluga whales get most of their food from southern areas.
Scientists are looking over the results of the studies now and hope to have a completed report in the next couple of months but Saupe says that if your goal is to get a handle on the level of harmful pollutants in the food of Cook Inlet belugas, more study is going to have to be done.
Alaskans will be paying some of the highest premiums in the country for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Wednesday, the federal government released the first glimpse of rates on the state’s federally run health insurance marketplace, which launches next week.
The average monthly premium in Alaska for a mid-level health insurance plan will cost $474 a month. That’s according to a new report from the federal government that gives examples of rates for the 36 states where the federal government is running a marketplace.
Wyoming is the only state in the report where rates will be higher than Alaska.
Joshua Weinstein is a consultant at Northrim Benefits Group in Anchorage.
“It’s going to be a shock to the consumer who’s paying for their own health insurance right now, they’re going to be in for it,” Weinstein said.
For example, Weinstein says a 35-year-old male, who’s paying $180 a month for a plan today, will pay nearly $300 for a similar plan starting in 2014. But under the Affordable Care Act the new plans will offer more comprehensive coverage, including no lifetime maximum benefit limits and no exclusions for pre-existing conditions.
Weinstein’s company is hoping to help thousands of Alaskans sign up for coverage. But he says it won’t be easy to convince everyone who’s eligible to make the leap, even though, if they don’t, they’ll have to pay a small tax penalty.
“If someone’s not subsidy eligible and they’re a healthy 35-year-old, I think it’s a tough argument, and I think that would be a very challenging sell,” Weinstein said. “However, if that 35-year-old has medical issues and has a pre existing condition and needs things done, that changes the conversation.”
“They would be able to access health care for the first time.”
And Weinstein says many 35-year-olds will be eligible for a subsidy to help pay for insurance, which will make it much more enticing.
In Alaska, a person who earns less than $57,000 dollars a year will qualify for a subsidy. And in some cases, the subsidy will be so generous, the insurance will be free. That’s true for a family of four in Alaska with an income of $50,000, if they choose the most basic coverage.
“The subsidies are really the cutting edge to whether or not someone buys health care,” Weinstein said.
Two companies, Moda Health and Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, will offer plans on Alaska’s health insurance marketplace.
Weinstein says, based on his review of rates from both carriers, it looks like Premera’s plans will cost about 15 percent more than Moda’s, but Weinstein says Premera has better name recognition in the state and offers other incentives, like a much wider network of out of state providers.
Alaskans should be able to do their own comparison shopping starting Oct. 1 at healthcare.gov.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
Anchorage Assembly members introduced two ordinances at their regular meeting Tuesday night that would suspend voting on a controversial labor initiative.
Assembly members Bill Starr, Jennifer Johnston and Amy Demboski introduced an ordinance that would suspend the the a vote on the labor initiative until after the April 1 regular municipal election, but no later than the 2015 one. Demboski says she support the proposal because she wants everyone to hear what the Supreme Court has to say on the matter first.
“Essentially, I think it’s prudent to wait until the Supreme Court decision comes down before we move forward and if you look at their docket, it’s typical that it takes seven, eight months, sometimes up to two years before you have a resolution,” Demboski said. ”I don’t think they’ll wait two years on this one; I think we’ll have a decision next summer sometime, and the ordinance that I put forward says, you know, once that decision comes forward then we can move forward whether it’s concurrent with the state election or whether we put it April 2015, but it gives the Supreme Court a chance to weigh in.”
Last week, the Municipality of Anchorage appealed to the Supreme court of Alaska, a superior court judge’s decision allowing the initiative to go ahead.
The initiative allows voters to decide whether the labor ordinance, also known as AO-37, should be reversed. The Assembly passed it last March despite protests and with people still waiting to testify on it. The ordinance takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights. It would affect more than 2,000 city employees.
Assembly members Dick Traini, Paul Honeman and Elvi Gray-Jackson proposed another ordinance that suspends the labor law only until this Spring.
“What our ordinance does is provide for AO-37 to be on the April 1, 2014 ballot, which makes sense. We have the option of having a special election, but it’s gonna cost the tax payers way too much money to do a special election, to the tune of $280,000 plus and that would just be wrong. The laborers got 22,000 signatures from folks in our community who want an opportunity to vote on this. We need to do this as soon as possible without costing the tax payers a lot of money.”
The unions had 26 days to collect the 7,124 signatures required to get the initiative on the ballot. They say they gathered more than 22,000 signatures. The Clerk’s office has until Thursday to certify them. A public hearing on the proposed ordinances will be held Oct. 8.
CORRECTION: We mistakenly identified Anchorage Senator Cathy Giessel represents Fairbanks. We apologize for the error.
Every March, the Alaska legislature shuts down so lawmakers can travel to Washington, DC to participate in the Energy Council. The Council is a non-profit whose stated mission is to facilitate discussion about energy and environmental issues. But the trips have frequently been criticized as taxpayer-funded junkets.
The Washington meeting is just one of four the group holds every year. The latest was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, over the weekend. Stephanie Joyce was there and as she reports, so were some Alaskan legislators – and Alaskan lobbyists.
The Interior Department’s top offshore oil official says he welcomes a detailed set of recommendations from the Pew Trust on what standards should be required for Arctic drilling.
Pew wants a fleet of ice-capable vessels, Arctic-hardened pipelines and tanks, and solid consultation with local people.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy Boudreau calls the report “thoughtful.”
Many environmental groups flat-out oppose offshore Arctic drilling, but Pew’s Marilyn Heiman says they do not go that far.
“Pew does not have a position that we oppose all offshore drilling, but we do believe there are ways that this can be done right,” Heiman said.
Lois Epstein of the Wilderness Society says before her organization would drop its opposition to Arctic drilling the environment needs to be understood better, protected areas set aside, and regulatory oversight needs to be adequate.
She says Pew’s recommendations involve that third point of regulatory oversight. The industry generally agrees there need to be standards but wants flexibility in how it meets them.
Pew wants things spelled out.
Pew includes a lot of technical details in its recommendations, like active loggers that can sense how solid cementing is in well casings, and remote control capabilities. It also wants some major equipment permanently kept in Alaska waters so it’s readily available.
“One of our major recommendations is there needs to be a containment system that can stop the spill and a relief rig that can also stop the spill in case the containment system doesn’t work in the region – up in the Arctic,” Epstein said.
Interior is due to release its Arctic standards around the end of the year.
The world’s northern-most moths may be dealing with a changing climate more effectively than some scientists expected. In fact, they may be surviving rising temperatures better than their southern counterparts.
That’s according to a study out Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology.
There are lots of moths in the forests of the far north.
“You have to look a little close and care a bit to notice,” Matt Ayres, a biology professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said.
He admits moths, or Lepidoptera as they are known generally in Latin, are pretty non-descript.
“Most of them are brown or gray moths as adults, but there are lots of them,” Ayres said. “They exceed in biomass the moose and other things that you may be familiar with in plant eating animals.”
As caterpillars, Lepidoptera are voracious plant-eaters. They are also a main source of food for birds. Since moths are nocturnal, bats like to eat them too.
Because of their abundance and diversity, Ayres says they’re prime candidates for climate change research.
He and colleagues looked at long-term data for more than 300 species of moths in Finland. They found widespread response to rising temperatures.
“We also found that they didn’t all respond uniformly,” Ayres explained. “Some species fly at the same calendar day each year, regardless of temperature, probably because they’re controlled by how long the days are – the photo-period, and some have a mix of those two control systems.”
“And some seem to have some control systems that we don’t know what they are yet.”
Ayres says the most surprising results involved the farthest-north moth populations.
“We found that the northern species were actually somewhat less sensitive to the temperatures than southern species,” he said. “Although the timing of their biology also changes a lot from warm years to cold years, not by as much as if they were the southern population.”
Essentially, the northernmost moths are buffered from the effects of rapid climate warming.
Initially, Ayres says the research team expected the opposite response, but he’s since given the results some thought.
“It makes sense to us now, even if we were surprised initially,” he said. “At high latitudes where temperatures are frequently cooler, there’s strong selection for organisms like caterpillars to be able to accomplish more metabolism at relatively low temperatures.”
The team used information from a unique monitoring database run by the Finnish Environmental Institute.
“It’s called Nocturna, which is now a 20-year program,” Ayres said. ”It’s a moth monitoring scheme, with a network almost 100 forest sites, distributed over the length and breadth of Finland, which extends form about the latitude of Anchorage to about Barrow, so it’s a good match with Alaska.”
Nocturna involves a large network of volunteers who use black lights and stale beer to trap, identify and count Lepidoptera.
Ayres says the next step is to find out how other organisms might respond to climate change.
“Now we want to know even more than before,” he said. “We don’t know of comparable insect data that could be brought to bear on this yet.”
He’s not sure if studies already exist that compare temperature sensitivities among plants in the north.
Ayres says he’d be interested to compare patterns among Lepidoptera species and plants they might feed on to find out how climate change might affect those relationships.
The research done by Ayres and colleagues appears in the latest issue of Global Change Biology. It was funded by Finland’s Joensuu University Foundation.
There’s new hope that a derelict downtown Fairbanks landmark can be spared the wrecking ball. The Polaris building could be torn down, but its Anchorage based owner isn’t giving up.
New federal regulations on coal fired energy should not affect’s Golden Valley Electric Association’s re-start of the Healy Clean Coal plant. GVEA President and CEO Cory Borgeson expects the plan to purchase and operate the long idled facility to remain on track.
Throwing out visitors who overstay their welcome is a common late night practice in downtown bars. But one guest last night was particularly unwelcome at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.
Around 9:15 p.m., C. Scott Fry, the hotel and bar manager, watched the black bear walk down the sidewalk past the hotel lobby.
“And as soon as he got to the bar door, it made a left and walked in like he wanted to have a beer,” Fry said.
Ariel Svetlik-McCarthy was tending bar last night. She says it had been quiet up to that point. She realized the bear was inside and freaked out.
She yelled, “No bear! Get out! No! You can’t be in here!’”
Within seconds, the black bear obliged. It looked underage, too, she quips.
Area management biologist Ryan Scott with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recalls bears visiting Bartlett Regional Hospital and private homes. But, he says, bears going inside buildings is rare.
“Sounds to me like they did great, and it’s good news the bear did oblige,” Scott said.
Alaska wildlife officials have put down two nuisance bears in Juneau this summer.
If you’re an average Alaskan, odds are you fly the SeaTac-based company’s jets from time to time. (Yes, SeaTac is the name of a city, not just an airport.)
Maybe you’ve memorized your town’s flight schedule. But did you know all this?:
1) Two-thirds of Alaskans belong to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
2) We earned 530 million miles this summer during a double-mileage promotion, the equivalent of 21,000 roundtrip saver tickets.
3) Half of us are members of the airline’s Club 49 plan, which offers additional discounts, including checked-luggage deals, for Alaskans.
4) The airline has nearly 1,700 in-state employees.
5) 275 staffers are in Southeast.
6) The mileage and Club 49 plans have saved Alaskans $10.7 million so far this year.
7) $8 million of that is from the two-free-checked-bags program for travel in and out of the state.
And here’s one you may have heard of, but decided to forget:
1) Baggage fees raise from $20 to $25 for the first two bags starting Oct. 1. Click here to read more about fare and ticket-change fees.
Source: Marilyn Romano, Alaska Airlines in-state vice president, during last week’s Southeast Conference annual meeting in Sitka.
Karen Olson, along with Kyle Beus and Rob Wells, owned Valley Dairy, the Matanuska Creamery’s parent company. Olson’s charges stem from the fall of 2008, when federal prosecutors say, she executed a scheme to illegally obtain 430 thousand dollars from the state of Alaska by covering up Valley Dairy’s shaky finances. Olson is also charged with submitting false statements to the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, which convinced it to allow the state to take a first lien position on dairy equipment bought with Valley Dairy’s federal grants.
Federal prosecutor Retta Randall says a November trial date has been set, but would not comment on the case other than that. Olson’s attorney Steve Wells, says federal prosecutors presented some evidence in court, but there is a lot more evidence that has not been examined yet
”The government announced that it has a lot of evidence that it has seized. I don’t know how much of it it will be using, but the government announced yesterday in court that it has roughly 30 to 40 boxes of materials and certainly I’m gonna have to sit down and go through that and look at that as we prepare for trial. “
Olson’s partner in the dairy business, Kyle Beus, [Bee YOOSE] pleaded “guilty” to six federal fraud charges earlier this week. Beus had secured a federal grant in 2007 to start a dairy business in the Matanuska Valley after the state – subsidized Matanuska Maid dairy folded. Beus had been charged last year with using federal money for his own expenses.
Last December, a federal grand jury indicted Beus with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements. Bues is accused of falsifying paperwork to get the grant money. Beus had originally pleaded not guilty to the charges, but this week changed his plea to guilty to avoid a jury trial.
Beus claimed in a statement Monday “All of the funds involved ultimately went to the building of Matanuska Creamery.”
According to prosecutor Randall, Olson could face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a one million dollar fine, if convicted. Olson’s attorney, Wells, says it is likely that the defense will file a motion to push back the trial date, due to the amount of evidence he has to review.
“Based upon that volume of discovery I am going to be asking the court to declare this complex. We discussed this yesterday in court and I think that the court and the government are in agreement. So I imagine that that court date will be vacated and continued.”
Wells says Olson disputes the charges and is looking forward to her day in court.
The onset of wintry weather in Fairbanks on Monday brought with it a number of vehicle accidents.
State Troopers say one person is dead following a two-vehicle collision on Badger Road just before 1 p.m. involving a pickup and sport-utility vehicle.
There was one driver in each of the vehicles, one killed and the other apparently unhurt.
Wasilla’s planning commission has voted to allow MEA to build a 115 kilovolt transmission line east of the city, with the caveat that the line be underground, instead of on towers.
MEA spokesman Kevin Brown says burying the line will quadruple the cost of the project. MEA had planned to use 80 – 100 foot towers for the lines. He says towers would cost MEA 10 million dollars, while burying the line would cost about 40 million dollars. Brown said the costs would be passed on to MEA’s customers.
MEA has filed an appeal with the city of Wasilla challenging the commission’s decision on 17 points
“The appeal was actually filed with the city of Wasilla, in request that they appoint an appeals officer, per their code, who would review all the evidence, review the complete record, and render a decision or not as to whether or not their planning commission acted properly.”
MEA claims the Wasilla planning commission’s decision against using power poles for the lines was based on a comprehensive plan that lacks reference to major energy projects.
”What we are hoping for is that the appeals officer will review the points of our appeal and say that the planning commission did not follow it’s own guidelines when it rendered its decision. That it based its decision on emotion rather than on its own comprehensive plan which holds out as a key priority commercial development. And this certainly is part of that commercial development necessity.”
Wasilla’s City Council is expected to appoint a hearing officer for the case later this month
In June of this year, MEA’s board of directors approved a resolution against the city of Wasilla’s actions against MEA’s plan. Brown says that it is possible that MEA could appeal to the courts or go to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for some form of relief if
Brown says MEA is following the city of Wasilla’s appeals process. He says it may take two months or more to resolve the issue.
The British woman attempting a solo crossing of the North Pacific arrived today in Adak. 28-year-old Sarah Outen left Japan this April in a one-person partially enclosed boat. This afternoon she was being towed by a small boat around the island, into Adak’s Harbor. She saw a person face to face today for the first time in 150 days.
After 3,700 miles and four months at sea, Outen is the first person to row solo from Japan to Alaska. She’s faced gale force winds along the way and a stressful final stretch into the Aleutians. She was almost hit by a cargo ship last week because her vessel tracking unit was not working. She’s also struggled with health issues. The journey has had its high points: she became engaged with her girlfriend over satellite phone.
Outen plans to fly home to England and train over the winter before resuming the trip. Next spring, she will join adventurer Justin Curgenven and kayak to mainland Alaska. From there she will jump on her bike and go across Canada. She’ll then get back in the rowboat and cross the Atlantic alone to England.
The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is reviewing a set of regulations aimed at alleviating public concerns about hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – in the state.
Hydraulic fracturing is also known as fracking. It’s the process of pumping pressurized fluids into oil and gas wells.
The fluids include fine particles, like sand, that prop open the new cracks allowing more petroleum products to be released.
Companies have been fracking in Alaska for decades. One of the major concerns about the process is how the chemically enhanced fluids could affect groundwater.
AOGCC’s proposed regulations aim to ease some of these concerns. Companies would have to notify all landowners within a half a mile of the drilling well of their activities. They would also have to sample the water in all of the water wells before they started fracturing.
Kara Moriarty of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association says this requirement will lead to higher costs for the companies.
“And whenever there’s increased cost there could be ramifications on overall production and resource extraction,” Moriarty said. “And from our standpoint that’s a risk that could be associated with these proposals.”
Moriarty says they could just sample four wells instead of all of them.
She and other industry representatives also find fault with requirements to let the public know all of the chemicals used in the fracturing fluids. She says they are fine with disclosing most of the chemicals, but they don’t want to give away the exact mixture.
“If they can’t get their recipe protected, as they continue to evolve and make their practices better, AK may miss out on the opportunity to have the latest and greatest recipe out there for enhanced recovery and environmental protection,” Moriarty said.
But Barrett Ristroph of the Wilderness Society says that the new regulations don’t go far enough, especially since Alaska may eventually be home to unconventional oil shale fracking. Though she supports the new water sampling rules and full chemical disclosure, she says the regulations also need to address flaring. That’s the burning of gases, like methane, that are released during the drilling process.
“It’s an issue here in Alaska. The regulations are very general about flaring. They just say something along the lines of “we need to prevent waste” but it doesn’t give any specifics about, say, we need to install this kind of technology on the well so we won’t be letting all this gas into the air,” Ristroph said.
But Commissioner Cathy Foerester says that the tough parts of the regulations that protect ground water, like ensuring well integrity and controlling underground injections, are already in place.
“We aren’t reviewing our regs because we feel they are inadequate, we’re reviewing them primarily to ensure that we’re up with current technology and operating practices. But the big thing we’re doing to address public concerns is that we’re creating a new section titled hydraulic fracturing,” Foerester said.
That way people know where to look to see if their concerns are addressed.
The commission will review the comments submitted during the hearing and within 30 days will either create the new regulations or ask for another round of comments on their revisions.
The State has released draft fine particulate pollution regulations. They’re designed to be part of an overdue implementation plan the DEC is required to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency, which designates Fairbanks as a non attainment area due to wintertime emissions from wood and coal burning.
The Southeast Conference wants to change the way the Tongass National Forest is managed. The regional development-advocacy organization is working on a strategy to grow the timber industry and create jobs, while maintaining environmental protections.
High winds and rough seas drove the F/V Chaos onto the rocks outside Unalaska Friday night — and delayed a Coast Guard air rescue of the ship’s crew.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Mooers says the Chaos’ four crew members had to spend the night on the beach. They weren’t airlifted to town until 9 a.m. on Saturday, after the winds died down.
The Homer-based, 54-foot longliner had pulled into Unalaska Bay to ride out the storm.
“They were at anchor and the high winds actually broke their anchor and pushed them ashore,” Mooers says.
The crew alerted Unalaska’s harbor office, which asked the Coast Guard for help. The Coast Guard sent an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from its forward base in Cold Bay, along with an MH-60 from Kodiak.
The pilots tried to pick up the Chaos crew from Eider Point on Friday night, but Mooers says the storm turned them back.
“The winds we were dealing with last night were 50 miles per hour sustained, with gusts to 83 and rain,” she says. “It was just more than we could hoist safely in.”
The helicopter crews were able to confirm that the vessel was intact on the rocks, and not leaking fuel. They asked the fishermen to stay put and wait for calmer weather.
But around midnight, the Chaos crew decided to spend the rest of the night on land. Mooers says the fishermen notified the Unalaska harbor office that they were swimming to shore and hiking to a protected cove.
“They took some flares with them to be able to signal the helicopters at first light, so we were able to find them quite easily,” Mooers says.
The MH-60 Jayhawk successfully retrieved the fishermen this morning. There were no reports of injuries among them, but an emergency medical crew met them at the airport as a precaution.
Meanwhile, the boat is still on the rocks near Eider Point.
Unalaska’s Coast Guard marine safety detachment is monitoring the F/V Chaos for signs of a spill. Petty Officer Jamie Testa says the vessel is holding up to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
Magone Marine has been contacted about a potential salvage operation, Testa says.
Should parents pay for a state required physical exam for new students entering a public school in Alaska? That was the question raised by a member of Petersburg’s School Board this summer.