APRN Alaska News

Subscribe to APRN Alaska News feed APRN Alaska News
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: 54 min 2 sec ago

As Work Continues On Spending Plan, Walker To Revive State Of The Budget Address

Thu, 2015-01-15 18:27

It’s been almost a decade since a governor has delivered a State of the Budget address. With Alaska now in deficit-spending mode, Gov. Bill Walker plans to bring the speech back. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The last State of the Budget address was delivered by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2006. That year, Alaska was looking at a billion-dollar surplus, and lawmakers needed to decide what to do with the extra revenue. There was a chance to buy a stake in Trans-Alaska oil Pipeline, and put money toward a natural gas project.

Jim Clark was the governor’s chief of staff then, and he says their office was in an exceptional situation.

“We wanted to talk about that because we were closing in on a deal with the producers,” says Clark.

Now, the State of the Budget speech is being revived under a different sort of exceptional situation. Oil is less than half the value it was a year ago, and the state is looking at a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall as a result.

“This kind of year is far worse than our administration had it,” says Clark.

The State of the Budget address can be delivered separately from the State of the State, but it is not done very often. It’s logistically more challenging, because it means getting the Legislature in one room on two nights, back to back. It also means hoping the public turns on the radio or television to hear speeches two nights in a row. In the past 15 years, it’s only been done once.

Grace Jang, a spokesperson for Gov. Walker, says the current budget realities make two speeches — one this coming Wednesday and one on Thursday — necessary.

“The state is facing an unprecedented fiscal challenge, and the governor wants to make sure that there’s enough time to address what’s coming and to communicate to Alaskans just how dire the situation is,” says Jang.

Jang won’t use the term “crisis” — the administration is trying to avoid panic language — but she says the State of the Budget address isn’t making a comeback just because the administration thought it was a nice tradition.

“Is it going to happen again? Is there going to be another State of the Budget speech in coming years? Hard to say,” says Jang.

Right now, Walker has currently offered the Legislature a placeholder budget. He submitted a version drafted by his predecessor, without changes and without endorsement, in December to meet a deadline. But he’s advised the Legislature that he will offer a seriously revised budget sometime before the drop-dead date of February 18. Walker has also asked his commissioners to look at how their agencies would manage cuts of up to 8 percent.

House Speaker Mike Chenault says legislative leadership is still waiting for that information.

“We have no idea right now. The administration hasn’t told us that they’re going to provide us with anything dealing with the budget yet,” says the Nikiski Republican.

His office had questions about Walker’s request to give a State of the Budget address without actually having provided the Legislature a budget with which to work. The Speaker also requested that the Legislature’s research staff produce a timeline of when the governor has provided separate speeches to find out how unusual the request was.

Chenault says the Legislature plans to start work on the budget shortly after they gavel in, adding that he would like direction on the governor’s budget sooner rather than later.

“We’ll wait to hear both the speeches and hopefully hear from the governor on which direction he would like to go,” says Chenault.

According to budget director Pat Pitney, the administration is not planning to have a finalized document ready by the State of the Budget address, but will have established target spending levels for each state agency.

Categories: Alaska News

Board Reverses Suspensions Of Former-Sen. Stevens Prosecutors

Thu, 2015-01-15 17:00

A review board has reversed the suspensions of two federal attorneys accused of withholding evidence in the prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens. The Merit Systems Protection Board ruled this month that the Justice Department bungled the disciplinary process against the two prosecutors. Joseph Bottini was facing a 40-day suspension. James Goeke was to be suspended for 15 days.

Download Audio

Stevens’ 2008 conviction was eventually tossed out amid charges the U.S. attorneys violated court rules of evidence as they pursued the senator.

Ironically, the attorney suspensions were tossed out because, the review board found, the Justice Department violated its own rules as they pursued the two prosecutors.

The board said the department’s procedural error occurred after an attorney assigned to review the case against Bottini and Goeke concluded they did not commit professional misconduct. Justice officials then re-assigned the case to another attorney, who decided the opposite and pursued the suspensions. The board said that violated the Justice Department’s disciplinary process. The Justice Department can appeal.

Categories: Alaska News

Plunging Oil Prices Cast Doubt on Arctic Drilling

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:58

As oil prices continue to plummet, some corporations are scaling back on expensive exploration projects — like drilling in Arctic waters. But, one company with a major stake in the region has yet to tip its hand.

Download Audio

Within the last few months, a handful of oil companies have backed away from the Arctic. Chevron decided to stop seeking government approval to work north of Canada. And over in Greenland, Statoil gave back three of its four licenses to drill offshore.

But Royal Dutch Shell has been quiet about whether it’s still planning to go back to Alaska this summer for the first time in three years.

Spokesperson Megan Baldino wouldn’t comment on the role that oil prices might play in Shell’s decision. But Foster Mellen, a global oil and gas analyst with Ernst & Young, says it’s clear what they’re up against.

“Pretty much all companies — even the big, financially sound companies — are looking at very much reduced cash flows for the coming year,” Mellen says. “So discretionary spending such as high-risk, high-cost exploration is probably the first to be put on the shelf.”

Unless the price of oil is above $80 per barrel, Mellen says it doesn’t usually make sense to drill in the Arctic. Right now, the price is somewhere around $50.

But Shell’s investment in the Arctic might overshadow that. The company’s spent about $6 billion on its prospects in Alaska. And Malte Humpert, the executive director of the nonpartisan Arctic Institute, says that could spur Shell forward.

“They might really assume that prices go back up and it would take years anyways to develop the drills and get the oil out of the ground,” Humpert says. “But I think it would be a hard sell, to weigh those short-term roadblocks over long-term potential.”

Shell has walked away from the Alaskan Arctic once before, though. The company drilled several wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the 1980s.

But according to a fact sheet produced by the company, it was ”too expensive to operate given the technology and oil price regime that existed at the time.”

Shell didn’t turn its attention back to Alaska for more than a decade. In 2005, the company started buying up leases again — eventually spending more than $2 billion on sites in the Chukchi Sea.

Those leases have been the subject of a long-running legal challenge. And that could be the biggest hurdle Shell faces as they consider a return to the Arctic in 2015.

John Callahan is a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in Anchorage.

“The court order prevents BOEM from formally processing — or what we call ‘deeming submitted’ — this exploration plan from Shell,” Callahan says. “However, this court order also explicitly allows BOEM to work with Shell, to get together and discuss ways the plan can be approved. And that’s what our people are doing.”

The formal review can’t start until the Secretary of the Interior decides whether to uphold the lease sale where Shell picked up big prospects in the Chukchi Sea. That decision is expected sometime in March.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for oil markets to bounce back before Shell’s Arctic fleet would have to head north to start their drilling season.

The company’s expected to provide more details on its plans for the Arctic — and other ventures around the world — during a quarterly earnings call with investors on January 29.

Categories: Alaska News

Small Businesses Struggle To Comply With Health Insurance Requirement

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:56

Starting this month, businesses in Alaska with more than 100 full time workers have to provide health insurance. And under the Affordable Care Act “full time” is any employee who works more than 30 hours a week. Senator Lisa Murkowski is sponsoring legislation that would change that threshold to 40 hours. Many restaurants owners in Anchorage are watching the legislation closely.

Download Audio

It just after the lunch rush at Crossbar in midtown Anchorage and Sous Chef Roy Martinez is grilling steak, plating french fries and trying to make out a confusing order slip. He wonders out loud if “on side add B” means bacon. A server tells him it’s actually code for brown gravy.

Martinez does not get health insurance through work. But his boss, Crossbar owner Ken Ryther would like to change that:

“I would love to offer my employees that benefit.”

Ryther worked at the Bear Tooth Theaterpub & Grill for 12 years, where he had employer sponsored health insurance. He knows health insurance helps retain employees and that in turn improves service and food quality. He also thinks it’s the right thing to do. So when he opened Crossbar a year ago health insurance was on his radar, but he says it just wasn’t feasible:

“There was no way we could afford healthcare in the beginning given start up costs and a new business and managing cash flow.”

Starting next January, Ryther may no longer have a choice. That’s when the Affordable Care Act will require businesses with more than 50 full time employees who work over 30 hours per week to provide insurance. Ryther says he’s close to that threshold right now.

The legislation Senator Murkowski’s proposing would bump the definition of “full time” to 40 hours per week. That would make a big difference for Ryther:

“It would definitely make life easier.”

Murkowski’s office has heard from more than two dozen Alaska businesses who are concerned about the requirement, from restaurants, school districts and plumbers. Murkowski says the full time definition is forcing businesses to cut employee hours to under 30 hours per week to avoid paying the penalty for not providing insurance. She says it doesn’t make sense:

“If you ask most Americans, if you ask most Alaskans, what they consider full time to be, they’ll say 40 hours.”

Some local restaurants already do provide health insurance. Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria, which owns the Bear Tooth and Broken Tooth Brewing has offered employees health insurance for more than a decade. Brooke VanVeckhoven is the human resources manager for the company, which has about 500 employees in Anchorage. VanVeckhoven says the owners who started Moose’s Tooth in 1996 considered health insurance an important benefit and offered it within a few years of opening. But she understands why other businesses, especially restaurants, struggle to do the same:

“We’ve been contacted by a lot of small local restaurants who would love to offer health insurance to their employees, even before the requirement by the government, and it’s just hard for them to find something that’s affordable that doesn’t eat every bit of their profits.”

That concern for the bottom line is very real for Crossbar owner Ken Ryther. As he considers potentially having to provide health insurance, he is also worrying about the minimum wage increase, which will take effect next month. He says at a certain point, the impact on his business becomes unsustainable:

“Folks are going to be having to pay a whole lot more to go out to eat, which then they’re probably not going to go out to eat, and if people don’t go out to eat you don’t have restaurants if you don’t have restaurants you lose a lot of jobs.”

Ryther would like to see his business grow enough so that he can offer his employees health insurance. But he says he would rather have that be a choice than a government imposed requirement.

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




Categories: Alaska News

Governor Names New Deputy Labor Commissioners

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:54

Gov. Bill Walker has named two new deputy commissioners at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Download Audio

Former State Senator Joe Thomas, a Fairbanks Democrat, is taking one of the posts. Thomas served in the Legislature for six years, and he was an official with a Fairbanks labor union for two decades.

Greg Cashen has previously served as an assistant commissioner with the department, and most recently worked for the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation.

Categories: Alaska News

UAS Closes Bookstore, Prepares For Tight Budget Times

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:53

The UAS Bookstore sold a lot more than just books. (Photo courtesy MRV Architects)

The University of Alaska Southeast closed its bookstore in Juneau at the end of last year, because it hadn’t been profitable for years. As the school looks ahead, UAS will need to make more tough decisions about its budget.

Download Audio

Students at the UAS Sitka and Ketchikan campuses have long ordered textbooks through the school’s official Online Bookstore or another website. Now students in Juneau will have to do the same.

Callie Conerton is UAS student government president. She says the closure of the bookstore isn’t affecting how she buys textbooks. Conerton is in her fourth year at UAS, studying elementary education. She tends to order books online anyway.

“If I can get a book that is the older edition that still has 95 percent of the information and is $100 cheaper, I’m going to take that route,” says Conerton.

She says some students are upset by the closure, especially ones that sign up for or change classes right before the semester starts. They don’t have the convenience of buying textbooks at the bookstore but instead have to wait for them to arrive in the mail.

“So it is a little bit hard. Shipping to Alaska, of course, from down south is extremely hard, but it’s an adjustment period. It’s a transition,” Conerton says.

The bookstore has been on or near the Juneau campus since the early 1980s. In more recent years, it doubled as a gift shop and sold a lot more than just books. It had school and art supplies, dorm decorations and work by local artists. It was also the place to buy UAS sweatshirts and gear.

But UAS vice chancellor for administration Michael Ciri says it was simply not financially stable.

“The bookstore had not been profitable for quite a few years and it was increasingly unprofitable and all of the projections show that it was going to be between $50,000 and $150,000 deficit ongoing into the future,” Ciri says.

Starting in the fall of 2013 the university went through a lengthy process to review bookstore operations. In May, officials made the final decision to close it. Ciri says the bookstore’s budget was around $770,000.

UAS gear can now be purchased at a new convenience store in the Mourant Building, and soon at the recreation center. School supplies will be offered in vending machines on campus.

The almost 4,000 sq. foot bookstore was located in the same building as the school’s administrative services and human resources departments. In the near future, Ciri says the space will likely be used as temporary office space for staff while the Hendrickson building is renovated. Otherwise, he says UAS is actively looking at selling the building.

“Not quite certain what the solution will be for all of the business functions that are in that building yet,” Ciri says, “but if we can find a way to use space more efficiently on campus and be able to accommodate them there then we would have one less building to be maintaining, which in tight budget times would be advantageous.”

And Ciri says UAS needs to start planning for even tighter times. During the school’s Christmas break, Gov. Bill Walker asked all state agencies to look at the potential effects of a 5 percent and 8 percent budget cut. Ciri says that translates into either a $3.4 million or $4.3 million reduction, or between 30 and 50 staff members.

“That’s the equivalent of the general funding we receive for a third of all of our academic program, and so you can’t do that without significantly reducing staff. Ideally you wouldn’t do it all through staff reduction. You’d find some other strategies to do it, like selling a building,” Ciri says.

UAS is starting to look at budget cutting measures, he says, like a hiring freeze and identifying how departments can save money this fiscal year.

Full disclosure: Callie Conerton is the daughter of KTOO’s Jeff Brown.

Categories: Alaska News

Klawock Couple Plans Halftime Wedding

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:52

A couple in Klawock has been engaged since 2001, but they couldn’t quite come to agreement about what kind of wedding ceremony to have. They finally settled on a unique venue: Center court at halftime during Friday’s home basketball game.

Download Audio

Lisa George definitely didn’t want a traditional wedding, with the church or the dress or any of that frilly stuff. Jared Barlow definitely didn’t want to go to the courthouse, with just a judge, a couple of witnesses and no fanfare.

How to get married then, has been a topic of discussion for the couple for quite some time. Last fall, they finally made a decision.

“ Lisa said:’We’ll have it at the first basketball game. There’s your time and place. You set it up.’” Said Barlow.

That’s another thing. The bride wants nothing to do with planning.

“So, I’ve been putting all the plans together and arranging everything, and all she’s got to do is walk in and show up,” he said.

It’s a bit of a role reversal. Traditionally, women tend to be more excited about planning weddings. But George said their relationship is not traditional.

“I’m more into the typical male role, if you want to put it that way,” she said. “And he’s more of the female that likes the lovey dovey, frilly things. It works for us.”

George has had minimal responsibilities. She had to say yes or no to a few things, but that’s pretty much it. There’s no wedding dress, either, although there are rumors that a veil might end up pinned to her Klawock Chieftains jersey.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just planned on being in my Chieftains gear, and whatever my cousins and aunties and relatives figure out, we’ll go from there.”

While George has stayed out of it, Barlow wasn’t completely on his own when planning the wedding. Other residents of the tight-knit community of Klawock have rallied to help.

“It really hasn’t been too much,” he said. “The biggest issue that I’ve had was trying to make sure my family from out of town could come up.”

That includes Barlow’s father, who is performing the ceremony and had a long four-day trip from a village in Peru where he’s now living.

Barlow said he met George online, as he was planning to move to Klawock. He had started his Alaska residency in Sitka, drawn there by his sister, who was attended Sheldon Jackson College.

“She sent me a bunch of pictures of the water and the hillsides, and so I said that’s where I’ve got to go and I moved to Sitka in June of 1999,” he said.

But, the tourism in Sitka was too much for him, so about a year later, Barlow moved to Prince of Wales Island. He wanted to find out more about Klawock before moving, so he did a search on Yahoo Messenger. That’s how he met George.

“I’ve tried to duplicate that search since then, and have never been able to duplicate a search to find her anywhere,” he said. “That one search was what did it for me in order to find her.”

Now, about 15 years later, wedding bells will ring – or half-time buzzers will sound — as the couple finally ties the knot.

Friday’s ceremony will take place after the boys’ team plays – which includes George’s 18-year-old son — and before the girls’ game. The visiting team is the Kake Thunderbirds.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage tourism numbers up, expected to continue

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:13

2014 was a record year for tourism in Southcentral Alaska according to Visit Anchorage. The organization predicts 2015 might be just as good. Visit Anchorage President and CEO Julie Saupe says the primary measure is bed tax collection. The municipality will pull in about $24.2 million this year, a third of which goes back to Visit Anchorage to market the city.

Saupe says tourism to the region is bouncing back because of marketing efforts and general economic rebound.

“I think there’s a lot of consumer confidence, a lot of people are finally feeling they might have a little disposable income after what we saw happen in 2008 and 2009, so there’s a little pent up demand.”

Saupe says tour operators and sales staff foresee tourism continuing to grow in 2015. Cruise ships plan to bring an additional 33,000 passengers to Southcentral Alaska next year. Organizations are also booking many conferences in the region.

Saupe says the increase in tourism is good for the entire economy. ”You look at the tourists on the street and yes they’re in the our restaurants, our hotels, our gift shops. That’s the easy layer to see. But all of those businesses have insurance, they have remodeling, they’re using gas for the tour vans. It really does trickle to just about every corner of our community.”

The city’s bed tax also feeds into the general fund and helps pay for the city’s convention centers.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Democrats Push Bills Combating Sexual Assault, Retaliation in National Guard

Thu, 2015-01-15 16:03

Jennifer Pastrick, far left, sat beside Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anch), Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anch.), and retired Lieutenant Ken Blaylock on the second floor of the Legislative Information Office.

Two lawmakers introduced a group of bills today designed to fix issues within the Alaska National Guard.

Anchorage Democrats Chris Tuck and Bill Wielechowski  made the announcement at a press conference inside the new Legislative Information Office in downtown Anchorage.

The first of the three bills aims to change reporting procedures in the Guard for crimes like sexual assault, protect victims from retaliation, and prosecute cases in civilian courts. Retired Lieutenant Ken Blaylock blew the whistle on crimes within the Guard, and spoke as part of the event.  He explained the measure eliminates inappropriate and criminal actions that have been taking place with impunity for the last 20 years.

“This type of thing would force a record,” Blaylock said.  ”You have a lot of leaders that make statements, but they don’t produce paperwork with a signature on it saying ‘I’m the one that made this decision,’ so things are just dropped, and a victim comes forward and complains and is basically ignored.”

Another bill revises the Uniform Code of Military Justice that guides legal procedures within the Guard. The highly technical document hasn’t changed since statehood.

“Right now, when there are offenses in the Guard they are typically handled as personnel actions,” said Senator Wielechowski. “By adding and changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice we would be creating a criminal justice system within the Guard.”

“I know people are concerned about cost,” Wielechowski said in response to a question about push-back he anticipates. “We think this can be handled by and large by the resources that the Guard has.”

A third bill creates a legal mechanism for private companies to give veterans priority in hiring.

No Republicans have signed on to the legislation so far. Representative Tuck says the absence of any Republican co-sponsors has more to do with timetables than with politics.

“This isn’t one party versus the other party type legislation,” Tuck said. “This is doing something that’s best for all of Alaska. So we hope that going forward we’ll have a lot of support and a lot of ideas coming from the whole Legislature.”

The Legislative session in Juneau starts Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Landbank Lawsuit Aimed at USACE Regs

Thu, 2015-01-15 11:48

 An obscure lawsuit filed by a Matanuska Susitna wetlands mitigation bank could have national implications. The suit, now in Federal Claims Court, alleges breach of contract by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and land developers are closely watching the outcome.  

Wasilla based Pioneer Reserve, a wetlands mitigation bank, is suing the US Army Corps of Engineers in Federal Claims Court for twelve million dollars, but the court’s decision could have further reach regarding the enforceability of wetlands mitigation agreements.

 Pioneer Reserve is the first, and possibly the only, family – owned wetlands mitigation bank in Alaska. The land bank was established by Scott Walther, a Wasilla landowner with holdings in the Hatcher Pass area.

 Walther worked with the Great Land Trust to place conservation easements on 166 acres of Little Susitna River drainage. The area is considered critical salmon habitat. Pioneer’s president, Calli Donn says Pioneer got full Corps of Engineers approval as a wetlands mitigation bank in 2011, and the two entities signed an agreement, called a “wetlands mitigation instrument.”

“When we signed our instrument, we had used a scientific methodology to determine how many credits we would get. And then we had a table of credits we expected to have upon signing the instrument.”

 Donn says Pioneer was initially  assessed at 150 credits by the Corps, through a process that involves a federal interagency review team. The credits can be sold to developers. Each of Pioneer’s credits is  worth $ 79,000.

 The trouble arose when the Mat Su Borough’s rail spur project filed with the Corps for wetlands fill permits in 2012. The Corps,  in most cases,  uses a wetland mitigation bank to offset a project’s impact on water resources. The Corps at first directed the Borough to purchase credits for the rail spur project from Pioneer. But then the Corps inexplicably reduced Pioneer’s ranking to only 17 credits, Donn says, about a year after the “instrument” was signed.

“We received an email saying that they [the Corps} felt that it  had been incorrectly mapped.”

Donn says Pioneer attempted to negotiate with the Corps over the downgrade, to no avail.
Pioneer’s land, now encumbered by a conservation easement, can’t be sold or used for mitigation credits due to the Corps’s sudden reversal.

The Borough had to purchase the bulk of the railroad project credits from a different company.  Donn says the sudden reduction in credits and the loss of potential sales cost Pioneer twelve million dollars, prompting the breach of contract suit against the Corps.

“It left us with almost nothing, which is why we turned to litigation.”

Pioneer filed suit last May. The Corps filed a motion for dismissal of the suit, claiming the wetlands “instrument” is not a binding agreement. But in November of last year,  a Federal Claims Court judge denied the Corps’motion, saying that Pioneer’s complaint presents enough information to allege the existence of a contract.

 Now the court must decide on Pioneer’s complaint, and implicit in that decision is whether or not the Corps’ initial wetlands instrument with Pioneer is enforceable as a contract.

Land bankers, and land developers, are watching the outcome, since establishment of a land bank is a long term financial commitment, and trust in a bargain with the Corps is a must.

Calli Donn says her company is not holding a grudge against the Corps:

“You know, it’s been financially a huge hardship. So if we can get to the end of that suit and we can collect damages, then I think we can continue to work with the Corp on other projects, and we expect to in the future, and I hope that they are working toward a better system that doesn’t have some of the pitfalls that the current system does. ”


Spokesman for the Corps in Anchorage and in Washington, DC have withheld comment, citing litigation in progress. No court date has been set .  








Categories: Alaska News

Grand Jury Hands Down 3 Murder Charges in White Mountain New Year’s Day Killing

Thu, 2015-01-15 11:33

Gilbert Olanna, Jr. faces a total of three murder charges in the death of Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM)

The man accused of killing his girlfriend on New Year’s Day in White Mountain now faces a total of three murder charges in her death.

A grand jury indictment handed down in the Nome court Tuesday charges 31-year-old Gilbert Olanna—who already faced one charge of first degree murder—with two additional charges of second degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, 40-year-old Esther Lincoln.

Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Luann Harrelson via KTUU)

The additional murder charges all point to what prosecutors claim Olanna’s intent at the time of the alleged crimes. The new second-degree murder charges claims he both intended to cause serious injury and acted with “an extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

District Attorney John Earthman said the additional charges comes from the grand jury considering each charge independently.

“There are all sorts of different possibilities when you start looking at significant alleged criminal episodes and you start applying the different possibilities,” Earthman said. “What you see in an indictment are different legal theories to try to apply to the evidence down the road at trial.”

In addition to the three murder charges, the grand jury also handed down two felony counts of tampering with evidence.

Olanna’s public defender entered “not guilty” pleas for all charges. His bail remained at 100-thousand dollars in cash. As of Tuesday, Olanna remains in custody at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center.

Ways to make donations to support the family of Esther Lincoln can be found on a Facebook page raising funds for the family.

Categories: Alaska News

Making walking in Anchorage safer

Wed, 2015-01-14 17:15

Source: Alaska Department of Transportation, 2014. Numbers include all injured parties involved in the incidents, not just pedestrians. 

Nearly 8 percent of Alaskans walk to work. It’s the highest rate in the nation according to American Community Survey data. The national average is only 2.8 percent.  But the state is also ranked #3 for the rate of pedestrian deaths. Three people have been killed in the past month. So what’s happening in Anchorage to help keep walkers safe?


Dressed in a heavy black jacket and dark pants, Keith Joe walks down Muldoon headed from the bus stop to his trailer as cars rush by. He’s not far from where a pedestrian was killed earlier this month and where he says a friend’s child was killed years before. It’s a trip he makes nearly everyday. He says he only has one major complaint with drivers in the area.

“They just don’t remember to look the other way. They’re just so worried about getting an opening in traffic that they pull out where they block you. They just don’t care. Or sometimes they’ll even see you and they’ll still pull out cause they just want to dive out. I just feel it’s wrong. They’re in a nice warm car and we’re walking and it’s cold. They could wait a second, you know?”

But Joe admits that sometimes he breaks the rules, too. He doesn’t like having trudge up the street to wait at crosswalks for the light to eventually change. He says if traffic flow is low, he’ll cut across the five-lane-wide street, despite the risks.

“Night time is most time we will cross right here.”

“Even though then it’s dark and people can’t see you?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, we can see pretty good…” He shrugs off the question.

State Department of Transportation data shows the number of pedestrian deaths in Alaska jumps erratically from year to year, but the trend is fairly steady– about 9 per year.

DOT Traffic and Safety Engineer Scott Thomas says part of the problem is that pedestrians think they’re visible when they’re not. ”You see the headlight on and you say ‘Well, I’m wearing brown.’ But to the motorist that is dark. And it may be competing with the oncoming headlights of other cars.”

Thomas says most pedestrian-vehicle accidents happen in the fall, when it’s dark and roads are starting to get slippery. He says things are usually better in the winter because it’s easier to see people with a white backdrop of snow. But not this year, when the grimy snow isn’t helping visibility.

So there’s recently been a slight spike in pedestrian deaths, but the number of pedestrian accidents that result in serious injury has actually been slowly trending downward since 2000.

Thomas says different design elements help. Crosswalk signals with timers reduce the number of accidents because pedestrians know how long they have to cross the street. He says medians, like the ones that will we built on Muldoon this summer, also help.

“If a pedestrian does try to cross in between an intersection, or in between a signal, then there’s a place of refuge. And it divides the crossing into two steps and makes it easier.”

Anchorage Traffic Engineer Stephanie Mormilo says city code now requires all new road projects to include facilities for walkers and bikers, like sidewalks and bike lanes. She says the municipality is becoming more aware of different needs, mostly in response to community demand.

“I guess there’s a shift in the dynamic, I think. And a lot of people are really recognizing that roads are not just for vehicles. They are not. They are transportation corridors that provide for all users.”

Mormilo says the struggle comes when trying to renovate old roads — they don’t have the right of way to add more sidewalks or bike lanes.

“When you’re reconstructing these existing roads you often have a kind of a set limit, set amount of space of what you really can do when you have all this development surrounding your roads.”

She says they try to use as many innovative designs as possible to incorporate the needs of all types of users. But she says no matter how the road is designed, drivers, walkers, and bicyclists needs to be aware of who is near them to keep everyone safe.

Categories: Alaska News

UAF Anticipates Cutting Over 200 Jobs

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:58

The University of Alaska Fairbanks anticipates cutting between 200 and 250 jobs this year. That from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, who in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday focused on the affect of slumping oil prices on state funding for the university.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

About 16,000 Alaskans Sign Up On Healthcare.gov

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:57

The federal government says about 16,000 Alaskans have signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov. That’s about 3,000 more than signed up during the initial open enrollment period.

Download Audio

More than half of the new enrollments are likely customers renewing plans. But Susan Johnson, the regional director of the Health and Human Services Department calls the number “huge.”

“we’ve almost doubled the numbers from last month until now so it seems very strong to me,” Johnson said. “It’s not a best kept secret, I think the on the ground navigators and assistors are out and about doing work and people are showing up and wanting to get covered.”

Enroll Alaska is also pleased with the number of enrollees. Since the open enrollment period began November 15th, the company has signed up 1300 Alaskans for health insurance. Operations manager Aimee Crocker says about 75% of those enrollments are renewals. Crocker says the numbers would likely be higher they weren’t experiencing some glitches with how the federal government and the insurance carriers are processing enrollments. For example, she says a batch of enrollments from November didn’t make it to the insurers until December 31st.

“Right now we’re spending a lot of time administratively trying to make sure the clients we have assisted have their plans in place,” Crocker said. “We don’t want to take on too much and not be able to help the people we promised those services to.”

Both Crocker and Susan Johnson expect the pace of enrollments to pick up as the deadline of February 15th approaches. After that, you can only sign up for health insurance if you have a big life change like a new job.

The federal government says more than 90% of Alaskans who have signed up for insurance on the exchange qualify for a subsidy. But Crocker says even customers whose coverage is subsidized have been affected by the large price increases for this year.

“There has definitely been quite a bit of sticker shock and not understanding why the rates have increased so much,” Crocker said. “And it’s frustrating for people, people just want to have access to something they can afford.”

Crocker says some customers have opted to pay the tax penalty instead, which for the 2014 tax year will be $95 or 1% of yearly income, whichever is higher.

Categories: Alaska News

Over 40,000 Earthquakes Detected In 2014

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:56

The Earthquake Information Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks logged more earthquakes in 2014 than in past years, a lot more. 40,000. An increase of about 10,000 from the average of the years before it. Michael West is the state seismologist at the center. He says part of the reason they counted more last year was because of better technology.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

New Regulations Unlikely To Change Coal Ash Disposal In Alaska

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:55

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the first ever federal standards for the disposal of coal ash by electric utilities. The toxin containing ash has gotten national attention in recent years due to spills in the Lower 48, but the situation is different in Alaska.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Postponed

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:54

Wind, heavy rain, and temperatures at times nearing 50 degrees on the Kenai Peninsula mean the Tustumena 200 sled dog race won’t be running February 7th as planned. And race coordinators aren’t even confident it will run at all this year.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 14, 2015

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:53

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.

Download Audio

In Underground Rooms, Sullivan’s Senate Office Takes Shape

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like other Republicans in Congress, is on a two-day retreat in Hershey Pennsylvania. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jay Leno. Meanwhile, at his Washington office, APRN’s Liz Ruskin interviewed Sullivan Chief of Staff Joe Balash to get a status report.

UAF Anticipates Cutting Over 200 Jobs

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Fairbanks anticipates cutting between 200 and 250 jobs this year. That from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, who in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday focused on the affect of slumping oil prices on state funding for the university.

About 16,000 Alaskans Sign Up On Healthcare.gov

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The federal government says about 16,000 Alaskans have signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov.  That’s about 3,000 more than signed up during the initial open enrollment period.

Over 40,000 Earthquakes Detected In 2014

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Earthquake Information Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks logged more earthquakes in 2014 than in past years, a lot more. 40,000. An increase of about 10,000 from the average of the years before it. Michael West is the state seismologist at the center. He says part of the reason they counted more last year was because of better technology.

How Safe Are Alaska’s Pedestrians?

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Nearly 8 percent of Alaskans walk to work. It’s the highest rate in the nation according to American Community Survey data. The national average is only 2.8 percent.  But the state is also ranked #3 for the rate of pedestrian deaths. Three people have been killed in the past month. So what’s happening in Anchorage to help keep walkers safe?

Anchorage Measure Will Tax Alcohol to Pay For Treatment and Services

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Anchorage could see a new tax on alcohol. A measure introduced in the Assembly last night will put the matter before voters this April.

New Regulations Unlikely To Change Coal Ash Disposal In Alaska

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the first ever federal standards for the disposal of coal ash by electric utilities. The toxin containing ash has gotten national attention in recent years due to spills in the Lower 48, but the situation is different in Alaska.

Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Postponed

Shady Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Wind, heavy rain, and temperatures at times nearing 50 degrees on the Kenai Peninsula mean the Tustumena 200 sled dog race won’t be running February 7th as planned. And race coordinators aren’t even confident it will run at all this year.

Categories: Alaska News

In Underground Rooms, Sullivan’s Senate Office Takes Shape

Wed, 2015-01-14 16:23

Joe Balash, chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sullivan, in the conference room of their temporary digs.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like other Republicans in Congress, is on a two-day retreat in Hershey Penn. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jay Leno. Meanwhile,  Sullivan Chief of Staff Joe Balash  provided APRN a status report at the senator’s office.

It’s not the typical Senate office. To get there, you go past the polished marble of the Senate office buildings and down to the basement, to a tunnel that connects two buildings. In the tunnel, across from a supply room, next to a freight elevator, you’ll find a doorway that leads to Sullivan’s office suite: four windowless rooms, some with cinder-block walls. A few other freshmen senators are on the same hallway.

Balash, who officially became chief of staff barely more than a week ago, says he’s not bothered by the surroundings.

“They’re fine. They’re right on Capitol Hill. They’re indoors. They’re not the portable buildings some (Senators) have been saddled with in the past,” he said. “So we’re pleased.”

The bunker-like rooms are just temporary. But it may be a while before they get out of that basement, because a new senator can’t just take the office vacated by his predecessor. A more senior senator might want it. That swap would leave a different office empty, and again, seniority determines who can call dibs. Sullivan is dead last in seniority, so he has to wait out a lot of office swaps.

“Well, they’ve told us to expect to be here until June,” Balsah says, “but based on how long it took them to get computers, it’s probably more like August.”

Ultimately, he expects to have 30 staffers in Washington, but it’ll have to wait until after the move.

“We just don’t have enough desks here to fully round out the staff. So for now we’re going to be asking people to do more than one job, ” he said.  ”And that’s OK.”

The seven current staffers in the D.C. suite do all have computers now. They have phones. Business cards are on the way.

Meanwhile, Sullivan has co-sponsored his first bills, one approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, another to improve mental health care for veterans.

The official website is still a work in progress. Balash says they’re planning to integrate software on the website to help them handle data from constituent messages.

“As we get contacts and inquiries from the public, from the public, it’s all going through a single system so that we track and make sure we understand and are monitoring what it is people care about, what topics are hitting on particular news cycles, that sort of thing,” he said.

They’ve hired a legislative director, one of the top positions on a Senate staff. He is Peter Henry, who previous worked for Missouri senators. Balash says Henry has never been to Alaska.

“We needed, and recognized the need, for a person to come into our leg director spot who’s from the Senate, of the Senate, a creature of the Senate, and Peter’s been working in the Senate for 10 years,” said Balash.

Balash, like the new senator, is a former state commissioner of Natural Resources. He has no congressional experience, so he says Henry is just what they needed, and he added, Henry plans to visit the state next month.

The other big hire is Amanda Coyne, co-founder of the Alaska Dispatch website and, until she stopped a few days ago, a popular blogger on Alaska politics. Coyne will be Sullivan’s speechwriter and a senior advisor.  Balash says Coyne can present a different perspective to the staff.

In particular, what we were seeking was somebody who would prevent us from suffering from an echo chamber.

As he sees it, Coyne rode Sullivan hard in her blog, on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, which she favors. Back in October, Coyne wrote that Sullivan displayed a “fundamental lack of understanding of health care” and “doesn’t appear interested,” although at other times she had a lot of praise for the candidate, too.

“The big thing is Amanda is just a phenomenal writer,” Balash said, “and bringing the communications skill set to bear on his job of communicating with Alaskans, with the public, is something that will help him do a better job, help Alaskans understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it.”

He says Coyne will start in February.


Categories: Alaska News

Northern Dynasty Seeking New Business Partner

Wed, 2015-01-14 10:10

Northern Dynasty, the company that owns the proposed Pebble Mine, is bolstering its financing as it looks for a new partner.

The company announced Tuesday that it has raised $13 million by selling private shares to  investors. Northern Dynasty is in a legal and regulatory fight over the project, thought it has not yet submitted permit applications.

Fishermen and Native groups in the Bristol Bay area say the gold and copper mine is a threat to the region’s water quality and to salmon runs.

Categories: Alaska News