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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: 30 min 38 sec ago

Shishaldin Volcano’s Alert Status Upgraded After Unusual Activity

Thu, 2014-01-30 19:00

The Alaska Volcano Observatory upgraded the alert level at Shishaldin Volcano in the Aleutian Islands on Thursday after observing some unrest at the summit.

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Shishaldin Volcano with a typical steam plume, pictured on Sept. 14, 2013. Photo by Joseph Korpiewski, U.S. Coast Guard.

AVO scientist Kristi Wallace says the unusual activity at Shishaldin began Wednesday.

“Little bit ago, AVO changed the color code at Shishaldin from green to yellow based on increased temperatures at the summit crater of Shishaldin Volcano as well as increased steaming yesterday,” she says. “Both of those observations were observed via satellite imagery.

Wallace says the observations don’t mean Shishaldin is in imminent danger of eruption. The yellow status just indicates behavior that isn’t normal.

Shishaldin is the highest peak in the Aleutians, rising about 9,400 feet above sea level. It’s located on Unimak Island about 100 miles northeast of Unalaska.

Shishaldin was last elevated to yellow in 2009, when the same kind of activity occurred. Wallace says that anomaly didn’t result in anything more serious.

Historically, though, Shishaldin has been very active:

“It’s erupted approximately 28 times since 1775, so in historic times it’s erupted quite frequently, although the eruptions are typically low-level plumes and ash and steam plumes,” Wallace says. “So [it's] not a particularly dangerous volcano, although the eruption that occurred in 1999 did send ash plumes as high as 45,000 feet above sea level.”

Wallace says the AVO is going to keep monitoring Shishaldin for signs of explosions. But the seismic stations closest to the summit aren’t working right now. That means using more distant monitoring points as their main sources of data.

“There’s a whole network of stations, so we’re just relying on other stations that are not quite as close to the summit area where we’re seeing the activity,” Wallace says. “Hopefully those will be enough for us to pick up a seismic signal, although this volcano’s not just monitored with a seismic network. We’re still using satellite imagery, and then the infrasound stations which are good at detecting explosion signals.”

There are two other volcanoes in the Aleutians currently on a yellow alert. Those are Cleveland, 175 miles southwest of Unalaska, and Veniaminof, northeast of King Cove.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 30, 2014

Thu, 2014-01-30 18:13

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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Shell Calls Off This Year’s Exploratory Drilling Plans For Alaska

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

Shell announced on Thursday that it has called off its plan to do exploratory oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska this year – and what it will do in future years is not clear.

Unalaska Copes With Shell’s Decision Not To Drill

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

At least one Alaska community was banking on Shell’s presence – and business – this summer.

Murkowski Pushes To Lift Crude Oil Exports Ban

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A campaign by Senator Lisa Murkowski to lift the decades-old ban on crude oil exports got its first hearing in Washington today. It’s been 25 years since Congress has formally considered the ban it adopted during the Arab oil embargo, but the recent energy boom in the Lower 48 is triggering new debates.

DOT Works To Dig Out Richardson Highway

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

State Department of Transportation crews will be working for days to get the Richardson highway completely opened. Hannah Blankenship is a spokeswoman for the DOT’s northern region. She says the majority of the backed up water from the Lowe River has receded back to within the river’s banks.

UAS Training Takes To Skies Above JBER

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Soldiers from the 425th Brigade Special Troops Battalion conducted an Unmanned Aircraft System – or UAS – training flight on Thursday morning in the skies over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

Department of Defense Prepares For More Arctic Activity

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Shell may be abandoning their plans for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic waters in 2014, but vessel traffic, tourism and other activity will continue to advance. As part of our ongoing look at future plans for port development and military oversight of Arctic safety and security, APRN’s Lori Townsend recently spoke with Daniel Chiu the undersecretary for strategy at the Department of Defense. Chiu says the Pentagon expects large increases in defense activity is likely decades out, but he says DOD is closely following climate science to ensure they have the lead time to adjust if necessary.

State Dems Introduce Legislation To Expand Medicare In Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Democratic state lawmakers are introducing legislation in the House and Senate to expand Medicaid in Alaska. Governor Sean Parnell rejected the expansion, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, in November.

Taku River Tlingit Sue To Stop Tulsequah Mine

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation has filed suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to stop the Tulsequah Chief Mine. The old mine is at the headwaters of Southeast Alaska’s most prolific salmon stream.

Categories: Alaska News

Planned Parenthood Suing Over Abortion Funding Reg

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:24

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest says it is suing over regulations in Alaska that would further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.

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The new regulations are scheduled to take effect Sunday.

Under the regulations, the certificate to request Medicaid funds features two boxes.

With the first, a provider would have to certify the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or the abortion was performed to save the woman’s life.

With the second, a provider would have to indicate an abortion was medically necessary to avoid a threat of serious risk to the woman’s physical health from continuation of her pregnancy due to “impairment of a major bodily function.” Attached to it is a list of such impairments.

Categories: Alaska News

Fire Destroys Fairbanks Apartment Building

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:23

Fire destroyed an apartment building in Fairbanks this morning. The blaze caused multiple injuries and two residents were unaccounted for as of this morning.

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Categories: Alaska News

State Senators Push For Criminal Justice Reform

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:22

Criminal justice reform may be coming to Alaska. After spending the summer collecting more information on efforts happening in other parts of the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee has started holding hearings again on their omnibus crime bill.

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The legislation would raise the dollar-threshold for non-violent crimes like shoplifting and writing bad checks to be considered felonies. It would also set up a prisoner re-entry fund to help ex-convicts return to society, and it would create a criminal justice commission tasked with regularly reviewing the effectiveness of Alaska’s sentencing laws and making sure they’re in line with penalties in other states.

Sen. John Coghill, who chairs the Judiciary committee, says the bill has the potential to save the state money and improve public safety outcomes.

“We’re trying to say ‘We can’t afford to build another jail,” says Coghill.

Alaska has the worst recidivism rate in the country. Two-thirds of the state’s prisoners eventually go back after their release.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Aims To Arm VPSOs As Danger Levels Rise

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:21

The legislature’s Community and Regional Affairs Committee convened Tuesday to discuss House Bill 199, a proposal to allow arming village public safety officers in rural Alaska.

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Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham was the bill’s chief sponsor. He told the committee that the measure would establish protocols and funding for bringing qualified VPSOs through firearms training. In addition to high rates of turnover, issues with pay, housing, and facilities, Rep. Edgmon enumerated on the safety concerns voiced by VPSOs.

“You know, the whole crux about the bill is making sure that VPSOs can do their jobs right. A VPSO walks into a situation that sometimes is lethal and he or she is armed with a baton, with a taser, they’ve got handcuffs on them and their wearing a protective vest,” Edgmon said. “And, unfortunately, I’m here to tell you as somebody born and raised in rural Alaska, the social issues, the numbers of domestic violence calls, the episodes of violent confrontations have been on the increase.”

The funding structure laid out in the current draft of the bill would bring 20 qualified candidates annually through a training program at the police academy in Sitka. At $62,000 a year the funding would cover travel, liabilities, lodging, and firearm equipment for the VPSO’s who complete the program. And ultimately the regional entities in a given area would decide whether they want their VPSO’s to carry firearms.

For the majority of the two-hour session, calls from across the state—exclusively from current or former law enforcement officials—poured in. What emerged was a patchwork of perspectives on the problems policing rural Alaska. The litany of testimony offered circled around the issue of state law enforcement relying more and more on VPSO’s to help with rural policing, but weariness over current and future regulations and standards within the program.

At its most generous, the criticism focused on specific points in implementation. And at the other end, Jake Metcalf, executive director for the union representing public safety officials says the expanding reliance on VPSO’s is an inadequate way of compensating for a more costly trooper presence.

“They’re not certified police officers, so I think rural Alaska is getting a different type of law enforcement than the municipalities and a lot of regions of the state that have significant trooper resources,” Metcalf said.

What was not questioned is that violence against law enforcement officials has been steadily increasing. The very impetus for HB199 reigniting the decades-old debate on whether or not to arm VPSO’s was the death of a Manokotak officer last March.

Former Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters says that the hazards have led some VPSO’s to break the law by arming themselves in order to do their jobs.

“With these escalations of use of force against them, which we certainly know about, their job is becoming more and more dangerous to the point where there are VPSOs carrying firearms today against the regulations that are in place and against policies that are in place that prohibit them,” Masters said.

Criticism and recommendations for HB199 were in abundant supply during the session—but the vast majority of those who spoke were ultimately in support of it. Rep. Neal Foster’s remarks on the discussion summed up the prevailing sentiment.

“Until we can get more resources out to rural Alaska so that we can give the same level of protection to folks out in rural Alaska as we do in other parts of the community,” Foster said. “I think this bill is a step in the right direction and it’s doing something that we can do now with a minimal amount of resources.”

Committee Co-Chair Gabrille LeDoux did not bring the bill to a vote. Instead, she ended yesterday’s session asking legislators to consider all they’d heard, and saying that in her own experience guns are an integral component to life in bush Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

House Passes Bill Extending PILT, Alaska’s Village Safe Water Program

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:20

The U.S. House today passed a farm bill that includes programs for Alaska unrelated to agriculture. The bill continues another year of funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a program that pays municipalities surrounded by federal land to compensate for the loss of tax base. The so-called PILT program sends about $26 million a year to Alaska and is a large portion of the budget for some local governments. The bill also renews Alaska’s Village Safe Water program, which gets some $30 million a year from the federal government.

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The final bill did not include a proposed cut to the food stamp program, which Congressman Don Young says would have hurt thousands of Alaska families. The farm bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and is expected to come up for a final vote in the Senate next week.

Categories: Alaska News

State of the Union Address Irks Alaska’s Delegation

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:19

President Obama gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and the response from Alaska’s U.S. senators was swift and negative, particularly to Obama’s pledge to act without Congress where he can.

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“Going it alone is not a solution and it’s counterproductive in government,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a video rebuttal. “Consensus-building is hard, but 100 percent do-able.”

Sen. Mark Begich, the only Alaska Democrat in Congress, took swipes at the president, too. He says Obama should’ve focused on oil and gas development and he promises he won’t sit idle for what he calls an executive power grab from an Administration that doesn’t get Alaska’s core issues.

Categories: Alaska News

From Paying $1,000 A Month For Health Care To $100

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:18

A Juneau woman says getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act means she’ll take better care of herself. Prior to January 1st, Bonnie Berg was paying up to $1000 a month for health insurance. Now, she’s paying less than $100.

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Bonnie Berg spent most of her professional career working in social services. She always had insurance through her job and when she retired in August 2010, she kept it through COBRA.

“I was paying about a $1000 a month, and about $250 each quarter for my basic meds. So in other words, it was costing me $13,000 a year just for the dead basics,” she explains.

After 18 months on COBRA, Berg switched to a catastrophic plan, which cost $526 each month. She paid close to $900 every quarter for two asthma medications. Her deductible was $5,000.

Bonnie Berg. Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau.

In the 40 months since retirement, Berg went to the doctor only twice. “I wasn’t willing to pay for any tests on my own. I wasn’t willing to do anything the doctor really wanted me to do, unless I was having an episode,” Berg says. “I probably allowed myself the worse medical care of my life at the time I was paying huge prices.”

When the Affordable Care Act became law, Berg wanted to be on a health plan as soon as she could, though she will qualify for Medicare in eight months. “This is going to save me $4- or $5,000 just in eight months. If anything happens, it’s going to save me a lot more than that,” she says.

Berg tried to navigate healthcare.gov on her own in mid-October, but didn’t get anywhere. Then she found someone to help.

“That makes a huge difference. You really need to do a hook-up with a navigator who has done this for a few people now or an agent with Enroll Alaska. It’s free. They know exactly what questions to ask. They put it all in in the correct format and tell you what to do next,” Berg says.

Berg now pays $90 a month for health insurance. Her deductible is $250 and her maximum out of pocket is $500.

Enroll Alaska’s Chief Operating Officer Tyann Boiling says Berg’s case is not rare:

“We get a lot of very, very happy people that are getting health insurance for the first time or they’re getting health insurance that’s affordable to them for the first time.”

Boling says about 80 percent of people signing up with Enroll Alaska receive financial assistance.

Juneau’s United Way Navigator Crystal Bourland says people are also happy to find their plans include free preventative services, like cholesterol screenings, colonoscopies, and immunizations, ”Regardless of which plan they choose they can still go to the doctor to get preventative and wellness checks. Just some of those added protections that exist under the Affordable Care Act, I think, is usually pretty surprising for people.”

Despite the positives, Enroll Alaska’s Boling says the health brokerage firm has made 1,100 enrollments, but she thinks that should be at least 15,000 by now. She blames the early troubles with the healthcare.gov website, “We lost two full months of enrolling people and those were critical months. That’s where the momentum was and we couldn’t get people enrolled. I think that we lost a lot of people and we lost them for good.”

Bonnie Berg was not one of those people. She worked with an agent for more than a month before she successfully enrolled in mid-December. Now, she says, she’s ready to take better care of herself:

“I’m going to be putting some thought into my health which is a good thing for anybody to do.”

The deadline to apply for a plan that starts in March is February 15. Open enrollment ends March 31 and won’t begin again until November.

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Panel Hears Bill On Elementary School Reading Programs

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:17

With education being a hot issue this legislative session, some politicians are looking at the basics of learning in their effort to improve student outcomes. Today, the Senate Education Committee held its first hearing on a bill that would establish a reading program targeted at kindergarteners through third graders.

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Gary Stevens chairs that committee, and he’s sponsoring the bill. The goal is to reach struggling students early, instead of playing a difficult and costly game of catch-up.

“You would think everyone who’s an adult out there with a job can read, but it appears that’s not always the case,
says Stevens. “There are people struggling somewhere along the way, they didn’t pick up that ability, and have never since.”

The bill is based on a literacy law that’s on the books in Colorado, and it would require school districts to conduct reading assessments to identify students who are behind. Those students would be given extra support in getting up to grade level.

During the hearing, Stevens said that many Alaska school districts are already taking those steps with their students, but acknowledged that it could be a challenge for smaller districts to comply with the legislation.
The Department of Education is reserving judgment on the bill.

“Is it the absolute right direction? I think it’d be interesting to hear from districts,” says Les Morse, a deputy commissioner with the department. “But there are some very good and important approaches to reading instruction that are embedded within this legislation.”

If approved, the reading program is expected to cost the state $200,000.

According to a report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alaska is in the bottom ten states for childhood reading proficiency. About three-quarters of Alaska students are not reading at grade level, which is slightly up from a decade ago.

Categories: Alaska News

Richardson Highway Opens North Of Mile 19

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:16

The Alaska Department of Transportation opened up a section of the Richardson Highway today. DOT cleared avalanches from the road north of mile 19, but the highway is still closed between Miles 12 and 19.

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Categories: Alaska News

Can You Guess When The Road To Valdez Will Reopen?

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:15

Nobody knows when the Richardson Highway is going to reopen, but the Valdez Parks and Recreation Department is hoping everyone has a fun time guessing.

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They’ve started a Nenana Classic-style contest to see who can accurately predict when the highway closure will end.  They hope it will be a fun distraction as residents wait for the highway to reopen.

The person who guesses the closest time will win a prize package worth $100.

Categories: Alaska News

Nauman May Be the Only Woman in this Year’s Quest, But She’s One Tough Rookie

Wed, 2014-01-29 18:13

Mandy Nauman is the only woman racing in this year’s Yukon Quest. Credit Trail Breaker Kennel / https://www.facebook.com/trailbreakerAK.

Not everyone who signs up for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race actually gets a dog team to the start line.  When sign-ups opened last fall, at least two women added their names to the roster, but one dropped out two weeks ago.  That leaves one woman in a field of 18 mushers.

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“I’m pretty tough!” says Mandy Nauman.  “I think I’m tough, but who knows.  Once I get on that Quest Trail I might not be that tough!”

The Fairbanks musher has been training dogs from Veteran Brent Sass’s Wild and Free kennel based in Eureka, AK for the last eight years. For Nauman, the Yukon Quest has been dream in the making for nearly a decade.

In a recent email, Mandy Nauman says that “if [she] can inspire one little girl to follow her dreams, then [she’s] done [her] job” as a female musher, but beyond that, Nauman isn’t likely to focus on being the only woman to race a dog team in the Yukon Quest this year.  “I am a rookie… very much a rookie.” she laughs.

It’s clear she’s nervous about the race, but driving a dog team in the Quest has been a long-time goal for the 32-year-old Minnesota native.  “I’ve been running dogs for about eight years but I’ve gotten pretty serious about it in the last three years,” says Nauman.

She wasn’t the only women to sign up for the race, but after a recent withdrawal, she’s the only woman who will start this year.  “My goal is to finish,” she says.  “I don’t really care where I finish.  Granted, I don’t want to be last, but if I am last and I finish then I’m fine with that.”

She can’t exactly explain what it is about sled dogs that gets her fired up, but she caught the mushing bug at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota years ago.

“One of the classes I had to take was a dog mushing class,” explains Nauman. “I played softball for the college, and my coach was also the instructor so he had taken me out on a sled a couple times.  And I had been to Alaska a couple summers before. I worked in Denali, so I knew about dog mushing and I was just like ‘I’m going back to Alaska,’ so, I dropped out of college and moved here to Fairbanks.”

That’s when she met seven-time finisher Brent Sass.  The two worked together at Chena Hot Springs and they’ve been friends ever since.

“When I first started getting into long distance mushing, Brent was the guy I’ was working with,” she says, “so I’ve know his dogs for eight years.  I love them!  They’re part of my family and I couldn’t imagine anybody else’s dogs, honestly.”

She spent the fall training up twelve dogs from Wild and Free Mushing for this year’s race.  Like her, many of those dogs are also rookies.   “I have four dogs that are under the age of three right now.” She’s not fazed by their inexperience.  By the time she gets to the start line, she says her team will also include a few veteran dogs.  “A lot of these dogs have been on that trail which is going to be huge, so they’re going to teach me the trail and teach me a lot of things,” she says. “Like to be tough and they’ll teach me to be patient and take my time and not stress out about the little things and just do what I do best and that’s take care of the dogs.”

Nauman laughs when she tries to explain what her family thinks of her lifestyle. “They think i’m crazy!”  But she laughs when she admits that they could be right. “Yeah, I mean you might have to be a little bit crazy.  But in all seriousness, they one hundred percent support me,” she smiles.  “I’ve been doing it for eight years I think they just figure it is time that it happens.  I say I’m only going to do it once, I think [my boyfriend] Matt will only let me do it once.” She’s quick to add that long-time boyfriend, Matt Austin fully supports her.  “I think if I say I want to do it again, I think he’ll tell me to go find another boyfriend!” she chuckles.

Because this may be Nauman’s first and only run down the Yukon Quest trail, she says finishing in Whitehorse is her only option. “I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I ever do but you know with Wild and Free… you don’t quit when you’re running Wild and Free dogs,” she says in a serious voice. “So, I’m just going to keep that in the back of my head and chug along and I am going to do it!  I’m going to do it!”

Mandy Nauman and her dog team  will line out at the start of the 31st annual Yukon Quest International Sled dog race in downtown Fairbanks Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 29, 2014

Wed, 2014-01-29 17:59

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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Planned Parenthood Suing Over Abortion Funding Reg

The Associated Press

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest says it is suing over regulations in Alaska that would further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.

Fire Destroys Fairbanks Apartment Building

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fire destroyed an apartment building in Fairbanks this morning. The blaze caused multiple injuries and two residents were unaccounted for as of this morning.

Judiciary Committee Explores Omnibus Crime Bill

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Criminal justice reform may be coming to Alaska. After spending the summer collecting more information on efforts in other parts of the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee has started holding hearings again on their omnibus crime bill.

Bill Aims To Arm VPSOs As Danger Levels Rise

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

A legislative committee discussed a proposal yesterday to allow arming village public safety officers in rural Alaska.

House Passes Bill Extending PILT, Alaska’s Village Safe Water Program

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The  U.S. House today passed a farm bill that includes programs for Alaska unrelated to agriculture. The bill continues another year of funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a program that pays municipalities surrounded by federal land to compensate for the loss of tax base. The so-called PILT program sends about $26 million a year to Alaska and is a large portion of the budget for some local governments. The bill also renews Alaska’s Village Safe Water program, which gets some $30 million a year from the federal government.

State of the Union Address Irks Alaska’s Delegation

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

President Obama gave his State of the Union address last night, and the response from Alaska’s U.S. senators was swift and negative, particularly to Obama’s pledge to act without Congress where he can.

From Paying $1,000 A Month For Health Care To $100

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

A Juneau woman says getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act means she’ll take better care of herself.  Prior to January 1st, Bonnie Berg was paying up to $1000 a month for health insurance. Now, she’s paying less than $100.

Senate Panel Hears Bill On Elementary School Reading Programs

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

With education being a hot issue this legislative session, some politicians are looking at the basics of learning in their effort to improve student outcomes. Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee held its first hearing on a bill that would establish a reading program targeted at kindergarten through third grade.

Richardson Highway Opens North Of Mile 19

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

The Alaska Department of Transportation opened up a section of the Richardson Highway today. DOT cleared avalanches from the road north of mile 19, but the highway is still closed between Miles 12 and 19.

Can You Guess When The Road To Valdez Will Reopen?

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

Nobody knows when the Richardson Highway is going to reopen, but the Valdez Parks and Recreation Department is hoping everyone has a fun time guessing.

They’ve started a Nenana Classic-style contest to see who can accurately predict when the highway closure will end.  They hope it will be a fun distraction as residents wait for the highway to reopen.

The person who guesses the closest time will win a prize package worth $100.

Baranof Goat Study Unlocks Clues To Island’s Paleo Past

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

A study to help establish goat hunting guidelines on Baranof Island has revealed much more than how to manage the goat population. It has sparked a mystery. And it’s offered clues to what the island looked like before there were hunters.

Nauman May Be The Only Woman In This Year’s Yukon Quest, But She’s One Tough Rookie

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

There’s only one woman in the Yukon Quest field of 18 mushers.

Fairbanks Musher Mandy Nauman has been training dogs for the last eight years.

Categories: Alaska News

Officials Unsure When Richardson Highway Will Reopen

Wed, 2014-01-29 12:14

The state Transportation Department now says they don’t know when the flooded highway through Keystone Canyon outside of Valdez will be passable again.

Water dammed up behind an avalanche continues to go down slowly and a video camera is being installed to monitor it.

They hope to have avalanche areas above that cleared soon but caution anyone traveling that part of the Richardson Highway once it is re-operned to beware of the danger of more avalanches and watch out for flaggers.

Categories: Alaska News

Vote on Anchorage Labor Law Set for November Ballot

Wed, 2014-01-29 00:52

A tense moment last year at public hearing about when to hold a vote on a controversial labor ordinance.

The Anchorage Assembly finally set a date for a vote on a referendum that would repeal a controversial labor law Tuesday night. It won’t happen until fall.

Voters will finally be able to cast ballots on a referendum that would repeal a controversial labor law, but not any time soon. That was the decision of the Anchorage Assembly Tuesday night.

“The body ended up setting another date for the referendum which will be with the regular municipal election in November,” Assembly Chair Ernie Hall said.

The Assembly voted in October to put the referendum on the April Municipal Election ballot, but Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed their decision.

Then the date for a vote was up in the air because of two court cases surrounding the labor law, one which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Assembly passed the law, also known as ‘the responsible labor act’ or AO-37, last March despite protests. It takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights.

It would affect more than 2,000 city employees. The labor law will be suspended until after the vote. Some Assembly members, including Dick Traini, argued that the city charter required a vote be held within 75 days of the most recent court decision.

Traini was not pleased that the vote was being put off until November.

“It’s a mistake by the body,” he said. “The six that decided to ignore the 22,000 people that requested the vote on AO-37. You know when those people signed their names they anticipated voting expeditiously on that thing. And you know it’s not going to help the people that want to keep AO-37 because those 22,000 people are going to grow. In November, they will repeal that critter.”

The Assembly voted 6-5 to put the referendum on the November ballot. Those in favor argued there would be higher voter turnout. Chris Birch, Jennifer Johnston, Ernie Hall, Adam Trombley, Amy Demboski, and Bill Starr voted for it. Critics said it was a move to slow down momentum for the repeal.  Traini, Tim Steele, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman, and Patrick Flynn voted against.

Another ordinance was introduced at Tuesday’s meeting that would change the entire municipal election from April to November. That would not go into effect until 2017. Public testimony will be taken on that issue on Feb. 25.

Categories: Alaska News

Begich Pledges To Restore Veteran Benefits

Tue, 2014-01-28 18:28

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015.

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All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease.

Photo by Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC.

Senator Mark Begich today stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

At first, the cut doesn’t sound like much. It would drop a retiree’s cost-of-living adjustment one point below the inflation rate until the veteran reaches age 62. But some enlistees retire and start collecting their pensions while still in their 30s, so this COLA cut could mean diminished benefits for two and a half decades.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says for some individuals, it adds up to an $80,000 sacrifice.

“But I think most importantly it’s a broken promise,” Rieckhoff said. “This is America breaking their promise to men and women in uniform, and it’s unprecedented.”

Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, and they’re relatively young.  More than a quarter of them have served since 2001. It’s no surprise, then, that Alaska’s congressional delegation is getting an earful. Sen. Begich says he’s heard from more than 800 Alaskans objecting to the cut.

“I can tell you, the calls to me office are coming in 2-to-1, 3-to-1 over the next most popular issue, healthcare,” Begich said. “So this issue has taken front and center.”

Begich defends his vote for the budget containing the COLA cut, saying it was necessary to prevent another government shutdown. More than a dozen bills have been introduced to rollback the COLA cut. It’s a popular position in Congress, and Begich, running for re-election this year, sides with the veterans.

“When these heroes signed up and made the military a career, it’s what they were promised and what they expected, and they should expect no less now,” Begich said.

He isn’t proposing a specific way to pay for the rollback but says finding the money – $6 billion over 10 years – won’t be too difficult.

Some lawmakers are proposing to take it out of the Defense budget – exactly what the Pentagon fears. Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that something must be done to rein in personnel costs, which he says are unsustainably high. He says military compensation has been climbing since the 1990s and is now higher on average when compared to equivalent civilian jobs. Winnefeld says the growing cost threatens the Defense Department’s ability to prepare the troops.

“In the end, we believe the most important way we keep faith with the fantastic young men and women who volunteer to defend our nation is to only send them into combat with the best possible training and equipment we can provide,” Winnefeld said. “Controlling compensation growth in a tough budget environment will help us do just that.”

But even he says he can’t support the COLA cut that Congress passed.

Winnefeld says such a change should include a grandfather clause to exempt current retirees and service members.

Categories: Alaska News

USDA Under Secretary Patrice Kunesh Visits Bethel Region

Tue, 2014-01-28 18:27

Patrice Kunesh, Under Secretary of the USDA Rural Development, visited the Bethel region Tuesday to see some of the department’s projects in action.

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Kunesh and an entourage from D.C. and Anchorage toured the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, met with the Association of Village Council Presidents and stopped into Meyers Farm.

KYUK Acting General Manager, Shane Iverson, receives the grant from Patrice Kunesh with Jim Norlund looking on. Photo by Dean Swope.

Farmer Tim Meyers has grown so much local produce on the tundra in Bethel that he is exporting to Anchorage and Bristol Bay.

Kunesh says the USDA is committed to making sure locally grown foods support the community both economically and nutritionally.

“One of the things we’ve seen in some of the harshest conditions is folks just not getting good fresh food,” Kunesh says. “It compromises health, it compromises vitality.”

Jim Norlund is the USDA Rural Development Alaska State Director and was acting as tour guide.

“As Alaskans, we’re pretty good at providing protein as we have wild fish and game in our freezers but what’s really missing from a lot of rural Alaska is the access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Norlund says.

Kunesh also visited two villages: housing projects in Quinihagak and conservation projects in Kwethluk.

While in Bethel, Kunesh announced a $718,656 grant to Bethel Broadcasting, Inc. which runs KYUK. The money will expand two digital channels into eight free TV channels.

Long-time KYUK Engineer, Joe Seibert, says the grant will also buy digital production equipment to help archive 40 years of video, some of which is still on reel to reel.

“One of our main missions is to document and preserve information about the local culture and area and we have over 3,000 hours of video tape that’s slowly going bad because video has a shelf life to it. It will break down over time,” Seibert says.

The Bethel visit is part of a three-day Alaska tour. Kunesh will be in Anchorage Wednesday and Juneau Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Drug Court Could Offer Jail Alternative

Tue, 2014-01-28 18:26

A Fairbanks substance abuse counselor is pushing for the state to consider an alternative to jail for drug offenders. The effort is in response to a steady stream of young heroin addicts, some of whom end up in jail.

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Categories: Alaska News

Temperature Records Fall Across Alaska

Tue, 2014-01-28 18:25

UPDATE: Alyeska Resort’s Chair 6, Tram, Ted’s Express, Quad, and Magic Carpets will reopen Thursday, 1/30/14 at 1:00 p.m.

Temperature records fell across the state yesterday. With highs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, much of the state is experiencing weather that feels more like May or June than January.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

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Port Alsworth, on Lake Clark, was the warmest spot in the state Monday at 62 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska in January. Nome hit 51 degrees, the highest mid winter temperature recorded there.

Rick Thoman is Climate Program Manager for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. He says a big high pressure system has been stuck over most of the state.

“It’s lasted almost 10 days now so this has provided a lot of time for warm air to be moved north, to melt snow in places that normally have snow this time of year and produce lots of temperature extremes,” Thoman said.

Seward hit 61 degrees on Monday. It was 57 in Homer. Even the Brooks Range has seen temperatures in the 40s.

The length of the warm spell is noteworthy. Thoman says you have to go back to the late 1970s or early 80s to find anything similar.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

“This is one of those dramatic excursions that kind of get weather people excited,” Thoman said.

In Girdwood, home to Alyeska Ski Resort, this ‘dramatic excursion’ from normal winter elicits a different reaction.

“I just looked up the mountain and it’s frightful right now,” Stefanie Flynn, who co-owns The Bake Shop, a popular restaurant at the base of Alyeska, said.

The ski resort will be closed until Thursday, due to poor conditions. Flynn says The Bake Shop will stay open, but business has been slow.

“We see very unhappy, sad looking customers, but we also see that of course the numbers are lacking, we don’t get as many people into our restaurant for lunch or breakfast so we do see the impact here, especially on the weekends,” Flynn said.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

Flynn says the raspberries in her yard are leafing out. She’s hoping winter will return quickly with a healthy dump of snow. But Rick Thoman, from the National Weather Service says that’s not likely any time soon. He says the warm temperatures will begin to moderate, but snow isn’t in the forecast for at least the next few weeks.

“It really does not appear that we will see significant snowfall over most of Alaska so that places that have lost their snow cover or have a serious ice cover on their snow are not likely to get much relief from that,” Thoman said. “And really at this point, in the next two weeks we don’t see temperatures dramatically below normal most anywhere in Alaska.”

A recent Facebook post offered what may be the shortest and most accurate way to describe the unusual weather- June-uary.

Categories: Alaska News

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