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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: 15 min 4 sec ago

Spending Bill Includes $75 Million For Fisheries Disaster Assistance

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:04

Alaska’s congressional delegation has been churning out press releases to trumpet Alaska-bound funds in the trillion-dollar spending bill President Obama is expected to sign Saturday.

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Among them is $75 million in fisheries disaster assistance. That could bring help to Alaskans who lost out in the failed 2012 commercial king salmon fisheries on the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Cook Inlet. But Ciaran Clayton, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says fishing communities in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Gulf Coast and Samoa are also eligible.

“NOAA and our parent agency, the Department of Commerce, will be working with each individual state’s governor’s offices and industry folks on next step for allocation of that funding,” Clayton said.

The money could ultimately go out as direct aid to fishermen but also on retraining, infrastructure or projects to prevent a future fish disaster.

Alaska’s congressional delegation had been pressing for $150 million in fish disaster funds. Among the other projects they’re highlighting in the spending bill: More than $100 million for construction of aviation buildings at Fort Wainwright and $82 million for a building at Fort Greely. The bill includes $10 million for the Denali Commission.

Categories: Alaska News

US, Russia Drafting Voluntary Bering Strait Passage Regulations

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:03

Vessel traffic is increasing through the Bering Strait, and no regulations exist to monitor that movement. The United States Coast Guard wants to change that.

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No country owns the Bering Strait waters, and no international law manages vehicle movement through the passage. As ice melts and traffic increases, this absence of regulation creates hazardous conditions for vessels.

United States Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo says the growing risk is his primary concern for the Arctic.

“There is no traffic light. There’s no traffic lane. There’s no northbound on this side, southbound over on this side reporting in requirements at all for going through the Bering Strait,” Ostebo said.

With no standard routing or reporting requirements, the risk for accidents increases.

Last year, Ostebo says, the Bering Strait saw the largest number of ship and cargo traffic in the strait’s history and the Coast Guard expects an even higher rate this year. In fact, international traffic is projected to reach such heights that Ostebo compares the Bering Strait to the Panama Canal in future global use and status.

“A major international strait that’s emerging—I would submit the biggest one since the Panama Canal,” Ostebo said. “It’s happening right in front of us.”

To implement preventative measures, the Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart are drafting voluntary regulations for passage through the Bering Strait. Ostebo says the voluntary agreement would become standard practice through insurers incorporating the measures as terms and conditions in their policies.

“Clearly, if you’re in the shipping business and you’re not following best practice standard, although it’s voluntary, and if you have a problem, culpability follows shortly behind that from a legal perspective,” Ostebo said.

The voluntary system would serve as a placeholder until the International Martine Organization passed laws to govern the strait, a process expected to take many years.

Ostebo says the United States is sponsoring the law and is seeking support from Russia to help the move the ruling forward.

Categories: Alaska News

Early Bills Tackle Lawsuits, Medical Care

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:02

With the legislative session getting ever closer, lawmakers have released another batch of bills for consideration.

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The second round of early bills is smaller than the one released last week, with fewer than 20 bills filed. There don’t seem to be any big-money bills or sweeping reforms among them. Most instead deal with specific situations.

In the House, a few bills concern health care, lawsuits, and the intersection of the two. One bipartisan piece of legislation would create a directory of living wills. Another bill would make it so that a health-care provider’s apology couldn’t be admissible evidence in a malpractice case. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a bill that would give parents the right to sue if someone’s at fault for the death of an unborn child. That includes language excepting abortions and deaths caused in the course of standard medical care.

There is also a bill in the House to limit what sort of data could be collected on students. A different item would create a simple taxpayer receipt of what the state spends its money on, to be issued when Permanent Fund dividend checks are sent out. Rounding that all out is legislation to ban genetically engineered crops in the state, to license private investigators, and to regulate drones.

Only two bills were introduced in the Senate. One would allow officers to leave parking tickets on windshields, a practice the Legislature unintentionally banned in 2010. The other would reject pay raises for the governor and his commissioners.

Categories: Alaska News

Signatures Submitted for Minimum Wage Initiative

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:01

Sponsors of an initiative to raise Alaska’s minimum wage have turned in their signatures. They submitted 43,000 names to the Division of Election’s Anchorage office on Friday morning.

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The initiative would raise the minimum wage from $7.75 to $8.75 at first, and then there would be another bump up to $9.75 in 2016. The initiative also builds in future increases to counteract inflation. Basically, the minimum wage would be pegged to Anchorage’s consumer price index or it would be a dollar more than the federal minimum wage — whichever is higher.

Ed Flanagan is one of the primary sponsors of the initiative and a former labor commissioner. He says Alaska should have a higher minimum wage than most states because of the cost of living.

“We don’t necessarily have to be the highest in the country, but we sure as heck shouldn’t be 17th behind Florida and Arizona,” says Flanagan.

With signatures in, Flanagan says the group will be focusing more on fundraising and advertising. When the year closed, “Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage” had just $10,000 in cash on hand. And with lots of other big-money races this year, they’ll need a lot more than that to compete for airtime.

In the short-term, Flanagan isn’t worried about other groups opposing the minimum wage increase. He’s more concerned about the initiative being preempted by the Legislature, which happened the last time a citizen effort like this was attempted. In 2002, state lawmakers passed a bill that resembled a minimum wage initiative under consideration, but then they went back and stripped out the measures tying the pay rate to inflation.

“We have to be ready for that with a lot of advertising and explaining to people why a vote for a minimum wage bill right now is not a good thing. It’s a bad thing,” says Flanagan.

The Legislature reconvenes on Tuesday, and so far there are no minimum wage bills under consideration.

If at least 30,000 of the signatures are valid, the initiative should appear on the August primary ballot.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Ranks 5th In Millionaires Per Capita

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:00

In a count of millionaires per capita, Alaska ranks fifth among states, according to a market research firm that tracks affluence.

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Phoenix Marketing International estimated investable assets per household, based on commercial surveys, the Census and other data. Alaska has risen from 14th place in 2006, to land just below Hawaii.

The study, though, points to Washington D.C. as the capital of wealth. The District of Columbia and the two states it borders were all in the top 10, with Maryland the state with the most per capita millionaires for the third year in a row. Mississippi was at the bottom of the list.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s Population Grows By 3.7 Percent In Three Years

Fri, 2014-01-17 17:59

Alaska’s population growth is increasing faster than that of the rest of the country. Figures released Friday by the state labor department indicate that the state’s population increased 3.7 percent over the past three years, compared with a 2.4 growth rate in the US.

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The largest increases were in Anchorage and the Matanuska Susitna Borough, according to Eddie Hunsinger, the state demographer with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development

“So each year we make population estimates for population by age, and sex and race and ethnicity for the state. And the Mat Su has increasing racial diversity, as does the state as a whole. The fastest growing racial groups in Alaska are Asian and Pacific Islanders, as well as Hispanic Alaskans. Alaska has continued to become a more diverse state in terms of race and ethnicity.”

 Between April of 2010 and July of 2013, Anchorage gained some 9, 308 people, and the Mat Su gained 7,079 residents.

“The people who are moving to the Mat Su are either young people from Anchorage or young people from down South. And these folks are often at the beginning of starting families or they have young families, so they are not just getting the gains from the people who move there, but also from their future families and the kids they bring with them. “

Hunsinger says who is moving into the Mat Su Borough has implications for the future.

“Very often, the young families and folks in their mid -to -late twenties and up into their forties are the folks with the highest participation in the work force, and so that is certainly beneficial to the Mat Su. We do have further data on what sorts of jobs and occupations and industries the people in the Mat Su are involved i

Hunsinger says a large number of births accounted for some of the growth in the Mat Su. He says about 5 to 10 thousand people a year move into Mat Su and about an equal number move out, leaving a net gain of about 1500 people every year.

The labor department keeps tabs on age and ethnicity demographics for the state’s economic regions, cities and census areas.  Complete estimates for the state’s population centers are available on the department’s Research and Analysis Section website.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Health Campus Proposed To Handle Anchorage’s Homeless

Fri, 2014-01-17 17:58

A recent editorial in the Anchorage Daily News proposes addressing chronic inebriation and the moribund area of east 4th avenue as the way forward for a more vibrant downtown. These ideas have been on the table before, but not from the person charged with championing the city as a great place to visit and do business. Andrew Halcro is a former state lawmaker and the current President of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Rather than glossing over the city’s ongoing problems, he proposes a health campus to deal head on with homeless people and chronic drunks.

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Categories: Alaska News

2014 Kuskokwim 300 Brings Past Champions And New Trail

Fri, 2014-01-17 17:57

Twenty-four mushers, including six past champions will be at the starting line for the 35th running of the Kuskokwim 300.

The start is scheduled for 6:30 this evening, but an incoming winter storm could hold up the race.

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Former K300 champion Martin Buser celebrates with his dogs after his 2007 championship. Photo by Christ Pike.

The race’s food and staff had not been flown to checkpoints as of Thursday night. Crews may be able to drive out supplies. The race is expected to make a decision on delaying the start by early Friday afternoon.

Jeff King will attempt to defend his 2013 title and earn his record 10th victory wearing bib number 10. Past champions Martin Buser and son Rohn Buser are back, along with winners John Baker, Ramey Smyth, and Paul Gebhardt.

The 300-mile race from Bethel to Aniak and back will not follow the river for the first 50 miles. An unusually warm winter has made travel on the river unreliable and at times, dangerous. The trail will instead go across the tundra for the first 50 miles to the checkpoint of Tuluksak before going back on the river to Aniak.

Akiak musher Mike Williams Senior has run the race two dozen times and says the icy trails slowed his preparation.

“It has been a real terrible with no snow, raining all winter long, we had to be forced to go on the 4-wheeler because the conditions were so bad,” said Williams.

There is reported to be more snow and better trail upriver, and a few inches of snow this week improved the trail base. But that trail could change dramatically over the next couple days. A blizzard warning is in effect. That warm winter storm is forecast to bring above freezing temperatures that could drop a half foot of snow, plus there’s a chance of freezing rain and ice accumulation near Bethel. Mushers could face 30 to 40 mile an hour headwinds on Friday.

Besides the altered race route, new to 2014 is a change in layover rules. Instead of taking a 6-hour rest in Kalskag or Aniak, mushers will be able to split up those 6 hours in one hour increments between the checkpoints. Bethel racer Pete Kaiser says he doesn’t expect it to be a major change.

“It’s such a small amount of rest that no matter how you slice it it’s still a hard race and it’s still just 6 hours. I think it will be exciting just to have something different and have a few different strategies unfold, but in the end, everyone is probably going to take the same amount of rest in the front,” said Kaiser.

Kaiser has been able to get some extra miles this year. He and Aniak racer Richie Diehl travelled to Nenana for a month for better trail conditions.There will be no checkpoint at Akiachak. The race board also chose to postpone the 65-mile Akiak dash, a popular race with local mushers.

The race carries a $110,000 purse. The winner takes home $22,000.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Girls Wrestling

Fri, 2014-01-17 17:56

Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka.

Your high school might have had a wrestling team, but how many wrestlers were girls?

There are more than a dozen girls on Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School wrestling team, and they regularly beat boys in their weight class.

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The team is tackling more than just gender barriers; they’re paving the way for the first girls sanctioned wrestling tournament in the state of Alaska.

Deidre Creed is just a few pounds shy of one hundred. But don’t let her petite build and golden locks fool you. She is dangerous.

Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka.

“I feel pain, but usually if you’re the one on top you’re the one inflicting the pain,” Creed said.

At a recent wrestling practice, DD faces her opponent. She crouches low with outstretched arms. When the whistle blows she lunges forward and hooks a knee, knocking her opponent to the ground. It’s over fast.

“I’d always feel good because I’d always be the underdog because I was the girl,” Creed said. “So it would always feel extra special to win.”

Since there isn’t a girls wrestling team, DD wrestles boys. She’s a senior and just competed in the last state tournament of her high school career. But, she hopes the younger girls on her team will someday compete in a girls-only season. This idea is not far-fetched. The Alaska School Activities board is reviewing a proposal to create a girls sanctioned tournament. If approved, it will be thanks to this guy.

“I’m Mike Kimber. I’m the wrestling coach at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.”

At practice, Kimber stands at the center of the mat, barking out drills. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says girl wrestlers rule.

Kimber has coached the Mt Edgecumbe wrestling team for 15 seasons. He started recruiting girls in his second year. While Mt. Edgecumbe isn’t the only team in Alaska with girls, they likely have the most. Kimber estimates he coaches 26 girls. Nineteen made it to regional’s.

“As a matter of fact my first nationally ranked wrestler was a girl,” Kimber said. “A young lady from cold bay named Sonia Maxwell. She qualified for the state tournament at 189 lbs against boys.”

Kimber is also a Mt Edgecumbe wrestling alumn. When he competed there were only a few girls on the team. Kimber remembers a time when schools would forfeit matches if girls came to wrestle. Now, there’s a lot less resistance. But, it’s still hard to shake the stereotypes.

Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka.

“You know, I think probably the part that’s most surprising is, when you come around and see people and they go really girls wrestle?” Kimber said. “When we go on trips, ‘oh so you guys are managers’ and I say ‘no they’re wrestlers,’ ‘what do you mean they’re wrestlers?’”

Kimber loves the sport, and is adamant that it needs girls to grow. His father coached girls, and his daughter is a star wrestler.

He has high, but equal expectations for all his wrestlers. That kind of equality is appealing to the girls. They feel supported and challenged.

“I much rather enjoy coaching girls than the boys sometimes, people say there’s so much drama with girls, but really the drama on our team centers around the boys, and very little around the girls,” Kimber said.

The person that might have the most insight on how girls and boys approach the sport differently is DD’s twin brother, Trevor. The pair has been wrestling for as long as they can remember.

“I’m bigger I can muscle her around,” Trevor said. “So she has to trick me, maybe push my head in another direction. She has to use her mind more when she wrestles.”

It looks like girls wrestling is in Alaska’s future. Kimber was the first to petition the Alaska School Activities board to create a girls wrestling season. And at a board hearing in December Kimber and other coaches around Southeast made a compelling case. Andrew Friske, the Southeast representative on the Alaska School Activities Board, says the idea of girls wrestling really isn’t a hard sell.

“These are coaches that have been around for 15-20 years and they said it’s a no brainer for them to start girls wrestling,” Friske said. “They think with more girls there is going to be more boys that come out. It’s going to be a stronger program and breed success.”

But there are still some hurdles. And the board wants to make sure they weigh the financial implications, and logistics of a new state tournament.

In the end the board decided to back a proposal where girls would continue to compete against boys throughout the season, but the regional and state tournament would be girls sanctioned.

As for DD, she hopes to continue wrestling in college. Her performance at state caught the eye of recruiters, winning her an invitation to represent Alaska at this year’s Arctic Winter Games. That’s a first for a Mt. Edgecumbe girl wrestler.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Hooper Bay

Fri, 2014-01-17 17:55

This week we’re headed to Western Alaska to the village of Hooper Bay near the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. Fred Joseph Jr. is the tribal administrator there.

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“My name is Fred Joseph Jr., I live in Hooper Bay and I’m the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Hooper Bay.

As far as I know it’s been here for thousands of years. We were originally located down at the beach and there were a few scattered camps all over. They built a school here a long time ago in what is known here now as the Village of Hooper Bay. They moved up here for the access to the river, and the schools and the churches.

There’s some seasonal work, fishing, hot-shot firefighting and construction in the summers. And there’s pretty permanent jobs here at the school and with the city and the Native Village of Hooper Bay and Sea Lion (Corp.) and CVRF. And the kids get to work in the summertime.

There are subsistence activities, some during the summer and some during the winter. There’s high school  activities going on in the winter time. And probably just walk around the tundra… going down to the beach in the summer-time. We like to meet up at the school in the winter time and watch some games.

Everybody just about knows each other and they work together. It’s nice – no hustle, bustle of the city. Life is hard but simple and we get by.”

Categories: Alaska News

Oil Spill Dispersants

Fri, 2014-01-17 13:00

Exxon Valdez tanker aground. Off-loading of remaining oil in progress. Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

The response to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico involved an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants.  If such a spill were to occur in Alaska, the use of dispersants is pre-authorized in certain areas. Should it be?

HOST: Steve HeimelAlaska Public Radio Network

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Categories: Alaska News

Is Alaska’s Economy Grounded?

Fri, 2014-01-17 11:34

World Trade Center Alaska Executive Director Greg Wolf says China is now the largest importer of goods from Alaska. Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau.

Alaska’s economy slowed in 2013. On Thursday, two economists offered different takes on what that means for this year at the World Trade Center Alaska‘s annual statewide economic forecast talk in Juneau.

Marcus Hartley ticked off how many jobs he expects various industries in Alaska to gain or lose in 2014.

“We see natural resources going up by 200 jobs; transportation and utilities going up by a little bit, a hundred jobs,” he said. “These are not big numbers, but they’re some winners.”

Hartley is a senior economist with Anchorage based consultants Northern Economics. He says other winners include health care, retail, and tourism.

And then there are the losers.

“Here’s my sector – professional business services – we’re saying that that sector is going to be hit pretty hard by government cutbacks,” said Hartley. “And then government is also very likely to lose jobs.”

“So total change, a whopping 450 jobs increase,” he said. “Not too bad. But really, if we’re in a big recovery, where’s all the jobs, dude?”

Hartley says reductions in state and federal spending, as well as the continued decline in North Slope oil production were behind a state economy that slowed in 2013. After several years of growth, he says, Alaska’s gross state product – a measure of total economic output – declined about $2 billion last year to $51 billion. He predicts it will be down another $1.8 billion this year to $49.2 billion.

“So the question is, are we grounded?” he asked

Hartley didn’t give a yes or no answer to that question. But he did say Northern Economics’ computer models painted an even bleaker picture of the state’s economic future.

“We basically threw out our models this year, because it was pessimistic,” Hartley said. “And we just didn’t feel like the world was going to jump off a cliff.”

World Trade Center Alaska Executive Director Greg Wolf was more bullish on the state’s economy. In 2013, he said companies operating in Alaska exported about $4.5 billion worth of goods and services overseas. He expects a similar amount this year.

“Trade represents new money coming into the economy,” Wolf said. “It sustains and results in thousands of both direct and indirect jobs. The overall effect, of course, it results in a stronger, more diversified economy for our state.”

In the past 20 years, Wolf says Alaska exports have more than doubled, from about $2 billion per year to between $4.5 and $5 billion.

“I think this sort of demonstrates that exports have been a pretty consistent part of the economy, and also a quietly growing part of the economy,” he said.

Wolf says Alaska’s biggest trade partners are in Asia. China buys about 28 percent of the goods exported from the state. Japan is second at 16 percent, followed by South Korea, Canada, and Singapore.

Seafood makes up about 50 percent of Alaska exports, followed by minerals and precious metals at 34 percent, energy – including liquefied natural gas, coal, and refined fuels – at 8 percent, and timber at 4 percent.

The Juneau Chamber of Commerce hosted the statewide economic forecast talk, which has been held in the Capital City for the past seven years. The economists were in Fairbanks earlier this week and will be in Anchorage on February 4th.

Categories: Alaska News

Fishing Crew Member Accused of Identity Theft

Fri, 2014-01-17 11:31

A crew member aboard a factory processor has been arrested in Unalaska and accused of stealing another man’s identity to get his commercial fishing license.

Just like rain gear or Xtratufs, commercial fishing crew licenses are essential for anyone working on a Bering Sea boat. And they’re pretty easy to get.

Robin Morrisett is a sergeant with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. He says all it takes to get a crew permit, is a driver’s license and a Social Security number.

“Some people say, ‘Ooh, we didn’t know that the pursers or the chefs, the cooks on the boats are supposed to have it.’ But they do [have to],” Morrissett said.

Twenty-five-year-old Luis Valenzuela was a cook aboard the Gordon Jensen, a 300-foot factory trawler owned by Icicle Seafoods. When troopers boarded the vessel earlier this month for a routine check, Valenzuela showed them his crew license.

But trooper Thomas Lowy says something about it didn’t look right.

“We found that that driver’s license didn’t come back to him. It came to another individual,” Lowy said. ”And that’s kind of what started the whole process — just trying to figure out who he was.”

The troopers worked with federal immigrations officials, and according to their research, they say that Valenzuela is actually an undocumented immigrant from Nogales, Mexico.

Valenzuela was arrested in Unalaska and charged with felony forgery, along with two misdemeanors. One is for participating in commercial fishing as an undocumented immigrant. And the other is for criminal impersonation.

He faces up to seven years in jail and $75,000 in fines.

It’s not clear whether anyone else is going to face legal action. When Valenzuela started working on the fishing vessel Gordon Jensen, he got his commercial crew license from a vendor aboard the ship.

But the troopers say they have no reason to believe that Icicle Seafoods found anything wrong with Valenzuela’s papers.

And to make matters more complicated, Icicle didn’t actually hire Valenzuela. They went through a Sitka employment agency called Alaska Chefs 4 Hire.

Trooper Sergeant Morrisett says that contractor has been cooperating with the investigation. But they didn’t respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Morrisett says the last time the troopers handled a case of alleged identity fraud was about two years ago.

“Here in Dutch Harbor, we have tons of people that are from other countries and stuff,” Morrisett said. ”We catch these once in a while.”

And considering how many vessels the troopers patrol — and many crew permits they look at — every season, that’s not a lot.

Categories: Alaska News

EPA Releases Pebble Report; And Preschool Enrollment Declines

Fri, 2014-01-17 10:00

The Environmental Protection Agency reports on the proposed Pebble Mine. State judges have been sorting out if and when the Municipality of Anchorage can hold a referendum on the Sullivan Administration’s labor laws. Mayor Sullivan refunds the city part of the money from municipal trips during which he raised campaign funds. Anchorage law enforcement is moving against the drug spice. The Port of Anchorage project manager seeks dismissal of suits against port contractors. Preschool enrollment in Alaska has declined. Why?

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HOST: Michael Carey

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Categories: Alaska News

Senate Passes $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:20

The U.S. Senate this evening passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that includes substantial funds for programs important to Alaska, including fisheries disaster relief and military spending.

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One thing not in the bill is Payment in Lieu of Taxes. PILT, as it’s called, compensates local governments that have federal land within their borders for the loss of taxes they would have received if the land was privately owned. Alaska cities and boroughs received a total of $26 million in PILT last year. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says Western lawmakers aren’t giving up.

“It is something that we have committed to resolving. We cannot not fix the issue of PILT,” Murkowski said. “For some of these communities that rely on this funding coming from the government, for some of these communities, it’s 25 percent of their community’s budget.”

When the payments started in the 1970s, they were mandatory spending, like Social Security and Medicare. A few years ago PILT moved to the discretionary side of the ledger, and now it has to compete with other priorities. Murkowski says lawmakers from states without much federal land don’t view PILT with as much urgency.

“We’ve got to get back to the  … commitment that the federal government made to these communities that when we take these lands off your state’s tax rolls, you will, you will receive your federal compensation,” Murkowski said.

The spending bill has already passed the House and on its way to the president’s desk, but Murkowski says PILT may be part of the farm bill Congress is still considering.

Categories: Alaska News

Fewer Kids Going to Preschool in Alaska, Waiting Lists Long

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:19

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Head Start.

The number of children attending preschool in Alaska is on the decline, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Researchers say Alaska now ranks nearly last in the nation for preschool enrollment.

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Photo courtesy of Anchorage Head Start.

At the Kids Corps Head Start Center in East Anchorage 4-year-old Christian Wright is working hard to remember his shapes and colors.

“What shape are these? Circles, Triangles or Square? What are they? Very good! What color are they? Red, yellow, blue! Teacher: Knuckle bump it, you got it dude – you got it.”

Minus the fist bumping, it’s all part of the curriculum that Kevin Moore, a teacher at the Kids Corps Muldoon Center in Anchorage, uses every day. These are experiences the help children develop the higher level thinking that creates the foundation for reading, math and science. And they’re experience that low-income children don’t always have for many reasons. That’s important because, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation, brains develop most in the years leading up to kindergarten. Moore, or Mr. Kevin, as the kids like to call him, says besides colors and numbers the school does a whole lot of other stuff.

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Head Start.

“A range of social skills, interacting with each other, social studies where they know things about themselves and other people in the community, science, literacy and math,” Moore said.

Alaska is one of only two states where the percentage of preschool enrollment has decreased over the past decade, according to the Casey Foundation.

Alaska also ranked 47th out of the 50 states for the percent of children enrolled in preschool. Researchers say five years ago, 39 percent of three and four-year-olds were in preschool in Alaska. Today, that number has fallen to 34 percent.

Head Start serves about 3,100 kids statewide, and about 600 in Anchorage. Dirk Schumaker is the Executive Director of the Anchorage Kids Corps Head Start program. He says there’s always a long waiting list.

“We know that when you look at the number of children in poverty who are eligible we maybe serve half the kids,” Schumaker said.

Studies show that children who attend high-quality preschools have higher test scores, lower enrollment in special education and repeat fewer grades. Abbe Hensley is the Executive Director of Best Beginnings, a public-private partnership that focuses on reading and early learning in Alaska. She was a member of an advisory team that helped set up the state-funded pilot preschool program in 2009 to reach children in six school districts where there was limited access to Head Start.

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Head Start.

“The idea was that as it was demonstrated to be effective there would be more money added so more children could participate,” Hensley said. “We had thought that additional money would be added each year. That’s proven not to be the case.”

State-funded preschools serve children in urban and rural communities across the state. and It’s been four years and state funding has stayed flat: 2 million per year, keeping the program limited to about 200 kids.

“I hope that policy makers can really prioritize early childhood in a way that hasn’t perhaps been done in the past,” Hensley said. “If we don’t do a better job as a state in helping families help their kids be ready for school and beyond then you know we’re really not gonna have that healthy, energetic, productive society that we want to have in the future.”

Back at Head Start in East Anchorage Mr. Kevin is working on comparing size with the kids.

“What I want you to do is I want you take the biggest one to the smallest one,” Kevin said. “Awe, dude you didn’t even need my help.”

The Kids Corps Head Start program in Anchorage costs around $7,500 per year per child per year. In rural Alaska it can cost as much as around $13,000 a year per child. That money comes mostly from the federal government.

The state pays about 20 percent statewide, the wait list for head start preschool includes more than 1,200 kids.

Categories: Alaska News

Tribal Councils Express Opposition To Permitting Bill

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:18

More than 30 tribal organizations have come out in opposition to a permitting bill championed by Gov. Sean Parnell.

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The resolutions sent to the governor’s office on Thursday morning lay out a number of concerns with the bill. Rob Sanderson, Jr., represents the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and he believes House Bill 77 would put limits on tribal sovereignty and infringe on the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives.

“The bill undercuts our rights to sustain our traditional and customary use, not only of the water but also the land and our ability to harvest,” says Sanderson.

HB77 was pitched last year as a way to streamline the permitting process and encourage development in the state. The bill stalled after a number of constituencies, including Alaska Native groups, expressed reservations. They argued it would give the natural resources commissioner blanket authority to issue general permits and limit opportunities for public involvement. The bill would also make it so that individuals or Native groups would no longer be able to apply for water reservations, which are usually used to protect fish habitat.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources have shown a willingness to make changes to some of the more controversial measures in the bill. But Dorothy Larson with the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham thinks that might not be enough to satisfy Native groups.

“I believe that this bill is so flawed that it would be very dangerous for us to try to fix it,” says Larson. “I think we need to scrap it.”

Legislators will decide what to do with it when they head back to Juneau next week.

Categories: Alaska News

Despite Pipeline Progress, State Proceeds with Two Lines

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:17

Wednesday the State released details about the new deal that will replace the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. It makes the state a partner in the development of a natural gas export line from the North Slope. But the government is also still moving ahead with their back-up plan, the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline.

16 Two Pipes

The State of Alaska is currently putting money into developing two different pipelines that have two different goals.

The producer-led, large-scale pipeline is a behemoth $45 to $65 billion project aimed at getting natural gas to Asian markets and providing revenue to the state. It starts with a gas treatment facility on the North Slope and ends at a liquefaction plant on the Kenai Peninsula.

Along the way Alaskans will be able to tap into the line, extract gas, mix it with some air, and send it to utilities. Alaska LNG’s project manager Steve Butt said it’s unclear how much it will cost consumers.

“That dialogue around domestic pricing will take some time and we’re going to need to understand it. It’s going to take a lot of work between all the parties,” he said.

The Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline (ASAP) is a much smaller beast.

In 2013, the state legislature authorized the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to move full steam ahead on developing the smaller line. AGDC’s program management director Frank Richards said the proposed $5.5 – $10 billion project is specifically aimed at helping Alaskans.

“The gas coming down the ASAP pipeline would essentially be consumer grade gas available for consumers to burn at their burner tips.”

Richards says that the project would provide energy to Fairbanks customers at about one third of the price they are paying now. That includes the cost of building and operating the pipeline. Anchorage costs would remain about the same. At the planned flow rate, current proven North Slope reserves could provide gas to the state for close to a century.

But federal pipeline coordinator Larry Persily said the larger pipeline provides the best opportunity for Alaskans.

“The big line is the most economical way to get gas to Alaskans. Because most of the gas, the vast majority of that large volume moving down the pipe is going to be sold overseas, which means someone else is going to pay 90-some percent of the mortgage. Someone else is going to pay 90-some percent of the operations and maintenance on that pipeline and treatment plant.”

And project manager Steve Butt said the deal signed this week will help the big project advance further than other attempts in the past.

“What we really added with all this recent work is alignment of the parties and a team structure where we have an integrated view of the project, and we’re all working it together,” he said. “And that’s a first. And I think that’s gonna be the silver bullet that makes a difference.”

So if the bigger line is better for Alaskans, and the new agreement is advancing the project, why will continuing the work on ASAP benefit the state?

According to AGDC, it’s partially because some of the information gathering done for ASAP, like learning about the potential gas customers in the state and different communities needs, will benefit both projects.

AGDC’s Richards said the initial legwork will be useful no matter what project goes through. “We’re acquiring and have assets now that the state of AK owns that is very valuable to us as a project and to any potential future project.”

Persily adds it’s good to have two plans because you just never know. “It’s all speculation. Until you get signed up customers, everyone is just speculating on either project.”

AGDC plans to hold an open season for the in-state line in 2015. The timeline for the large export project is not yet defined.

Categories: Alaska News

Railbelt Electric Companies May Undergo Changes

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:16

Alaska’s Railbelt electric companies are the sole users of the state’s main transmission lines that carry energy from the Bradley Lake hydropower project in Homer north to Fairbanks. But changes are coming. Managers of the state-owned portion of the line – called the Alaska Intertie – want to give independent power producers access to the system and some power company officials want to bring the entire grid under a single owner – operator model.

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 Bradley Lake’s 120 megawatts of electricity transmits through two 20 mile long lines that connect to the state’s main power grid. The power thrums Northward, electrifying Clam Gulch, Kenai, Soldotna and on up to Anchorage, where electricity from Chugach Electric’s gas fired Beluga generation plant ties in. Then power flows through the Matanuska Valley, and on to Healy.   The line’s full length is divided into segments, each owned and operated by a different power company.

 In late December, the Alaska Energy Authority, which owns the Alaska Intertie, the segment that links Willow and Healy, announced a plan to allow independent power producers to access the line. Gene Therriault, AEA’s deputy director, says, the open access move anticipates future need.

“The demand or the search for cheaper sources of power may lead people to link up their demand with a source. And so we just want to stay ahead of the curve, and make sure that we’ve some languguage and a general understanding of how the governments would be operated if in fact somebody came in and made a bid to get someone into the system. “‘

 The open access plan is pending before the state’s Regulatory Commission. Joe Griffith, general manager of Matanuska Electric Association, says independent producers, such as alternative energy providers, or producers of any source of power, want access to reach customers, but newcomers need to help payback what established power companies have spent on building and maintaining the lines

“Part of the assertion has been that they can’t get access to the customers over the transmission system. The difficulty is caused by the fact that most of the transmission in the Railbelt is privately owned, and the owners expect to be reimbursed for the use of it. “

 Griffith spoke at a panel discussion regarding Alaska’s energy needs in Anchorage recently. He says that the real problem is the patchwork of utilities involved in electricity’s transmission.  Currently, Griffith also heads ARCTEC, the Alaska Railbelt Cooperative Electric and Transmission company, which is composed of four Railbelt utilities

 ”The intent of ARCTEC was to become the generation and transmission provider of the railbelt.”

 ARCTEC’s goal is to create a single operator for the entire transmission network from Homer to Fairbanks. But there’s a rub. All six power utilities have to sign on to the idea, and only four of them belong to ARCTEC.  Homer Electric and ML&P are not members.

 Griffith says a single operator – or a so – called TRANSCO model, would save consumers huge amounts of money.

“And the single operator puts in literally one office. Some of these TRANSCOs in the Lower 48 are three or four people is all. And they just look at the generation on line and say the next most costly piece to bring up is here, and they just call up somebody’s generation plant and say ‘deliver me X megawatts.”

 Last year, AEA did a study on transmission upgrades and  just how much money would be saved by eliminating the conflicts and duplications of multiple operators along the transmission line.  Joe Griffith says the study shows savings of 100 million dollars a year.

“But the TRANSCO we are talking about would be the single operator of the entire Railbelt transmission system. And, in effect, each of the utilities that own transmission systems would just simply sign it over to this group to operate it through operating agreements similar to agreements we have done on the North Slope with the oil companies. “

 Griffith wants ARCTEC to be that single operator. He says it will take some work to figure out the financial aspect, but it can be done

“If you created your TRANSCO today, you would simply assign a cost, probably be a postage stamp type rate over the whole system and say ‘anytime you have power flowing on the transmission system here, here’s what you pay.’ And then the TRANSCO would turn around at the end of the month and send a check to each utility who’s transmission system they
used. “

 Therriault says AEA is not opposed to a TRANSCO model

 ”There is sort of a growing realization that the overall system could operate more efficiently. With increases or investment in the intertie system, there would be tremendous savings for the overall consumers in the Railbelt, if we were actually able to get to a system with some real streamline operation.”

 Now that AEA is opening access to the Alaska Intertie, all the utilities along the Railbelt may follow suit, Therriault says. And he says, the open access language before the RCA provides reliability standards and an allocation of costs for newcomers.

 

Categories: Alaska News

60-Foot Tug Sinks Near Wrangell

Thu, 2014-01-16 18:15

State conservation officials say a 60-foot tug sank in about 120 feet of water near Wrangell.

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Authorities say the Silver Bay II was found missing Tuesday during a routine dock check by representatives of the Silver Bay Logging facility about five miles south of Wrangell.

The tug was estimated to have about 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel on board. The tug had been tied to the dock for five years, and much of the fuel had been removed during that time.

There’s a light sheen in the area, but no reported impact to wildlife. The Coast Guard is investigating.

Categories: Alaska News

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