APRN Alaska News
Can two ships be called a “fleet”? If so, that’s the size of the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking fleet, plus one more that’s in the shop and may never return to service. Still, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft says he has so few multi-purpose cutters that the Coast Guard can only stop 20 percent of the known drug shipments in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The admiral says that allows international crime, terrorism and human trafficking to flourish with relative impunity.
“With our limited arsenal of ships and aircraft, this is truly an issue of capacity. And this is why the off-shore patrol cutter is our No. 1 recapitalization priority,” he said.
The Coast Guard procurement plan adds 91 new ships to replace an old cutter fleet that’s prone to time-sucking breakdowns. Total cost: more than $21 billion. The commandant says if the Coast Guard is going to build icebreakers, too, he’s going to need a bigger budget. Zukunft says it would be a good investment.
“This is part of our national infrastructure, if you will, in terms of our ability to exert influence and sovereignty in the Arctic domain,” he said.
Some in Congress have pressed the U.S. Navy to chip in for a new billion-dollar icebreaker, but a Navy official balked last month, telling a House panel the service has its own ship-building needs.
Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the Senate hearing. Sullivan says everyone seems to recognize the need for more icebreakers, but paying for it seems to be a matter of political football.
“You know, clearly the Russians in this area are eating our lunch, despite what you mentioned is a country whose size in terms of the economy is well below that of the United States,” Sulllivan said.
Russia is said to have 40 icebreakers. Of those in operation, four are in the heavy duty class. About half of the Russian fleet is medium and small icebreakers that are privately owned. While many of Moscow’s ships are reaching the end of their expected life span, that country has 11 new icebreakers planned or under construction.
Zukunft says he’s still cooperating with his Russian counterparts, so those Russian ships should be considered assets that might be called on to respond to an American search-and-rescue case.
“As we look at what are the real threats as we see in the Arctic, think beyond Vladimir Putin,” he urged. “And the real threats continue to be safety of life at sea, environmental, the well being of the indigenous tribes that have lived up in the Arctic region for the millennium.”
In the near term, despite the lack of a U.S. Coast Guard port in the Arctic, Zukunft says they are preparing for the likelihood that Shell will resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this year.
“And we will have a rotational presence of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, and a national security cutter, and a shore-based aviation detachment, based in the Arctic region this summer,” he said.
The commandant also addressed Alaskan concerns that the seven island-class patrol cutters now based in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska will be replaced by six fast-response cutters. Yes, Alaska would lose a patrol boat, but Zukunft says the new cutters will be able to operate over more days, in harsher conditions and travel further from home.
Immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of their extended regular session, Gov. Bill Walker called them back in for a special one. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
On Tuesday morning, legislators — some reluctantly, some bedraggled, and some remarkably chipper — reconvened at 10 a.m., for five-minute floor sessions. They received a message from the governor, asking them to do three things: expand Medicaid, create a sexual abuse prevention program for schools, and pass a budget that pays for government for a whole year.
Rather than launch straight into committee hearings, lawmakers then broke up into a series of closed-door meetings. There were caucus meetings, leadership meetings, and meetings with the governor. House Speaker Mike Chenault said he broached the idea of taking a two-week recess and then reconvening back in Anchorage, noting that construction is scheduled to start on the Capitol building in a matter of days.
As that all was happening, Walker’s new budget dropped. It reverses the Legislature’s freeze on cost-of-living raises for public employees. It restores some money for education, but still included his original cut of $32 million of one-time funding for schools. And, predictably, it also includes language that lets the state accept federal dollars to expand Alaska’s Medicaid program.
In all, it adds $90 million in state spending that had been cut by the Legislature, amounting to a 2 percent increase in money used from the unrestricted general fund.
His budget also requires a draw from the constitutional budget reserve — the hard-to-access rainy day fund responsible for a stalemate in the first place. The $10 billion account requires a three-quarter vote for a withdrawal, which means at least some minority Democrats have to vote for it. They have said in budget negotiations that their support is conditional on increased funding for education and Medicaid expansion.
The House Finance Committee is scheduled to hear that budget bill on Wednesday.
Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The region’s three Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Taskforce investigators can’t be everywhere at once. Some villages are trying to fill in gaps where bootlegged alcohol reaches dry option communities. In the second of a three-part series on the law enforcements efforts to stem the flow of alcohol to the region KYUK’s Ben Matheson reports on Akiak’s tribal approach.
On a bright spring day overlooking the frozen Kuskokwim River, Akiak Tribal Policeman Ryan Jackson explains how this low-tech checkpoints work. It’s intended to stop alcohol at the doorstep to the community, and it’s basically Jackson, a 4-wheeler, and a badge.
“I just hold it up and say ‘Stop, this is a checkpoint,” said Jackson.
For the past two winters, the village has set up a checkpoint where snow machines and trucks come in off the Kuskokwim River. Jackson and others make sure to have coverage for big traffic days like basketball tournaments and dog races, as well as paydays from local employers. When the community is flush with cash, that’s when they know people will make the trip to Bethel, coming back with alcohol, which fetches 80 dollars a bottle in Akiak.
Jackson says his methods change depending on the weather and trail conditions.
“4 wheeler, sno-go, truck, either one. The sno-go is easier to chase with,” said Jackson
That is, if someone flees:
“You chase after them,” said Jackson.
Leaders say they’ve seized 500 bottles coming into Akiak this past winter. An agreement with tribes in nearby Akiachak, Tuluksak, and Kwethluk allows for similar efforts.
Mike Williams, a tribal advocate, alcohol counselor, and Iditarod dog musher says the matter is extremely personal to him–he’s lost all six of his brothers to alcohol.
“It’s a small community. We know who (the bootleggers) are. When a person brings in the booze from the next village, with today’s technology of instant communication, with texting and everything, we know who’s dealing,” said Williams.
Tragedy was evident this winter when three Akiak people who had been drinking drove their 4-wheeler through a storm into an open hole on the Kuskokwim and drowned. Surrounded by millions of acres of tundra, back trails, and side sloughs, Akiak’s not going to catch every last bottle. Williams says bootleggers know that as well as anyone.
“They have been getting real smart too,” said Williams. “They’re using communication to do the transaction outside of Akiak.”
For Williams, taking an aggressive stance in the village is part of a broad push to regain local tribal control after legislation fractured jurisdiction. Williams says it has prevented tribes from having meaningful power at home.
“We’ve lost so much control over the long years but we need to have that control back and take our lives back,” said Williams.
While they are willing to share information with state troopers, Akiak takes a distinctly tribal approach to follow up with those caught bootlegging. They’re brought in front of tribal court judges, like 72-year-old Elizabeth Lake.
“It’s good to talk. (We) have someone to talk to them in the village, instead of having troopers come around,” said Lake.
Lake says people caught running alcohol may face fines or community service, but keeping them out of jail and closer to home helps in the long run. Jackson Williams is another tribal court judge.
“We’re the community that wants to really go after people that bootleg to bring in booze to sell. We take care of it our way,” said Williams.
And that way raises privacy concerns regarding checkpoints. But Williams takes a broader perspective.
“When we first started, people were saying what about my civil rights, what about my rights as an individual? And we say-what about the rights of our children, the rights of our women, the rights of people to have a healthy community? What about the rights of people who are not using being effected? What about their rights?,” said Williams.
State law enforcement doesn’t get involved in the checking. Investigator Todd Moehring from the state’s Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team says the checkpoint is strictly a tribal initiative.
“I applaud their efforts. They’re doing a great job trying to take an active role in combating bootlegging, which has been really good. It has cut down on the calls we’ve gotten, they’ve been stepping it up, trying to process things tribally,” said Moehring.
Chance Cunningham, worked as a Village Public Safety Officer in Akiak for two years. VPSO’s are not employed by the tribe. He says his only role at the checkpoint is to stand by.
“I just sat in the distance, in the shadows, in the hopes that nothing bad would happen, that I would have to be there because I have the tools and training,” said Cunningham.
On the front lines, TPO Jackson thinks it’s working.
“It’s less work if we get the bottles before they go out,” said Jackson.
And to keep the bottles from entering his community, Jackson will watch where the Kuskokwim meets his village.
You don’t have to go to a foreign country to find Third World conditions. You can find more than six percent of Alaskans living in those conditions – without modern running water or sewer systems. The so-called “honey bucket” situation has frequently been deplored and millions of federal and state dollars have been devoted to dealing with it. But the reality remains that people in 3,300 households in the state live without running water and flush toilets and have much higher rates of hospitalization for respiratory and skin infections. Are there solutions? Maybe? Are we getting closer to those solutions? Maybe not. Today we begin a five-part series entitled “Kick the Bucket,” in which we’ll get a closer look at the water and sewer situation in rural Alaska. In part one, we look at the public health implication of inadequate water supplies.
If you’re one of Kwethluk’s 750 residents, you’re 400 miles from the road system that serves Anchorage and Fairbanks, 120 miles from the Bering Sea, and near a branch of the Kuskokwim River. In the winter, this is how you get water for your household.
“You have to chip the ice away. You have to chip and chip, especially when it was really cold and the ice was thick,” said Claudia Hansen.
Until Hansen’s home gets hooked up to a new piped water and sewer system, her son continues to haul ice from the Kwethluk River. Once it melts and the silt settles, it’s ready to use — and drink.
Fifty miles up the Kuskokwim River, in Tuntutuliak, Lucy Lupie says fetching water is a young man’s job.
“Since my husband is getting older, it is harder for him to get ice,” said Lupie.
Alaskans without plumbing also collect rainwater, or buy water at a central watering point, often carrying home 5-gallon jugs weighing about 40 pounds each. After all that effort, people use water sparingly – as little as two gallons per person per day. Fifteen gallons a day is considered necessary to stay clean, and the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. One way villagers conserve water is by sharing a basin of soapy water for hand washing.
Especially for little ones, this can foster respiratory infections, as Kivalina Community Health Aide Isabell Booth explains.
“A lot of respiratory illness,” said Booth. “We had a lot of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in like two and under.”
CDC studies show Alaskans without plumbing get invasive pneumococcal infections up to eleven times more often that other Alaskans. In Southwest Alaska, where 40% of the homes lack plumbing, one in four infants is hospitalized for severe respiratory infection.
In Northwest Alaska, Kivalina gets its water from a river, and sometimes can’t get enough to last all year. Booth says she sees the effects when the water tanks are closed.
“Every time our water gets low when they shut down, I start to see abscess, skin problems like abscess start coming around and go on for probably a month or two to where they have to be treated with antibiotic,” said Booth.
When people can’t use outhouses due to permafrost or boggy ground, for instance, they use a bucket fitted with a toilet seat, a “honey bucket,” which gets emptied every day — or so. In Tuntutuliak, Adolf Lupie carries his family honey-bucket down a boardwalk leading to an underground bunker. He laughs as he advises caution.
“Make sure it’s not slippery around here or we’ll slip and the honey bucket will be over us.”
After emptying the bucket, and back indoors, Lupie says it’s worse when it’s warmer.
“When the spring time comes, it’s really gross and smelly,” he said.
People are frustrated but most say they wouldn’t move just to have plumbing. Many villagers have strong ties, like Lucy Lupie who says she doesn’t know who she’d socialize with in larger communities.
“It’s where our relatives are,” said Lupie. “Like if I was in the city, where would I turn to for help or even to socialize?”
And, many rural communities have thrived for centuries because they’re ideally situated for food gathering. Stanley Hawley, of Kivalina, says he’s driven by the imperative, and rewards, of supporting his family with food from nature.
“Once we get exposed to that livelihood, that way of living, it gets ingrained in our spirit, and in our soul, and in our psyche,” said Hawley.
Health experts say near-universal piped water and sewer is one of, if not the most important American public health achievement of the 20th century. It helped cut U.S. mortality rates by 40%, and raise life expectancy from 47 to 63 years. Later we’ll hear about some of the reasons so many Alaskans still live without plumbing.
Now that the United States has assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will play a central role in carrying out the U.S. agenda in the region, UAF’s top two administrators said Friday.
UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers outlined that role Friday during a live webcast of the Arctic Council meeting at the Murie Building on the campus’s West Ridge. During the meeting, Canada formally relinquished the presiding role to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Rogers told a group watching that as the nation’s Arctic university, UAF has always been active in shaping and informing U.S. policy for the far northern regions. Rogers says UAF’s role will increase during the nation’s two-year term heading up the Arctic Council.
“This is a really important time for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks as well,” Rogers said. “We have the expertise, we have the reputation to make significant contributions to support the work of the Arctic Council, to support Arctic policy and science generally.”
Rogers says UAF will see a lot of Arctic Council-related activity over the next two years. Upcoming activities include an Arctic Energy Summit and a Polar Law Symposium this fall,which will include sessions at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Rogers says the council itself will be meeting in Alaska over the next two years. And members of its delegations and its advisory panels will frequently be coming to the state, along with observers and non-governmental organizations that are associated with the council.
A new report from the National Parks Service says Alaska parks brought over 2.5 million visitors, $1.1 billion and 17,000 jobs into the state economy last year.
National Park Service spokesman John Quinley says restaurants, air taxi services, and local shops across the state see economic benefits from the parks.
“You know, replace the fishing rod that got lost on their flight to Philadelphia or something,” Quinley said. “It’s that local spending is well that cumulatively creates jobs, it’s not one person creating one job with their spending, but 30,000 people sort of spending bits of money in a lot of different places.”
Alaska parks in 2014 had the highest visitation on record.
Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer.
On Sunday, the 781-foot Crystal Symphony will tie up at the Coast Guard dock and offload the most passengers Unalaska has ever seen — around a thousand people, as many as a quarter of the town’s residents.
Normally, the state ferry marks the start of summer in the Aleutians. But this year, the aging ferry Tustumena is in shipyard for repairs — its first scheduled stop in Unalaska is now May 23. And state budget cuts could mean fewer sailings overall after that.
Unalaska visitor’s bureau director Cathy Jordan says a shorter ferry season will have a big impact on the Aleutian Chain — for tourists and residents alike.
“A lot of people like to come out on the ferry, stay for a day or two, maybe fly back on [PenAir], or they’ll take the ferry back the same day,” Jordan says. “But also important for the Chain is for the smaller communities that get on the ferry along the way and come out here and shop, and then bring goods back to their hometown. And that also impacts our businesses.”
But she’s hoping more cruise ships might help fill the gap. 2015 will be Unalaska’s longest, busiest cruise season ever — the Crystal Symphony is the first of eight ships with scheduled stops. One, in September, will bring 2,000 passengers to town.
“I’m a little concerned about how we’re going to be able to accommodate that many people on the island for that amount of time,” Jordan says. “They don’t always all disembark, so hopefully we’ll be able to scatter them throughout the island at one time. You know, our tourist destinations can’t hold but 150, 200 people. So we’ll try to keep them busy with some other alternatives.”
She’s calling in extra buses and working with the town’s few restaurants and museums to organize special events. She’ll also have volunteers on hand to help guide explorers. Jordan says that small-town feel is one advantage Unalaska has over bigger ports.
“I’ve seen many people stop and talk to cruise ship passengers and give directions, or give an idea of what to do next,” she says. “Or even when we have a group of birders in from a cruise ship, they’ll ask, ‘Where can I find this bird?’ And I’ve seen local people [say] ‘Oh, go down this road and take a right,’ you know, so it’s really great.”
Of course, Unalaska’s main draw is as a fuel stop. It’s the first big port of call for ships crossing the Pacific from Asia.
The Crystal Symphony is one of those. It’s en route from Tokyo to Vancouver, with stops in Kodiak, Seward and Ketchikan after it leaves the Aleutians.
A federal judge on Tuesday will consider a request by Royal Dutch Shell PLC for an injunction against illegal boarding of Arctic-bound drilling equipment by activists from Greenpeace Inc.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason on April 11 granted Shell a restraining order to keep Greenpeace from entering a safety zone around a semi-submersible drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, and a heavy lift ship carrying it from Malaysia to Washington state.
Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast.
Conservation groups oppose Arctic drilling and say oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up a major spill in the remote region.
Six Greenpeace activists on April 6 boarded the ship carrying the Polar Pioneer as it traveled northwest of Hawaii.
Alaska lawmakers have passed legislation to bring state child support law into line with an international treaty under which the United States and other nations enforce child-support orders for one another.
The Senate passed the bill, without debate, 14-6 on Monday. The measure previously passed the House.
Gov. Bill Walker’s administration said Alaska faced losing about $19 million in federal child support funding and $45 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds if it didn’t pass the bill. All states are being asked to do this.
Congress required passage of legislation to receive federal child support funding. According to the state, about two-thirds of Alaska’s Child Support Services Division is federally funded, and states must have federally compliant child-support programs to receive funds for the needy families program.
Alaska’s largest herring fishery opened Monday at 8 p.m., after Fish and Game staff documented a threshold biomass of herring around Togiak.
Eight days after the statutory deadline, the Alaska State Legislature has adjourned. But as soon as the gavel dropped, Gov. Bill Walker issued a proclamation calling them into a special session. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
When the Alaska House gaveled out at 7pm on Monday, cheers erupted on the floor.
After a week of frustrating budget negotiations, there was a palpable sense of relief, even if most lawmakers were not necessarily enthusiastic over the budget deal that passed. With the state facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit because of low oil prices, the Legislature’s Republican majorities cobbled together a spending plan that keeps government funded through the fall. House Speaker Mike Chenault told reporters that while he was glad to reach a deal, he wished the fiscal outlook were different.
“I don’t think any of us sitting up here are real happy with the situation that we found ourselves before we started this session,” said the Nikiski Republican. “With the declining revenue stream that we had, nobody was prepared. Nobody, that I’m aware of, had the foresight to think that we would position that we’re in.”
Whatever feeling of closure there was did not last long. A little after 8pm, Gov. Bill Walker sent down a proclamation ordering the Legislature to return for a special session. It came as Senate President Kevin Meyer was getting his caucus’ turn with reporters.
“We will be coming back tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock, and we’ll be continuing our discussion on the operating budget, Medicaid, and House Bill 44 … Is that Erin’s Law?” said Meyer.
In the fourth press conference of the night, Gov. Bill Walker explained that he could not accept a budget that did not cover the full year.
“We’re starting to look like the federal government, you know, that goes until midnight on running out of money and shutting down government,” said Walker. “That’s not Alaska.”
Walker said he wants the Legislature to fully fund government by making a draw from the state’s constitutional budget reserve — which is where budget talks got hung up in the first place. That $10 billion rainy day fund requires a three-quarter vote to tap, and at least some members of the House’s Democratic minority must support the action to meet the threshold. During budget negotiations, the Democratic caucus had made their support conditional on increased education funding and expansion of Medicaid. They also wanted to see movement on a bill known as Erin’s Law, which establishes sexual abuse prevention programs in schools.
Walker’s agenda for a special session includes all of those priorities. While the governor’s proclamation requires the Legislature to convene, it does not force them to advance those items.
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
After a weeklong stalemate on the budget, the Alaska State Legislature is making moves to gavel out tonight [MONDAY]. It’s been eight days since they
missed their adjournment deadline.
Lawmakers May Gavel Out
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
After a weeklong stalemate on the budget, the Alaska State Legislature is making moves to gavel out tonight [MONDAY]. It’s been eight days since they
missed their adjournment deadline.
A Moving Target: WAANT Pursues Bootleg Liquor
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and
elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and law enforcement battles black markets spread across the rivers and tundra of the vast region. The first in a three-part series.
Anchorage Nepalese Community Reacts To Quake
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
More than 4,000 people in Nepal have died as a result of Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Much of the capital Katmandu and the surrounding
villages were destroyed. Some members of Anchorage’s 80-member Nepalese community were visiting at the time.
BOEM Explains 75% Chance Of Arctic Oil Spill
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage
Inside a thick government report on the impact of off-shore leasing in the Chukchi Sea is a number that grabs the attention. It mentions a 75 percent
chance of a large oil spill. The figure shows up often in the arguments of those trying to stop Shell from resuming its Arctic exploration program
this summer in the Chukchi Sea, in part of what’s known as Lease Sale 193. Monday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management put out a fact sheet to
clarify what it means by that 75 percent figure.
Trident Prepares To Open New Fishmeal Plant In Naknek
Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham
The newest processing plant in Bristol Bay is about to go online this month. Trident Seafood’s multi-million dollar fishmeal plant should get a
test run with Togiak herring. Trident agreed to build the plant as part of a 2011 settlement over alleged EPA Clean Water Act violations, and now the
company, and residents, should get to see if it works as intended.
Industry Forecasts Strong Tourist Season For Alaska
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
With less than a week until the first ship arrives in Juneau, the head of a cruise industry group in Alaska says 2015 should be strong year for tourism
in the state.
Law and Rover: HB 147 Would Give Pets Special Legal Considerations
Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau
Most people don’t want to think of their pets as property. But in court, they are. A bill by Rep. Liz Vazquez, an Anchorage Republican, will likely be back in next year’s legislative session. It aims to give pets special considerations in the law when it comes to divorce, protective orders and animal seizures.
Inside a thick government report on the impact of off-shore oil leasing in the Chukchi Sea is a phrase that grabs the attention. It says there’s “75% chance of one or more large spills.”
The figure shows up often in the arguments of those trying to stop Shell from resuming its Arctic exploration program this summer in the Chukchi Sea, in part of what’s known as Lease Sale 193. Today, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management put out a fact sheet to clarify what it means by that 75 percent figure.
Jim Kendall, Regional director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, says the spill risk was calculated assuming full-on development of Lease Sale 193 over a long period.
“That is a possibility, a 75 percent chance, of one or more spills of a hypothetical, you know, development over 77 years, eight production platform, 500 wells, 4.3 billion barrels of oil produced,” he said.
BOEM says the 75 percent chance relates to a spill of 1,000 barrels or more. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez oozed more than 250,000 barrels. The Deepwater Horizon spill was several million.
Michael LeVine, a Juneau-based attorney for the environmental group Oceana, says it’s good the agency explained itself, but he thinks the regulators are offering a limited view of the risk.
“The government continues to pretend that a catastrophic accident from exploration activities, like the one that Shell is seeking to undertake in the Chukchi Sea this summer, is so unlikely as not to warrant calculation,” he said.
LeVine says that’s short-sighted.
“We know that those spills can and have happened during exploration activities. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling an exploration well,” he said.
The BOEM chief says of 15,000 off-shore exploratory wells drilled in the U.S., the Deepwater Horizon was the only catastrophic spill. No other exploratory well had an uncontrolled spill of even 1,000 barrels.
Shell is proposing to drill six exploratory wells in the Chukchi over three years, in 140 feet of water. BOEM says it will release its study of the oil spill risks associated with that plan soon.
More than 4,000 people in Nepal have died as a result of Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Much of the capital Katmandu and the surrounding villages were destroyed. Some members of Anchorage’s 80-member Nepalese community were visiting at the time. Jeet Tamang’s wife and nephew were among them. He says it took 10 hours to get through to them because phone services were down. His family members, including his siblings who still live there, all survived, but their homes were severely damaged.
“They were physically okay, but they were camping out near by the house in the open area,” Tamang says of his wife and nephew. “Cooking outside and sleeping out there. Which the whole city is going through that.”
Tamang says his family members are nervous to be there, and they’re not sure if they’ll be able to come home this week as planned.
It’s “kind of scary to walk around. Nobody knows if it’s going to fall down or not. Anything is possible. The worst thing is the aftershocks are really making more damages and scaring people around.”
He says so far, no one in Anchorage has reported lost family members. The community is collecting money for the non-profit Helping Hand for Nepal, which runs small-scale aid projects in the country.
Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In the first of a three-part series on efforts to curb the flow of alcohol, KYUK’s Ben Matheson reports on law enforcement’s battle with black markets spread across the rivers and tundra of the vast region.
In the break room of the Bethel trooper post, an evidence custodian rips open carefully labeled bags of evidence: seized plastic bottles of R&R whiskey and Sailor Jerry’s rum. Down the kitchen sink goes booze that never made it to customers in local option communities. It’s a small success for the Bethel based Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team. But one day’s success will be followed by another challenging day.
Angela Womack is one of three WAANT investigators in Bethel who spend their waking hours chasing down leads, tracking the movement of alcohol, and building long term cases.
“Constant. It’s constant,” said Womack.
No one know for sure how much alcohol moves illegally from hubs like Bethel to the dozens of villages banning either the importation or possession of alcohol.
Investigator Todd Moehring says it can be a high stakes business.
“Last year there were reports of snow machines, as the ice was basically breaking, making their last runs across there river,” said Moehring. “Risks are definitely taken to run these things.”
There’s big money in bootleg alcohol. A bottle that costs around 10 bucks in Anchorage can fetch hundreds in dry villages. Transportation and logistics dictate the price. The closer to Bethel and the Kuskokwim ice road, the cheaper the bottle. In Toksook Bay, primarily reachable by air, they say a 750 milliliter bottle sells for 300 dollars, and had heard that one had been auctioned off for 700 dollars.
The three officers are tasked with enforcement for 56 villages in the YK region. The work takes them on the river, to the airport, and to postal facilities to investigate mail. When in Bethel, they dress in plainclothes to blend in.
Bethel’s unique alcohol laws allow unlimited importation but there are currently no local sales. People bring in alcohol in their luggage from Anchorage or make orders by mail from liquor stores, which come in by air carriers. The stores do big business with the Delta. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board receives notice when a customer buys more than 4 cases of liquor in a week, and they pass that information on to the troopers.
One day in March nearly 200 liters were ordered between four customers. One week in February, a single customer ordered 81 liters. The first quarter of 2015 saw the equivalent of nearly 1100 bottles in large orders.
Moehring says that information can become part of a case.
“Some folks are selling just so they can have their own alcohol. Some are selling strictly for financial gain, and these organization go all the way back into Anchorage and they’re shipping it out here to the villages because there is such financial gain,” said Moehring.
Investigator Jerry Evan calls it a never ending battle.
“When we investigate and successfully complete a case and arrest people, there’s other people who pop up and take their place. It’s like a revolving door for us,” said Evan.
Evan says there isn’t single profile of who sells.
“One lady told us she was going to sell booze because she needed to buy diapers for her kid. Everybody has their own reason as to why they want to sell. That’s why some people say we have subsistence bootleggers, they sell to makes ends meet. And then there are those who sell to make profit,” said Moehring.
The second half of the team’s mission is combating drugs in the region. Investigator Moehring says the recent rise of heroin has added a troubling new ingredient to the illegal alcohol economy.
“We know of people who weren’t bootlegging before that are now because they’re hooked on heroin. So we know alcohol and marijuana sales are used to fund heroin sales as well. You can’t separate them out, it’s a big spider web, and it’s all interconnected,” said Moehring.
Tips from the public are their bread and butter. Moehring says the office gets no shortage of anonymous tips, but it’s not always directly actionable information. Having someone speak on the record goes a lot farther for prosecution. In the end, Evan says every bottle counts.
“We want to think we’ve maybe saved a homicide or an assault from occurring in the village. It makes me happier if I see 10 bottles or 12 bottles,” said Evan. “That mentality helps me a lot when I get up in the morning and think, hey what am I going to do today?”
Odds are, the phone will be ringing, bringing new bottles and new cases to chase.
With a little over a week until the first ship arrives in Juneau, the head of a cruise industry group in Alaska says 2015 should be strong year for tourism in the state.
Former state lawmaker John Binkley is now president of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska. He told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce today that he anticipates about 1 million passengers this year. That’s up more than 3 percent from 2014.
“2015 is going to be a great year. We’re excited about that,” Binkley said. “I think the merchants can see in just, what, two weeks? The ships are going to be pulling in here. People are going to be pouring off with money in their pocket, looking for places and ways to leave it here in Juneau. It’s great news for us.”
But Binkley warned Alaska faces challenges as the cruise industry expands globally. Already, he says the state is losing market share, as newer ships are deployed to ports in Asia and other parts of the world. He also says the state and local governments need to be careful with how they spend cruise ship passenger fees.
He said the industry is concerned about two multi-million dollar projects in Juneau: An extension of the seawalk north of Marine Park, and a long-planned dock expansion to allow more Panamax ships to tie up downtown.
“It would be one thing if the local community were paying for the dock. But they’re not,” Binkley said. “It’s the visitors that are paying for the dock and the cruise companies that are paying for the dock.”
Panamax ships are up to 1,000 feet long and carry thousands of passengers.
University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh challenged Binkley, saying the industry is sending mixed signals about how it wants passenger fees to be spent.
“We were told we needed docks for Panamax. We worked on that,” Pugh said. “And so I guess, I’m just sending a message back to you having been a citizen who had some involvement in it. How do we actually talk to the industry? Is it the local people who are here? Is it the people who are in Shanghai?”
Binkley says the cruise lines wanted an entirely new dock built as opposed to an expansion of the existing facilities.
Assemblywoman Mary Becker told Binkley the Juneau Assembly is not considering an increase to the city’s local passenger head tax in response to a proposal by lawmakers to take away Juneau’s share of state passenger fees in 2016.
The first two cruise ships of the year are due in Juneau on Monday May 4.
Most people don’t want to think of their pets as property. But in court, they are. A bill by Rep. Liz Vazquez likely be back in next year’s legislative session aims to give pets special considerations in the law when it comes to divorce, protective orders and animal seizures.
The Gastineau Humane Society in Juneau has two dogs, 17 cats and a number of smaller animals, like rabbits, guinea pigs, and a chinchilla—all up for adoption. The laminated profiles of the animals are tacked on a cork board in the lobby.
Sometimes a lot of pets come through their door, like in cases of animal hoarding. And that can cost the shelter tens of thousands of dollars while a court ruling is being decided.
“It’s frankly not fair to house animals in the shelter for the long term,” says Matt Musslewhite, the executive director of the Gastineau Humane Society.
If HB 147 passes, owners in hoarding cases can post a bond to have their pets boarded—pending the outcome of the case. Or they can relinquish them to the shelter. This simplifies the whole process so animals can be adopted faster.
“Yeah. Not only is it better for the animals. It’s fiscally better for the shelter,” Musslewhite says.
The other part of the bill would make the definition of pets, in cases of legal ownership, more clear. Right now, the courts consider pets property, and it’s ambiguous how to handle that.
Kathy Hessler, a professor of animal law at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, says animals are clearly in the law as property.
“But people don’t treat them in their lives and in there homes as property, and so what that means is their interactions are at odds with the legal framework,” she says.
She testified at a recent hearing in support of the pet bill. She says in cases of divorce and dissolution, property with monetary value, like a house, can be divided. But your precious dog or cat can’t be cut in half.
“So courts are doing all kinds of things because they don’t have statutory guidance and sometimes courts are simply unwilling to make a ruling,” she says.
If HB 147 passes, judges will have the green light to rule in cases of pet ownership, with the understanding that the pet’s overall well-being has to be considered. The legislation doesn’t extend to dog mushing teams which, to the courts, have monetary worth. Pets could also be included as part of a domestic violence restraining order.
“A husband might say to his wife, ‘If you leave me, I’ll kill the dog,’” says Hessler.
Same principle: the judge will have the authority to protect pets as part of a restraining order. Initially, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault opposed the bill.
“Sometimes I get a little frustrated with these big national movements. …We kind of took care of that 15 years ago,” says Peggy Brown, the network’s executive director.
She says several years ago, the advocacy group worked really hard to make sure pets were included as personal essential items on protective order forms.
“There’s a box that can be checked, it actually says ‘pets’ and then ‘names,’ in case there are more than one pet,” says Brown.
Those existing protective orders are already legally binding. The bill wouldn’t change that. Brown worried that “custody” language in HB 147 could turn pet disputes into ugly court battles, like in family law cases, increasing interactions between the victim and abuser. Brown withdrew her opposition after Rep. Vazquez changed that part of the bill. Brown says if the overall bill reinforces the victim’s ownership of the pet, it’s a good thing.
“It puts it in ink when it was kind of in pencil, I guess is one way you can look at it. Now it’s two different places. It’s in statute and on the protective order forms,” says Brown.
If the pet bill does pass, Alaska will join 28 other states with similar legislation.
The newest processing plant in Bristol Bay is about to go online this month. Trident Seafood’s multi-million dollar fishmeal plant should get a test run with Togiak herring. Trident agreed to build the plant as part of a 2011 settlement over alleged EPA Clean Water Act violations, and now the company, and residents, should get to see (and smell) it if works as intended.
Construction workers hammer and weld to the twang of country music as they wrap up construction on fishmeal plant in Naknek. The walls are still unfinished drywall and wooden stairs stand in for a future elevator.
Project Manager Bob Bates stood in front of the largest piece of machinery in the plant, a 50 foot long and 60,000 pound dryer.
“We actually set this unit here when this was still all mud and dirt. We build this building around this dryer,” said Bates.
The dryer looked like a giant rolling pin as it spun in the center of the warehouse.
“The inside of this thing looks like something out of a sci-fi movie with all the teeth and the blades and everything in it to mix it, and turn it, and churn it through,” added Bates.
About a quarter mile of tubing move all the leftover parts after a fish is filleted or canned – that’s the head, guts, fins, and bones – they’ll come from Trident’s processing plant to the new 15 million dollar plus fishmeal plant.
After being ground up and dried, the byproduct of salmon can become animal feed and even those fish oil pills you can buy at Costco. Trident also owns separate business that produces fishmeal products. Along with helping their business model, Trident agreed to build this plant as part of a 2011 settlement with the EPA, which had tallied a number alleged Clean Water Act violations against the company’s Alaska operations.
Officials at Trident said they weren’t required to build a fishmeal plant in Naknek, but they think this is where the Bristol Bay fishing industry is probably heading anyway. The EPA and Alaska’s DEC are tightening down on how processors handle the millions of pounds of fish waste that is traditionally ground up and put back in the water, hopefully washed out with the tides.
But some Naknek residents were, and still are, leery about having a fishmeal plant in town. They have a reputation of being …smelly.
Jay King runs an aviation service in Naknek and is among those still not convinced that plant won’t stink up the town. King’s not opposed to the plant so much as he’s opposed to its location.
“Being next to the Post Office, the school, the clinic, my brother’s apartment building. “I just didn’t think it was such a good idea to have a potential odor issue with all of these entities,” said King.
Others say with or without the new fishmeal plant, summertime odor is a common issue and comes with the territory. Russell Phelps is a commercial fisherman and said Naknek is a fishing town. He thinks taking waste out of the water might actually help the smell.
“So the beaches in late July and August stink considerable already, so if we could avoid that I’d be very happy,” said Phelps, who is also a member of the Borough Assembly.
Before the Borough gave its consent to Trident to build, a few members traveled to Newport, Oregon to tour a 20-year-old fishmeal plant that has been upgraded with modern technology similar to what’s being used in Naknek. They came back less skeptical. The Assembly heard from plenty of concerned residents, but in the end voted to approve the fishmeal plant. Some supporters think fishmeal may be the future of the fishery, and others appreciate what will be added tax revenue to the Borough. Phelps was among the yes votes.
“We shouldn’t stop a project just because we think it’s going to stink,” argued Phelps.
Trident has a favorable reputation in the town, and the seafood giant says it puts near a million dollars in taxes annually to the Borough, and tens of thousands more in charitable donations. Project Manager Bob Bates says Trident will do it what it takes to stay good neighbors with the community.
“From day one, the goal was to keep the odor down, clean up the river, and basically produce some meal,” said Bates.
And at the heart of its effort to keep the odor down is a new air filtration system.
Standing at the base of a three story metal tube with ducting that snakes around the entire warehouse, Bates describes how it will keep the smell of drying fish waste out of the breezy bayside town of Naknek.
“So basically what we are doing is we’re drawing fresh air down below and we are sucking everything up to insure that we capture all the odors and everything that comes through this facility and gets pushed through these scrubbers,” explained Bates.
Inside are thousands of scrubbing balls that look like whiffle balls, water is sprayed down as the air raises. The odor molecules stick to the water.
“By the time the air come back out of here, we’ve pulled the majority of all the odor out with this system,” added Bates.
Some residents like Jay King say they’ll just have to wait and see, or rather smell, what happens.
“Well, it’s here. I am just honestly hoping it is as advertised by Trident,” said King.
They’re going to get their chance soon. Trident plans to run final tests of the system with water in a few days, but as far as a true test with fish heads and guts. Bob Bates said he can build factories but he can’t control fish. They’ll test it for real when the Togiak herring arrive, probably before the month is out.
A British Columbia mine upriver from Wrangell and Petersburg is one step closer to full production after reaching a benefits agreement with a First Nation group.
Red Chris is a copper and gold mine in the Stikine River watershed on the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation. Tahltan Central Council members overwhelmingly voted to enter an agreement with Red Chris. It gives them environmental oversight rights, jobs and a share of mine revenue.
The Red Chris Mine is owned by Imperial Metals, which also runs the B.C. mine that spilled millions of gallons of waste into Canadian waterways last summer. The Mount Polley dam spill spurred Tahltan members to request a third-party environmental review of the Red Chris tailings dam.
Tahltan Central Council President Chad Day said the 22 recommendations made by the third-party review are either in place or being completed. Tahltan and B.C. officials have said the mine won’t be granted a permit for full production until the Tahltan members are satisfied that environmental concerns have been addressed.
Day said the benefits agreement does not amount to giving approval for the mine’s final permits. He said the TCC’s team of engineers and environment experts will have input on all significant environmental permits for Red Chris.
The mine has been operating with a temporary permit it received in February, shortly after an investigation found the Mount Polley dam breach was caused by design flaws. Red Chris has been increasing production since then, and it made its first copper shipment from the port of Stewart earlier this month.
According to a TCC release, the mine is expected to reach production capacity this summer.
Alaskans worry a breach at the Red Chris tailings dam could destroy salmon populations that spawn in the Stikine River and its tributaries, and provide jobs and food for Southeast Alaskans. A group of Tahltan members set up roadblocks at the mine to protest construction last year, and Imperial Metals was granted an injunction to stop the protests.