It’s been a year since Unalaska started uncovering big problems with a major construction project in town. Work is moving forward on the city’s new wastewater treatment plant. But, staff are still trying to put a price on the damage done.
Workers at the wastewater treatment plant site are busy pouring concrete for the building’s water tanks and foundations. City Manager Chris Hladick says they’ll be able to start building the actual structure of the plant in the next month.
The plant has to be online by the end of 2015, as mandated by a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, Hladick says they’re working on another issue — one that was never supposed to be part of the project.
They’re trying to add up the cost of issues with blasting work done at the site last year.
Advanced Blasting was originally hired to carve out a hole for the wastewater treatment plant’s foundations, but the city says they blasted too deep and too wide, and left behind explosive materials, including sticks of dynamite.
Advanced Blasting owner Julia Saunders has said the company won’t comment on the allegations.
But contractors on the project say it’s cost them at least $1.6 million — and counting — to deal with the blasting issues.
In some cases, the city’s agreed to pay what the companies are asking. They granted a $340,000 change order to Alaska Mechanical, the lead contractor, to fill in the over-blasted area.
But Northern Mechanical, the subcontractor at the plant, is asking for a lot more — $1.3 million, to be exact. Hladick says the company did face a lot of extra work. They had to deal with the over-blasting and the abandoned explosives at the site.
“It was completed last July and August, I believe, the work — they’d find a blasting material and they’d stop work and deal with it, and there were a lot of starts and stops,” Hladick said.
Northern Mechanical hasn’t been paid for that extra work yet, because the city wants more details on why it cost so much.
“We’re saying, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money. Okay, show us your back-up. Show us your timecards, show us how many trucks you used…’ all that kind of stuff,” Hladick said. ”And that’s well within our rights to do that.”
Either way, it’s not just financial cost from blasting issues that’s adding up at the wastewater site. It’s costing time, too. Hladick says Alaska Mechanical wants to add extra days on the end of the contract to make up for delays.
He says that shouldn’t be a problem — the city built a buffer into their construction schedule so they could meet the EPA’s deadline even if they ran into problems.
But all those problems have had a ripple effect, and it’s spread to another municipal project: the landfill expansion. Dynamite wrappers turned up in piles of rock there last month, bringing work to a halt.
The contaminated rock had come from the wastewater treatment plant, and Northern Alaska, the contractor that was supposed to use it to expand the landfill, needed to clean it up. Hladick says they asked for $2.3 million extra to do it.
“That was just to go through 40,000 yards of rock, and they were going to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure there wasn’t anything in it,” Hladick said. ”They had, like, $4,000 a day for a powderman to be on site, and they estimated 60 days to go through the pile.”
The city thought the change order was too expensive, so they canceled the contract altogether. The project is set to go back out to bid this week. Whoever picks it up will also have to deal with the contaminated rocks.
That’ll all make up the final price of the blasting issues at the wastewater plant. Once the city approves the contractors’ requests and tallies the total cost, Hladick says they’ll bring it to Advanced Blasting and start looking at getting paid back.
“Yeah, we’re going to sit down with them and talk about it, that’s for sure,” Hladick said.
That conversation won’t involve lawyers — at least not at first. But with projects worth more than $23 million total and several companies’ reputations at stake, Hladick it’s a definite possibility down the road.
The risk of fires in Southeast’s Tongass National Forest has dropped.
A warning was issued last week as warm, sunny weather dried out grass and underbrush.
But Fire Management Officer Seth Ross says that’s changed.
“It seems that the forecast and the current weather indicate that we’re going back to our typical Southeast Alaska pattern, coming out of that warm and dry weather,” Ross says.
“So, we are going to rescind that warning, but still, caution people to always be careful of fire in the woods,” he says.
Ross says the Tongass sees an average of 17 fires each year. Sometimes it’s as high as 40. Most are brush and peat fires.
The run size for Yukon River Chinook, or king salmon, is likely to be lower than last year’s. Fishermen saw the lowest run of kings on record in 2013.
Sport fishing throughout the entire Yukon River drainage area, including the Tanana River is closed this summer. Biologists don’t expect enough fish for a subsistence or commercial harvest this year either.
“Because the last several years, we’ve seen run sizes that have come in lower or at that low end of our preseason projections,” she said.
If she is right, this summer’s will be the lowest run on record for the Yukon River. Schmidt says there could be several reasons for the decline in king salmon.
“I always like to use the analogy of a a rivet in an airplane,” Schmidt said. “If you take one rivet out the airplane will still fly; If you take two out, it will still fly, but once you start taking three, four, five rivets out it’s going to crash.”
“So it might not be one big thing that’s causing Chinook salmon to decline but several small factors.”
Fish and Game is trying to manage the king salmon population so that up to 55,000 fish make it to Canada. That’s close to 86 percent of the lower end of the projected total run size. Fish and Game’s Yukon Area Summer Season Manager Eric Newland says there hasn’t been a lot of argument against closing sport fishing, subsistence or commercial harvest this summer.
“I think most people on the river really understand this: that it’s a problem, we’re doing a lot to conserve these fish and we’re still not making goals,” he said.
According to Newland, biologists are looking for ways to allow for harvest of other species in place of king salmon.
“Initially, we’ll be trying to provide for sheefish in the lower river, whitefish in other districts as well as summer chum when those fish become available a little later in the season and at that time we’ll be using gear types that allow for the release of King salmon if they are incidentally caught at that time,” he said.
Newland says last year’s commercial harvest of chum salmon, also known as dogs, was one of the largest on record. The subsistence harvest last summer was also up for chums, and Fish and Game expects a strong fall chum run this year as well. In the meantime, several research initiatives to investigate the king salmon decline are underway.
The Bethel City Council voted unanimously to fire City Manager Lee Foley during a special meeting Monday.
The termination comes after the 3-month-long investigation conducted by a third party attorney into nepotism, contracts, and personnel issues, among other issues. Council member Mark Springer noted that Foley had done a lot of good for the city.
“However it is the council’s prerogative at any time to terminate the city manager and in light of matters that have come to our attention and that have been given very serious consideration by the council…that why I’m making this motion,” Springer said. “And as I’ve said in previous meetings, this is not something we are taking lightly.”
“We’ve not been following Bethel Municipal Code, and as our administrator for the city, [Foley] is the person most responsible for that to occur,” Klejka said. “It has just not been followed multiple, multiple, multiple times.”
The council confirmed violations within the city related to procurement, nepotism, credit card usage, personnel policies, leave, and travel and training policies. Foley’s son, Bo, works for the city’s IT department, which violates current city code.
In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Foley admitted to using a city credit card for personal business and allowing department heads to do the same before paying back the money.
The termination was effective immediately. Foley has been city manager since July of 2008. Port Director Pete Williams has been the acting city manager since Foley was placed on administrative leave in April.
Foley said in a brief statement to the council that it was an honor serving the city council and that he wishes the best for Bethel.
The council is hoping to hire a human resources director soon, in an effort to ensure personnel policies are followed.
The council passed four motions in the special meeting. One would freeze tuition assistance to city employees until next year. Others would not allow first class travel on city business trips, stop automatic credit card charges, and ensure employees who cash out sick leave and personal time do so according to code.
The city is not releasing the investigation, citing attorney client privilege. KYUK and five other media organizations have submitted a public records request for the investigation.
The council meets in a regular meeting Tuesday at 6:30 at City Hall where they plan to hold a public hearing about proposed increases to water and sewer rates, direct city staff to move ahead with bike path and boardwalk repair and discuss creating a Bing Santamour higher education scholarship.
The Alaska Air Group will buy back up to $650 million of stock, in a move approved by the Board of Directors.
The buyback will equal about 10-percent of the company’s current market capitalization and comes on the heels of the current $250-million stock buyback.
In a prepared statement, the Chief Financial Officer stressed that the Alaska Air Group will finance the stock repurchases with cash on hand and cash flow from operations.
Since 2007, the Alaska Air Group has instigated 8 stock repurchase initiatives at a cost of $519-million. The Board of Directors also approved a quarterly cash dividend of 25-cents per share to be paid on June 4.
The Alaska Air Group is the parent company for Alaska Airlines.
Alaska was the first state in the country to add a ban on same-sex marriage to its Constitution. Now, five gay couples are trying to strike that ban down.
The complaint is being filed in federal district court today, and it names Gov. Sean Parnell as the lead defendant. The parties are challenging the ban on the grounds that it violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Caitlin Shortell is one of three attorneys representing the couples.
“I think there’s a very strong, growing recognition that laws that single out a particular group of people to deny them rights do not square with the U.S. Constitution. And in fact, not with the Alaska Constitution,” Shortell said.
All but one of the couples challenging the ban have already been married in other states. But their marriages are not recognized by Alaska because of the ban that was instated in 1998. The fifth couple is unmarried, but would like to wed in Alaska.
Because the state officials named in suit have not seen the complaint, a spokesperson from the Department of Law could not comment on the case.
The State Supreme Court has ruled as recently as last month that gay couples need to be treated equally under law in situations like employee benefits and tax breaks, but it has skirted the question of whether the marriage ban conflicts with other parts of the Alaska Constitution.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages. Federal judges have struck down marriage bans in several states since that ruling.
Pacific walruses have been removed from the unusual mortality event declared in the North Pacific for several marine mammal species.
Over the weekend, the Western Mining Action Network held a panel discussion in Anchorage on the development of large scale mines in British Columbia that could impact the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers. All are prolific salmon producers for Alaska.
Chris Zimmer is the Alaska Rivers without Borders campaign director. He says there are a number of mines proposed for BC and two of the most concerning are the Tulsequah Chief mine and the much larger Kerr Suphurets Mitchell or KSM prospect which is half the size of the Pebble mine proposal and 50 times larger than Tulsequah.
Why are these mining proposals ramping up now?
Zimmer – Well part of it is the price of gold. When I started this work 15 years ago, gold was in the 300 to 400 an ounce and now with it well into the thousands, that’s really driving a lot of this. And you also have two big pushes from BC. One a very strong pro mining push from the BC government. Premiere Christy Clark said she wants to see eight or ten mines in eight or ten years. Then you also have over the last couple of years, both Canada at the federal level and BC at the provincial level have, I’d say significantly cut their permitting regulations, significantly weakened some environmental laws. So these mines are going through much faster, in the permitting reviews, they’re not being held to as rigorous a standard, so we really see this as a tremendous mining binge in the BC side of the Southeast Alaska/BC transboundary region here.
Describe what the concern is for Alaska.
Zimmer – The biggest issue is, we’re downstream from all of this. If the rivers flowed the other way, it would be quite different. So the concern is for our water quality, our fish and the jobs, the livelihoods, the cultures that depend on those. Basically what we have in the headwaters now is a toxic time bomb if these mines are built. You’re going to have millions to billions of tons of acid mine generating rock, constant water flow and in the case of KSM, the company says they’ll have to treat the water for 200 years when most people think they’ll have to treat it forever. So forever is a tough concept, who is going to pay for forever? Who is going to pay to clean this up? So Alaska is going to get no benefit from these mines, the benefits will all flow to Canada and we get nothing but the risk to our downstream fisheries.
This is a trans-nation border issue, waters flowing from BC into Alaska, U.S. waters, have you spoken to anyone from the congressional delegation about this?
Zimmer – Over the last couple of months, we’ve put together a loose coalition of almost all the stakeholders in these watersheds, from commercial fishermen to tribes to environmentalists and we did send a team back to Washington DC in March. The response there was excellent from federal agencies and from our congressional delegation. They saw the risk, they listened to everybody and the congressional delegation immediately fired off a letter to Secretary John Kerry, saying this is an international issue and we need the State Department to engage directly with the Canadian government, because this isn’t an Alaska/BC this is really the U.S. and Canada and the border creates some problems of jurisdiction, the mines are in another country so the only way we thought we could get some traction and get these issues addressed is to make this a federal government to federal government level. Secretary Kerry does have other things on his plate these days, so we haven’t gotten an answer back yet, but we’ve been working with lower level officials in the State Department to try to engage with Canada. So that type of diplomacy is slow, it’s painful, but its really the only way for Alaska to get satisfaction, to get it’s concerned addressed. Canada is probably going to dig its heels in a bit so this could be a tough battle here.
Chieftan Metals Corporation, based in Toronto, is the owner of the Tulsequah Chief Mine. Company President and CEO Victor Wypryski was traveling and could not be reached for comment today, but a recent posting on the company’s website highlights the results of a February water quality study.
Conducted at the request of the British Columbia ministry of the environment, the study tested four sites on the Tulsequah River, near the confluence of the Taku River near the mine site. Chinook, Coho, sockeye salmon and dolly varden were tested. Researchers reportedly found no discernable impact in fish tissue samples from historic mining discharge.
Robert Sanderson is first vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes and was at the mining conference. He also is concerned that Alaskans don’t have legal standing to address Canadian mining.
“So that’s one thing we’re working on now is to start a dialogue with the tribal first nations first in Canada, and encourage them to work closely with their government, the provincial government, and on this side of the border, the U.S., we’re working with our Congressional delegation and the state of Alaska, which I feel could do more,” Sanderson said.
Something that may help the BC mining operations is a 2011 initiative to sign revenue sharing agreements with Canadian First Nations or tribes.
A string of motorcycle collisions have taken five lives in the Southcentral area during the past several weeks.
And on a narrow highway shoulder near Palmer last week, riders lined up for an impromptu memorial service at the site of an accident on May 3 that claimed the lives of three members of the Harley Owners Group Alaska Chapter. They placed flowers and flags at the site.
Next month, Seattle-area mountain climber Bruce Stobie is going to attempt to get to the top of Denali. That alone is impressive, but Stobie faces an additional challenge. He’s blind.