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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: 29 min 27 sec ago

After Legislature Adjourns, Walker Calls For Special Session

Tue, 2015-04-28 01:32

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Could Gavel Out

Mon, 2015-04-27 19:27

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.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 27, 2015

Mon, 2015-04-27 19:11

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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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.

Categories: Alaska News

BOEM Explains 75% Chance of Arctic Oil Spill

Mon, 2015-04-27 17:45

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.


Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Nepalese community reacts to quake

Mon, 2015-04-27 17:05

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.

Categories: Alaska News

A Moving Target: WAANT Pursues Bootleg Liquor

Mon, 2015-04-27 16:26

Bethel WAANT investigators seize alcohol bound for local option communities. Photo Credit: Ben Matheson

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.


Categories: Alaska News

Industry Forecasts Strong Tourist Season For Alaska

Mon, 2015-04-27 12:40

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.

The Coral Princess Cruise ship prepares to dock in Juneau. Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO – Juneau.

“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.

Categories: Alaska News

Law and Rover: HB 147 Would Give Pets Special Legal Considerations

Mon, 2015-04-27 12:13

Ben Peyerk, the director of animal control and protection at the Gastineau Humane Society, pets a cat named Gouda. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Trident’s New Fishmeal Plant To Go Online Soon In Naknek

Mon, 2015-04-27 12:09

50 foot, 60,000 pound spin drier sits at the center of the new Trident fishmeal plant in Naknek
Credit Matt Martin

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.

Tubing runs up the hill and takes the raw fish guts from the processing plant to the new fishmeal plant.
Credit Matt Martin

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.

Inside this metal silo are thousands of tiny round scrubbers that help to clean the fish odor out of the air.
Credit Matt Martin

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Red Chris Mine Gets Closer To Full Production

Mon, 2015-04-27 12:03

The Red Chris Mine’s first shipment of copper concentrate was sent out April 11, 2015. (www.imperialmetals.com)

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.

Categories: Alaska News

After Weekend Moves On Budget, Legislative Session Continues On

Mon, 2015-04-27 02:52

After a week of lots of gridlock and little accomplished, the Alaska State Legislature lurched into some fits of action on the budget this weekend. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

Here’s what lawmakers did over the past two days: They passed a bill advancing an interior energy project, and another dealing with worker’s comp. They also held a late-night meeting that appeared to move the Republican majorities in the House and Senate closer to a budget deal.

Here’s what they did not do: Gavel out.

SEN. KEVIN MEYER:Mr. Majority Leader?
SEN. JOHN COGHILL: Mr. President, I move that the Senate adjourn until Monday the 27th at 10am.

Despite speculation that the Legislature could wrap up this weekend, the hopes of many Capitol workers were dashed on Sunday afternoon when Senate President Kevin Meyer told his side to be back to work the next day — the 98th day of the 90 day legislative session.

A sense of anticipation had set in, after a conference committee had met at 9pm on Saturday night to resolve the points of disagreement between the House and Senate budgets.

Their agreement uses various pots of money to cover the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit, instead of tapping the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve. Legislators need a three-quarter vote to access that $10 billion rainy day account, and the House’s Democratic Minority has made their support conditional on increased education funding and Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, said at the meeting that the House and Senate majorities were now seriously considering moving ahead without attempting to access the budget reserve.

“We’re waiting to hear from the administration on what happens if there’s no three-quarter vote,” said MacKinnon. “So, as I understand it, the majority has made an attempt to get a three-quarter vote and not been successful to date. And so, we’ve left it to the administration to define to the Legislature, specifically Senate Finance’s request to understand how they will access those funds in what manner, and in what order.”

Their budget plugs the revenue shortfall by stopping the forward funding of education, a one-time fix that frees up more than $1 billion for the next fiscal year.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, suggested that forward-funding process could come back for schools if House Democrats reconsidered their position on the budget reserve vote.

“One of the reasons we couldn’t get the money is because we don’t have a three-quarter vote,” said Kelly. “That might be something on the list of the three-quarter vote to the minority so that we could forward fund education.”

Their plan also claws back $157 million that had been designated for work on a natural gas megaproject — money that would otherwise be available to the governor for his studies of an alternative gasline.

Some of the conference committee changes made on Saturday night were in line with House Democrats’ requests — some funding for public broadcasting was restored, and a nearly $50 million cut to classroom formula funding made by the Senate was shrunk down to a third of that number.

But Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said the education cuts were still too much.

“This $16.4 million reduction on top of the $32 million that’s already been reduced is over a $48 million reduction in funding for our public schools,” said Gara. “I think that’s a devastating amount of funding cuts. And I totally understand that we’re in a fiscal crisis, but there are smarter ways to get around it.”

Gara also said he opposed language in the budget meant to prevent Gov. Bill Walker from unilaterally accepting Medicaid expansion.

The governor has said he plans to call lawmakers into a special session if they fail to expand Medicaid, and his office has expressed support for passing a fully funded budget.

Categories: Alaska News

Testing Refusals Hit Haines, Put Star Rating And Funding At Risk

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:09

An AMP flyer posted at Haines School. (Emily Files)

A growing national movement to opt-out of standardized testing has hit the Haines School District hard. In the past six years, only one student has refrained from taking annual tests. But this year, families of 12 students refused the test.

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District administrators say that puts Haines well below the federally-mandated 95 percent participation rate. That could mean more scrutiny and work for the district. It could also put thousands of dollars in grant funding at risk.

“This is catching me completely by surprise,” said Haines Superintendent Ginger Jewell.

School districts around the U.S. are required by federal law to assess student progress with testing each year. In Alaska, students in grades 3-10 are tested in English Language Arts and Math. Grades 4, 8 and 10 are tested in science.

“The reason why we have that in place is because it’s an accountability measure to make sure students are receiving education as defined by the state,” said Elizabeth Davis, administrator for student assessments with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (EED).

The AMP (Alaska Measures of Progress) tests are new this year. They replaces SBAs (Standards Based Assessments.) AMP tests are aligned with new state education standards adopted in 2012.

They’re conducted online, instead of with a pencil and paper. Davis says the new education standards are more rigorous and emphasize critical thinking.

Most states around the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards in their curriculum and tests. Alaska is not one of them. The new standards here are called the Alaska English Language Arts and Mathematics Standards. Davis says they include Alaska-specific material.

But some parents and even legislators see a difference between Common Core and Alaska Standards only in name, not in substance. That is a central reason for the increasing number of refusals.

“So there’s a group of people who feel like their students shouldn’t take this test because it’s a Common Core test,” Davis said.  “Which would be an inaccurate statement.”

A group called Alaskans Against the Common Core did not return requests for comment. But one Haines parent did explain his reasons for opting his students out of the AMP test this year. He asked not to be identified to protect his children’s privacy.

He says his main concern about testing also has to do with privacy. He says AMP is aligned with Common Core, and his understanding of Common Core’s purpose is to track students through their schooling and into their career, and then that data is available to be sold to companies that are recruiting.

“Absolutely not. We do not sell student data, period,” said Brian Laurent, the data supervisor for EED.

He says the data from AMP tests resides on the servers of the test vendor, which is the University of Kansas Achievement and Assessment Institute. They’re the ones who ‘crunch the numbers’ and then report them to Alaska’s education department.

“Any transfer of student information from our test vendor in Kansas to staff here in the department is done in a secure, encrypted manner. Student data are not at risk of being released or shared,” Laurent said.

Haines is not the only school district in Alaska dealing with a huge increase in test refusals.

“At this point in time we have a total of 32 parent or student refusals out of 283 testers,” said Robyn Taylor, assistant superintendent and testing coordinator for the Sitka School District.

When Taylor spoke to KHNS on Friday, two out of five schools had finished testing. Both schools fell well below 95 percent participation. In Haines, the district participation rate was about 93 percent.

That’s a problem because No Child Left Behind requires schools to have a 95 percent participation in assessments.

“The lower the participation rate, the less valid the results are in telling us how the school does,” said EED Deputy Commissioner Les Morse.

In normal circumstances, low participation could drop the school’s Alaska School Performance Index rating, which is on a scale of one to five stars. Right now, Haines homeschool, elementary and high school all have four or five-star ratings.

“When your star rating drops to three or below, then you become under heavy, heavy scrutiny by both the state and possibly the federal government for much more paperwork, much more oversight,” said Superintendent Jewell.

But since this is the first year for the AMP test, EED is requesting federal approval to freeze schools’ star ratings. So, at least this year, Haines schools’ star ratings might not change.

However, with a participation rate below the federal requirement, state officials say the district will still have to develop a plan to bring participation next year back up.

There is also a whole range of federal funding that is contingent on student assessments. If a state is out of compliance, the US Department of Education could withhold funding. If school districts fail to comply with testing requirements, the state could withhold funding from them. Davis says the state has not discussed that option.

“Alaska doesn’t withhold funding when schools are making their best effort,” she said.

So schools are stuck in the middle of two things they cannot do very much about: federal requirements on test participation and parents’ freedom of choice to refuse testing.

Districts like Haines and Sitka have tried to put out information to combat worries about AMP testing. Jewell says she’s concerned the ‘genie is out of the bottle,’ and that what she calls ‘misinformation’ will not go away.

Categories: Alaska News

Southwest’s Healthy Sea Stars Could Shed Light on Wasting Disease

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:08

Josh Good holds a healthy solaster, or sun star, on an Unalaska beach. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

A mysterious virus that’s been wiping out sea stars on the West Coast since 2013 has spread all the way to Southeast Alaska — but it hasn’t made it to Southwest. That’s what a group of researchers found last month in Unalaska and Kodiak.

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Now, they hope the islands’ healthy sea stars will give them new clues about how the virus works.

It’s low tide on a sandy beach outside Unalaska’s Captain’s Bay, and local scuba diver Josh Good is wading around in a rocky tide pool. It’s full of urchins, kelp and sponges. But Good is looking for something a little higher up the food chain.

Good: “This is a solaster. Solaster stimpsoni. And they’re predatory. They’re pretty awesome.”

He’s holding a 10-legged sea star, about a foot wide. It’s bright orange with purple stripes. The solaster eats sea cucumbers — but it can be food itself for bigger sea stars.

Good: “He was just in these rocks upside down. Probably trying to get back in the water.”

Further out, Good finds more stars of all different shapes and sizes. But there’s one thing they have in common — they’re healthy. And that’s big news, when stars up and down the West Coast and into Alaska have been dying off from sea star wasting disease.

Ian Hewson is a researcher at Cornell University. He visited Unalaska and Kodiak about a month ago, working with divers like Good to check if local sea stars were infected.

“We actually looked at about six different species of sea stars, and we collected samples from four of those and took them back to the lab,” Hewson says. “We can confirm that we didn’t detect the virus, which is normally associated with this disease further south.”

This Unalaska tide pool holds several different species of healthy sea star. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

It’s been seen in Homer, Seward, Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. Huge numbers of stars develop lesions, lose limbs and finally disintegrate into mush.

Now, Hewson wants to know why that’s not happening in Southwest, and he’ll study samples from the healthy stars to find out. One theory, he says, is distance.

“There’s a big break in what’s known as biogeography of sea stars between Kodiak and, essentially, the Kenai Peninsula,” Hewson says. “It’s just a pretty deep stretch of water that not a lot of material goes between.”

That break could protect Unalaska and Kodiak, if the virus spreads how Hewson thinks it does — on juvenile sea stars. They’re spawned in the water, then float away from their parents and usually settle among new populations.

“So it’s almost as though, you know, you’ve got the daycare center, if you will,” Hewson says. “They’ve obviously got some pathogen out in the environment, and they’re bringing it home and infecting the adults.”

But the virus might not be all that’s causing the disease. In the Southwest samples, Hewson says he’ll be on the lookout for outside influences that could differ from infected areas.

“What we’re not terribly sure of is whether adverse environmental conditions makes it more susceptible to this virus, or whether, perhaps, it makes the symptoms more obvious to us,” he says. “So these are the types of questions that we are trying to work on.”

And it’s just the beginning of what they hope to do. If National Science Foundation funding comes through this summer, Hewson’s team will be back to the Southwest to collect entire stars.

They’ll quarantine them and infect them with the virus down South, Hewson says, “and then perform some very crucial experiments in our work related to understanding how this disease progresses from a completely healthy to a wasted-away sea star.”

Understanding that process could be the key to a mystery that’s having a major impact on the ocean. Wasting disease affects almost all species of stars — but especially bigger ones. Hewson gives the 3 foot-wide sunflower star as an example.

“That becomes a really dominant, keystone carnivore in the ecosystem,” he says. “It’s like your great white shark for an invertebrate.”

It’s so high up on the food chain that it has a bigger effect on the ecosystem when it dies off.

“Things that they normally eat have become really, really abundant. And those things include things like urchins, for example,” Hewson says. “Urchins play this pretty big role in controlling the amount of algae on rocky substrates, but because they’re herbivores, they actually consume kelps and things. And so when you get these big booms of urchins, basically the kelps disappear.”

Back on the beach in Unalaska, Josh Good is looking at a healthy ecosystem — where sea stars are keeping the whole food chain in balance.

Good: “The Aleutians are teeming with life. There’s so much life here. And everybody goes to warm places to dive, and really there’s way more life and biodiversity here.”

Good was happy to hear that Unalaska’s sea stars are safe from wasting disease for now, but he and other locals are still keep an eye out for signs of change. Good does it every week, underwater and in his kayak. In fact, he was setting out for a paddle as soon as he put his sea stars back where he found them.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: The Sitka Sentinel Remains A Family Affair

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:07

James Poulson and his father Thad operate the printing press, which is the same piece equipment used by the family to print the paper in 1969. James was four years old then and has since become the staff photographer. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The Sitka Sentinel celebrated its 75th anniversary last year without much fanfare. As many newspapers in big cities have folded or turned into online only operations, the Sentinel steadily churns out five issues a week.

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The paper is owned and edited by Thad and Sandy Poulson, reporters who arrived in 1969 and are determined to keep the press running.

“Come on back, there’s something kind of interesting,” Thad Poulson said, winding his way through the print shop.

On our right is a giant orange machine – a printing press that was state of the art when Poulson arrived in 1969 – and continues to churn out every issue of the paper to this day. But that’s not what Poulson is excited about. He motions to the back room, his fingers covered with ink.

Sandy Poulson is the city editor. She and Thad met while working at newspapers in Oklahoma City, where her first job was to write obituaries. She continues to write them with the care for the Sentinel, saying, “Some newspapers charge for obituaries. I can see that in a big city, but in small towns, it’s news. We try to do a good job.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“Things are kind of inky back here, so be careful not to touch things,” Thad said.

Before us is their brand new CTP machine, which stands for computer-to-plate. The plate works like a rubber stamp—getting covered with ink and smooshed by the press onto large banks of paper. But instead of rubber, it’s a giant square of aluminum.

“So it’s going to emerge fully developed within three minutes,” Thad said, feeding the plate into the machine. “There it goes!”

Lasers will etch the words and images of the front page onto the plate’s surface. There’s a story about a Coast Guard rescue and Medicaid reform. The lead photo is of a little boy getting his head shaved for St. Baldrick’s, a cancer fundraising event. Transferring his face onto the front page would have been a three step process before, involving cutting and pasting and a lot of manual labor. With the CTP machine, that imaging process is entirely digital.

“This thing takes an hour at least an hour of the production process,” Thad said.

The Sentinel’s first editor was Harold Veatch in 1939. Alaska wasn’t yet a state. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. And the reason the paper’s still around – surviving the digital revolution and the folding of papers around the country – is through the steady devotion of one newspaper couple, Thad and Sandy Poulson. They have been working at the paper since 1969.

“It’s all we know how to do. We talk about that sometimes. What if we weren’t here? What if we had something? Well, what else can we do?” Thad said. “This is the path we’ve charted for ourselves, so here we are.”

Thad Poulson scrupulously inspects issues of the paper that arrive hot off the press. Their process has been expedited by a new CTP imaging machine, which the paper bought on their 75th anniversary. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

And the Sentinel really is a family production. Thad and Sandy co-edit. They met while working at papers in Oklahoma City. He’s 79 and she’s 75. Their son James Poulson takes all the pictures. There are two general assignment reporters and a handful of additional staff members. In addition to copy editing all the content, Thad runs the press in the basement, just as he did when he was 36.

As issues arrive hot off the press, he flicks them to check for ink spots and clear jams.

As for Thad’s wife Sandy?

“She’s the quarterback of the team,” Thad said. “She decides what’s going to be on the front page and chooses the write stories and writes the headlines.”

Nowadays, Sandy culls national stories from the Associated Press with a few clicks of the mouse. But in the beginning, she was tethered to news of the world through a single wire service that typed at 60 words a minute.

“DEDDEDEDDDEDE – except five times louder,” James Poulson said. He was four years old when his parents took over the paper, called growing up in a 1970s newsroom “tumultuous.”

“When there’s an important breaking story, a bell would go off and I just remember when I was a kid, the bell would go off quite a bit because it was during Watergate,” James said. “Lots of breaking news.”

James Poulson makes sure the ink is evenly distributed on the press. The son of two newspaper owners, Poulson grew up to the sounds of teletype machine delivering news from around the world. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

James says his parents have tried their best to keep up with technology over the years.

“Dad is kind of an early adopter,” James said. “He was sending out e-mails back when it was like sending out Morse code.”

But that doesn’t mean that it’s been easy to adapt. The CTP machine cost $50,000, which is why it took the Sentinel so long to incorporate it. But the paper is profitable. That’s partly because the operation is mostly a family affair.

“I wouldn’t recommend it for a business model and I’ll tell you why,” Thad said. “What if we want to move on? Do something else? Transfer ownership? The salaries we’ve been paying ourselves on the books won’t cover half of what you have to pay the people who will do it in real life.”

Thad and Sandy met working for city papers in Oklahoma, but had to change their approach to reporting in Sitka. This is especially true with the obituaries, which Sandy takes particular pains to write. She invites the family to weigh in in their own words.

“With age I realize more and more the importance of having some sort of legacy or having your life on record somewhere,” Sandy said.

The Sitka Sentinel is a daily paper that serves a community of 9,000, which owner Thad Poulson considers “extraordinary.” “Sitka has the advantage of its isolation. It’s a good newspaper town.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

It’s the kind of personal touch that only newspaper in a town of 9,000 can bring.

“We are a daily paper in a weekly sized town. It works very well for us, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.”

Within 20 minutes, the print is done. And 2,500 issues are stacked and ready for distribution. Thad looks over me a triumphant grin.

“Another day, another dollar!” he said.

Thad Poulson says circulation is double what it was in the 1970s and that as long as Sitkans still want a daily paper, he intends for the Sentinel to be around.

Categories: Alaska News

After Five-Month Break, More National Guard Records Released

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:06

After a five-month hiatus on document production, the Walker administration has released a batch of records related to the Alaska National Guard scandal.

The 4142-page file was sent to news organizations at 3p.m. on Friday afternoon. Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News requested the materials nearly a year ago, during the Parnell administration, but were denied access until a superior court judge ruled for their release in October.

Because what then-Gov. Sean Parnell knew about the Alaska National Guard’s problem was a major subject of the gubernatorial campaign, Judge Gregory Miller ordered a rush release of records the week before the election. Production stopped after Election Day, and the Walker administration has since conducted their own review of the documents to see where redactions should be made and pages held because of executive privilege.

Last summer, a federal investigation found that the National Guard had issues with fraud, embezzlement, and sexual assault reporting. Parnell removed a number of key leaders in response, and Gov. Bill Walker has ordered a special investigation of the force. The results of that investigation are slated for a public release in May.

Categories: Alaska News

49 Voices: Tom Irons of Homer

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:06

This week, we’re hearing from Tom Irons, who is retired and lives in Homer.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 24, 2015

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:04

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.


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Republican Lawmakers Looking To Avoid Constitutional Budget Reserve Vote

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are now considering ways to avoid a vote on the constitutional budget reserve.


More National Guard Records Released

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

After a five-month hiatus on document production, the Walker administration has released a batch of records related to the Alaska National Guard scandal.


The Blind Spot: Beyond No-Man’s Land

Zachariah Hughes & Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Though substance abuse among young people in Anchorage and statewide is troublingly high, some officials see reasons for optimism. All this week, as part of our series “The Blind Spot,” Alaska Public Media is exploring holes in the safety net for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol. And, as KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes reports, policy solutions are starting to address the problem.


Testing Refusals Hit Haines, Put Star Rating And Funding At Risk

Emily Files, KHNS – Haines

A growing national movement to opt-out of standardized testing has hit the Haines School District. That put the district well below the federal mandate of 95 percent participation which could put thousands of dollars in grant funding at risk.


Southwest’s Healthy Sea Stars Could Shed Light on Wasting Disease

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

A mysterious virus that’s been wiping out sea stars on the West Coast since 2013 has spread all the way to Southeast Alaska — but not to Southwest. A group of researchers found that last month in Unalaska and Kodiak. They hope the islands’ healthy sea stars will give new clues about how the virus works.


AK: Small Town Newspaper

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

The Sitka Sentinel celebrated its 75th anniversary last year without much fanfare. As many newspapers in big cities have folded or turned into online only operations, the Sentinel steadily churns out five issues a week. The paper is owned and edited by Thad and Sandy Poulson, reporters who arrived in Sitka in 1969 and are determined to keep the press running.


49 Voices: Tom Irons of Homer

This week, we’re hearing from Tom Irons, who is retired and lives in Homer.


Categories: Alaska News

With Budget Negotiations Stalled, Republicans Consider Partially Funding Government

Fri, 2015-04-24 17:04

The Legislature has now gone five days past its statutory deadline, and still an agreement on the budget has not been reached.

Negotiations on whether lawmakers will tap the constitutional budget reserve — a $10 billion rainy day fund — have gone slowly. A three-quarter vote is needed to access the fund, and the House’s Democratic minority has made their support conditional on a few priorities, like increased education funding and Medicaid expansion.

The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are now considering ways to avoid that vote. House Speaker Mike Chenault says that the Legislature may be able to pay for government through October using revenue anticipation bonds or existing pots of money, like the power cost equalization fund. The Nikiski Republican adds that Gov. Bill Walker is supportive of that plan.

“That’s not an option the governor really wants to see is us leave without a CBR vote,” says Chenault. “If he would like to help and from his position to get a CBR vote, we would probably accept that.”

As of Friday afternoon, a deal was still out of reach. Gov. Walker, the House Speaker, the Senate President, and the House Minority Leader were all planning to meet in the same room for the first time since negotiations began. Even if they come to an agreement, Chenault cautions that an adjournment today is unlikely.

“You know, can we get that done in a day? Yeah, if everything went good,” says Chenault, noting that logistical delays could occurs.

The biggest hold up is a $47 million cut to school funding, made by the Senate. The Senate stands by that cut, while House Democrats would like to reverse it. House Speaker Mike Chenault says his caucus also believes that it goes too deep.

“So, if we have to be hung up on an issue down here, I think education is a worthwhile issue,” says Chenault.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are not on board with the plan to gavel out and circumvent a vote on the constitutional budget reserve.

“I don’t think we should take a vacation. I think we should have gotten this done in 90 days,” says Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat. “But since we couldn’t get it done in 90 days, we need to still try and work together to protect public education, to pass things that would save the state huge amounts of money, like the $600 million we would save with Medicaid expansion.”

If the vote to access the CBR does not happen, the legislature may have to hold a special session later in the fall to avoid a government shutdown when funds run out.

Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: Juvenile Justice And Substance Abuse In Young Alaskans.

Fri, 2015-04-24 12:00

Juvenile crime in Anchorage is down, but crimes involving drugs and alcohol is not. Many who work in the juvenile justice system say we’re not catching young people who are getting into trouble soon enough. A new series examines what services are available, how youth are getting help and how they’re helping themselves.

HOST: Lori Townsend


  • Anne Hillman, reporter, KSKA 91.1FM
  • Zachariah Hughes, reporter, KSKA 91.1FM
  • Callers statewide


  • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
  • Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.


Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: Beyond No-Man’s Land

Fri, 2015-04-24 09:34

At the low end, prevention measures costs the State of Alaska $9 per point of contact. Intensive substance abuse treatment costs $49,502 per person on average. Chart courtesy of the Division of Behavioral Health, DHSS.

In spite of the alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among teens in Anchorage, many officials say there reasons for optimism.

All this week, as part of our series “The Blind Spot,” we’ve been exploring holes in the safety net for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol. Now, we look towards solutions.

State officials and non-profit workers told us policy measures are dove-tailing with new evidence that perceptions about drinking are starkly different from realities on the ground.

Under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services, the state is currently trying to shift the paradigm on community health in Alaska, developing new tools to measure what’s working.

“Just doing a walk-around, and looking at your community,” explained Diane Casto, is a new way the Division of Behavior Health, which she heads, makes assessments

The division’s focus has zoomed out, examining health at the social rather than individual level. “What’s the density of alcohol outlets in your community?” Casto asks, “What are the policies and procedures and practices in your community related to alcohol and drug issues?”

Casto has been doing prevention-related work in Alaska since 1978, and has seen a full gamut of approaches. The trend is away from reactive intervention, and towards prevention.

“The more we work on the front-end, and prevent these issues from becoming catastrophic, the better we will be,” Casto said. A part of the Division’s interest is simple economics: when it comes to substance abuse, preventative measures are significantly less expensive than providing treatment, residential care, and continuing assistance. It is a “reap what you sow” approach.

It costs Casto’s Division about $9 per person to put on a promotional event like a health fair. That is a bargain compared to the $49,502 it costs to provide long-term care to an individual working through acute psychiatric care and recovery. That doesn’t mean every person who stops by a health fair will “just say no” for their whole life. Nor are the expenditures perfect analogues: DBH  measures prevention measures as points of contact, where as hospitalization could be days or weeks of intensive management. But on balance, Casto sees prevention as sounder policy.

The Alaska Wellness Coalition has a similar aim. The group is trying to prevent underage drinking by changing community-wide perceptions. The Center for Disease Control’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey says that three-quarters of youth reported not drinking in the past month. Coalition is using that data to show teens that drinking is actually not the norm.

“What this campaign intends to do is start the conversation,” said campaign coordinator Hope Finkelstein. “Even if people don’t believe that 78%of the kids don’t drink, that’s fine. That is okay, because people will start questioning.”

The Coalition finds youth around the state want to talk about alcohol but haven’t been able to.  A similar campaign was launched in Homer a few years ago, when data showed that people there didn’t drink nearly as much as was commonly thought. When the data were released people didn’t believe it. However, it got them talking about it.

There is also an effort to get kids in trouble better. Or, at the very least, to develop an improved system from the Minor Consuming Alcohol charges currently on the books. At the state level, Senate Bill 99 this session attempts to amend Title 4, the state’s alcohol code. The legislation did not advance far, but supporters like Cynthia Franklin, Director of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board, believe its introduction sets the wheels in motion for meaningful reforms next session.

Professor Marny Rivera at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center works on the issue, and wants the MCA citation to be replaced with a ticket–like the kinds issued for speeding or parking. Rivera has spent the last few years examining state statutes on alcohol, talking with experts, as well as prosecutors and employees within the Division of Juvenile Justice.

“What we realized is that MCA’s are almost like a gap, or a no-man’s land,” Rivera explained in her office, “DJJ doesn’t deal with these youth until they’ve already come to the attention of the criminal justice system three times.”

Though it may sound counter-intuitive, Rivera wants to help at-risk kids by increasing the number of times they get in trouble, and to ensure the sanctions are meaningful rather than arbitrary.

Police and lawyers know what a long, drawn-out process it can be to see an MCA go through the courts, Rivera said. And they have hearts: they know an MCA makes your name pop up in CourtView, which can jeopardize a young person’s future. Prosecutors across the state regularly decline trying MCA cases, explained the ABC Board’s Franklin, herself a former prosecutor. As a result, kids get slapped on the wrist without an official citation ever being issued. And that is exactly the kind of space where addictive behaviors have room to intensify.

“There’re very few cases where you actually see a habitual status offender or a third time Minor Consuming,” Rivera said. She believes that if underage drinking is a simpler offense it will become easier for officers to write those tickets. And the kids getting ticketed all the time will bring them to the attention of the justice system, and potentially be screened for treatment that could have significant impact.

But as the many experts told us, there is no silver bullet. Even if the MCA system is improved, some kids will still end up back where this series started: At the McLaughlin Youth Center.

Ross Blocker stands inside one of the aging treatment cottages on the McLaughlin campus, his fingers interwoven like a nest. Originally from southern Georgia, he’s been in charge of McLaughlin’s Transitional Services Unit for a decade. His goal is making sure kids leave the youth center with the skills they need to survive in the chaotic world.

“You just can’t do all that work then pat ‘em on the back, put ‘em out the door, and say ‘have a nice day,’” Blocker said. He and his team take the initial treatment plan developed for a new resident at McLaughlin, and draft yet another blue-print to address that kid’s risks and goals. Then, they figure out how to support those elements once the youth has left McLaughlin for the outside.

“Medical needs, mental health, counseling needs, substance abuse needs,” Blocker rattles off, “if they’ve gone through intensive substance abuse here, it just makes sense that they need some kind of support system there.”

Blocker’s treatment unit works with partners in Anchorage like the school district and the Mental Health Trust, and tries to check in on everyone who went through treatment so that they don’t leave 24-hour-a-day structure and enter a total vacuum. They try to give the youth the support they need to keep them out of the statistics.

Categories: Alaska News