A former Alaska resident who now lives in northern California is waiting to learn if his home will survive the wild fires. Clark Mishler, a professional photographer lived and worked in Anchorage for more than 40 years. Two years ago Mishler and his wife moved to Calistoga to be near their daughters and grand-kids. Mishler said Calistoga is the northern most community in the Napa Valley. He said it’s a small agricultural community of under 6,000, filled with hard working people. He said they had to evacuate Tuesday night.
MISHLER: It’s completely deserted. There are maybe ten people in the entire town who are there, patrolling. And so far, there have been no structures burned within the Calistoga city limits. This week is going to be very critical though, due to the fact that they’re expecting some very high velocity winds. So, this whole thinking can change in hours and it could go from “We’re okay” to “Oh my God! Everything’s on fire in all directions.”
TOWNSEND: You’re a photographer and you were taking photos before you left Calistoga. Tell us about some of what you captured.CalFire firemen compare notes near the Tubbs fire just north of Calistoga. (Photo by Clark Mishler)
MISHLER: I stuck around town photographing people as they prepared to leave. So I photographed the people at the old folks home, and they took them out pretty early on Monday, and I got photographs of them leaving there. So of them were in tears, not sure of what’s going on, and that was kinda sad. But then I came across other people in the community who had pretty much the same attitude that I did which was, “Hey. You know, we’re alive. We’re able to pack up our cars.” That’s a lot better than some people. There are stories of people who were woken up by this fireball that came through Santa Rosa. And they basically were awakened when they realized that their whole house was lit up inside from the fires outside the house. They literally ran out the front door in their pajamas — no shoes, no cell phone, no wallet — hopped in their cars and drove off to try to and out-speed these fireballs.
TOWNSEND: You also mentioned that there were a lot of folks helping out, a football team helping out with emergency relief. What was going on there?Volunteers at a collection center in Vallejo accept donations for victims of the wild fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties. (Photo by Clark Mishler)
MISHLER: We’re down here in East Bay and yesterday we went over to Costco and we bought a bunch of supplies. And we took them over to a collection center in Vallejo. And the Vallejo high school football team was there, along with a whole bunch of volunteers. And they were doing all kinds of triage on these things — all these paper towels in one pile, water in another pile and all the campers in another pile. And these volunteer trucks were rolling up, and they were filling up these trucks with supplies. And then these trucks were taking off for Santa Rosa, and they were dropping the supplies off at the various centers where people were waiting at the evacuation centers.
TOWNSEND: Clark, what have you been told about when you may be able to go back? What’s happening with containment efforts?
MISHLER: It wasn’t until today that they now feel that they’ve got ten percent to a high of 27 percent containment on some of the fires. There’s a number of major fires burning in the area, some of them have zero containment. So, this weekend is going to be real critical. We’re expected to have some more winds which are really the problem here. As long as the winds don’t come back, they can surround these fires, they can do some back burns and they can stop the progression. But if they don’t know which way the wind is going to be blowing, nor do they know the velocity, they don’t know how large to make that fire break. And so that’s the problem. If you get that winds at the speeds that we had Sunday night, there’s really no stopping it.
Several Bering Sea storms have hit the coast of Southwest Alaska hard this past week. For the village of Port Heiden on the Alaska Peninsula, that has meant accelerated erosion, an issue the village has been dealing with for years.
Trained monitors in the village measured six feet of erosion in some places from the most recent storms. Within the last year, they have measured twenty to one hundred feet of erosion along different sections of their coast line. Jaclyn Christensen is the village brownfield coordinator. She said the shoreline seems to be eroding more quickly than it used to.
“It seems more rapid nowadays because I think we have bigger tides,” Christensen said. “We have a lot more water volume, and we have a lot of pumice in our soil. It’s like tooth decay or a cavity. It eats a lot quicker because it’s porous material, and water could just unearth it so fast and easy. A lot of that is accelerated by the storm.”
It’s a fight Port Heiden has been waging for decades, to stay above water. They started building homes on higher ground away from Meshik, the old village site, in the 1980s. The last person moved out of the old village in 2008.
But the solution is not as simple as abandoning the old town.
First there’s the issue of what to do about the old buildings. Left alone, they would be washed into the sea and the debris will end up on Port Heiden’s beaches. Last year, before the road washed away too much to drive heavy machinery on it, the village deconstructed most of the buildings.
“It’s a very hard thing to do. We’ve gotten a lot of backlash about it because it’s emotional, because it’s letting go of your home that you grew up in,” Christensen said. “But what other alternative do we have? We can’t stop the force of nature, but we can do something about leaving less of a foot print to our ecosystem by not polluting it.”
Then there’s the loss of safe harbor. John Christensen Jr. is the tribal council president and a commercial fisherman.
“Our safe harbor for our boats is down past the old village,” John Christensen Jr. said. “Once the erosion reaches the lake down there. It’ll cut off a line. We won’t have no more road to go down there, so we’re going to have to figure out a different place to park our boats.”
Finally there’s the continued erosion, even in the new town. While the homes where people live now, the village office and the village store are currently on stable ground, to get from the bluffs where the town lies to the beach where barges land and residents subsistence fish, the village has to regularly reconstruct beach access roads with a loader.
More worrisome, erosion is getting to the roads near the school.
“Maybe three years ago there was flooding so bad by the school that the school bus had to take the school kids from the school to the flooded area because there was like a river channel of water on the road and then carry the kids, walk them across the water,” Jaclyn Christensen said. “And then the other school bus was on the other side of the road, and they took the kids from there to their homes.”
Port Heiden’s fuel tank farm was relocated fewer than two years ago due to erosion concerns. But Jaclyn worries that its new position by the school might not keep it safe from erosion for long. Even as the village continues its march inland, she said that there isn’t a lot of talk about why the erosion is happening.
“We don’t really use the word “climate change” around here,” Jaclyn said. “We just know things are changing. We just know high winds are becoming more frequent. We know that bad weather is hanging around a lot longer. I don’t really hear the elders or the local people talk about climate change or ocean acidification, or global warming as much because it seems like a foreign factor that we’ve never really had to understand before.
Whatever the cause, Jaclyn Christensen is optimistic that the community will stay motivated and find solutions.
The state has re-couped nearly $600,000 in legal fees from a 2012 lawsuit with the Bureau of Land Management over an Eastern Interior river. According to U.S. District Court documents, the state sought a million dollars in fees after prevailing in a suit to gain title to the Mosquito Fork of the Forty Mile River.
The parties argued over the river’s navigability, as the state is entitled to ownership of lands underlying navigable waters. A state press release said after fighting the case for several years, the BLM abandoned claim to the river.
The state sought attorney’s fees, accusing the BLM of acting in bad faith by arguing points that had already been rejected in previous cases. The court agreed and the BLM recently withdrew an appeal of the fee order, and paid the state $593,000.
The Environmental Protection Agency was in the remote community of Iliamna on Thursday for the second of two public hearings on whether the agency should roll back its Obama-era proposal to impose restrictions on the Pebble Mine.
Despite pouring rain, over 50 Alaskans from across the region filled seats in the Old Crowley Hangar at the Iliamna Airport and spoke directly to EPA officials.
Unlike the hearing the day before in Dillingham — where public input was unanimously against the proposed Pebble Mine and EPA’s new course — the reaction in Iliamna was more mixed.
Representatives from Pebble Limited Partnership and the Alaska Miners Association spoke in favor of pulling back from imposing Clean Water Act restrictions on the mine. Several local residents also spoke in support of EPA’s new course, saying they hope for more job opportunities in the region.
That included Iliamna resident Margie Olympic, who has been employed by Pebble for 11 years.
“I take pride from where I come from and what I was taught growing up,” Olympic said. “But I also know the value of having a job and supporting my family at this age. Fishing does not and could not support me and my family 12 months out of the year.”
Olympic and others urged EPA to allow the project to begin the normal permitting process.
But many speakers criticized EPA for considering rolling back the restrictions, voicing fears about the mine’s potential impact on the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
“The only true economy with longevity is a renewable economy, and we have that,” Everett Thompson, a commercial fisherman from Naknek, told EPA officials. “It is scary to keep investing into the fishery with an ever-looming threat of Pebble Mine. Please do what is right, do not withdraw your Clean Water Act proposed determination.”
Several speakers also criticized EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for making the decision to settle with the Pebble Limited Partnership this spring without public input from local communities.
“I’ve been involved in the Pebble debate since longer than I care to remember,” Nanci Morris-Lyon said. She owns a sport fishing business near King Salmon. “Since the debate began, I have raised a daughter. She became a full-time fly-fishing guide this summer….These things take a very long time. Much longer than it took Director Pruitt to decide that all the time we committed to scientific study proving why Pebble Mine should not happen in Bristol Bay was not worth reviewing.”
EPA will take comment on its proposal until October 17.
This week we’re hearing from Mia Kinard in Anchorage. Kinard moved to Alaska from South Carolina a little over a year ago.
KINARD: I came her e for change and to give my boys a different environment to live in, to shut them off from so many things that they had access to in the Lower 48.
I met a great, I’m talking about an awesome, group of nurses and care team at the Alaska Heart Institute and over at Alaska Regional Hospital. They took really good care of me, and they did things that wouldn’t get done in the South.
I kept having chest pains and I made a request for a stress test and they said, because of my age I guess, they were saying they only request stress tests when there’s a red flag for it. Well, when I came here and I requested, they did a bunch of tests. Before I left the ER, they were calling me to schedule the stress test. That was the awesome part too because they didn’t waste time and weeks to call me. They were calling me before I left the emergency room.
But I made it into the stress test, I started having a heart attack. In South Carolina, they would’ve just sent me home. They kept sending me home, telling me to eat a lot of oranges and bananas, take an iron supplement. So my life was saved by coming here, and that’s the most to be grateful for.
Just to see different faces… I feel like in the Lower 48, down South, we see a lot of Mexican, Black, White and Asians. But you come here, you have the other cultures, the Indians, the Natives and the Samoans — they shocked me, I liked seeing them. So yeah, I feel like we got the whole thing in a box.
But the thing that I like the most is that right around, I see the mountains. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s like every shot looks it belongs in a picture frame.
What I don’t like about it is not having much to do. I’m not an outdoorsman person, ’cause I couldn’t see going into the wood. You’ve got moose and bears, mhmm. (laughs)
Ketchikan is home to plenty of supernatural phenomena. That’s the theory, at least, behind a new venture: Ketchikan Ghost Tours.
On a dark and misty night, ghost-tour guide Kelli Klees leads about a dozen people to some of downtown Ketchikan’s haunted spaces.
“Do you ever feel like someone is watching you?” Klees asked.
We start on Creek Street, the city’s historic and rather shady red light district built along the shores of Ketchikan Creek.
Klees explained that in its heyday, Creek Street boasted more than 30 brothels. And this was during prohibition. So, many of the houses had trap doors to bring in bootlegged liquor for their male clientele.
“A lot of those men also found themselves being thrown out of those trap doors,” Klees said. “So part of the history of this creek is there were an awful lot of dead salmon and dead bodies.”
Klees said when she first arrived in Ketchikan, she was warned to never walk on Creek Street alone at night. She didn’t heed that warning.
“I’m from Chicago, I’ve got a knife, we’re fine,” Klees said, recalling her reaction at the time. “So, I proceeded to walk down Creek Street alone at night one night and I’ve never been more scared in my life. Because there were about three different people that came out of nowhere. They might as well have gone, ‘Boo!’ There’s shadows everywhere; there’s a weird energy happening in this place.”
For example, Klees said there are reports of ghostly shadows and noises inside Dolly’s House. That Creek Street home, now a private museum, belonged to Dolly Arthur, Ketchikan’s most well-known sporting woman.
Other former brothels on the creek, now shops, reportedly are home to ghosts that move displays around during the night.
As we walk along the boardwalk, a light suddenly flickers.
“Ghost,” Klees said. “Light just came on. Ghost.”
Or, maybe, a motion-activated security light?
“You gotta open up your imagination on a night like this,” Klees said. “What’s real? What’s not? What’s ghosts? What’s automated lights? You never know.”
The ghost tour is the brainchild of Diane Fast, a musician who recently moved to Ketchikan. She said she had taken ghost tours in other cities, and always had fun.
“I just noticed how many people enjoy ghost tours,” Klees said. “And I enjoy them myself and I was like, ‘Wow, you could totally do one here.’ And that spawned the idea for an entire walking tour company.”
Some of the other walking tours Fast offered over the summer got more interest from tourists. But the ghost tour appealed mostly to local residents. And that’s who was on the tour with Klees.
The next stop after Creek Street is Ketchikan’s original hospital, next to the Episcopalian church on Mission Street. That 100-plus-year-old building was vacant for a long time and fell into disrepair, but now is under renovation by Historic Ketchikan.
Klees said people don’t like to go upstairs alone.
“There’s an energy in there,” Klees said. “The quote is, ‘You could cut it with a knife.’”
As Klees finishes up her story about the old hospital, a woman on the tour tells her own story about the former Bon Marche building across the street, where she worked in the late 1990s.
She didn’t want to give her name, but said it was OK to use the story.
“(A) couple of us would work after hours and would hear kids running,” the woman said. “More than once, we came upstairs — because we worked belowground. More than once, we came upstairs trying to see who got into the building. To the point where nobody worked after hours by themselves.”
Another stop for a future ghost tour.
Fast said she’s not absolutely sure ghosts are real, but she is sure there are things in the world that we don’t or can’t understand.
“I’ve had experiences that I can’t really quite explain,” Fast said. “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t know what it isn’t. I don’t claim to know if it’s an actual person that’s haunting a place or just residual energy like when you take a Polaroid photograph. I have no idea. But it’s fascinating and people are interested in it.”
One of the last stops on the ghost tour is the Gilmore Hotel, where there are reports of actual ghostly people. Klees said a man in a top hat and a woman make regular appearances, not at the same time.
“This top-hat man is apparently pretty friendly, but likes to creep people out in one specific room. I believe it’s 208,” Klees said. “He just sits there very peacefully. There’s another woman who sits in a chair very peacefully.”
Klees said it’s not clear who the Gilmore ghosts were. They’re in good company, though, with all the other ghosts haunting Alaska’s First City.
First it was chip sealing that damaged Petersburg vehicles.
Now it’s messy road paint on some of those same roads.
Motorists are complaining about the state of Alaska’s road painting job this week, with bright yellow line paint smeared along several state roads.
The paint has also stained some vehicles and spread in yellow footprints and tire tracks.
The Petersburg Police Department directed questions on the striping to the Department of Transportation. The DOT announced the paint was taking a long time to dry and that DOT crews were investigating why that was.
Motorists were advised to follow suggestions from the manufacturer for removing the paint.
Cones were placed on the new yellow lines. A sign was up Thursday on Haugen Drive warning of wet paint and motorists were asked to avoid driving on the lines.
Petersburg Borough Assembly member and former city mayor Jeff Meucci said he had yellow paint on his mirror, running board and bumper and was able to scrub off some of that Wednesday night.
“You know as I went home I stopped at my neighbor’s house,” Meucci said Thursday. “She was out scrubbing the heck out of her car and it wasn’t coming off. I hope DOT is a little proactive, other than telling to get out there and seeing what your manufacturer suggests. They should have some kinda, little better, I think it’s all over the place. It’s tough.”
Meucci said he was moose hunting Thursday on Mitkof Island and it looked like the crews had a hard time driving in a straight line while painting Mitkof Highway.
Petersburg isn’t the only place with problems from state road painting.
The Ketchikan Daily News reported on complaints there last month, with the mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway borough ending up with yellow paint on his car too.
“First, I’d like to apologize for any inconvenience,” Lance Mearig, the DOT’s Southcoast Region director, said. “We have been testing a new painting system both equipment and doing the work ourselves instead of using contract painters. It is the same equipment and materials that we used in Ketchikan.”
Mearig said the paint the DOT is using is not drying as fast as it should.
“This paint that we are using is designed for low temperature applications,” Mearig said. “It is the first time we’ve used it in Southeast Alaska this year. We’ve had more success in summer and as we’ve pushed painting into the fall, we’re not sure why but it’s certainly not drying as fast as the manufacturer’s literature would have led us to believe.”
It’s the second round of problems from a DOT project in Petersburg this year.
This summer the state fielded claims in Petersburg over new chip sealing on state roads that led to cracked windshields and chipped vehicle paint jobs. That chip sealing covered up old street markings and led to the painting this fall.
DOT painting crews also are scheduled to do work in Juneau after Petersburg, although Mearig said they may use a different paint for that work.
Motorists can find instructions on removing this paint from vehicles here.
Those who aren’t successful can call Jack Albrecht at the Division of Risk Management at 907-465-2183.
The top two officials in the state division overseeing prisons had their last day of work on Monday.
Division of Institutions Director Bruce Busby and Deputy Director Caitlin Price no longer work for the Department of Corrections, according to department spokeswoman Megan Edge.
Edge wouldn’t provide any information about how their employment ended.
“The Department of Corrections can’t provide any information on personnel matters,” Edge said. “It’s all confidential.”
Edge said the department is looking to fill the positions. Deputy Commissioner Clare Sullivan will be overseeing the division until then.
“She is the deputy commissioner of institutions,” Edge said. “She will be handling all matters related to the institutions.”
Busby is the former superintendent of Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau.
On Thursday, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski sent a letter with her Democratic colleague Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the president regarding the nation-wide opioid epidemic.
The four-page document frames the health crisis as a bipartisan issue, and lays blame for a lackluster policy response squarely in one place.
Murkowski and Warren are critical of President Donald Trump’s response to the opioid crisis, specifically what they believe is a lack of action from the administration after promising to tackle the issue.
The senators point to a statement the president made in August at his Bedminster, NJ golf club.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency, it’s a national emergency,” Trump said August 10th in a response to a question from a reporter. “We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
“But do you need emergency powers to address it?” the reporter followed up.
“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” Trump replied. “It is a serious problem, the likes of which we have never had.”
The designation of a “national emergency” is significant because it unlocks funding and can potentially waive federal rules that would make access to treatment more widely available.
Just two days earlier, on August 8th, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stopped short of pushing for an official declaration, saying the federal government could bring the necessary resources to bear on the problem without the designation.
In their letter to Trump, Warren and Murkowski wrote, “We are extremely concerned that 63 days after your statement you have yet to take the necessary steps to declare a national emergency on opioids, nor have you made any proposals to significantly increase funding to combat the epidemic.”
Alaska and Massachusetts are two of the six states that have declared health emergencies related to opioids and heroin.
In the months since Governor Bill Walker declared a public health emergency, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officials have been able to get thousands of doses of the overdose-reversing medication nalaxone. The move also allowed state officials to pursue federal grants and new treatment programs aimed at curbing addiction, and it spurred the Legislature to pass bills that reduce access to prescription pain medications.
The senators point to guidance issued by the Trump administration’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which recommended the federal government follow steps taken by states like Alaska and Massachusetts.
Both Warren and Murkowski sit on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. They’ve been signatories together on similar bipartisan efforts under the current administration, like a March letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for clarity on federal marijuana enforcement.
A spokesman for Senator Dan Sullivan said he didn’t sign the letter because had not had time to thoroughly review it in advance.
Major General Laurie Hummel, the Adjutant General of the Alaska National Guard and Commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, is touring through Western Alaska this week, along with her military entourage from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The team has many goals for their visit, some of which include bolstering National Guard forces in rural Alaska as well as seeking out veterans. Colonel John James, the Commander of the Alaska State Defense Force, or ASDF, said:
“One of the things that we wanted to accomplish while we were here is talking to elders, community leadership, about starting and establishing an Alaska State Defense Force attachment here at the armory in Nome.”
Colonel James said emergency preparedness and response is a major component of ASDF:
“It is the mission of Alaska State Defense Force to augment, to enable, to be a force multiplier for the Alaska National Guard during emergencies, and we are also building a domain awareness capability and capacity,” James said. “We want to do that throughout the entire state of Alaska. So we are looking specifically for veterans or retirees in the community. We greatly appreciate folks who are trained, and we also appreciate the contributions of non-priors, so we’ll train those folks up.”
In addition to recruiting more National Guard members, the purpose of Hummel and her team’s visit to Nome, Brevig Mission, and Teller, is to survey inactive National Guard facilities.
According to the Major General, there used to be 86 armories in operation throughout Alaska, but that number has dropped.
“As of today, we have 17 active armory facilities around the state,” Hummel said. “And so the facilities at Brevig Mission and Teller are two of the facilities that have been earmarked for repurposing. Repurposing someday for the use by communities, or other state agencies — really whoever has the ability to maintain them and wants to use them.”
The operations and training officer for the Alaska Army National Guard, Colonel Lee Knowles, spent years of his life serving and living in Nome. He recalls that not only were there more active facilities in Western Alaska but more active servicemen and women too:
“There used to be a substantial footprint of soldiers here in the Norton Sound region in past years. Unfortunately, because of changing global security environment and requirements for national security, the size of the army, that force structure kind of shrank and went away. And one of the reasons why we’re out here right now, is to try to reinvigorate that to the extent that resources will allow us to do so.”
Verdie Bowen, the Director of Veteran’s Affairs, concurs with Colonel Knowles and also pointed out that the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) originated in the Norton Sound region.
Bowen is traveling with the entourage to reach out to some of the 1,600 ATG veterans that have not yet been given their honorable discharges.
“It’s quite an arduous task, because number one: there’s a lot of family members that aren’t there. Number two: some of the villages are gone,” Bowen said. “And the last part is, that when they disbanded them — actually here is where they did the disbandment, here in Nome — the issue that we ran into was there really wasn’t a very good record of who they were, and so it took us several years to get that master list certified and accredited through the United States Army so they would go ahead and issue those discharges.”
According to Bowen, once his office has finished contacting all ATG veterans on the master list, there will most likely be a couple thousand names who were not included on the list, but his team won’t give up until 6,400 members are properly discharged.
For veterans of the Alaska Territorial Guard to receive an honorable discharge, Bowen said only a birth date or date of death needs to be put on file in order to find a record of military service.
Bowen, Major General Hummel, and the Colonels, along with the accompanying service men and women, plan on visiting elders and school children during their stop in Brevig Mission and Teller today.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Interior Gas Utility has a big decision to make. The voter former IGU is considering taking control of the state backed Interior Energy Project. Its aimed at increasing the supply of natural gas in the Fairbanks area, and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has shepherded the effort to a point where it’s ready for transfer to the local non-profit utility. The IGU is weighing risks and benefits as it looks at taking on the project.
Originally envisioned to provide a low cost natural gas as an alternative to wood and oil, the Interior Energy Project is falling a little short. That was the message from Interior Gas Utility general manager Jomo Stewart at a recent Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation hosted meeting.
”This project is simply not going to look, at least not coming out of the chute, the way we wanted it to look,” Stewart said.
The primary issue is the projected price of natural gas to customers along a limited distribution network in the core areas of Fairbanks and North Pole. The project targeted a price equivalent to heating oil, or $15 dollars thousand cubic feet, but Stewart shared a current projection of $20.20.
Stewart said there’s potential for the price to drop if more than expected property owners convert their heating systems to burn natural gas. The price could also go down if the project secures a better Cook Inlet gas supply deal, after the current contract expires in three years.
”We have that back-end option, or opportunity, to try to find that more favorably priced gas,” Stewart said.
The price tag for the Interior Energy Project is $346 million. That includes Cook Inlet gas processing, Fairbanks area LNG storage and distribution facilities, as well as the gas transportation and distribution systems owned by Fairbanks Natural Gas, a private company purchased by the state’s Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to forward the project. Stewart said Fairbanks Natural Gas checks out financially.
“The corporation, its personnel, its assets and operating systems, is solvent and sound, and adequate to provide a foundation for utility system growth and expansion,” Stewart said.
The cost of FNG is 60 million dollars, a price critics contend is as too high, but under the deal with state, the non-profit IGU would benefit from very favorable financing, including bonding and super low interest loans.
”So no interest payments, no principle payments, no interest accruing for the first 15 years,” Stewart said. “With a 35-year payback period thereafter, .25% interest. As I’ve described it, it’s the sweetest student loan you ever heard of.”
Stewart also describes the terms as necessary to finance a high risk project, hinged on hope that people will convert to natural gas. That was a slam dunk proposition ten years ago when oil prices were high and the project was first envisioned, but less so now, leaving the possibility of fewer than expected customers. Stewart said even in the worst case, the project should remain viable.
”To continue to operate, to provide service and even meet its debt service,” Stewart said.
The Interior Energy Project goal has always been providing lower cost, cleaner energy to as many people as possible. That’s key to reducing pollution from wood heating. Local air quality advocate Patrice Lee, who attended the FEDCO meeting, said the current Interior Energy Project plan is a tough call given local air quality and economic constraints, and citizens should not feel pressured to accept it as is.
”The original goals of the Interior Energy Project, I think, are still good goals,” Lee said. “They can be met. We just need to think outside the box perhaps and use our resources very wisely.”
Lee will have some say in what happens in the future, as a newly elected member of the IGU board. FEDCO CEO Jim Dodson, stresses that even though the Interior Energy Project has fallen short of initial targets, it has potential, noting the possibility of federal subsidies to help customers convert to gas, but only if the community commits to the project.
”That will allow people to step forward and say ‘Let’s find ways to make this work,'” Dodson said. “It is up to us to make this happen if we want to.”
Draft contracts to take over the Interior Energy project from the state are being reviewed by the IGU board. The utility’s Stewart emphasizes that the public will have opportunities to learn about, and comment on any deal this fall, before the board votes.
There’s renewed optimism about finding a deposit of natural gas in the Nenana Basin that can be developed. Doyon, an Interior regional Alaska Native Corporation, has explored the area for 10 years without commercially producing gas, but their president and CEO said new data is yielding promising results.
Aaron Schutt spoke to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
“Very clean data,” Schutt said. “It was better than any other data we’ve gathered before and there were more targets than we expected to see as well.”
Doyon has spent $100 million looking for oil and gas in the Nenana and Minto Basins.
”What we have learned is the Nenana Basin has generated a tremendous amount of gas and certainly some oil,” Schutt said.
Schutt said to expect an announcement in November.
Mountain lions in Ketchikan? There were a couple of reported sightings recently. But, local Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials say they’d like more evidence.
Ketchikan resident Shauna Lee lives near the bottom of the Schoenbar Bypass in the Newtown area. She said she was standing at her kitchen window when she saw something moving outside.
“Which is not irregular for this area, we have a lot of deer that cross the street. But when I looked at it, my brain tried to register, ‘Oh, it must be a dog.’ But as I looked at it, I realized no, it’s a cat because the shoulder blades were rotating really prominently,” Lee said. “And then I looked at the back and the tail went all the way down to the street and it had a dark end to the tail. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! That is a mountain lion.’”
Lee said she tried to get a photograph of the animal, but it leapt over a cement wall and then a fence separating the road from the woodsy hillside. She said the cat was about half as tall as that cement wall.
“So it was about the size of a Labrador retriever,” Lee said.
Lee said she called Fish and Game to report the sighting, and was told that there had been another report of a big cat, maybe a mountain lion, from someone in the nearby Bear Valley area.
Boyd Porter is a Fish and Game wildlife biologist. He said there were two reports of possible mountain lion sightings. But he’s not convinced that it wasn’t just a particularly large domestic cat
Porter said there have been previous sightings of mountain lions, also called cougars, in the region.
“There’s been one confirmed sighting around the Margaret Creek area on Revilla Island, so it’s not out of the question,” Porter said. “There’s also been other sightings over the years in the early ‘90s out on the Cleveland Peninsula – Myers Chuck.”
For the most part, though, Porter said this area doesn’t offer the right kind of habitat for cougars. He’s never seen one in this area, and never seen signs of one anywhere near town.
Shauna Lee said it could have been a really large domestic cat, like a Norwegian mountain cat. But she did a little research, and what she saw was pretty similar to online photographs of mountain lions.
Porter said fully grown mountain lions are bigger than most dogs, even large dogs. They weigh up to 150 pounds, and their tails are about as long as their bodies.
Porter said anyone who believes they’ve seen a cougar in the Ketchikan area should try to get a photograph, and send it his way.
The Environmental Protection Agency is backing away from the use of preemptive Clean Water Act restrictions against large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. That comes as part of a settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and the company now said it is preparing to file for permits.
EPA is taking public comment on its proposed withdrawl, and is holding two meetings in Bristol Bay to hear from residents directly.
The EPA staff ran into the palpable disappointment of well over a hundred residents Wednesday afternoon.
(KDLG has since learned that local police and state troopers were contacted by EPA criminal investigators asking about the “mood” in town and whether security was necessary to protect the bureaucrats.)
Dozens testified over three and a half hours, most speaking from the heart about their love for the region and their existential fear of a large mine.
Bristol Bay’s largest hub sits downstream of and more than a hundred miles as the crow flies from one of the largest copper and gold deposits in North America.
It is home to some of Pebble’s most ardent opponents.
All who spoke Wednesday, including Peter Christopher from New Stuyahok, called for their one-time ally EPA to reverse its current course.
“I would appreciate if you guys would pass that on to Scott Pruitt, to consider not withdrawing from the Clean Water Act,” Christopher said.
The EPA staff on hand spoke at length about the Trump administration’s approach.
Palmer Hough, from EPA’s Wetlands Division, reminded the audience that the agency had never finalized the pre-emptive restrictions, and is in no way limited from still blocking mining with Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.
But if that authority is used, it will now likely happen within the normal permitting process, after an Environmental Impact Statement has been completed.
Dan Dunaway from Dillingham told the EPA he’s not sure the Obama administration was following a just course, but he doesn’t necessarily like the alternative either.
“I get a sense that the process for mining permits, there’s not really a clear avenue to get to a ‘no mine’ versus ‘a mine’. I think the process for mining permits in that sense is somewhat flawed and stacked against those of us who do not want to see a mine,” Dunaway said.
The Pebble deposit is located on state lands set aside for mineral development.
Sensing the state was not up to the task of protecting the ecosystem and downstream fishery, Bristol Bay tribes asked for federal intervention back in 2010.
That triggered the EPA’s Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which led to the proposed mining restrictions.
This was an outcome Katherine Carscallen, a commercial fisherman from Dillingham, wants to see upheld.
“Our state permitting process is not equipped to consider the long term impact of Pebble’s ‘phase one’ plan, which is what I consider it, but the domino effect of the mining district this would bring,” Carscallen said. “That’s why 404(c) allows for proactive decision, and there’s no better place to apply this than Bristol Bay.”
Alaska state House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who hails from Dillingham and represents the region, blasted the EPA for backing down, and also agreed Alaska doesn’t do enough to protect its salmon habitat.
“That’s been the history of our state that all major development projects get the benefit of the doubt. That’s just been a fact of life in Alaska,” Edgmon said. “It’s time to change that now. EPA can play a large role in that. Please don’t defy the wishes of the people of the region, the people of the great state of Alaska, and our country as whole.”
Most of those who lined up to speak to EPA Wednesday have done so many times over the past seven years.
The opposition that focused on the federal side felt they had won the battle under President Barack Obama, but the rug was pulled out from under them after the 2016 election.
Robin Samuelson from Dillingham told EPA again, and probably not for the last time, that the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery and its intact ecosystem deserve unique protection.
“My people here rely on this resource and be damned if we’re going to see that mine happen,” Samuelson thundered, before wrapping up with a catchy new zinger. “You guys better stay the ‘Environmental Protection Agency’ and not ‘empty promises to America.’”
The EPA planned to be in Iliamna for a second listening session Thursday. The public comment period closes Oct. 17.
Airport security screening rules for carry-on bags are changing again.
Soon, any electronics larger than a cell phone must be put in bins with nothing on top or beneath for X-ray screening. That’s already the status quo for laptops.
The Transportation Security Administration said the change will raise baseline aviation security. It will be implemented at airports in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Cordova and Yakutat over the next five weeks.
The roll out is nationwide, but gradual as training is completed in different places.
TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers acknowledges there will be inconsistencies – even within Alaska between Anchorage and Southeast airports – during the transition. The TSA held a demonstration Wednesday in Juneau.
The TSA, specifically addressing Southeast travelers, says to arrive 90 minutes early for flights.
An environmental group announced on Thursday that it plans to sue the Trump administration for refusing to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned the feds to list the walrus in 2008 — the same year the polar bear was listed as threatened. The Center argues the same forces that threaten polar bears — including climate change and disappearing sea ice — also put the Pacific walrus at risk of extinction.
Retreating Arctic sea ice has caused more female walrus to crowd onto beaches in coastal Alaska and Russia. The crowding can turn deadly when stampedes occur.
But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said the animal has “demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions.” The agency declined to grant the walrus more protections because it said the population “appears stable.”
The Center for Biological Diversity asserts there’s evidence from government scientists to refute that claim. The organization can sue the Trump administration after 60 days — if nothing changes with the listing decision.
Today, 41-year-old Anchorage teacher Ben Walker was selected as the 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year. Walker is a 7th grade science teacher at Romig Middle School and was granted the honor at a surprise assembly in the school gymnasium.
Walker was one of four teachers from across the state who were finalists for the award. He was just back from breakfast with Bob Williams, the Director of Educator and School Excellence with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, when he found out.
“I was fairly surprised. I mean, nobody gave me any hints,” Walker said. “Bob told me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to wear a suit today. But that’s all he said.”
Staff and students were waiting in the gym to celebrate Walker’s accomplishment. So was a lot of his immediate and extended family. Deena Paramo, the superintendent of the Anchorage School District, made the announcement.
“Alaska has over 8,000 teachers and only one was the teacher of the year, and that is your teacher from Romig,” Paramo announced to cheers from the students.
Walker was nominated by his colleagues and community. Romig Middle School principal Carrie Sumner said Walker deserved the award for inspiring his students with hands-on learning and experience. She also praised his character.Ben Walker’s son holds up his plaque for being 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)
“He takes the time to get to know you as people. He actually cares about what’s going on with you,” Sumner said at the assembly. “And he makes those connections. And he does that… (as) part of his nature. It’s not like he’s faking it ’til he makes it. That’s who he is as a person, making those connections with all of us.”
Walker grew up in Ketchikan and graduated from Whitman College in Wallawalla, Washington. He got his Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Walker has taught science at Romig for 12 years in the same classroom and said he doesn’t plan on moving from it.
His wife teaches science as did his mom — in the same classroom where Walker teaches now. Walker said he learned a lot about his mom from teaching at Romig.
“You know, I think as adults we realize the things that our parents do when we were younger that we had no clue on, which is for my mother, a fantastic teaching career,” Walker said. “So I think being here… and a lot of the people that she knew as teachers, some of the younger ones, were still around when I started teaching so I met them and they always had fabulous things to say say it’s kinda nice to learn that about your parents.”Ben Walker in his science class following the assembly. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)
After all of the hoopla of the ceremony, Walker went right back to that classroom to teach. This week, they’re learning about taxonomy and animals. Walker said he never tires of teaching science.
“I feel it’s the most fun subject but that’s just me,” Walker said. “It’s all about the same. It’s fun to do physics because we get to smash things. But it’s fun to do anything, like we just did with microorganisms with kids not even knowing they existed really, or what they looked like. And being able to have them discover that.”
And Walker’s students certainly appreciate his passion.
“He’s awesome. He’s the best science teacher ever. Yeah he really is,” his students said of him.
“I will tell you, they will tell you I’m the best 7th grade science teacher they’ve ever had,” Walker said, jokingly. They agreed.
Walker is now Alaska’s nominee for the 2018 National Teacher of the Year which will be decided next spring.
A U.S. House panel took up a bill Wednesday that would, among other things, block new environmental and safety standards the Obama administration imposed on Arctic offshore drilling.
The Obama administration argued that environmental concerns and difficult operating conditions required tougher standards in the Arctic than in other parts of the country.
At the House hearing today, Alaska Congressman Don Young asked a witness from the American Petroleum Institute to expand on why he says the Arctic rules put the nation at a disadvantage.
Erik Milito with the American Petroleum Institute told Young the Obama administration’s rule was too rigid.
“So there’s some question as to whether or not those additive Alaska Arctic rules were actually providing any additional benefit,” Milito said.
“He basically … took us out of the playground, with those added requirements,” Young said. “That’s what he did.”
The bill would also rescind President Obama’s decision putting most of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off-limits to drilling. And it calls for a study of the inefficiencies of the two agencies that regulate ocean drilling.
Democrats on the panel argued again several provisions in the bill
“Are we going back to a time when everything is about revenue collection?” Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif, asked. “What impacts could this have on safety?”
The bill includes revenue-sharing for Alaska and other states where off-shore drilling would occur. This was the first hearing for the bill, which still must go before the full House Natural Resources Committee.
Opponents of the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska are getting a boost from Democrats in Congress.
42 members of the U.S. House and Senate wrote President Trump Wednesday and asked him to overrule EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. This spring, Pruitt announced plans to get rid of special Clean Water Act protections his predecessor proposed to protect the Bristol Bay watershed.
The lawmakers, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., say a mine would threaten Bristol Bay’s world-class fishery and thousands of American jobs that rely on it.
Pebble Limited Partnership has argued the EPA’s use of the 404(c) provision in the Clean Water Act wrongly blocked the mine before the developers even had a chance to apply for a permit. The partnership recently announced a scaled-back mining plan, far smaller than the massive open-pit operation the owners previously outlined in a financial disclosure.
The letter comes a day after CNN aired an 8-minute story about the issue.
The CNN report focuses on the EPA administrator’s quick decision to remove the Obama administration’s protection for Bristol Bay.
“The meeting at EPA headquarters was brief and to the point,” the CNN story begins. “By the time it ended a mining company hoping to dig for gold and copper got just what it wanted.”
CNN said the reversal came before the scientists and professional staff of EPA had a chance to brief Pruitt, and directly after he met with Pebble CEO Tom Collier.
Collier told CNN the administrator’s decision was a matter of due process, not science.
“I don’t have a ‘friend’ at EPA,” Collier insisted in a CNN interview. “What I’ve got is someone who is following the damn law.”
The EPA’s comment period for the proposed withdrawal of Clean Water Act restrictions ends Oct. 17. In their letter, the Democratic lawmakers ask for a 90-day extension.
The proposed Pebble Mine is gaining momentum again, based on a settlement with the Trump Administration.
Last week, developers released a new vision for the project in southwest Alaska. Now that the federal government has removed a major roadblock, Alaskans can expect a lot more action at the state level.
When Pebble CEO Tom Collier took the podium at an industry gathering in Anchorage earlier this month, he recalled a speech he gave to the same crowd during the Obama years.
“I gave a detailed presentation on how we were going to win this battle with EPA — how we were going to get them off our backs and be able to go into permitting,” Collier said. “And as I looked around I saw a lot of very skeptical faces at the time.”
Fast forward to this year, and Collier’s prediction has come true.
In 2014, the Obama administration effectively halted the project after hearing concerns that the mine could harm the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The Environmental Protection Agency took the unusual step of proposing steep restrictions before the normal permitting process could begin. Pebble argues this amounted to blocking the project.
But after a meeting with Pebble’s Collier this spring, new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a settlement allowing Pebble to move forward with permitting.
Collier — who claims he can build the mine without hurting the fishery — aims to start that process in December.
In an interview after his speech, Collier said all Pebble needs is a chance — if the project is allowed to go through the normal process, he believes the mine will be approved.
“You know when you’ve invested $750 million getting ready to go into permitting, it ought to go pretty smoothly,” Collier said.
That smooth permitting process is exactly what Pebble’s opponents are worried about.
“I thought the fight was over when EPA proposed its determination, and I thought that it would be finalized during the Obama administration,” Lindsey Bloom said. Bloom used to fish for salmon in Bristol Bay, and has opposed the mine for years as part of advocacy groups SalmonState and Commercial Fishermen For Bristol Bay.
Now that the federal government is back to following the process Pebble demanded, the mine’s opponents are increasingly turning their attention to the state.
They worry that Alaska’s existing laws might not be tough enough to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon.
“What we’ve seen is a permitting process that at every turn is geared and interpreted to get to the ‘yes,’ and to get to the permit,” Bloom said.
So Pebble opponents are trying to change state laws. This week, a judge upheld a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, would significantly beef up protections for Alaska’s salmon streams. The measure’s backers say it’s not intended to block projects, but an attorney for the state said building the Pebble Mine would be impossible if the measure becomes law.
Opponents are also lobbying Gov. Bill Walker — and he’s listening to their arguments.
“I am not supportive of the Pebble mine,” Walker said in an interview in early October, the day before Pebble rolled out new details on the proposed mine.
“When it comes to two resources, renewable and non-renewable, I always go for the renewable and that certainly is the fish,” Walker continued. “So I’m a fish-first person, and I have been historically and I stand there today.”
Walker didn’t propose any specific steps he’d take to halt the mine, but multiple state agencies will be involved in approving the project.
Unlike many of the Pebble’s opponents, the governor expressed confidence in the state’s existing laws.
“I don’t know that there’s a lever for me to pull that’s going to absolutely stop it. I think there are a lot of protections that are already in place,” Walker said.
As the groups fighting the mine ramp up pressure on the state, Pebble isn’t sitting idly by. It plans to challenge at least one current state law that could spell trouble for the project. In 2014, voters approved a ballot initiative requiring the Alaska legislature to approve a large-scale gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay region. Last week, Collier announced plans to sue, claiming the statute is unconstitutional.
Alaskans can expect a lot more of that back-and-forth as the state takes on a bigger role in deciding the future of the proposed mine.
EPA is accepting public comments on withdrawing its restrictions on the Pebble project through October 17.