Alaska News

Nenana blaze nipped in the bud

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 15:56
Alaska Division of Forestry Firefighters Carlton Story, on left, and Eugene Lee, prepare to cut up white spruce trees that have fallen onto the fire to prevent flames from hiding under the trees. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)

Nenana residents teamed with state and federal firefighters to snuff a wildfire near the community. The Alaska Fire Service reports that the Nenana River Fire was halted at less than an acre after being discovered Tuesday night, about a mile west of Nenana.

AFS said five local residents, including some with firefighting experience, saw smoke and went to the fire. They initially beat the flames with spruce boughs, then dumped water hauled from the river, to slow the fire.

An AFS helicopter flew in from Fairbanks and dropped eight buckets of water on the fire. A state crew also responded, setting up a pump to get additional water on the fire. The fire was contained, but AFS said it burned deep into underlying duff, and mop up operations continued yesterday. The wildfire is listed as human caused.

Categories: Alaska News

As Fairbanks police deal with spike in violent crime, low pay complicates filling vacancies

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 15:52
Police Chief Eric Jewkes urged the City Council to boost pay for officers to retain those on staff and to help attract new recruits. (KUAC file photo)

The Fairbanks Police Department remains understaffed, despite a recently approved hiring bonus. Police Chief Eric Jewkes told City Council members this week the substandard pay is driving high turnover and making recruiting difficult. And while a new labor contract is being contested in court, Jewkes said the short-staffed department must deal with a spike in violent crime.

Jewkes told council members in Monday’s meeting that statistics show the rate of violent crime in Fairbanks is well above the national average. And he said his officers have been on the receiving end of that violence several times so far this year. Like when they confronted a heavily armored man on June 19th who charged at them firing an assault rifle after they’d cornered him in a field on the city’s south side.

“A gunman (wearing) soft body armor, rigid hard plates over top of that, covering his torso; body armor taped around his arms, taped around his legs and a ballistic or bulletproof facemask,” Jewkes said.

Police shot 20-year-old Matthew Stover to death, and the case is still under investigation. That was one of four officer-involved shootings so far this year, including one that followed the fatal shooting of Sgt. Allen Brandt. In another, Jewkes himself was among four officers who returned fire on a man who led police on a high-speed chase around South Fairbanks and east of town on May 25th, until he was blockaded at the Mitchell Expressway onramp to the Richardson Highway.

“That’s the environment in which we’re asking them to work,” Jewkes said.

Troopers ruled the deadly force used against 23-year-old Shawn Buck was justified, because Buck reportedly was shooting at police and ramming their vehicles with the stolen truck he was driving. That case also remains under investigation.

Jewkes said the recent spike in violent crime locally is reflected in the seven murders in Fairbanks that’ve occurred through July, compared with eight in all of last year.

Jewkes talks with media after a September 2014 standoff that ended with the surrender of a man after a nine-hour standoff on the city’s west side. Jewkes says his officers have had to deal with several incidents so far this year that have not ended peacefully. (KUAC file photo)

“In seven months, that puts us on par to have 12 this year,”Jewkes said.

Based on that calculation, Jewkes said 12 murders in a city of 33,000 would greatly exceed the national murder rate, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, or UCR, which annually lists the rates of crime in cities and states per 100,000 population.

“That equates to 36.4 per hundred thousand, or seven-and-a-half times the national average,” Jewkes said.

Jewkes said the UCR shows violent crime occurs twice as frequently in Alaska compared with the national average, even more so for assault and rape.

“The U.S. average for aggravated assaults per hundred thousand people (is) 237; the Alaska average is 497,” Jewkes said. “The U.S. average for rape is 38.6; the Alaska average is 122.”

The chief told council members he’s trying to fill six vacant positions. And he said most of the other 40 or so officers must work mandatory overtime to help staff those and seven other positions that’ll be filled once the new recruits graduate from the academy. So he says that means the department also is hard-pressed to deal with lesser offenses.

“Lower-level crimes are often a struggle to investigate,” Jewkes said, “because of the limited number of officers who are inundated with more serious calls.”

Council members thanked Jewkes for his talk, but couldn’t offer much more than encouragement. That’s mainly because the city is awaiting a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court on a dispute over a new contract the council approved in 2014 that would’ve boosted pay and benefits. The council later rescinded the contract over a concern it was too generous. The Public Safety Employees Association, which represents the police, then sued claiming breach of contract. Most observers say a ruling on the case isn’t likely anytime soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Delta Junction state parks user fees to stay the same this year

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 15:33
Quartz Lake State Recreation Area, along with the Clearwater facility, generate the most revenue of all Delta-area parks. (Karla Brown/Flickr)

User fees at Delta Junction area state parks will stay the same this summer as the facilities transition to private management.

The state announced the award of permits this week to K&K Operations to run the Big Delta State Historical Park, and to Big Dipper Adventures to operate campgrounds, boat launches and other facilities at Quartz Lake, Clearwater, Delta, and Donnelly Creek.

Northern Region State Parks superintendent Brooks Ludwig said the contractors do not plan to change user fees, but notes that the legislature allows leeway to do so in the future.

”For daily parking right now, the charge is $5 per day per vehicle and the maximum they could charge would be $10 per day per vehicle,” Ludwig said. “Boat launching right now is $15 per launch and retrieve. That could go up to $20. Firewood bundles are $8, and it can go up to $15 per bundle. Overnight camping is $15 a night. That can go as high as $30 a night.”

Delta-area parks generate an average of $80,000 a year, most of which comes from the larger Clearwater and Quartz Lake facilities. Ludwig said the contractors, are required to share revenues with the state.

”For operating the parks in the Delta area — Quartz Lake, Clearwater, Delta and Donnelly — the contractor will pay to the state a flat $2,000 permit fee,” Ludwig said. “In addition to that, they have negotiated a three percent of their gross camping revenues and three percent of their gross revenues for canoe/kayak rentals at Clearwater State recreation site will be earmarked to the state.”

Ludwig adds that 3 percent of profits from Big Delta State Historical Park Delta will go into a maintenance fund. The Delta area parks closed a month ago due to state budget cuts. State Parks says agency staff helped the contractors re-open the sites Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Another mine opens close to the Alaska border

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 14:34
Seabridge Gold’s Brent Murphy points to a valley to be dammed to hold tailings from the KSM mine during a 2014 tour. The tailings dam was granted a key federal permit needed for development this summer. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

A new gold mine has gone into production near British Columbia’s border with Southeast Alaska, one of several prospects under exploration near creeks or rivers that flow into the region.

The Brucejack Mine had what’s called its “first pour” — or when refined ore is melted down to make a project’s first bar of gold — this summer.

The high-altitude mine is about 25 miles from the Alaska border and about 80 miles east of Wrangell. It’s within the watershed of the Unuk River, which drains into the ocean northeast of Ketchikan.

Officials at Vancouver-based mine owner Pretivm Resources did not return calls by this report’s deadline.

The Brucejack Mine pours its first gold bar in June of 2017. The mine is about 25 miles from the Alaska border. (Photo courtesy Pretivm Resources press release)

But in an earlier interview, vice president Michelle Romero said the company is building on a previous owner’s work.

“There was existing underground excavation done and we had used that access to get to the heart of the project, which is the Valley of the Kings,” Romero said.

company news release said its main ore body has proven reserves of 1.6 million ounces, worth about $2 billion in U.S. currency. It projects total reserves of four times that much gold, plus a significant silver deposit.

Brucejack is far less controversial than some other British Columbia mining projects across the border from Southeast Alaska.

Heather Hardcastle is a fisheries-business owner and campaign director for the environmental group Salmon Beyond Borders.

“It is a lot smaller than the other mines in the transboundary region and it is an underground mine,” Hardcastle said. “As far as the disposal of tailings go, we certainly feel better about their plans to put the tailings and the waste back underground.”

Tailings are ground-up rock, often containing hazardous minerals, that are leftover from processing ore. Mine critics say the common practice of mixing them with water and storing them behind dams threatens downstream fisheries.

Hardcastle said her main concern is that it’s part of a larger effort to develop more than a half-dozen projects that would use tailings dams.

The largest of those is Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, which is next to Brucejack.

Oxidized rock colors a valley where one of Seabridge Gold’s KSM Project’s open pit mines will be dug if the project proceeds. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

What’s known as KSM won a key permit from Canada environmental officials this summer.

Brent Murphy is vice president of environmental affairs for Toronto-based developer Seabridge Gold.

“The permit that we got was essentially an amendment to the federal law that allows us to go in and deposit essentially waste material into streams that are frequented by fish,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the permit requires the company to post an appropriate bond and create twice as much fish habitat as it destroys.

This summer is KSM’s 11th for exploratory drilling. Murphy said work continues to better define its high-value ore bodies.

“We have a crew of about 25 people in there, the camp has been open since early May and we’re also continuing with our ongoing environmental monitoring and it’s actually our 10th year of collection of baseline data,” Murphy said.

KSM will store its tailings in a valley that’s part of the watershed of the Nass River, which enters an ocean inlet about 20 miles south of the Alaska border.

Hardcastle, who fishes out of Juneau, said that’s close enough to pose a threat.

“Commercial fishermen from the United States do and are allowed to catch a certain number of Nass fish,” Hardcastle said. “Commercial fishermen from Alaska especially contend that we very much have concerns about what goes on in the headwaters of the Nass.”

The KSM project is supported by the Nisga’a Nation, the tribal government for the Nass River Valley. Both signed an agreement promising environmental protections, jobs and financial support.

The Tulsequah Chief Mine is on the banks of its namesake river, which flows into the Taku River , which enters an ocean inlet about 25 miles northeast of Juneau. (Photo by Joe Hitselberger/ADF&G)

Seabridge Gold continues to seek investors for the multi-billion-dollar project.

The company also is exploring ore deposits in a nearby area. The Iskut Project is about 20 miles northwest of the KSM and approximately 10 miles from the Alaska border.

Seabridge acquired the area about a year ago. Murphy said the company has been drilling to find out more about what’s there. The prospect includes a mine that closed in 1990.

“We know there’s gold mineralization at Johnny Mountain,” Murphy said. “We started there last year, trying to understand the geology, and we’re moving a little bit further afield this year.”

Part of the purchase is a multi-year cleanup plan, including removal of asbestos tiles, mercury lamps and a fuel-tank farm.

One transboundary mine that’s going nowhere is the Tulsequah Chief, on a Taku River tributary about 40 miles northeast of Juneau. It closed more than a half-century ago and two attempts to reopen it failed.

The company holding its assets filed documents earlier this summer suggesting it had found a new investor. But mine critic Chris Zimmer, of the group Rivers without Borders, said officials have told him the company is no longer interested.

“Now, we’re kind of back here in a little bit of limbo. There’s no company up there, the mine continues to leak acid mine drainage and now we’re kind of unsure what the B.C. government is going to do next,” Zimmer said.

The province’s previous top mine official committed to cleaning up pollution from the Tulsequah Chief after a visit two years ago.

But a new mines minister just took over and isn’t ready to discuss the situation.

Categories: Alaska News

Nearly 30 people hurt in Skagway tour accident

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 14:01

Nearly 30 people were injured Wednesday on a tour in Skagway.

According to a news release from the city, a Unimog touring vehicle went off the road about 11 a.m. at the Alaska Excursions Dog Camp.

The Skagway company offers tours of a musher’s camp in Dyea.

The fire department and EMS volunteers responded to the scene of the accident at 10-mile Dyea Road.

25 of 28 people transported to the local Dahl Memorial Clinic were treated and released. Three were medevaced to receive further treatment.

According to the clinic’s executive director Shelly O’Boyle, injuries ranged from bumps and bruises to several broken bones and a few head injuries.

The clinic’s emergency plan was activated to respond to the accident.

It’s the first time that measure has been taken in a couple years.

In 2014, 23 people were injured when a White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad train derailed.

The fire department and municipality declined to provide any information beyond the limited press release.

Categories: Alaska News

State revokes Skagway police chief’s certification, but he’s still on the job

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 12:10
The old Skagway Police Department. (Emily Files)

Skagway’s longtime police chief is working without state certification. The council that oversees those accreditations revoked Ray Leggett’s certification because, it says, there is substantial doubt that he has ‘good moral character.’ Leggett calls the decision a ‘miscarriage of justice.’

This multi-year saga is outlined in documents from a 2016 hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

It started in 2012, when Ray Leggett found out that his 21-year-old son was under investigation in Haines for credit card fraud.

Leggett’s son has disabilities, including Asperger’s. He had recently moved back in with his parents, and Leggett said one of the conditions of his son staying there was that he had to be honest.

Leggett testifies that part of his parenting approach to encourage honesty was to sometimes use a lie detector test on his son. It’s called a Computer Voice Stress Analysis.

When Leggett learned that his son was accused of a crime, he called then-Haines officer Simon Ford to ask about the case. Leggett identified himself as the parent of the suspect.

Leggett told Ford he planned to conduct a lie detector test on his son and offered to share the results, an offer which Ford accepted. Leggett thought he made it clear that he was doing this for his own benefit to see if his son was obeying the rules of living in the family home.

Leggett’s son denied the crime, and the test indicated he was telling the truth. Leggett told Ford.

All of this made Ford uncomfortable. He called assistant district attorney Amy Paige. That’s how the incident ended up with the Alaska Police Standards Council.

After investigating, the council’s director at the time, Kelly Alzaharna, began the process to revoke Leggett’s Alaska police certification on the grounds that he lacks good moral character. Possessing good moral character is a requirement for certified Alaska police officers.

It was that allegation – that he lacked moral character, that Leggett said made him fight the council.

“I think that is a huge accusation,” Leggett told KHNS. ” I did not do what they said I did and I was willing to fight it until I couldn’t afford to fight anymore.”

How do you define good moral character? That’s where the police standards council and the judge who heard the case disagree.

In 2016, after Leggett had been fighting the council for a couple years, there was a hearing in front of Administrative Law Judge Mark Handley. The judge sided with Leggett. He said Leggett displayed bad judgment, but that doesn’t mean he lacks good moral character. Handley said the evidence does not show that Leggett was trying to improperly influence the investigation.

“It is clear Leggett was doing his best in difficult and unusual circumstances to get his disabled son to act responsibility,” Handley wrote.

But the police standards council doesn’t have to accept the judge’s recommendation. And it didn’t.

In its 20-page final decision, the council says Leggett’s use of the lie detector test showed a profound lack of judgment. It says there are ‘severe’ questions about Leggett’s impartiality and willingness to use his position to benefit a family member.

“I think it’s absolute asinine,” Leggett said.

Leggett is frustrated that the council flouted the third party judge’s recommendation.

“The whole thing is an amazing, in my opinion, it’s a miscarriage of justice,” Leggett said.

At its March meeting, the council voted 10-1 to revoke Leggett’s certification. The revocation became final in June.

But there’s another twist – Leggett can keep working as Skagway’s police chief, even without a certification. Alaska law exempts ‘chief administrative officers’ of police departments from the requirement to hold a state certification.

“Practically, it has no effect on his current position,” Bob Griffiths, the current director of the police standards council, said.

Griffiths said even through the revocation has no practical effect, the council decided to pursue it on principle.

“The council decided that it was important that everyone be held accountable for their actions and meeting their standards regardless of how many stars or stripes they wear on their collar,” Griffiths said. “They are subject to the same standards.”

It’s up to the city of Skagway, not the state, to retain Leggett as chief. As of right now, Skagway’s government has taken no public action to dismiss him.

Mayor Mark Schaefer and Borough Manager Scott Hahn did not return calls for this story by deadline.

Categories: Alaska News

Want the freshest Unalaska fish? You’ll have to go to Europe.

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2017-08-10 10:35
Unalaska brings in more fish than anywhere in America. All of it is for export. (Sarah Hansen/KUCB)

Unalaska is America’s most productive fishing port – hauling in over 780 million pounds of seafood in 2015. That fish gets shipped all over the world and eventually — after processing — some of it comes back to Unalaska.

But you can’t buy fresh fish in town.

At one of Unalaska’s grocery stores, the frozen fish section is almost entirely fish from Asia.

There’s whole rabbitfish from Vietnam. Baby tuna wrapped in plastic from Vietnam. A bunch of mussels from New Zealand.

Down the street at the Safeway, you can buy fish from Alaska, but it has some stamps in its passport.

Like wild Alaskan cod fillets originally caught in Alaska, then sent to Asia for processing and then coming back to Unalaska frozen and packaged up.

Even though Unalaska brings in more fish than anywhere in America, it’s all exported, so you can’t buy it fresh.

Jörn Scabell is visiting from Bremerhaven, Germany – he’s the head of the seafood purchasing department at FRoSTA, a European frozen food manufacturer.

“We’re always trying to buy from certified fisheries that are really sustainable,” Scabell said.

FRoSTA buys Pollock fillet blocks to make fish fingers and breaded fillets. For this season, FRoSTA is snapping up 3.3 million pounds — roughly half of what they’ll buy over the course of the year.

“It’s really big business and of course we need more,” Scabell said.

According to Michael Coleman — general manager of Coastal Alaska Premier Seafoods — the pollock gets sent all over the world.

“The fillet block goes to Germany and a little bit goes to McDonald’s users,” Coleman said. “The other roughly half of the product goes to Japan for surimi and Korea for surimi products.”

In all it takes about 80 days from the fish being caught in the Bering Sea, processed, packed up in Unalaska and shipped to Germany. Then the fillet blocks get turned into fish products that can be bought across Europe.

So I asked my brother, Eli, who lives in Amsterdam to look for it the next time he was at the store.

“I’m at the fish station now,” Eli said. “It does look as if there are fish sticks that are from Alaska.”

The fish sticks Eli found were made with fish from the Bering Sea. He took them home for dinner.

“It doesn’t necessarily bring up memories of being in the U.S., but it’s nice,” Eli said. “It’s surprising. Maybe it’s kind of American because of the breaded parts.”

Eli prefers fresh fish, but the frozen Alaska fish he gets is still fresher than the fish I can buy in the grocery stores.

To get fresh fish in Unalaska, you have to catch it yourself.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 17:59

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

Listen now

North Slope well leak estimated at over 7,000 gallons

Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage

The state reports that over 7,000 gallons of oil leaked from a North Slope well owned by Caelus Energy.

Juneau Empire, Peninsula Clarion, Homer News sold to GateHouse Media

Jacob Resneck, KTOO – Juneau

The Juneau Empire, Peninsula Clarion in Kenai and weekly Homer News are among 11 papers being sold by Morris Communications to GateHouse Media for a reported $120 million.

Industry officials react to Southeast king fishery closure

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

The realities of the Southeast king salmon closure will hit home on Thursday, when no one — whether fishing commercially or recreationally — will be permitted to retain one of Alaska’s most sought-after species.

City employees to see new health clinic in Anchorage

Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

In an effort to curb skyrocketing healthcare costs, Anchorage is testing a new clinic specifically for city employees.

Feds seek comments on Alaska’s in-state natural gas pipeline

Rashah McChesney, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau

The Alaska Standalone Pipeline project would bring gas from the North Slope to communities in Alaska.

Necropsy planned for humpback hit by cruise ship

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

A Princess Cruise Lines ship traveling through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage hit a humpback whale that became lodged on the front bulbous bow.

Want the freshest Unalaska fish? Try Europe

Zoe Sobel, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Unalaska

Unalaska is America’s most productive fishing port – hauling in more than 780 million pounds of seafood in 2015. That fish gets shipped all over the world and eventually — after processing — some of it comes back to Unalaska.

NTSB unsure what led to 2015 Lynn Canal plane crash, investigation completed

Abbey Collins, KHNS – Haines

In November of 2015, a private plane crashed near Eldred Rock in the Lynn Canal. The crash injured four Haines residents who swam to shore to save themselves. An investigation into the incident is now complete. But it’s still unclear why the plane went down.

Sign project revives 1967 Fairbanks flood history

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

50 years ago this week, the Fairbanks area was being deluged by unprecedented rainfall. The precipitation channeled from surrounding hills into the Chena River resulting in an epic flood that devastated the interior city. Five decades later, signs are going up around Fairbanks to remind people of what happened.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Empire, Peninsula Clarion, Homer News sold to GateHouse Media

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 17:10
The Juneau Empire is located at 3100 Channel Drive. Its building was not included in the sale to GateHouse Media and will be retained by the Morris family. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The Juneau Empire, Peninsula Clarion in Kenai and weekly Homer News are among 11 papers being sold by Morris Communications to GateHouse Media for a reported $120 million.

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Newsrooms learned about the sale of their papers to GateHouse Media early Wednesday morning. The upstate New York-based chain is one of the fastest growing media companies in the country.

“I got an email from corporate, from Morris announcing it. And they referred us, they referred me to a press release on the Morris website,” Homer News editor Michael Armstrong said. Armstrong has been with the newspaper since 1999. “The GateHouse people are visiting the Morris properties today and tomorrow and they’ll come down to Kenai and Homer and we’ll find out more from them.”

The Juneau Empire has been owned by the Georgia-based Morris family since 1969. They also bought the Peninsula Clarion in 1990.

“The sale will actually be final Oct. 2 and after that we’ll know a lot more, so for now it’s really business as usual,” publisher Deedie McKenzie said.

The Kenai-based executive said she’s been told she’ll be kept on by the new company and that the Morris family had been looking at selling the newspapers for about a year.

“GateHouse was a really good fit and it’s a great opportunity for these newspapers to also become part of a larger newspaper company,” McKenzie said. “They’re in 36 states, so it’s a great opportunity for us.”

The off-loading of 11 newspapers by the family-owned Morris chain is part of an industry-wide trend.

“I think we’re in a period of quite a lot of consolidation,” media analyst Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute said. “Even the language of the press release sort of follows the story line that’s been developing, which is that it’s harder and harder for either individual papers or smaller chains to stay competitive.”

GateHouse now owns more than 130 newspapers in mostly small- and mid-sized markets, more than any other chain and finds ways to consolidate its holdings for efficiency.

“They have a very large copy editing and layout center in Austin, Texas, that does all of their papers,” Edmonds said.

The company emerged from a $1.2 billion bankruptcy in 2013 and has since been recapitalized by a private equity firm. Since then, it’s expanded rapidly into the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, after Gannett. Its parent company is a publicly traded company called New Media Investment, which is backed by a private equity fund.

The arrangement is unorthodox: Fortress Investment Group controls less than 1 percent of company stock but wields an enormous amount of control.

“The bigger the company gets, the more money the external manager Fortress collects,” Jeff Gordon said. Gordon is a sports columnist with the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis. He’s also president of the United Media Guild, which represents unionized workers at 18 GateHouse papers. He’s critical of how a financial entity is rearranging small media companies.

“Basically, Fortress Investment Group operates as the external manager so it gets millions of dollars in revenue from quote-unquote managing this company and basically arranging for financing and backing purchases,” Gordon said.

The Morris family will retain some holdings in Alaska. It’s not selling the Juneau Empire’s building or the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Alaska Equipment Trader and the weekly Chugiak-Eagle River Star.

KBBI’s Aaron Bolton in Homer contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

Caribou hunting limited in eastern Interior

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 17:04
(Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

The state will limit caribou hunting in the eastern Interior, along the Taylor and Top of the World Highways. An Alaska Department of Fish and Game announcement says the no-hunt corridor prohibits harvest of caribou within a hundred feet along both sides of the road during a state hunt for Forty Mile caribou, which opens August 29th.

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Fish and Game spokeswoman Doreen Parker McNeil said the corridor addresses safety and conservation issues.

”Members of the public, as well as some law enforcement officials, have voiced a lot of concerns about hunters shooting from and across the highway, particularly on or near curves in the road and in areas with houses and campgrounds,” McNeil said. “And we’ve had a lot of reports documenting hunters shooting into groups of caribou from the edge of the highway and that results in wounding loss.”

McNeil said the restriction is also aimed at limiting harvest when a large portion of the herd crosses the highway.

”It becomes difficult to manage the hunt in such a way that the hunt is open long enough for people to have the opportunity to hunt without exceeding our harvest quota,” McNeil said.

McNeil said it’s also hoped that the restriction will reduce the illegal dumping of gut piles and other caribou remains along the roads. The no-caribou harvest corridor runs the entire length of the Top of the World Highway, and along the Taylor from milepost 75.5, at the South Fork Bridge, to mile 115.4, at the Alder Creek Bridge.

Categories: Alaska News

Sign project revives 1967 Fairbanks flood history

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 17:01
National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb takes a measurement for installation of high water mark sign on an historic cabin near the Morris Thompson Center. (Dan Bross / KUAC)

50 years ago this week, the Fairbanks area was being deluged by unprecedented rainfall. The precipitation channeled from surrounding hills into the Chena River resulting in an epic flood that devastated the interior city. Five decades later, signs are going up around Fairbanks to remind people of what happened.

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Standing by the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb explained how an already wet streak in August 1967, culminated with intense precipitation as the remnant of a typhoon pushed across the interior.

“Some places had six to nine inches of rain during that period of time,” Plumb said.

All that rain flowed down the Chena, Salcha and Tanana Rivers resulting in the great flood of August 1967. The high water displaced thousands of people, and did tens of millions of dollars in damage, a history Plumb is leading a project to share with the public.

”There’s been more than a generation that’s passed since the flood, and so a lot of people… we’ve run into some people who didn’t even know there was a flood in ’67,” Plumb said. “So that piece of history is already being lost.”

The project includes placement of informational and high water mark signs around town. Plumb and U.S. Geological survey hydrologist Matt Schellekens are making measurements for installation of a high water sign near an historic downtown cabin along the Chena.

”Some locations like here, near the river, were looking at about five feet of water above ground level,” Schellekens said. “Most places throughout downtown Fairbanks were one-and-a-half to three feet of water.”

Shellekens and Plumb underscore that it wasn’t just the depth of the flood water, but the huge area it encompassed.

”The Tanana was flowing approximately 250,000 cubic feet per second, when 100,000 is considered flooding,” Plumb said.  

“And it’s hard to estimate because the Chena and the Tanana were one in Fairbanks — one continuous area under water,” Shellekins added.

Shellekens unfolded a flood map in the in the back of his pickup.

”So we’ve got Birch Hill here, UAF here and this is Chena Ridge behind the pump house,” Shellekens listed. “The airport which is barely above flood elevation. You can see the blue numbers are the approximate water depth. Over by the library, two-and-a-half, three feet deep.”

Areas of higher ground served as gathering spots for flood evacuees. Plumb pointed to the bluff near the entrance to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

”That was sort of a boat landing spot for people evacuating town and getting up onto the higher ground at the University,” Plumb said. “There’ll be a sign there showing how high the water was.”

Plumb noted that water will never reach such heights again due protection provided by the Chena Flood Control dam and levy built after the great flood. The project in North Pole is the location of one of three interpretive panels marking the 50th anniversary of the ’67 flood. Governor Bill Walker is among officials and local residents scheduled to speak at a flood anniversary event in downtown Fairbanks August 15th.

Categories: Alaska News

NTSB unsure what led to 2015 Lynn Canal plane crash, investigation completed

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 16:30
Eldred Rock(Wikimedia Commons image by Ryan Harvey, Flickr, Alaska Cruise 2008)

In November of 2015, a private plane crashed near Eldred Rock in the Lynn Canal. The crash injured four Haines residents who swam to shore to save themselves. An investigation into the incident is now complete. But it’s still unclear why the plane went down.

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It’s been more than a year-and-a-half since pilot Mike Mackowiak’s plane crashed into the cold waters of the Lynn Canal injuring him and three passengers.

Still, the National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t know exactly what happened.

A final report from the group determined the probable cause to be a loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion. It also cites the pilot’s decision to continue the flight after seeing his fuel gauges were close to zero.

In November 2015, Haines resident Mackowiak, his wife Martha, their son Nik and friend Victoria Hansen left Juneau in a Cessna 180 bound for Haines.

But the plane didn’t reach its destination. According to the NTSB investigation, the aircraft descended into the Lynn Canal about 23 miles Southeast of Haines.

Mackowiak told the NTSB he noticed both of the plane’s fuel gauges were reading zero part way into the flight. He told the safety board he had left Juneau with sufficient fuel to complete the trip. Mackowiak believed an electrical malfunction was causing the gauges to show an inaccurate reading. He said the engine continued to run normally, so he chose to continue to Haines. He also told the NTSB he never smelled fuel inside the plane.

Soon after, the plane’s engine lost all power and Mackowiak was unable to restart it. He told the NTSB he couldn’t find a safe place to land on the beach, so he decided to ditch the plane in the water.

Everyone on board was able to get out and swim to shore where they were later rescued. They all survived, but suffered hypothermia. Martha Mackowiak suffered the most severe injury and spent a couple weeks in a Seattle hospital.

Mackowiak spoke with KHNS about the crash after her recovery at the end of 2015.

“I was swimming mostly on my back and I kept turning around to see how much farther I had to go,” Mackowiak said. “There was bigger swell than I expected and that kept washing over me. That whole time I was praying ‘Lord, I’m not ready to die. Not yet. Please.’”

The NTSB could not determine why the fuel exhaustion and subsequent loss of engine power occurred. The final report said it’s likely the fuel system was compromised. But, that could not be confirmed.

The plane sunk into the water and has not been recovered. The safety board said if it is ever found, there will be further investigation.

Categories: Alaska News

North Slope well leak estimated at over 7,000 gallons

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 16:15
A “Super Sucker” truck helps with spill cleanup in July. Caelus first reported the spill in June. (photo by Wes Ghormley, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

The state reports that over 7,000 gallons of oil leaked from a North Slope well owned by Caelus Energy.

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Tom DeRuyter is overseeing the response to the leak with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He said DEC thinks most of the spill was contained to a gravel pad, but about three gallons of oil made it out to the tundra.

“I don’t want to minimize the size of this spill — that was a lot of oil that came out of this well,” DeRuyter said. “It was something that happened without notice and it took a long time to really understand what had happened and for everybody to react accordingly. And that is very unusual.”

Caelus first reported the spill in mid-June. Then, the company thought just five gallons had escaped a cellar surrounding the well.

“The spill itself was significantly larger than anybody had thought up front, and that led to the migration outside of the gravel pad,” DeRuyter said.

According to Caelus, the spill came from a well that was drilled and plugged in 2013.

The oil that leaked is not crude. Rather, it’s a mixture of fluids Caelus put in the well, described by the state as mineral oil and “diesel freeze protect fluid.”

The state thinks the incident happened after water filled the cellar and froze. Ice damaged a valve and allowed the oil to escape.

The state also reports that plugs in the bottom of the cellar were not in place, allowing the water to flow in. But DeRuyter said until the investigation is complete, he can’t say if human error was a factor.

Cleanup on the spill is ongoing.

Caelus did not agree to an interview for this story. In a statement, the company said it is working with DEC to minimize damage.

“We appreciate the hard work of our employees, contractors and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on this incident,” spokesman Casey Sullivan said in a text message.

Caelus Energy is a small, private company based in Texas. It’s the company behind the potentially massive Smith Bay oil discovery announced in October.

Categories: Alaska News

Necropsy planned for humpback hit by cruise ship

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 15:47
A humpback whale is seen lodged on the front of the Grand Princess Wednesday in Ketchikan. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

A Princess Cruise Lines ship traveling through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage hit a humpback whale that became lodged on the front bulbous bow.

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The whale was removed after the Grand Princess docked in downtown Ketchikan Wednesday morning, and the dead animal was towed to a nearby beach.

In a statement released Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement said its officers are investigating the cause of the whale’s death.

Gary Freitag of the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program said he will be involved in the necropsy, to determine how it died. He said it’s possible that the whale already was dead before it was struck by the ship.

“So, you really don’t know whether the ship had anything to with it or not,” Freitag said. “The necropsy will have a tendency to determine, the best we can, whether it was hit while it was still alive or whether it was dead, floating. You can also look at the decomposition and see how long it was before the animal was hit. Whether it was right away or whether it was floating around for a week.”

Freitag said he hadn’t yet seen the dead whale himself, but he was told it was about 30-feet-long, which means it was a calf.

“Humpbacks are usually 40- to 50-foot when they’re adults,” Freitag said. “So, it’s a young humpback, from what I understand.”

Freitag said he’s working with NOAA officials to schedule the necropsy, which likely will take place Thursday. He said there are a lot of logistics to work out first, including rounding up volunteers to help.

Categories: Alaska News

City employees to see new health clinic in Anchorage

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 13:18
The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage. (Staff photo)

In an effort to curb skyrocketing healthcare costs, Anchorage is testing a new clinic specifically for city employees.

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On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved a three-year contract with a company called Vera Whole Health to start in 2018. The move means access to primary and preventative care at a clinic for employees and family members enrolled in the Municipality’s health plan. It’s a program similar to one already in place for Anchorage School District employees. Supporters in the mayor’s administration and on the Assembly say easy access to routine and preventative care will reduce costly ER visits and medical interventions later on.

The cost of the contract is $10,851,402. That’s slightly less than the amount projected to be saved over the three years of the contract $11,280,000, according to documents submitted by the administration. More substantial savings wouldn’t begin showing up in the city’s finances for several years.

Two conservative Assembly members representing Chugiak/Eagle River, Amy Demboski and Fred Dyson, were the only votes against the measure. Demboski spoke during Assembly comments about her belief the proposal expands government and that alternatives in the private sector haven’t been sufficiently researched.

Categories: Alaska News

Feds seek comments on Alaska’s in-state natural gas pipeline

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 11:08
The current route planned for the Alaska Standalone Pipeline — an in-state natural gas pipeline designed to bring gas from the North Slope to Alaska communities. (Map courtesy of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation)

A federal agency is asking for input on an in-state natural gas pipeline.

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The Alaska Standalone Pipeline would bring gas from the North Slope to Wasilla.  It’s designed to deliver gas to communities like Fairbanks and throughout Southcentral Alaska.

The Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency working on an Environmental Impact Statement for the gasline project — a requirement for the National Environmental Policy Act.

The current version of the statement — released in June — is updated from a 2012 version. It covers things like environmental consequences of the project footprint, transporting the gas, new access roads and the 13 construction camps needed to build it.

The Corps is focused on the parts of the project that could impact people. Sandy Gibson is the gas pipeline project manager for the Army Corps in Alaska.

“In case of social economics, you have job growth opportunities. You have employment. On the flip side, you have more stress for government support facilities or at local clinics, at hospitals, etc,” Gibson said

The project is managed by the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation which is also tasked with developing a similar, but larger gas pipeline that would bring gas from the North Slope into Cook Inlet and then sell it overseas. The corporation calls the in-state pipeline, a backup project if it doesn’t get the larger pipeline built.

Gibson said people sometimes confuse the two projects.

“It seems that, in the last couple of decades there’s been some type of a pipeline project that has evolved into another revised project,” Gibson said. “So I think that a lot of people here in Alaska have a history with pipeline projects in general.”

This summer, a team from the Corps has traveled around the state holding meetings in places like Utqiaġvik, Nuiqsut, Wiseman and Anchorage, updating people on the environmental review process.

So far, Gibson said they’ve heard a lot of concern about its potential effects on subsistence.

“One of the comments made that there was concern about caribou migration and that it wasn’t necessarily due to the pipeline being elevated, but it had more so to do with helicopters flying the length of the pipeline,” Gibson said.

This could be problematic during peak season, when hunters have a short window to bag a caribou and the noise could spook the herd.

The comment deadline is August 14.

Gibson said the goal is to publish a final impact statement at the end of 2018.

But there’s still a long road ahead for Alaska’s in-state gas pipeline.

After it gets an impact statement, the project still needs to get permit decisions from federal agencies like the Corps, to be built.

Gibson said the environmental review and permitting process ideally go hand-in-hand.  But finishing the review doesn’t necessarily mean an agency will grant a permit.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Highway open after clean up of spilled oil from overturned tanker

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 11:05
The Alaska Highway has reopened at milepost 686 near Swift River. Delays of 20-30 minutes expected. (http://www.511yukon.ca/en/)

Canadian authorities reopened the Alaska Highway at 8 pm last night at a point near Swift River in the Yukon Territory, where a fuel tanker wrecked and overturned Monday night.

The road is now open to single lane traffic assisted by pilot cars. Delays of 20 to 30 minutes are expected.

The truck went off the road around milepost 686, about 77 miles west of Watson Lake. A Highways spokesperson said the fuel truck was pulling two tankers, with at least one tanker rupturing.

The territory’s department of environment said in a release that roughly 7,600 gallons of fuel was spilled. Foam was put on the spill to mitigate the fumes and prevent it from catching on fire. It is expected that the fuel tankers will be removed from the site within 24 hours.

The Yukon Department of Highways and Royal Canadian Mounted Police were at the scene all day on Tuesday.

The RCMP say the driver was taken to hospital with non life-threatening injuries.

Categories: Alaska News

Sweeping government climate report warns of rapid warming in Alaska, Arctic

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 10:57
Winter sea ice locking in Nome for the winter. (Photo by Laura Collins/KNOM)

A new government report warns that regions across the U.S. are feeling the effects of rapid climate change, with some of the greatest impacts in Alaska and the Arctic. And it states the evidence that human activity is driving climate change is stronger than ever.

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A final draft of the assessment was posted online by the New York Times, which reported that scientists are worried the Trump Administration might try to change or suppress it.

The report says it is “extremely likely” that human activity is the “dominant cause” of recent warming — adding there is “no convincing alternative explanation.” That contradicts statements from Trump administration officials — and from the president himself.

The report is part of the National Climate Assessment, which is released every four years.

John Walsh is with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“It’s a distillation of the latest information about climate change as it affects the United States,” Walsh said.

Walsh contributed to the chapter on Alaska and the Arctic. He said the region has seen changes even in the short time since the last report, four years ago.

“The temperatures and the sea ice in Alaska have really moved into new territory in the last few years,” Walsh said.

Since 2014, Alaska has seen three of its warmest years ever and record-low sea ice.

The report concludes it’s “virtually certain” that human activity has contributed to the loss of sea ice and glaciers, declining snow cover, and rapidly increasing temperatures across the Arctic. And it states that changes in the region could have impacts on the climate around the globe.

Walsh said, whatever fears scientists might have, he’s seen no political interference in the report to date.

“There was no attempt to steer the report one way or another,” Walsh said. “Scientists were free to express what they thought.”

The Trump administration is supposed to review and formally approve the report later this month.

Categories: Alaska News

How books and buses are fighting summer hunger in rural Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 10:34
A volunteer distributes bags of food during the summer backpack meals program at the Talkeetna Public Library. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Five-year-old Mira Kidd was attempting the perilous adventure of trying new foods.

“It’s a cheese monster!” Mira screamed, holding a cheese stick dipped in red marinara sauce. “I’d better get away from that cheese monster before it bites me in the face!”

Sitting outside the Talkeetna Public Library on a sunny summer afternoon, Mira was participating in the federal Summer Meals Program, the library reading program and the new summer backpack program. There was a lot going on.

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In Talkeetna, about 40% of the elementary school kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. That’s great for keeping bellies full during the school year, but not during breaks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers free summer meals, but they have to be served at a specific site, like a school or library.

Librarian Geri Denkewalter said when the library staff first learned about the USDA Summer Meals Program last year, they were excited to participate.

“If kids are hungry, you feed them,” Denkewalter said. “That’s what you do.”

It seemed like a natural fit in the close-knit small town. “The adults are used to bringing their children here because I read to them when they were children,” Denkewalter said.

So they tried it out, and it wasn’t that successful. Most kids only came to the library once a week for the summer reading program, and not every day for the meals.

Even the USDA reports the Summer Meals Program only reaches one in six children who qualify, and rural areas face the biggest challenges.

It was clear that the program wasn’t a good fit for Talkeetna, said Upper Susitna Food Pantry coordinator LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal.

“Here’s the problem: They can’t get to a site every day,” Carroll-Tysdal said. “There’s a lot of working poor here that can’t afford the gas.”

According to federal regulations, Carroll-Tysdal was not allowed to send the federal meals home with the kids, so she wrote a grant.

With about $7,600 from the Mat-Su Health Foundation, $1,000 from the Food Bank of Alaska and donated food from community members, Carroll-Tysdal started a backpack program. Instead of going to the library to eat just one meal, each child could also go home with 10 more.

“We pretty well stock the bags so that they have five lunch entrée items and then breakfast – oatmeal, cereal milk, lots of fruit, some veggies, some cheese dippers,” Carroll-Tysdal listed as she sorted through a stocked bag.

On shopping days, her pickup truck is filled to the brim with items purchased hours away at less expensive stores in Wasilla or Anchorage.

“Any store that has an item that I want in these lunches that goes on sale, I will go down and clean out their shelves,” Carroll-Tysdal said.

Since the program started, there has been a two-thirds increase in the number of kids participating in the library program. About 50 kids show up every week; last year it was fewer than 30. They eat lunch then do activities like planting trees or learning sign language. When they leave, the ones who need it have a bag of food for the week.

The idea is not new. There are backpack programs nationwide, but most only send food home for weekends. Research shows that the programs help entire families, and kids are more likely to attend school on Fridays when they receive their backpacks.

Geri Denkewalter teaches yoga to children at the Talkeetna Public Library before the lunch program begins. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

For parents like Jody Shook, who’s caring for seven kids from different families this summer, the Talkeetna backpack program is essential.

“If it wasn’t for this program we’d be shopping at Cubby’s and going broke feeding kiddos,” Shook said.

Cubby’s is the only grocery store near the small town, and it is about 14 miles up the main road.

Talkeetna is pretty spread out, which presents another problem for feeding kids in summer: not every parent can get their children to the library, even for the weekly program.

That’s where the next partner steps in – Sunshine Transit. On most days the small bus line just runs along the main roads but now, on Thursdays in summer, they go door-to-door to pick up kids. The bus takes them to and from the library for free.

“I am super excited about the lunch program,” Sarah Russell said; she met her kids as they got off the bus. “In the past, my kids have just been stuck at home. This gives them a chance to get out during the day.”

Sunshine Transit manager Kim Schlosser agreed to help the program even before she received extra funding to add the new service.

“I said to just tell me what you need and we’ll have the kids sign up ahead so we know where they live, and they know how many are coming, and let’s make this happen,” Schlosser said.

The bags of food were also available for kids who could not make it to the reading program. Parents could pick it up whenever the library was open.

Pantry coordinator Carroll-Tysdal said they have given out about 115 bags every week. That’s over 12,000 meals for the summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Solutions for Food Insecurity

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-09 08:52

Did you have enough to eat this month? Did your neighbor? About 15 percent of Alaskans are food insecure — many of them are children or elderly. But there are ways to help solve this problem.

Join us on Talk of Alaska as we discuss the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other ways Alaskans are working together to get food on everyone’s tables. This program is part of Alaska Public Media’s new Solutions Desk, a look at what’s working to make Alaska’s communities stronger.

Host: Anne Hillman

Guests:

        • Cara Durr – Director of Public Engagement, Food Bank of Alaska
        • Craig Gundersen – Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois
        • Statewide callers 

    Participate:

    • Call 550-8422 (Anchorage) or 1-800-478-8255 (statewide) during the live broadcast
    • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
    • Send email to talk@alaskapublic.org (comments may be read on air)

    Live Broadcast: Tuesday, August 15, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

    SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by emailRSS or podcast.

Categories: Alaska News

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