Alaska News

Alaska DEC moves to replace section of contaminated highway from January fuel spill

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-01 10:08
An estimated 4,329 gallons of diesel fuel leaked out of the forward compartment of a 10,000-gallon fuel tank that overturned when the driver wrecked on Jan. 10 around milepost 164.4 of the Richardson Highway. No fuel leaked from a 5,000-gallon secondary “pup trailer” that the double-tanker truck was also pulling.
(Photo: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and a Fairbanks-based trucking company have come to an agreement on a cleanup of diesel fuel spilled in an area along the Richardson Highway south of Paxson.

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A DEC news release says Colville Transport cannot continue cleaning up contaminated soil at the mile 164 spill site this year. That’s where a double-tanker truck crashed and spilled 4,300 gallons of diesel back on January 9th.

A cleanup crew hired by Colville removed about 1,700 cubic yards of contaminated soil during January and February. DEC’s Ashley Adamczak said earlier this year much of the contamination is not accessible.

“The release that occurred at mile post 164 is specifically complicated because it did run under the roadway,” Adamczak said. “And short of digging up the Richardson Highway, then there’s gonna be contamination mass that’s left behind.”

Adamczak said Colville officials have agreed to return to the site next summer to excavate the roadway, and remove an estimated 400 cubic yards of contaminated gravel, and then rebuild the roadbed.

Adamczak said the state Department of Transportation will do a more permanent rebuild as part of a bigger highway-improvement project scheduled for 2019 — estimated to cost $38 million dollars.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker announces new climate change task force

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 18:17
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker fields questions from the Capitol press corps after signing Administrative Order 289 on Oct. 31, 2017. The order establishes the Alaska Climate Change Strategy and Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

On Tuesday, after months of hinting that a new climate change policy was in the works, Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order setting out a new state climate strategy and creating a task force to recommend specific actions.

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The 15-person “Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team” will be chaired by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and will propose a climate change action plan. Those recommendations are due by September 2018.

But whatever the team ultimately proposes, Walker made clear one thing is not in the cards: cutting back on oil exploration.

As a state “on the front lines of climate change” that’s also dependent on oil development, Walker said Alaska has to strike a balance.

“We will continue to responsibly develop our resources, our nonrenewable resources, and use that as the bridge funding to do what we need to do,” Walker said, pointing to the cost of relocating coastal villages or investing in renewable energy. “They’re not incompatible in any way. In fact one is necessary for the other.”

Mallott went further in his remarks, suggesting it’s time for the state to start looking beyond oil.

“A significant aspect of Alaska’s involvement…will necessarily revolve around a transition from a petroleum-based economy to a renewable energy economy,” Mallott said. “That will be a critical and necessary focus going forward.”

The “Leadership Team” will be made up of 15 members of the public, representing a cross-section of Alaskan interests. They will be tasked with making recommendations in four main areas: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate impacts, research and education and responding to near-term threats. Their final recommendations could include regulatory changes or legislation.

The order also directs state agencies to identify actions they can take more immediately.

Polly Carr heads up the Alaska Center in Anchorage. She said she’s pleased the Walker administration is acknowledging the need to respond to climate change.

But, Carr said  “What Alaskans do not need, and what Alaskans have said that they don’t want more of, is more talk.”

Carr pointed out that Alaska has done this before. Almost exactly ten years ago, former Gov. Sarah Palin issued her own administrative order, establishing climate strategy and creating a task force: the climate change sub-cabinet.

That group worked for more than two years and came up with a slew of recommendations, many of which have yet to be adopted.

Carr said it’s important that this time around, recommendations are followed by action.

“The more quickly that this announcement can move to action and policy, the better off all of us are going to be,” Carr said.

As for the oil and gas industry, “I think there’s a lot of folks who think we’re going to be the enemy here, and we don’t see our role as that at all,” Kara Moriarty of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said. “We’re certainly not going to shy away from the conversation.”

Moriarty said her members are ready to work with the administration on climate issues. But, she said when Alaska represents just a fraction of global carbon emissions, it’s important to weigh emissions cuts against the impact to the economy.

“You could turn off every oil spigot, every natural gas pump, turn off every light, shut down every car and I’m not sure it’s going to even make a dent in the overall global emissions picture,” Moriarty said.

While her members would oppose any efforts to discourage oil development, Moriarty said when it comes to adaptation or research, industry believes it has a role to play.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska sues OxyContin maker, alleging deception

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 18:09
Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth discusses a lawsuit the state is filing against Purdue Pharma in the state Capitol on Tuesday. Purdue makes the prescription pain pill OxyContin. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state of Alaska has sued Purdue Pharma. Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth alleged the company engaged in deceptive practices in the sale of the opioid drug OxyContin.

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Lindemuth said Purdue misled Alaska doctors about OxyContin.

“We believe, based on our investigation, that Purdue overstated the benefits of their drug and understated its risks in violation of Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices (Act) and Consumer Protection Act, to the detriment of the people of Alaska,” Lindemuth said Tuesday during a press availability in the Capitol.

The state filed the 85-page lawsuit in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday. Lindemuth said the state decided to pursue its own lawsuit, rather than join other states in a federal lawsuit, because it wanted to enforce Alaska’s strong state consumer protection laws.

“Where it’s something that’s so impacting Alaska in such a great manner and where it’s such an important issue for Alaska, we think that we need to be out front and pursuing those claims ourselves and having a direct role in how those claims are investigated here in Alaska and how those claims are pursued going forward,” Lindemuth said.

Lindemuth said Purdue used medical professionals who worked to appear neutral in promoting the drug to Alaska prescribers.

“These deceptive tactics and false statements have contributed to Alaska’s opioid epidemic and worsened the crisis,” Lindemuth said.

Ninety-five people in Alaska died last year from overdoses that included opioids. Alaska’s drug overdose death rate of 11 per 100,000 people is above the national average.

Alaska hired South Carolina-based law firm Motley Rice to both investigate the issue and represent the state in the law suit. The company will only be paid if the state wins – if it wins, Motley Rice will get 20 percent of the result. Purdue Pharma’s headquarters are in Connecticut.

Lindemuth said Alaska could also sue other drug makers and distributors.

“We want to put manufacturers and distributors on notice that we’re paying attention, and that we are going to pursue claims when they step over the line and market using false and misleading practices,” Lindemuth said.

For its part, Purdue responded in an email saying: “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Purdue points out that the Food and Drug Administration approved its medicine, but the company wishes to work collaboratively to solve the opioid crisis. The company also said OxyContin accounts for 2 percent of total opioid prescriptions.

In Alaska, OxyContin accounted for 90 percent of the state’s Medicaid spending on brand-name opioids.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Butler said the lawsuit is part of the state’s effort to reduce both the supply and demand for opioids, particularly to treat chronic pain. Butler said doctors and other prescribers have driven much of the demand.

“They thought they were doing the right thing, and some of what their practices have been based on is information that was provided to them, which really was misrepresenting what was in the science,” Butler said.

For example, the lawsuit alleged Purdue made statements about using a 12-hour dose of OxyContin to treat chronic pain that were contrary to the company’s own knowledge and studies, as well as to general scientific evidence.

Gov. Bill Walker said the lawsuit follows up on his declaration of an opioid addiction epidemic.

“As I’ve said many times, there’s no one single thing you can do that’s suddenly going to turn things around,” Walker said. “There’s a number of levers to move, and this is one of them.”

The lawsuit doesn’t say exactly how much money the state is seeking from Purdue. But the state does say the state is seeking $25,000 for each violation of the state Unfair Trade Practices Act. And with one state attorney saying there could be thousands of violations, the total would be more than $50 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks borough mayor sets meetings to explain funding cuts’ budget impact

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 17:04

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel says state officials have cut funding to the borough for three straight years now, and it appears likely that’ll continue in the years ahead. The mayor said borough officials face some tough choices on how to deal with those cuts, so he’s scheduled two public meetings for Wednesday to talk about the problem – and ask borough residents what they think ought to be done about it.

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Kassel says borough officials have done all they can to lessen the impact of state funding cuts while they wait for Alaska’s elected leaders to fix the state budget that’s been hammered by sharply reduced revenues due to a free-fall in oil prices four years ago. But the mayor said solutions at the state level now seem unlikely anytime soon and he said local officials can’t put off any longer making hard decisions on how to run the borough with greatly reduced state funding.

“This isn’t a can that we can kick down the road,” Kassel said in an interview Monday “That’s what the state has been doing with their fiscal issues. And it’s getting worse as a result of that. And they’re making our situation get out of control quickly.”

Kassel cited among other things the need to catch up on some $500 million on deferred building maintenance and long-delayed road-improvement projects. A resolution approved Oct. 12 by the borough Assembly that listed high-priority capital projects includes completion of the Barnette Magnet School renovation and service-area road improvements. Kassel says state no longer provides anywhere near the amount of capital-project funding that previously paid for most of that kind of work.

“We’ve been averaging $70 million a year to our community from the state,” Kassel said. “So for the last three years, that average has dropped. It’s no longer $70 million – it’s $1.4 million.”

Kassel said those kinds of cutbacks require borough officials to use such “tools” as issuing bonds to finance projects and budget cuts and revenue increases like tax hikes.

“I’m not seeing much way around cuts,” Kassel said. “Cutting is one tool. I think we’re probably going to be needing to do that. There’s tax revenues, and I think we’re going to have to take a look at that.”

Kassel says he wants to inform borough residents about the situation and get them to weigh in on what they think ought to be done, as he and his staff start working in earnest on the coming fiscal year budget. So he’s scheduled two town hall-type meetings for noon and 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Pioneer Park Exhibit Hall. And he encourages anyone who’s interested to attend.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s oldest building and its ghost story

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 15:51
Baranov Museum’s Michael Bach stands in room where the murder took place in 1886. (Photo by Kayla Desroches/KMXT)

If any historical site on Kodiak can claim to be haunted, it’s probably the Baranov Museum.

The Russian-American magazin, a former warehouse, is the oldest building in Alaska. The Russian-American Company built it between 1805 and 1808 and the Erskine family lived in the house for about 30 years starting in 1911.

But sometime between those dates, it was also the site of a murder most foul.

KMXT stopped by the building to speak with collections manager Michael Bach about what happened one November many years ago.

In a kitchen that does double duty as the staff break room and an exhibit, Bach says when the murder was committed in 1886, the kitchen was the dining room, and what is now the boiler room was the kitchen.

“So, this was the Alaska Commercial Company station. This is where the commercial company was based out of,” Bach said. “Some people lived here. It was also a store. So, people could come and get outfitted to go trapping or to go hunting to get your supplies here.”

The victim, Benjamin McIntyre, was living in the building at the time of his murder.

“McIntyre was a worker for the Alaska Commercial Company and he was sitting in the dining room with a bunch of other individuals who were here visiting people from town and they were just finishing up dinner and, according to eyewitnesses, a very loud shot rang out,” Bach said.

Bach says McIntyre immediately slumped over. He had been shot from behind, through the window.

The murderer was never caught and the murder never solved.

“There’s some theories. In Susan Jeffrey’s book, “A Legacy Built to Last,” she talks about how there was a certain gentleman in town. [He] was outfitted a couple of times to either go sea otter hunting or trapping, depending upon the story you want to believe, and always came back empty handed,” Bach said.

Bach said the man asked McIntyre to outfit him to go hunting.

“And McIntyre said no, you’ve gone the last two times, you haven’t gotten anything, you’re clearly not a successful business partner,” Bach said. “I’m not going to give you any money. Sometime later he was shot by an unidentified hunter or trapper.”

The mystery remains. And so does McIntyre’s ghost. Or at least, the Erskine’s housekeeper thought so, Bach said.

“Natalia Pestrikoff was one of the women who worked for the Erskine family when they were living here and she did not want to be in the building after dark because there was long rumors that McIntyre’s ghost still walked around the house in the evenings,” Bach said.

Bach says there’s a rumor she refused to work in the house after dark. Which can be problematic for an employer, he pointed out, especially as the nights grow longer in the winter. But he understands why Pestrikoff might have thought there was a ghost.

“When I’m in here alone – I’m usually the first one in the building – and I’m in here alone on a really windy day, the building creaks and moans and you can hear the wind moving through the building,” Bach said.

Bach admits it’s a little creepy.

But it’s just the old house settling into its bones.

There was a possible conclusion to the story – at least to the murderer’s story. According to Jeffrey’s book, Carolyn Erskine Andrews writes in her memoir that “years after the murder, a human skeleton was found in the woods.” The murder weapon was found nearby.

Categories: Alaska News

Nome’s Polaris Hotel on fire; blaze continues Into afternoon

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 15:41
One Nome firefighter hoses down the Polaris Hotel on Tuesday morning after fire has been burning for more than 6 hours. (Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM)

Nome residents awoke this morning to see the Polaris Hotel ablaze. 22 of the available 30 Nome firefighters are currently containing the blaze. According to Nome Fire Chief Jim West, Jr., the Fire Department was first notified of a fire that started in the Polaris liquor store around 3:15 Tuesday morning.

“It’s coming out of the liquor store; the owner came out and said he smelled smoke,” West said. “He checked the back kitchen, nothing there; as he worked his way back through the building and came to the storage area where’s there a couple coolers and whatnot, he got a burst of smoke and flame.”

West and his crew are all safe, but reportedly at least one person, who could still be inside Polaris, is unaccounted for.

“We made entry to the upstairs to get everybody out; we think we got everybody out. We are unsure of it,” West said. “There’s a possibility that someone might be inside, but we are unsure at this time.”

The identity of the missing person is not being released at this time.

As the work to extinguish this fire continues, West observed the blaze spread up through the second floor of Polaris and on to an adjacent structure. The Fire Chief says his crew has taken steps to prevent the fire from affecting further buildings and has a back hoe standing by just in case.

“I think at this point in time it’s not going to jump, you can tell the smoke conditions have changed,” West said. “More white smoke, lighter white, lighter grey. The building had a lot of spray insulation in it, and that’s very hazardous, spray foam insulation, that’s what it is. That’s what we are worried about, too; it’s just an old building.”

West Jr. believes the Polaris Hotel is totaled at this point. KNOM will provide updates on the status of this fire, what caused the blaze, and the unaccounted person as more information becomes available.

Categories: Alaska News

One Arctic species is listed, one isn’t. Did politics play a role?

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 15:18
Pacific walrus. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)

Two of the Arctic’s most iconic animals face challenges with retreating sea ice. The Bush administration listed the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.

But recently, the Pacific walrus was denied the same protections under President Trump. Critics have called it a political decision.

But the real story is likely a lot more complicated.

Nine years ago, a conservation group petitioned the federal government to put the Pacific walrus on the Endangered Species list. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided the listing was warranted.

But the decision got stuck in limbo because there was a huge backlog of other listings.

“Personally back in 2008, I was very happy that the decision could be delayed for a while,”  Rosa Meehan said.

Meehan is retired now. But when the Pacific walrus was first up for review, she managed the marine mammal program at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She says scientists knew polar bears living in the Arctic were threatened by changing conditions.

“Walrus, there was concern. But it was not as immediate,” Meehan said.

Female walrus spend their summers in the Arctic Ocean, giving birth and feeding their pups. They rest on sea ice and then dive to the ocean floor to feast on clams.

But as sea ice has retreated earlier in the summer, more females and their young have been forced on shore. It’s become a regular occurrence to see thousands onshore in Alaska and Russia.

“Having that many animals hanging out on a land haulout- it’s was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of a lot,’” Meehan said. “You just don’t know what they would do. So there’s a question there.”

And Meehan says scientists were unsure how to answer that question back in 2008. There were concerns about stampedes, and they didn’t know how far walrus could swim for food.

With good sea ice, it’s as if walrus have a grocery store right in their neighborhood. When they’re hauled out on land, though, they have to swim a long way for food.

Chad Jay, a walrus biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has tracked walrus on epic journeys to visit their favorite feeding spot — a place called Hannah Shoal.

Faster-moving sea ice brought on my rapid global warming is added to the physiological stress of Alaska’s polar bears. Creative Commons photo by Christopher Michel/Flickr)

“They’re essentially then not able to haulout for 250 miles of travel,” Jay said.

Jay has worked on walrus studies for the past 20 years. During that time, he says there have been some major changes in the Arctic.

“Sea ice has been declining for the last couple decades,” Jay said. “And we’ve seen that firsthand in our field studies, and it’s been pretty dramatic.”

So if polar bears and walrus both use sea ice to feed, retreating sea ice should be equally hard for both species, right?

Rosa Meehan says, ‘no.’

“The difference is the polar bears have to walk on the ice to catch the seals that they eat,” Meehan said.

Without the platform of ice to catch seals, Meehan says polar bears don’t have access to an equivalent food source on land, and there’s competition from brown bears for what is available.

So while polars bears and walrus are both experiencing the effects of climate change, Meehan says walrus are faring a lot better.

“So far, they seem to be doing OK,” Meehan said.

Biologist Chad Jay, though, said it remains to seen if walrus can handle all of the changes headed their way.

Besides the long swims for food, he says there are other stressors to consider, like where walrus will give birth as sea ice retreats.

There’s also the potential for increased vessel traffic in the Arctic.

“So I wouldn’t say they’re out of the woods yet,” Jay said.

Back when Rosa Meehan was still with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, she said climate change was very much a part of the conversation. But the recent decision not to list walrus doesn’t mention it as a threat. It only acknowledges “environmental change.”

Still, Meehan doesn’t think the decision was political.

“I’m confident that the people looking at the science are looking at the actual mechanisms of what’s going on with change,” Meehan said. “It’s just getting wrapped in a different set of words.”

Meehan hopes that different set of words doesn’t impact research funding. She says there’s still a lot to learn to make sure walrus have a future in the Arctic.

Categories: Alaska News

From octagon to hexagon: AFC embraces new ring, venue at Alaska Airlines Center

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 14:34
After 13 years at the Sullivan Arena, the Alaska Fighting Championship switched venues to the Alaska Airlines Center. Two fighters match up in the hexagon as spectators watch on Oct. 18. (Photo by Samantha Davenport, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

After 13 years at the Sullivan Arena, the Alaska Fighting Championship has packed its bags and moved to the Alaska Airlines Center. The center has newer amenities, and fans can be closer to the raw action that, figuratively and literally, packs a punch.

Oct. 18 was Alaska Fighting Championship’s 134th match, but the second one held at the Alaska Airlines Center. Fighters like Isaiah “Midnight Shadowz” Edwards and Rob “Calm Bomb” Rovera took to the ring to put their gloves to good use.

Sarah Lorimer, president of AFC, said the move wasn’t easy. A lot of memories and fights have happened in the Sullivan’s cage. The Sullivan has been home to the fights for over a decade, but there are features of the new venue Lorimer says were difficult to pass up.

The Airlines Center has digital screens and scoreboards, and fans can sit closer to the action. Parking will also be free for spectators, something that the Sullivan didn’t offer. Lorimer said the technology the center has is better for in-person viewers.

“We just thought it would be a better home over here with some of the technology they have available to enhance the experience, not only on the live paper view stream but also our live experience with the fans,” Lorimer said.

AFC fighters can be seen in more than 200 countries around the world. Lorimer made a deal last year between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and AFC, giving local fighters better odds of making it in the big leagues.

The new venue also sports a new cage, which is a 24-foot long, $30,000 hexagon instead of a standard octagon. The flooring has extreme grip so fighters can’t slip when they’re trying to deliver a head kick. The center’s general manager, Chris Orheim says one of the most loved amenities by users of the Center is their dressing rooms.

“Almost all of our dressing rooms have video monitors that run through our central studio. Whether its the great Alaska Shootout, or the AFC, the fighters, the teams, the artists coming up have a chance to see what’s going on out on stage or out on the court,” Orheim said.

Throughout the years, the Alaska Airlines Center has slowly taken venue slots from the Sullivan Arena. The Sullivan opened its doors to the Anchorage bowl in 1983 and hosted the GCI Great Alaska Shootout until the Alaska Airlines Center was built. The Shootout transferred its fans to the Alaska Airlines Center after it opened in 2014. The state high school basketball championship has also relocated to the Alaska Airlines Center.

Lorimer says the response from fans, fighters and sponsors to the AFC move has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve had longtime sponsors that have been with us for over 10 years and they were literally jumping for joy when they got in here. It was a well welcomed move,” Lorimer said.

The Sullivan still has UAA hockey fans to fill its seats, but not the Alaska Aces, who played a minimum of 38 games at the venue per season. The Sullivan still hosts trade shows, concerts and graduation ceremonies for high schoolers.

Before AFC’s withdrawal from the Sullivan Arena, the building had operating losses of almost $600,000 in 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

Sealaska to pay $11 million in dividends

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-10-31 11:47
Sealaska’s corporate headquarters are in this Juneau building. Nearly 23,000 shareholders will receive their fall dividends mid-November. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Southeast Alaska’s regional Native corporation will distribute close to $11 million to its shareholders Nov. 17.

Juneau-headquartered Sealaska announced the distribution Oct. 27.

Payments will range from $596 to $186 for those with 100 shares. The amount depends on the class of shareholder and other factors.

Sealaska has 22,950 shareholders living in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

Operational income will make up $1 per share of the payments. That includes revenues from recently purchased fish processing plants, as well as timber and gravel operations, plus government contracting.

Officials said the amount demonstrates progress in developing its corporate businesses.

“We expect the operations dividend payment to nearly double due to continued growth in net income and cash flow. This will be the first increase in an operations dividend over the last five years,” board Chairman Joe Nelson said in a press release.

Sealaska’s Permanent Fund investment account makes up 86 cents per share.

The largest source, at $4.10 per share, is a pool of natural resource earnings from all 12 regional Native corporations.

Shareholders who are also members of an urban Native corporation, such as Juneau’s Goldbelt, will get the full dividend of $596 for those with 100 shares. That includes the resource pool earnings.

Those who are also members of village Native corporations, such as Kake Tribal, receive $133 for those with 100 shares. They do not include the resource pool earnings. Those go to the village corporation.

Recently enrolled shareholders’ dependents also receive the smaller payments.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker announces public safety plan

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 18:22
Gov. Bill Walker speaks about his public safety plan in the Capitol on Monday. Listening to him are: Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, Alaska State Troopers Director Col. Hans Brinke, Alaska Wildlife Troopers Director Col. Steve Hall, and Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

Gov. Bill Walker and four of his cabinet members announced a series of steps today to reduce crime. They include more spending on public safety and improved access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

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Walker said reducing crime will require more state government spending in some areas.

“Rather than focusing on fixing the blame, we need to be focused on fixing the problem,” Walker said. “One thing we have found out over the past several years: We cannot cut our way into a safer Alaska.”

Walker put Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in charge of developing a plan to reduce crime. She said it will take enhanced collaboration across different departments, along with closer work with tribal and municipal law enforcement.

“We can each be doing our own thing, but what this is all about is working together better, in doing more with what we have,” Lindemuth said.

Lindemuth also said she will seek state funding for five more prosecutors, including one focused specifically on drugs statewide.

Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said the department is working to improve recruitment to fill 43 open state trooper positions and 34 vacant village public safety officer jobs.

Monegan said one barrier to attracting applicants is the annual cycle of layoff notices sent to public workers during disagreements among lawmakers over the state budget.

“We don’t want to have any pink slips. And the state right now doesn’t attract a lot of good people as it should,” Monegan said. “But we are working on a huge plan.”

The administration also is hoping to fund more treatment of opioid addiction as a way of reducing thefts caused by drug use.

The Department of Health and Social Services is aiming to add space at drug treatment facilities and to increase treatment using medication.

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson said the state’s Medicaid expansion is central to the treatment efforts. She said the largely federally funded expansion is helping people who are addicted to drugs when they leave jail.

“When someone is leaving a correctional facility, if they have the opportunity to be able to go into treatment or better after-care, to be able to support the services that they received in a correctional facility, we know we’re going to have better outcomes as a state,” Davidson said.

Senate President Pete Kelly said he expects the Senate to support efforts to improve public safety, but was skeptical of the governor’s proposal to introduce a payroll tax.

“Addressing public safety is obviously very important and he’s going to find a lot of support from the Senate to do that,” Kelly said. “Some of the proposals he’ll make I’m sure we’ll jump on because they’re good ideas. I don’t like the idea of politicizing public safety for what appears in my book to be a philosophical desire by the administration and others to impose a tax on Alaskans.”

Walker administration officials have said a payroll tax would help bring the state budget into balance.

Categories: Alaska News

After BP leak report, state calls for review of all North Slope wells

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 17:13
Responders from Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the North Slope Borough, and BP Exploration Alaska (BPXA) has been established to respond to natural gas and crude oil discharge near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

State regulators are calling for a review of thousands of oil wells on the North Slope by the end of this year.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is ordering all wells on the North Slope that have a similar design to a BP well that failed this spring, to be shut in immediately and reported to the state.

The emergency order comes after BP blamed an April oil spill and gas leak on a piece of a well casing that buckled under pressure from thawing permafrost.

The company later shut in five other producing wells that had a similar design.

But, Cathy Foerster, who sits on the commission, said the company kept the results of its investigation largely quiet.

“When BP was in here last week we asked them if they had shared the information with all of their operators and they said they had only shared it with their co-owners,” Foerster said.

Foerster said she was disappointed by the company’s decision.

It isn’t clear how many wells on the North Slope have a similar design. But, Foerster said she was confident that engineers for each company could complete the review process before the end of the year. She said BP’s flawed Prudhoe Bay well was older and she doesn’t think newer fields on the North Slope will have similarly designed wells.

“I don’t think many modern wells were drilled that way, but I don’t know,” Foerster said.  “We’re doing this just to make sure.”

Foerster said operators will not have to shut in the flawed wells permanently – they can pay to have them fixed.

Foerster said the permafrost around the wells is not thawing because of climate change; rather she blames it on the heat from the oil and gas and other fluids being pumped from thousands of feet underground to the frozen surface.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard wraps up seasonal operations out of Kotzebue

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 17:07
The MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter is the workhorse of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue missions. (Photo: KNOM)

October 31 marks the end of the Coast Guard’s annual operations in the Arctic.

“So we’re here in the hangar right now at Kotzebue. It’s the National Guard hangar. We’ve got two MH-60 Tango aircrafts here,” Lieutenant Jared Carbajal said.

Painted bright orange and white, the MH-60 Jayhawk is the workhorse of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue missions. Since July 1st, two of them have been stationed at Kotzebue, and all summer long, aircrews have rotated in and out, as part of the Coast Guard’s seasonal work throughout the Bering Sea and along the North Slope. It’s an annual operation called Arctic Shield.

Carbajal, a pilot, will be one of the last to fly out of Kotzebue this year. After a busy season, Arctic Shield wraps up at the end of this month.

Arctic Liaison Officer Lt. Jeff Shoknecht explained the mission.

“Arctic Shield really is just the Coast Guard doing what it normally does in an area that it’s not normally, um, or at least in the past, has been as accessible,” Shoknecht said.

The Coast Guard has been present in Alaskan waters for 150 years — in fact, it was a Coast Guard cutter that brought federal officials to Sitka in 1867 for the territory’s formal transfer from Russia.

But as Shoknecht explained, in recent years, things have been heating up in Arctic waters in more ways than one.

“At least in the sense that conditions are ice-free and allow merchant traffic, cruise ships, increased boating in general,” Shoknecht said. “That’s expected to continue to rise.”

Diminishing sea ice means more maritime traffic in the Arctic — and with it, higher risk of accidents.

Lt. Jared Carbajal smiles from inside one of the MH-60 helicopters he flies for the Coast Guard.
(Photo: KNOM)

Officially beginning in 2012, Arctic Shield deploys cutters, aircraft and personnel to what’s called a Forward Operating Location, a temporary home base for operations throughout the Arctic from July through October. The Coast Guard’s 17th District, which covers all Alaskan waters, is based in Kodiak. But stationing resources at a more convenient location cuts down response time in an emergency. And Shoknecht said that can mean the difference between life and death when one of the biggest challenges is scale.

“It’s kind of like being headquartered in Miami and then managing resources that are in Texas and North Dakota,” Shoknecht said. “If you were to overlay Alaska onto the Lower 48, that’s the size of it.”

The Coast Guard leases a hangar from the Army National Guard in Kotzebue as a home for Arctic Shield. The facility was renamed last year in honor of Kotzebue resident John Schaeffer, the first Inupiaq two-star general in the Alaska Army National Guard. The hangar had more than enough room for the two helicopters and, along one wall, a pile of moose and caribou antlers collected during training missions.

Carbajal, the pilot, said that training takes place “pretty much every day,”

“There’s a lot of training we have to do. If we don’t fly for two weeks, and then we get launched in a snow storm, at night, on our last day,” Carbajal said. “It’s just like training for a sport, you’re not as ready, you’re not as good as you could be. With the extreme weather, the cold, the winds, our chances of finding people is much higher if we can regularly train.”

Carbajal said, with so much activity, they try hard to be “good, friendly neighbors,” sharing their plans—and receiving greetings from locals—over VHF radio, trying not to fly too close to anyone’s camp, and regularly consulting with government biologists about the location of wildlife so they can steer clear. Carbajal showed a gigantic map covered in sticky notes tracking the locations of moose and caribou, seabird rookeries.

“Yes, where are the herds, where is the fishing, where’s the hunting, where’s the whaling?” Carbajal said. “We don’t wanna be shooting approaches down or hovering over the water, deploying our rescue swimmer in the middle of a pod of beluga whales, for instance.”

And, in addition to search and rescue, the Coast Guard’s Arctic Shield activities include outreach events in coastal communities throughout the region, both to highlight their presence in the Arctic and to help communities prepare for worst-case scenarios like an oil spill or a boating accident in very cold water.

Back in Kotzebue, it was business as usual as the second MH-60 helicopter returned from a training flight.

As of last week, Coast Guard crews had undertaken 20 search and rescue missions since arriving in Kotzebue in July. They’d saved 20 lives, and assisted 27 others.

Categories: Alaska News

Congress let CHIP expire; Denali KidCare OK for now

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 16:14
Photo of U.S. Capitol by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

Funding for CHIP, the low-income children’s health insurance program, expired at the end of September. If Congress doesn’t renew the program, several states are projected to run out of money by the end of the year. In Alaska, the issue isn’t quite so urgent. The Division of Health Care Services says the state has enough money to continue funding its CHIP program, called Denali KidCare, until April.

In Congress, both parties say they want to renew it, and the House is expected to vote on its bill this week.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blames Democrats for dragging their feet; even they know a deadline is about to hit a number of states.

“They cannot wait for a lack of action here. So yes, I’m upset by this,” McCarthy said.

House Democrats take issue with the “offsets,” the cuts the bill would make elsewhere to pay for children’s insurance. The House CHIP bill would cut a public health fund established by the Affordable Care Act. It would also shorten the grace period for people to pay for plans they buy under the ACA. And the bill would increase Medicare premiums for seniors earning more than $500,000 a year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says Republicans are willing to sacrifice public health to pay for CHIP but aren’t requiring such sacrifices to pay for tax cuts.

“So tax cuts for the rich don’t have to be offset. They can increase the deficit,” Pelosi said. “Children’s health, which has its own benefit to our economy, has to be paid for by other children’s health.”

The Senate’s CHIP bill doesn’t specify offsets. Unless both chambers move their bills soon, children’s health insurance could get wrapped into the end-of-the-year spending negotiations.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau residents and roads dry out after record rains

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 15:14
Nat Nipataruedi points out a flooded culvert along Jordan Creek near her home on Oct. 29, 2017. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

As the Juneau area dried out over the weekend, residents were able to take stock of the damage from Friday’s record-setting rain.

According to the National Weather Service, a total of 3.3 inches of rain fell on downtown Juneau over a 24-hour period Friday. Juneau International Airport saw 2.51 inches. Water pooled in some parking lots downtown and in the Valley before it drained off.

No injuries were reported.

One of the areas most affected by the storm was the neighborhood surrounding Jordan Creek. The creek crested at 11 feet Friday, higher than ever previously reported.

Nat Nipataruedi lives on Cascade Street near Jordan Creek. Her yard and the crawl space under her house flooded Friday. She said she has never seen the creek that high in the 12 years she and her family have lived in the neighborhood.

Mud sits in the parking lot at Warners Wharf on Oct. 28, a day after heavy rains flooded part of the lot. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

“And there was so much water flowing out of Jordan Creek and it was so high that it was actually backing up on Glacier Highway, where cars would have to slow down or move to the middle of the road because they were afraid of being submerged when they were driving,” Nipataruedi said.

Nipataruedi said water filled the crawl space beneath her house before she and her husband were able to rig up their pump. They had to pump the water into their bath tub at first since the area around their house was flooded. By Saturday morning, the yard had drained. As of Sunday, the crawl space was still a work in progress.

“We’re scared of mold, that’s what we’re scared of is that the humidity and all the wetness is gonna get into the insulation, into the wood of the joists and all that underneath and we’re gonna get a mold problem. And we can’t have that,” Nipataruedi said.

Caution tape blocks off the entrance to the Flume Trail off Basin Road on Oct. 28, 2017. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Fire Chief Richard Etheridge said Capital City Fire/Rescue responded to a number of calls for minor mudslides on roads Friday. He could not remember seeing creeks this high in recent years.

“It’s not unheard of, we had some flooding like this some years ago … real similar flooding, especially out in the valley,” Etheridge said. “But this is the first time, you know, this administration has dealt with some widespread flooding like that here in the valley.”

The Flume Trail along Gold Creek remained closed Sunday. AEL&P said in a tweet Saturday that the trail sustained storm damage and was closed to non-essential traffic until it could be repaired.

Safety notice: the flume trail sustained storm damage and is closed to non-essential traffic. Please avoid area until repairs can be made.

— AEL&P (@AELPJUNEAU) October 28, 2017

Friday’s rains were the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Lan.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Peninsula students and teachers get creative to meet requirements

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 15:01
Tyler Croom polishes the caribou antler he is turning into a cribbage board. (Photo by Avery Lill/KDLG)

There was a sharp, burnt smell in the air as seventh-grader, Tyler Croom, guided an electric polishing tool along the surface of a caribou antler with steady hands.

A whirring, buzz filled his classroom at Meshik School in Port Heiden. The areas he had already polished gleamed bright and white.

“I’m making a cribbage board out of it,” Croom said, removing the surgical mask he wore to keep from breathing particles from the antler that he polished away. “I’m going to do scrimshaw in it, and we’re going to stain it brown. I’ve always wanted to make a cribbage board.”

The Lake and Peninsula School District is piloting a new calendar this year. They have dubbed it the “subsistence calendar.”

By starting later and ending earlier, the new calendar cuts 77.5 hours of instruction and saves more than $400,000.

The tricky part is students still have the same requirements they need to fulfill in a year, but they have less time to finish the standards.

That’s where project’s like Croom’s come become crucial. Kirsten Buckmaster is Croom’s teacher who is helping him with the project.

“We were able to tie in lots of different standards,” Buckmaster said. “He’ll have a writing component. He has science, engineering, arts and his cultural side.”

In addition to completing projects during the school year that fulfill a variety of requirements concurrently, students can also document summer activities, like commercial fishing, to count toward school standards.

While fulfilling school standards efficiently and effectively may be challenge, Kasie Luke, principal of Meshik School and Chignik Bay School, said that it is one of the new calendar’s most positive aspects.

“I think the main strengths really show in our students having spent more time with their families and doing what they do in their summer,” Luke said. “It gives them the opportunity to experience more place-based education opportunities and to really take advantage of their experiences in the summer to count as some of our standards toward their graduation requirements.”

For the 12 schools in the Lake and Peninsula School District, classes started Sept. 5 this year. School lets out May 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Wrangell Borough and local tribe look to relocate junkyard soil

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 12:21
Pat’s Lake is a popular fishing area. It sits .2 miles away from the proposed site to dump almost 20,000 cubic yards of lead-contaminated soil. (Katarina Sostaric/KSTK)

The Wrangell Borough and local tribe are working together to find a new location for tons of lead-contaminated soil. Almost 20,000 cubic yards of treated soil is slated to be hauled from the old Byford Junkyard to a rock quarry near Pat’s Lake.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation began the cleanup efforts last spring. The state agency treated the soil and plans to place it in what’s called a monofill near Pat’s Creek. Now, the borough and Wrangell Cooperative Association are pushing back on this relocation plan.

“We are coming into this with no knowledge and we are trying to come up to speed on whether we are comfortable with them putting 2,000 dump-truck loads worth of lead-contaminated soil 0.2 miles from a fish stream,” local Tribal Administrator Esther Ashton said.

Borough Assembly Member Patty Gilbert agreed. “Actually, the Pat’s Lake site is ideal,” Gilbert said. “It borders on, what, three sides with pure rock… except for the water source.”

The soil has been treated so it won’t seep into nearby material, but it’s still hazardous. The state planned to move it last summer but delayed due to public concern. Assembly member Steve Prysunka said he’s upset with the lack of public process.

“Never did this body get approached by anybody in the state to discuss what was going on,” Prysunka said. “So, that bothers me as a community member and as an assembly member. This is not just a tribe issue; this is also an assembly issue.”

The borough and tribe have sent letters to the state conservation agency asking for other options. The state’s replies are little more than a take it or leave it. In a letter, the agency said there are no other viable sites on city or state land on the island. When the borough asked for a deadline to find other sites, the agency said there’s no time left to consider other spots on the island. And, if the city wants to ship the soil south, it needs to come up with the $8 million cost by next April.

The borough and tribe don’t want to make a formal appeal at this time, but they will push back.

“I would like to delve more into those deadlines because we don’t know why those were imposed specifically,” Ashton said. “And it basically gives no time to come up with alternatives.”

An uncertain road lays ahead for the local governments. The state’s plan is exactly that, a plan to take care of the soil. To dismiss the state’s help would mean a lot of legwork for the tribe and borough, like finding alternative locations and funds on their own.

“One of my concerns is that this pile will end up staying where it is,” Prysunka said.

And that is a race against the clock, because the state says the lining containing the soil has a shelf life of two years. After that, it starts to degrade, making it hazardous or more costly to move.

“I’m all about finding alternatives, but at some point we’re going to have a go, no-go date,” Prysunka said.

The tribe and borough are also going above and beyond the state agency. Ashton said the tribe spoke with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who will then talk with Gov. Bill Walker.

The borough and tribal officials say they will continue to fight the state’s decisions, while keeping the community informed and involved in the process.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaskan soldier killed in Afghanistan helicopter crash

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-10-30 10:31
Chief Warrant Officer Jacob Michael Sims, 36, died on Oct. 28 when his helicopter crashed in the Logar Province of Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew McLaughlin)

An American soldier from Juneau was killed over the weekend while serving in Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer Jacob Michael Sims, 36, died on Oct. 28 when his helicopter crashed in the Logar Province of Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense released the news on Sunday.

According to the DoD, Sims was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at an Air Force Base just south of Tacoma, Washington. He was in Afghanistan supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, a counterterrorism mission that began in 2015.

On Sunday, Governor Bill Walker ordered US and Alaska flags be immediately lowered to half-staff for the next five days to honor Officer Sims.

“Chief Warrant Officer Sims and his family made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us,” Walker said. “Byron, Toni, Donna and I are holding his parents, his wife and his children in our daily prayers. While our state and our country lost a dedicated soldier, they lost their son, husband and father. Our military service members put themselves on the line in defense of the values we hold dear. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

NATO’s Resolute Support in Afghanistan has confirmed that six additional American crew members that were aboard the helicopter were injured in the crash. 

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our comrade,” said NATO General John Nicholson, commander, Resolute Support. “On behalf of all of Resolute Support, our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of our fallen comrade and those injured in this unfortunate event.”

According to NATO, the incident is under investigation.

Categories: Alaska News

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