Alaska News

Final day for Donlin to review draft permit to discharge wastewater in Crooked Creek

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2017-11-24 14:47
Donlin Gold predicts that it can extract 33 million ounces of gold over the initial 27 years of the proposed mine. The gold is present in microscopic flecks embedded within the extracted sample rock. (Katie Basile / KYUK)

Donlin Gold has taken another step toward opening its proposed mine. State regulators have sent Donlin a draft permit for discharging wastewater into Crooked Creek before it flows into the Kuskokwim River.

For Donlin Gold to operate its proposed mine it’s going to need lots of water: about 17,500 gallons per minute throughout the life of the mine. Most of the water will come from the ground and be used to separate microscopic flecks of gold embedded in the rock. The process will release heavy metals and rely on cyanide.

Diverting the water will reduce the amount in surrounding streams; in some designs, miles of fish-supporting waterways would be lost.

Then there’s the water that is produced by the mine: seeping from the tailings, or the left over rock at the mine, water from the workers’ camp, and water that drains into the mine pit.

All that water needs a place to go. After it’s been treated, Donlin wants to empty it into Crooked Creek, about 10 miles north of the village of Crooked Creek and the Kuskokwim River. The company has received a draft permit from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to do just that. The permit sets the standards for that water.

“The water quality still has to meet the water quality standards under the Clean Water Act,” Allan Nakanishi, the state’s technical engineer on the project, said.

And under state law, the discharged water has to “be adequate to fully protect existing uses of the water.” One of those uses is fishing. The Kuskokwim’s five salmon species have been recorded in Crooked Creek as well as 12 resident fish species. Donlin plans to treat the water with reverse osmosis, a process for removing substances dissolved in water.

“The treatment plant itself is going to operate from early April through the end of October,”  Donlin spokesperson Kurt Parkan said.  “So during the summer season.”

Donlin will recycle the water during the rest of the year. Contaminants removed from the water will be dumped into the tailings. If approved, the permit would require the discharged water to be tested once a month, with possible legal action to be taken if the standards are not met.

Donlin has had 10 days to comment on the draft permit before the period closes Wednesday. The state will open a 60-day public comment period in mid-December and hold three public hearings in late January. Hearings will be in Bethel, Aniak and Anchorage, and will cover not only this wastewater discharge draft permit, but also draft permits for waste management and the project’s reclamation and closure.

Categories: Alaska News

A Closer Look: Tides – The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2017-11-24 14:36

Today’s program features a discussion with mariner, surfer and author, Jonathan White about his book Tides-The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. White spent ten years researching tides and the global effects of tidal action after his boat nearly sank in Alaska.

White grew up on the California coast. He built a sailboat in college and spent a lot of time on the water. In his twenties, he bought a 65 foot wooden schooner and started a school on the boat, conducting seminars on natural history, whale research and writing all along the California coast and up into Southeast Alaska, where he almost lost the boat in a large gale and tide.

Listen now

REPORTER: Lori Townsend, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

BROADCAST: Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017

SUBSCRIBE: Get A Closer Look updates automatically — via email, RSS or podcasts.

Categories: Alaska News

Hatcher Pass receives $500,000 grant for new chairlift

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2017-11-24 13:57
A comparison of the old Hatcher Pass chairlift and the planned expansion. (Photo courtesy of Hatcher Pass)

Hatcher Pass is now a half-million dollars closer to having a chairlift for snowboarders and skiers.

The recreation area in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Palmer has long been popular among snow sports enthusiasts, and there have been rope tows that pulled skiers up-slope there in the past.

More recently, supporters of lift-access skiing in Hatcher Pass got a huge boost when the Mat-Su Health Foundation announced a $500,000 grant toward the goal of building a chairlift on the lower slopes of Government Peak.

The money goes to a nonprofit formed in 2015 called Hatcher Alpine Xperience. Known as “HAX,” the group announced the funds Tuesday.

Gil Carr is vice chair of the HAX board.

“This is by far the closest to having an operating ski area in Hatcher in literally decades, so we’re pretty stoked about it,” Carr said. “The potential here is real, and we’re moving along quite nicely, I think.”

The ski area’s supporters have already cleared some trails, and initial plans call for the installation of a refurbished, three-person chairlift to access beginner terrain. Later, HAX hopes to have enough money to purchase a high-speed, four-person chairlift called a “quad” that’ll go higher into the mountains. And Carr says more advanced skiers and snowboarders will be able to ride the lifts up to where they can start human-powered alpine touring ascents in the Government Peak side-country.

Carr says the health foundation awarded the recent grant because the funding helps fulfill its mission of improving the well-being of a wide range of people in the Mat-Su region, in this case through skiing.

“That’s a healthy activity, right? And so, think about having a ski hill in the Valley that is accessible and safe for kids, teenagers, families,” Carr said.

With the recent grant, Carr says the first lift could be installed as soon as next summer and be in operation by the following winter. He says the timing depends on continued fundraising and whether the board decides to commit to a timetable of putting down deposits for construction.

The Hatcher Alpine Xperience board’s next meeting is Monday in Palmer.

Categories: Alaska News

Double Thanksgiving Shootout wins give UAA women a championship, keep men alive in tournament

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2017-11-24 13:36

Thanksgiving saw the final Great Alaska Shootout at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and local college basketball fans had plenty to be thankful for.

In the championship game between the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s team and Tulsa, UAA came back with 6 minutes left on the clock to win 59-53.  This is the women’s seventh tournament championship in their final Shootout game.

The UAA men lost to California State University Bakersfield on Wednesday and were even closer to total elimination last night, trailed by 6 points with less than a minute and a half on the clock. A couple three-pointers, including one at the buzzer, sent the game into overtime. That’s when some layups and rebounds led the Seawolves to a 78-73 victory over Santa Clara. They will play College of Charleston on Saturday for the fourth place spot in the tournament.

This story contained contributions from Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early. 

Categories: Alaska News

Disputed June incident heightens sexual harassment concerns

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 18:14
State Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, addresses his colleagues in the Senate on June 16. A disputed incident outside of the House speaker’s chambers that involved Wilson has heightened concerns about sexual harassment in the Capitol. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The Legislative Council voted Tuesday to allow Sen. David Wilson to view a video of a June incident that’s heightened concerns about sexual harassment in the Capitol. The video won’t be made public, and it’s not clear whether Alaskans will ever know exactly what happened.

While the incident occurred in June, a controversy about it has emerged in recent weeks.  At the time of the incident, the House was debating the state budget. Members of the House majority were meeting in Dillingham Democratic Speaker Bryce Edgmon’s chambers when Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, walked up to the closed door.

Listen now

Juneau Empire reporter James Brooks recalled what happened next.

“What I remember is he had his ear up against the door as if he was listening in,” Brooks said. “A staffer came up and said. ‘You can’t do that, you need to get away.’”

Then, Brooks said Wilson moved his cellphone.

“To get the cellphone closer to the door, he put it between the staffer’s legs, and the staffer was wearing a skirt,” Brooks said. “Everyone in the vicinity who saw it was like, ‘Did that just happen? Did you see what I saw?’ And it was very strange and very sudden and abrupt and it didn’t last more than a few seconds and (I) really didn’t know what to make of it.”

Wilson remembered it differently: “That never occurred.”

Wilson has declined to give a detailed account of the incident. He said before Tuesday’s council meeting that he wanted to view security camera footage of the incident before giving his account.

“Before I give my official statement or comment upon these matters, I just want to make sure that I can always tell the truth, 100 percent the truth, as I … try not to mislead folks,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure that my statement can be as factual and accurate as possible before I make a statement upon that, because (in) no way, shape or form did I do what I was accused of, in terms of any type of sexual harassment.”

A second news reporter, KTVA’s Liz Raines, wrote in a statement that the staff member was visibly shaken as Wilson refused to move away from the door after she repeatedly asked him to. Raines said Wilson then placed the phone between the female staffer’s legs. Raines said she heard the staffer tell Wilson that the action was inappropriate. Raines said she she told him that her photographer would film what he was doing. Wilson left. Raines said the staff member was visibly shaking.

Wilson said Raines’ account is inaccurate.

The staff member did not file a report alleging harassment.

The incident wasn’t publicly reported until Anchorage resident Jeff Landfield discussed it in late October in one of the first posts of his political blog, the Alaska Landmine.

Landfield said the incident involving Wilson “was interesting, because while this (harassment), I think, is a bigger problem in the Capitol and has been for a long time, his situation happened to just be in public in front of several people – reporters – and also caught on camera.”

Revived interest in the incident led Anchorage Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux to reconsider the Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment and other workplace harassment. LeDoux is a Republican member of the mostly Democratic House majority.

“There have been rumors in this building about an incident which occurred, oh, I think it was in June, involving David Wilson, Sen. Wilson, you’ll remember Sen. Wilson – the same gentleman who slapped the reporter,” LeDoux said on Nov. 9.

LeDoux was referring to an earlier May incident in which Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz said Wilson slapped him. Herz reported it to police; Wilson has said the interaction was playful.

LeDoux said the Senate could have taken formal action in response to the cellphone incident.

“They haven’t bothered to do anything when one of their own members, apparently, acted inappropriately,” LeDoux said.

Senate leaders also have supported revising the harassment policy, but haven’t publicly commented on the June incident.

Landfield requested access to the security camera footage. His request was denied. The Legislature’s policy bars public access to security video.

Wilson also requested access to the footage. The Legislative Council spent five hours in a meeting on Tuesday that was closed to the public, discussing Wilson’s request and other matters. Wilson attended.

The council voted to allow Wilson to view the video, as well as to authorize an internal investigation by the Legislature’s human resources manager.

Wilson immediately viewed the video, but declined on Tuesday to discuss what he saw. He said he would say more in the future, and expressed hope that he would be absolved of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Landfield said the policy to bar the public from viewing the video is wrong.

“So, it’s a total situation where the fox is guarding the hen house,” Landfield said. “They don’t want embarrassing things to come out, because Democrat or Republican – it doesn’t matter – it makes them all look bad if something is recording that’s really bad within the Capitol. It’s a public building. It’s our building. It’s not their building.”

It’s not clear whether there will be a public report on the incident. Council members emphasized Tuesday that they wouldn’t comment on personnel matters. Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III chairs the council. Kito announced a new subcommittee to examine the harassment policy and report back to the council by early in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Categories: Alaska News

Skier dead after avalanche strikes in Hatcher Pass

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 17:22

A skier died in an avalanche Wednesday afternoon in Hatcher Pass, north of Palmer, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Troopers had not released the man’s name as of about 5 p.m. Wednesday, because his family had not yet been notified.

The man’s death is the first avalanche fatality in Alaska this winter.

Troopers spokesman Tim DeSpain said the man was part of a group of three skiing in the pass north of Archangel Road when a layer of snow broke loose and slid down the mountain.

“Two of the skiers were able to make it clear of the avalanche, and one skier was caught up in the avalanche,” DeSpain said.

All three were wearing locator beacons, and the two who were not buried found their friend and dug him out, DeSpain said.

“It was reported that they initiated CPR but were unsuccessful, and that the one skier was confirmed deceased,” DeSpain said.

Troopers, EMTs and state parks personnel responded, as did a Wildlife Trooper helicopter, but the chopper was unable to land near the man’s body.

Later, responders had to hike to the body to recover it, DeSpain said.

The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center categorized the avalanche danger as “considerable” on Monday, the last day the center issued a report. “Considerable” is the third highest level of danger out of five.

Categories: Alaska News

Personal rights and stigma: when and where can sex offenders participate in the community?

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 17:08
Homer Council on the Arts will host the Nutcracker Faire at the Homer High School. (Aaron Bolton, KBBI News)

Towns across Alaska have to grapple with what to do once a known sex offender returns to the community after serving their punishment. Though there are clear limits in some areas, there are massive gray zones, as well. Residents in Homer are struggling to balance fairness with safety ahead of one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest celebrations.

Every year, Homer hosts the Nutcracker Faire. The family-affair draws people from all over the Kenai Peninsula for a pre-holiday craft fair and children’s performance of the nutcracker.

Abigail Kokai is an artist hoping to make a little extra cash by selling some of her stuffed whales made of repurposed materials.

“Particularly with the Nutcracker, I get to have face-to-face opportunities to meet the people that are actually buying my product,” Kokai said.

Kokai explains the Nutcracker is a big deal for local artists because it allows them to make a real-life connection with customers. Kokai was one of about a hundred vendors who applied to sell work at the festival.

As the Homer Council on the Arts, which puts on the event, was sifting through those applications earlier this fall, they noticed one from a convicted sex offender.

Erik Larson, a Homer man that was convicted of sexually abusing two teenage girls while he was a teacher in 2006, was applying to sell pottery. This raised concerns for Arts Council staff and board members, posing the question of whether or not Larson should be allowed to participate in the popular community event.

Kokai didn’t say whether or not she had a problem with Larson selling his work, but she thinks the choice comes down to faith in our current criminal justice system.

“I mean are they going to be punished for the rest of their life and never be able to live as a functional human being as a result of something that has happened, or do we assume or hope that our rehabilitation processes have allowed that person to successfully be a part of society again?” Kokai questioned.

Erik Larson didn’t want to comment for this story because he fears people in the community may lash out at his family. He said only that he wants “to be treated like everyone else” and have the same opportunity as other artists.

The incident is prompting local non-profits to look for solutions that are as much about policy as politics.

The Nutcracker Faire is held in the Homer High School. So, at first the council looked to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for guidance. But the district said its policy on registered sex offenders doesn’t apply here.

According to district Spokesperson Peggy Erkeneff, that’s because the policy only restricts offenders from being on school property during the school day or during school-sponsored events.

“In this case, an outside entity rented the Homer High School building for their event,” Erkeneff explained. “When they’re renting our space, there are no restrictions from a district perspective, if it’s outside of a school-sponsored event and outside of the school instructional day, as to who can be present.”

Since the Arts Council is just a tenant in the school building, it’s their own policy that guides rules.

But the organization realized it didn’t have clear guidance on the matter. That left Executive Director Peggy Paver and her board with a lot of questions about what the small non-profit should do.

“We did consult with legal, judicial and non-profit sources in order to get opinions because this is an area that we hadn’t really dealt with before,” Paver said.

The council offered a compromise allowing Larson to sell his pottery as long as someone else worked the booth. Larson told the council he would think about it, but never responded with a decision.

Larson also proposed having someone on hand to supervise him, but the council said it won’t have any staff and volunteers to spare.

Ultimately, the non-profit had no policy or legal grounds to deny Larson a spot at the fair. Paver said that left the council with a choice: is it appropriate for Larson to participate or not?

“It doesn’t escape us that this event is an event where minors are often off on their own, and then there are the Nutcracker kids that are participating in the ballet running around in their break time,” Paver added.

The council also had to weigh Larson’s personal rights. It’s been more than 10 years since his conviction, he’s served his sentence in prison and completed parole.

Paver and the council also worry they could be open to charges of discrimination if they reject Larson without a policy in place.

The situation has caught the attention of other non-profits, who are now asking themselves what they would do in the same situation.

“What considerations do we have, what protections need to be in place for our staff, for the people we serve in the community and what’s appropriate?” Catriona Reynolds said, executive director of Kachemak Bay Family Planning in Homer.

Both family planning and the Arts Council plan to revisit their policies and possibly craft new ones to handle this particular situation and others like it. Paver didn’t directly say which way her organization would lean on the issue. She said the board will likely address it in the spring, and at least for this year, the council will allow Larson to sell his work in person.

Categories: Alaska News

On Black Friday, you can “Opt Outside” for free in Alaska State Parks

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 17:00
A view of Chugach State Park from Mt. Eklutna. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

A growing number of Americans are ditching crowded stores on Black Friday and hitting the trails instead. The “Opt Outside” campaign was launched by an outdoor gear company two years ago and has caught on at state and national parks across the country, like in Alaska, where state park fees are waived on Black Friday.

AKPM: “I’m walking through mostly birch forest. It snowed a couple of days ago, so there’s some fresh snow on the ground and on the trees.”

It’s wild, it’s wintry and for Black Friday, the five-dollar parking fee is waived.

In 2015 the outdoor gear company REI shut its doors for the day on Black Friday and unveiled the #OptOutside campaign.

Carrie Harris stopped into the REI here in Anchorage the day before Thanksgiving.

“Right now I am shopping for a hat for myself,” Harris explained.

Harris said she’s glad REI is closed on Black Friday. After a late breakfast that she said will probably include some turkey, Harris and her family plan to steer clear of the shops the day after Thanksgiving.

“My in-laws are in town,” Harris said, “And with our three little boys we’re going to get out and do some sledding and try to stay away from downtown [and] all of civilization here in Anchorage, and just spend time together as a family outside.”

They can do that at any state park in Alaska for free on Black Friday. Ethan Tyler is the director of State Parks and Recreation.

“We’re certainly encouraging people to use the hashtag Opt Outside and as part of that we are waiving all of our parking fees,” Tyler said.

More than a dozen other state parks are doing the same and the National Park Service is also on board. Sure, you might miss out on some bargains, but the pay-off can be huge.

AKPM: “I just walked around this corner and I’m now in this big bowl surrounded by mountains on three sides and right now I see two moose and they’ve stopped moving right now– I think they see me or at least they hear me. Really, just spectacular.”

Two moose walk along the side of Mt. Eklutna in Chugach State Park. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)
Categories: Alaska News

Alaska DOC commissioner wants to stop easy access of illegal drugs in prisons

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 16:56
Dean Williams, Commissioner of the Alaska Dept. of Corrections, speaks to reporters in January 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray,360 North)

Dean Williams, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, acknowledges it’s easy to access illegal drugs in prison in Alaska. He says his department is trying to stop it.

This month, five women at Hiland Correctional Center in Eagle River overdosed in a 24-hour period, and three men were recently charged with conspiring to smuggle drugs into Goose Creek Correctional Center.

Williams says people often think you can stop drugs from entering prisons by searching people. He says it doesn’t work that way.

“Most of these are being packed inside people’s bodies and you cannot search people’s bodies internally who are coming into prison,” Williams said. “You can’t. There are civil rights issues and just operationally how the heck would you do it? It’s impossible.”

Williams says on the enforcement side, his internal investigations unit is working with state and national enforcement agencies to track down and charge people who are smuggling drugs into the institutions. But he says that won’t solve the whole problem – they also need preventative measures. Williams says the most effective tool is keeping people busy with jobs and other activities.

“Really just creating purpose,” Williams said. “What I call purpose and jobs – having something to do. All of those things are huge preventative pieces. So when you have people occupied, there’s less trouble.”

Williams says he’s trying to create more opportunities for inmates by inviting community members into prisons to offer classes and programs. He also wants to reintroduce prison industries, like building furniture, to give inmates more productive things to do and raise money for the department to offer more options. Williams says stopping drug use and trafficking in prisons requires a multifaceted approach because different people require different solutions.

“Lots of activities. Many paths forward. Both treatment, jobs, vocational training,” Williams said. “I want it all is because what I see elsewhere is that’s how you bring down the re-offense rate. That also, by the way, helps reduce subcultures and gangs and drug trafficking.”

Williams is partially modeling his new strategies on prisons in Norway, which have minimal problems with drugs and lower recidivism rates. He traveled to the Scandinavian country earlier this fall to visit their facilities.

Williams and other statewide law enforcement officials are also considering offering amnesty to people who try to smuggle drugs into prisons. That means if a person sneaks drugs into a facility then thinks better of it, if the person reports the drugs within a short window of time, then they won’t be charged with a crime.

Click below to listen to a longer interview with DOC Commissioner Dean Williams. 

Listen now

Categories: Alaska News

New $521M Anchorage budget pays for more safety, snow plows, homelessness efforts

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 15:53
The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage. (Staff photo)

The Municipality of Anchorage will see a slightly bigger budget in the upcoming year. At its Tuesday night meeting, Assembly members approved a roughly $521 million operating budget. Amid declining revenues, the city is struggling to close a spending gap while dealing with increasing costs to handle public safety and homelessness.

The new budget is about $12 million dollars over last year’s, and it taxes to the maximum allowable limit under the city’s charter.

The Assembly spent a long stretch of time debating amendments to the Administration’s proposed budget. $125,000 was added back into the budget to reverse deeper cuts to the city’s Loussac library that would have cut its hours from 64 a week to 46. The allocation restores a little less than half of the proposed reduction. Another $170,000 was put in to handle cleaning up homeless camps along the trail system.

According to Felix Rivera, who represents communities in Midtown, the overall expenditure reflects the city’s priorities and values.

“We all know that the city has skin in the game to solve this problem. Let’s show it in the budget that we pass today,” Rivera said ahead of a vote to maintain spending on social services.

Much of the budget increase concerns a constellation of costs associated with homelessness, crime, substance abuse, police and emergency medical services. The Administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz asked the Assembly to approve millions of additional dollars for expanded police and fire departments, which includes ambulance transports that respond to an increasing number of health crises.

The mayor’s office also requested $500,000 more for snow plowing this year after facing criticism last winter over what many perceived to be diminished street clearing service.

Assembly members approved those measures.

They also added $50,000 to pay for a mobile syringe exchange program run by a local non-profit, the Alaska AIDS Assistance Association, which works mitigating the spread of blood-born disease among injection drug-users. Some Assembly members said it was an unfortunate but necessary expenditure as the city struggles to cope with the worsening effects of the opioid crisis.

“I think it’s a tragedy that we have to honestly consider doing this,” John Weddleton, who represents South Anchorage, said. “But I’m convinced that we have to buy needles for people.”

Some of the new costs are covered by a 10-cent tax on fuel the Assembly approved earlier this month, which will offset property taxes slightly for homeowners. The administration has also left several staff positions unfilled to reduce personnel costs.

The municipality’s two most fiscally conservative members from Eagle River were the lone votes against the budget on the 11-member body. Fred Dyson objected to Assembly members voting to use money from the fund balance to pay for extra services. Amy Demboski proposed unsuccessful amendments to make broad two percent cuts to nearly all city departments and another to delete $500,000 the mayor’s Administration wants to use for homelessness initiatives under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Demboski assailed the piecemeal appropriations to different “touchy-feely” groups.

“The fact of the matter is we have to get our priorities in line: It’s public safety, it’s infrastructure, it’s the basics,” Demboski said ahead of her no-vote. “There comes a point where property tax payers have had enough. And frankly, I’ve had enough.”

The city has faced declining income in recent years from a drop in state revenue sharing and the end of a rebate from a local electrical utility. Costs have also increased under labor agreements, and the Administration’s push to expand the police and fire departments.

Categories: Alaska News

Talking Trash: You bought it. You tossed it. Rural towns struggle shipping it out

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 15:38
Juneau’s Hazbin program diverts about 2,000 pounds of hazardous waste a month from having to be shipped to the Lower 48. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

When a household cleaner or a box of batteries is barged to one of Alaska’s remote communities and sold in a store, it’s commerce.

But many of those items aren’t destined for a one-way transaction.

A lot of hazardous waste shouldn’t be tossed in a landfill: radioactive smoke detectors, flares that can explode, chemicals that can poison you.

At great expense, small municipalities are stuck trying to fix the problem: How do you get the potentially dangerous trash back out of town?

“This is where we put all the waste in containers when we’re offloading cars,” Aaron Widmyer said.

He’s leading me around a bulky Sony TV, a spray can of Raid and grease from a high-end restaurant.

We’re at Juneau’s hazardous waste facility, where people drop off their stuff that shouldn’t go in the dump.

Widmyer works for a company that contracts with the City and Borough of Juneau. He makes sure the trash is safely packaged, so it can be shipped out. And he says the job comes with a few perks.

“The amount of free of stuff that I get,” Widmyer said with a laugh. “I haven’t had to pay for anything for the past two years. Household cleaning supplies, laundry, soap, car oil for my oil changes.”

It’s not just Widmyer who picks up the schwag.

Anyone in Juneau can stop by and look for a half-used bottle of their favorite cleaner or bug spray.

But what isn’t scavenged has to go somewhere else.

Alaska doesn’t have any permitted hazardous waste treatment or disposal plants. So regulated hazardous waste has to be shipped back down to the Lower 48.

Around the corner, in a city office occupied by one man, is where the negotiations for that happen.

Jim Penor is Juneau’s solid waste coordinator, and he knows this business inside and out. He got his start in Washington state.

“I grew up as a landfill kid rat,” Penor said. “I’d go around and have fun in the landfill and it wasn’t a landfill. It was a burn pit operation.”

Penor has been in Juneau for close to a decade, trying to make the math of shipping the city’s hazardous waste pencil out. If you ask him, it doesn’t.

But during his time, Penor has been able to make it more affordable. He saved the city about  $120,000 a year — just by figuring out a way to treat latex paint so it can safely go in the landfill.

Jim Penor said after he retires this spring, he’ll travel on his yacht to small Southeast communities to discuss trash. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

And the capital city is one of only two communities in Southeast with a weekly drop-off site, which Penor says makes the whole operation run a lot more smooth.

“We have time to work the waste stream,” Penor said. “Before, at a one time even per month, you don’t have time to work the waste stream.”

Literally, a stream. It’s a term that’s used to describe the lifeflow of garbage from beginning to end.

Still, there’s some trash that’s so risky to transport, the cost makes it nearly impossible to barge.

Old smoke detectors and exit signs are radioactive, so Juneau has to shell out extra to ship those. Then, there are out-of-date boat flares, which are considered highly flammable. Right now, there’s no way to get those out of town.

This creates a giant paradox, Penor said.

Commercial products wind up on store shelves with relative ease. But once it becomes hazardous waste, it’s a lot harder to transport out.

“I mean, even Juneau here. We’re the capital city. We’re the biggest city in Southeast and we’re 32,000 people,” Penor said. “We struggle with it.”

In rural parts of the state, the struggle is even worse and the stakes can be much higher.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation used to have a program that helped barge out hazardous waste, but it was cut in 2004. And since then, it’s been up to the communities to figure out their own method.

Sandra Woods, who inspects landfills for the state, says a lot of small municipalities are just trying to do their best. But the funds are limited and money is usually needed for other things, like clean drinking water.

“By the time you get to solid waste, the money is usually gone,” Woods said.

A federal program helps Alaska Native villages barge out hazardous waste. But it’s being discontinued in 2020.

Lynn Zender, an Anchorage doctor who specializes in solid waste management and health risks, calls it an impending catastrophe.

“It’s very worrisome from a public health perspective,” Zender said.

Zender helps run an environmental nonprofit and is a member of the Solid Waste Alaska Taskforce, a group that’s trying to help villages prepare for the change.

Zender worries, as more hazardous waste goes into the ground, it could leach into the environment and contaminate subsistence foods.

“Those landfills will expand out to rivers. They can expand out to town,” Zender said. “The access can be so horrendous that people start just keeping their garbage in town.”

Penor thinks the state needs to step up and help more communities get rid of their hazardous waste. He acknowledges it’s an unlikely scenario, given the state’s current budget deficit. But he envisions a fund that could earn interest — designed specifically for trash.

In the meantime, Penor said consumers should view that half-empty bottle of nail polish or antifreeze differently. There’s a branding issue.

“I don’t like the term hazardous waste,” Penor said. “Because you went to the store and purchased it.”

Penor said he’s never used a jug of Drano to unclog his sink. Even after it’s tossed, someone’s going to pay for it.

Categories: Alaska News

No damage reported from Yukon Delta storm, but blizzard on the way

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 15:16
The Yukon Delta remains under a blizzard warning through noon on Thursday, November 23. Whiteout conditions with drifting snow up to 12 inches are expected. (National Weather Service image)

The good news is that the big storm forecasted for the Yukon Delta wasn’t that big after all, but the area isn’t in the clear. A blizzard warning is now in effect until noon on Thursday.

The National Weather Service predicted high waters and the possibility of major erosion Tuesday night due to storm surge, and expected that Kotlik would be the Yukon village hit hardest. But Kotlik resident Roger Aketachunak called the night “quiet,” describing it as “blowing snow, but not really stormy.”

Aketachunak said that the water did rise, but not enough to cause damage. No homes or boardwalks were affected; all the water did was climb about 30 yards to reach the outer pilings of the AC, the Alaska Commercial Company store.

“I’m happy everyone’s alright,” Aketachunak told KYUK multiple times.

That’s also the case in Alakanuk, where Tribal Administrator Ray Oney said that he slept with one eye open, but woke to find everything intact.

“Yeah, it was pretty much bank to bank in our area,” Oney said, “but other than that, I haven’t heard anyone say it went over the bank.”

The Yukon Delta remains under a blizzard warning through noon on Thursday. Whiteout conditions with drifting snow up to 12 inches are expected.

Categories: Alaska News

Some of Southeast’s recycling is headed to the landfill

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 12:58
Sitka’s recycling center has separate bins for different reusable materials. But its mixed paper containers are gone, due to new restrictions tied to import rules in China. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

Much of the cardboard, plastic bottles and other items recycled in Alaska end up in China. The East Asia country is about to impose new rules limiting what it will accept.

Here’s how that affects our part of the world.

Locals sort through tubs and boxes of empty bottles and cans on a recent afternoon at Juneau’s recycling center.

They toss aluminum in one bin and plastics numbered 1 and 2 in another. Cardboard has its own place, as does mixed paper. Nearby containers hold glass and tin cans.

Those recycling generally like the idea of reusing items and keeping them out of the nearby landfill.

But soon, that’s going to be a little harder to pull off.

A substantial amount of Alaska’s recycling is shipped to China, where it’s shredded or melted down or both before being turned into new products at that nation’s numerous factories.

“China takes so much of the U.S. materials they have a lot of market power,” Mary Fisher, executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling, said.

Fisher said China will start limiting what it takes at the beginning of next year.

Plastics No. 1 and 2, such as soda bottles and milk jugs, will continue to be accepted.

The same is true for aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard.

But the higher-number plastics, numbers 3 through 7, — including some takeout food containers, plastic cups and shower curtains — will not.

Neither will mixed paper, such as mail, magazines and newspapers.

“Most communities in Alaska are not accepting mixed plastics like that. So I don’t see that as being a major impact up here. And the mixed paper, a little bit more problematic as China uses a lot of mixed paper,” Fisher said.

A number of Southeast Alaska communities barge their recycling – as well as their garbage – south.

Republic Services has the contract to barge recycling from Ketchikan, Sitka and Petersburg. It recently informed those communities it stopped recycling plastics numbers 3 through 7 earlier this month.

Sandra Woods is a municipal landfill specialist for the state.

“What they’ve told everybody is they’re going to accept everything like they have been. But it’s important that the communities know that plastics 3-7 and the mixed paper is going to be landfilled after China no longer accepts it,” Woods said.

China also is cracking down on what’s called contamination, or too many unrecyclable items, mixed in.

Juneau’s municipal solid waste coordinator Jim Penor blames curbside recycle, which also is done in Juneau, as well as Petersburg.

“When you think of the single-stream recyclable collection program at the curbside, and everybody can just throw in everything all in one bin,” Penor said. “That, I believe, has created the problem that has increased the percentage of contaminates going to China.”

The new import rules don’t kick in until January.

But Penor said it’s already had an impact on recycling revenue, which helps fund local collection and shipping efforts.

“I was getting approximately $130 a ton for cardboard up until October,” Penor said. “In October, it went to $40. I was getting $85 to $100 a ton for my plastics. That went to $10.”

Penor said contamination can only improve at the home or business level – or with expensive sorting.

It is possible China will roll back some of its restrictions before they take effect. Or, they may be short-term.

Penor said it gives large recyclers that take Alaska’s material motivation to look for other customers.

“They’re looking at world markets. Where else can we ship our stuff? We’re shipping it to China. Can we get Vietnam excited about making some manufacturing plants using recycled material from the United States? The Netherlands, Australia, different places,” Penor said.

Some recyclables haven’t been shipped south to find new uses for a while.

Glass, for example, mostly stays here, due to low prices and high shipping costs. But some places crush it and use it for sand or gravel.

Categories: Alaska News

Bristol Bay red king crab quota caught

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 11:41

The Bristol Bay red king crab season finished up last week when the entire allowable catch was harvested.

“The Bristol Bay Red King Crab fishery went fairly well,”  Miranda Westphal said. Westphal is the area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor. “A little slower than we would like to have seen, but they wrapped up with a total catch of 6.59 million pounds. So they caught all of the catch that was available for the season.”

Before the season opened on October 15, ADF&G and the National Marine Fisheries Service completed an analysis of the 2017 NMFS trawl survey results for Bristol Bay red king crab.

“From what we saw during the fishery was that the fishermen were seeing about what we expected from the survey, with a little bit slower fishing and with pockets of crab without a real wide distribution for the stock. So it was about as we expected,” Westphal said.

Bering Sea tanner and snow crab fisheries are still underway, but Westphal said that those fisheries have slowed for the holidays.

“We’ve got a few vessels participating in Western Bering Sea tanner. There’s approximately 1.1 million pounds have been landed so far,” Westphal said. “Most of the folks are taking a break for the holidays and will be back to fish Bering Sea tanner and Bering Sea snow crab. So right now it’s just a little bit of lull in the action while everyone takes a break for the holidays,”

Westphal expects the action in those fisheries to pick up in January.

The Western Bering Sea tanner fishery will remain open until March 31 with a total allowable catch of 2.5 million pounds and the Bering Sea snow crab season is open until March. The Bering Sea snow crab fishery has a total allowable catch of about 19 million pounds. The Eastern Subdistrict closes May 15. The Western Subdistrict closes May 31.

Categories: Alaska News

Council allows Sen. David Wilson to view video of June incident

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-11-22 10:27
The Alaska Legislative Council waits for its Tuesday meeting to begin. The council voted to allow Sen. David Wilson to view a security video of a June incident that raised concerns about the Legislature’s sexual and other workplace harassment policy. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

The Alaska Legislative Council voted Tuesday to allow Sen. David Wilson to view a video of an incident in June that sparked concerns about sexual harassment and other workplace harassment in the Capitol. The video was not made public.

The incident involved actions that the Wasilla lawmaker allegedly took outside of the door of a meeting of members of the House majority caucus. Two news reporters say they saw Wilson briefly hold his cellphone between the legs of a female legislative staff member. The staff member didn’t report the incident, and Wilson denies he acted improperly.

Wilson asked to see the security video. The council has a policy that denies any public access to such videos, but allows lawmakers to view them with council approval.

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman made the motion granting his request.

“Mr. Chairman, I move that Legislative Council approve Sen. Wilson’s request for access to materials made confidential by the Legislative Council records policy and that he may have counsel present if desired,” Stedman said.

Before its unanimous vote, the council had spent five hours in a meeting closed to the public to discuss the matter and other subjects.

The council also voted to allow the Legislative Affairs Agency to conduct an internal investigation. House Rules Committee Chairwoman Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux cited the incident in supporting an update of the Legislature’s harassment policy.

Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III, the council’s chairman, said he’ll form a subcommittee to recommend policy changes related to sexual harassment and other workplace harassment. He didn’t appoint the subcommittee members.

Categories: Alaska News

Ask a Climatologist: The highs, lows and snows of Thanksgiving in Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-11-21 18:08
Snow piles up at Alaska Public Media in Anchorage on Jan. 23rd, 2017 (Photo by Annie Feidt, Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The weather is a popular conversation topic at any Thanksgiving dinner.

So just in time for the holiday, we have a heaping serving of Thanksgiving-in-Alaska weather facts you can pass around your table along with the stuffing and potatoes.

Listen now

Brian Brettschneider, with our Ask a Climatologist segment, compiled the list.

  1. No weather station in Alaska has ever hit 60 degrees on Thanksgiving.
  2. The coldest Thanksgiving in Alaska was 1994, with an average statewide temperature of -6 degrees.
  3. The warmest Thanksgiving was 1943, with an average of 37.7 degrees.
  4. This year, Anchorage will have its first white Thanksgiving in the last six years.
  5. Fairbanks has had a white Thanksgiving every year since 1936.
  6. Juneau only has a white Thanksgiving around 30 percent of the time, but this year they have about a foot of snow, more than Anchorage or Fairbanks.
  7. The biggest snowfall on Thanksgiving was in Beaver Falls in 1950, with 28.5 inches.
  8. The greatest snow depth on Thanksgiving was in 2015 at the Chulitna River weather station, with 70 inches.
  9. The rainiest Thanksgiving was in 1969 with a statewide total of nearly 60 inches of rain.
  10. The driest Thanksgiving was in 2014 when only 1 inch of rain fell.
Categories: Alaska News

Along with national recognition, 2 Alaskan artists awarded $25,000 each

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-11-21 17:26

Alaska was well-represented among recipients of the 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation’s grant awards for painters and sculptors.

There are only 25 winners from around the country, and two of them are Alaskans: Anchorage residents Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Drew Michael.

The grantees receive $25,000 each, along with some well-deserved recognition.

Kelliher-Combs said she was eating breakfast with her aunt and uncle when she got the call telling her she’d won.

“Complete shock. You know, all I could say was, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,'” Kelliher-Combs said. “It was a very exciting moment.”

Exciting, Kelliher-Combs said, because she knows how competitive the grants are. But because the foundation had other calls to make and press releases write, they asked her not to tell anyone.

“I was smiling all day that day, and I couldn’t tell anybody!” Kellier-Combs said. “It’s hard when you find out some good news.”

Kelliher-Combs’ work — just to mention a couple pieces — includes evocative, colorful paintings, as well as sculptures of walrus stomach and porcupine quills, a combination of her Inupiaq and Athabascan heritage.

In general, Kelliher-Combs said her art features themes of place, community and identity, specifically, the ongoing struggle to define oneself and discover identity.

“Tied into all of that is issues of Alaska, colonization, also our relationship to the land, conflict of western and indigenous culture,” Kelliher-Combs said. “Things like that.”

The foundation’s nomination process is confidential, so Michael and Kelliher-Combs do not know who submitted their names.

The foundation’s Painters and Sculptors Grant Program began funding “under-recognized” artists, as they put it, in 1994. Since then, only one other artist living and working in Alaska has won a grant, though there have been other Alaska Native awardees living elsewhere.

Michael said he was also surprised and honored to get the phone call.

“They did happen to choose two people from Alaska, and, yeah, my eyebrows rose, for sure. Kinda cool!” Michael said.

Michael said he’s thrilled about the money but that the spotlight on his artwork, the continuing support and the connection to other artists is maybe more important for him.

Michael’s art is rooted in his culture, both Yupik and Inupiaq, he said, and he has evolved from carving masks to sculpting.

“Oftentimes, I’m looking through the lens of finding healing or balance, thinking about how we carry energy in our body and how we connect to the world around us, whether it be in relationships with people or maybe animals in the world around us, and the spirit world, the places that are unseen,” Michael said.

Michael said the funding will help him branch out into using new materials, like glass and metal, and, perhaps, take his art to new places where it, toom has so far been unseen.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski moves forward with legislation to nix Tongass plan

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-11-21 16:11
The Tongass National Forest, near Ketchikan, Alaska. The spruce, hemlock and cedar trees of the Tongass have been a source of timber for the logging industry. (Photo by Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

Congress could be one step closer to undoing a U.S. Forest Service decision to end old growth logging in the Tongass National Forest.

On Monday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski added the measure to a Senate Interior and Environment appropriations bill.

Last year, the forest service included new directives to its Tongass plan. Timber industry groups and conservationists thought the decision was final. It called for the forest service to transition away from cutting old growth trees.

But in October, the Government Accountability Office decided the forest service plan was subject to congressional review.

It would be up to both the Senate and House to make the final call. There are no committee meetings scheduled yet to discuss the issue.

Categories: Alaska News

State releases agreement signed with China on gas pipeline venture

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-11-21 16:06
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker speaks at a press availability in Anchorage about the recent developments on a Chinese deal for Alaska LNG, on November 21, 2017, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

At a news conference this morning, Gov. Bill Walker unveiled the new gas pipeline agreement he signed in China earlier this month.

Walker and Alaska Gasline Development Corporation president Keith Meyer talked about what they hope will come out of the agreement.

Meyer said Alaskans will see significant progress on the proposed gas pipeline mega-project next year.

“There’s going to be trips to China, trips from them to Alaska,” Meyer said. “So a lot of due diligence, a lot of papering. We’ve got a multinational, multi-billion dollar purchase agreement, lending agreement, investment agreement. We’ve got a regulatory process that we’re trying to get through by the end of next year.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker peeks out for a photo after a group signs an agreement to study a partnership between China and Alaska to build a gas pipeline megaproject on Nov. 9, 2017, in Beijing, China. (Photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

The other parties to the agreement are three Chinese government-owned entities that could act as customers, investors and partial owners of the project.

Under the agreement, Alaska and the China will work together to develop a plan that could make Alaska’s LNG mega-project feasible. That framework gives China the opportunity to take 75 percent of the liquified natural gas produced by the project in exchange for providing 75 percent of the funding to build it.

The remaining portion of the funding to build the project, or about $11 billion, would be paid for by the gasline corporation and its partners. According to a media release, the corporation envisions getting that funding from a combination of Alaska Native Corporations, cities and private investors, issuing tax-exempt bonds and state money.

Meyer said the Chinese partners have visited Alaska and are considering the project carefully.

“They’re down to the point where they’re actually smelling the core samples. These folks are serious about this project. We have an electronic data room that they have spent hundreds of hours in, in due diligence,” Meyer said.  “Their government folks have talked to our government folks, not just the state folks but the federal folks to see — is the U.S. going to be receptive? Is the US Congress going to be receptive? And they’ve gotten positive feedback on that.”

The agreement calls for the group to make a final decision to partner on the project by the end of 2018. In its current form, the project is estimated to cost $43 billion to build and could temporarily add 12,000 jobs to Alaska’s economy.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks citizens to test air pollution control technology

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-11-21 16:00
Wood stove pipe on a Fairbanks home.
(Credit Dan Bross / KUAC)

Technology that removes fine particulates from wood and coal stove smoke is being readied for testing in North Pole. It’s part of a citizen science project.

Local veterinarian Jeanne Olson, and a group of other Citizens For Clean air members installed the electrostatic precipitator device in the woodstove pipe at her clinic last week, and Olson said it’s awaiting final check.

”To make sure it’s centered right and isn’t going to arc. I haven’t lit the fire in my stove to check that, but I’m planning to do that this week,” Olson said. “And we’re looking to get some instruments to test the emissions, all different conditions this winter.”

Olson received the $2,000 Swiss-made unit, called an EcoTube, from company representative Nico Lauer. Lauer travelled to Fairbanks last week to deliver and help install the stack mounted device, which creates a low power electric field inside the stove pipe.

“And this electric field basically ionizes the particles that go through it,” Lauer said. “They get charged electrically, and because of the electric charge, it gets attracted to the chimney and deposits there — takes up all of the fine dust out of the smoke.”

Electrostatic precipitator technology has a long history of use in power plants and other industrial applications.  The EcoTube residential sized unit has been available for six years, but only available in the United States since September. Lauer says only two others have been installed in the US, but thousands are in use in several countries, and it should work here too.

”We have no doubts whatsoever that’s going to function right away,” Lauer said. “My recommendation is that you do, probably a season’s worth of testing to get the insurance that this thing operates well.

North Star Borough Air Quality Control commission vice chair Cathy Cahill has a Ph.D. in atmospheric science with three decades experience studying air pollution.

“We don’t have the information necessary to really evaluate its functioning under our conditions,” Cahill said.

Cahill said proving the effectiveness of the Eco Tube will require thorough local testing.

”Yes, they’ve used it other places in the world, but they don’t have a long track record of working with the kinds of fuels we work with,” Cahill said. “So, I’m definitely interested in seeing how this is actually going to function.”

Cahill applauded the citizen science project that Dr. Olson and Citizens for Clean Air have undertaken in North Pole. She said the borough does not have the capacity to test the Eco-Tube.

“At the moment, having people watch whats happening at Jeanne Olson’s house in terms of how the ESP works,” Cahill said. “It’s going to be a key first step, and then we can try to see if we can apply for grants for pilot projects.”

EcoTube’s Lauer said the company has already gotten the units certified in other countries, and is willing to go through the process to get US approval.

”If there’s issues about certification by the EPA, we’ll be delighted to do it,” Lauer said. “Needless to say, it’s approved around the other countries of the world where people are using it.”

The technology was brought to local attention by borough assembly member Lance Roberts, who’s sponsored an ordinance to allow people who install the devices on their stove pipes to be able to operate them during local burn bans triggered by poor air quality. The measure, which is pending before the assembly, would also allow qualifying residents to be reimbursed the cost of the device through a borough subsidized program.

Categories: Alaska News