Alaska News

AK: UAA’s Earthquake ’64 brings historic disaster to the stage

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2018-02-09 14:38
(Courtesy of UAA theater department)

Anchorage, Alaska. 1964. Eileen and Greg have been dating for about four years, eight months. During a Scrabble night with their friends, the two get into a fight over why Greg hasn’t proposed yet. After a bitter argument, Eileen leaves.

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The earthquake hasn’t happened yet, but ironically, the disaster will help bring the two of them back together.

Eileen is portrayed by Angela Colavecchio — and is based on the life of Colavecchio’s real grandmother, Jeanne.

“My grandmother has this kind of amazing story that’s almost cinematic, that I’ve heard since I was a kid. She was working downtown on 4th Avenue at a flower shop,” Collavechio said. “And when the earthquake hit, they were at work doing flower arrangements for Easter. And you know, the building basically cracked in two. There’s pictures that we’ve seen where the street is up by the roof.”

Left to right: Actors Devan Hawkins, Jake Beauvais, Angela Colavecchio, Taren Haynes, Kaeli Meno, and Paitton Reid) (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

Jeanne’s story is one of many portrayed in UAA’s Earthquake ’64 — a play that is ambitious to say the least. There are 61 scenes in the production.

The play was written collaboratively by the entire cast and actor Taren Haynes says there were originally even more scenes.

“And in a way it was kind of like throwing things at a wall to see what sticks, and of course it was a lumpy disaster at first because it’s rough,” Haynes said. “It’s a starting place. And then it’s been a process of iteration and reimagination and revision.”

Throughout the two-hour play, the 12-actor ensemble portray many different characters affected by the earthquake — and in between some of the scenes, the actors even portray… themselves.

Actress Devan Hawkins explained her character on stage:

“A tough as nails, Texas-born, mother of three by the name of Genie Chance,” Hawkins said during a rehearsal. “Now Genie had a very special impact on me because she wasn’t looking for me, and I definitely wasn’t looking for her.”

Some scenes even explain the history behind earthquakes.

Actors Becca Padrick (left) and Jake Beauvais. (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

“Why hello everyone,” actress Alexandra McCall said, in character. “I’m the obligatory scientist character, which you can tell from my lab coat and goggles.”

Aside from various character plots — of which there are many — other parts include a physical demonstration of how earthquakes work (with the actors pretending to be tectonic plates) There are several musical numbers about what it’s like to be in a tub during an earthquake. There’s even an interpretive dance number about the dissolution of a marriage following the loss of children in a tsunami. The dance was set to Panic! At The Disco’s 2016 song, “Impossible Year.”

UAA theater professor and play director Brian Cook is aware that the various — and plentiful — scenes aren’t conventional. But he says the jarring nature of the play is intentional.

Actors Joshuah Rutten and Devan Hawkins (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

“And so some of it is that we’re setting things opposite each other,” Cook said. “And hopefully the audience will be comparing and seeing that this event has impacted a whole bunch of people in a lot of different ways.”

And Cook thinks the sheer quantity of scenes will mean that everyone can take something from the play.

“Everybody will find their own connections and their own storylines here,” Cook said. “The things that matter to them is the stuff that they’ll take away from them. And hopefully they won’t worry that they didn’t catch everything. Because I don’t know that you could. I don’t know that I have, and I know the play better than anyone.”

Earthquake ’64 is running at UAA starting tonight until February 18. Among the aforementioned elements, audiences can expect talking dogs, conspiracy theorists and even radio broadcasters.

Categories: Alaska News

New science textbooks could bring students closer to science behind climate change

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 18:02
Chefornak High School students Matthew Erik, left, Clayton Panruk,
pose with biology teacher Theresa Schallhorn, and fellow student Dawson Erik, with their new CK-12 Foundation biology textbook on December 16, 2017. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Studying high school science in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta comes with a whole new textbook.

A textbook that’s free, open source, available in print and digital formats and customized geographically to rural southwestern Alaska.

Educators and students alike are excited about the new texts.

Chefornak high school science teacher Theresa Schallhorn introduced the new biology textbook to students this fall, and they love it.

“From the very cover picture, the kids were interested already,” Schallhorn said.

They flipped it open and saw pictures of tundra berries that they recognized.

“They flipped it over, they saw an albino moose, and they’re like, ‘oh my gosh! I’ve heard stories about this,’” Schallhorn said. “They started chatting with each other and talking to me about these things that were in this textbook, and I had never seen that before. Whether it be a biology textbook or a physical science book, math book, anything like that.”

A couple of years ago, Schallhorn started working with Andrea Pokrszywinski and other Lower Kuskokwim School District science teachers on a review of the ninth-through-12th-grade textbooks.

“We put together teams that represent the villages and grade levels, and topics and subjects such as social studies and science,” Pokrszywinski said.

They decided to go with the Silicon Valley-based CK-12 Foundation.

A distance-education teacher based in Anchorage, Pokrszywinski has used videoconferencing to teach science courses online with the Lower Kuskokwim School District for the past nine years and has used the CK-12 Foundation’s online resources previously.

The review team first began with the biology textbook.

“What I started to notice about the book was that it explained the content very well,” Pokrszywinski said. “Being very concise and without being too wordy, and without being weighted with a lot of academic language, and using neutral, everyday experiences.”

This past year she helped make the push for all of LKSD’s high school level science courses to use CK-12’s open source textbooks, commonly known as “flex-books.”

In a chapter of the CK-12 Foundation’s biology textbook, an image of berries on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Tundra helps illustrate principals of photosynthesis. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Teachers using the flex-books can print, on the district’s dime, as many copies of the textbook as they need for their students, as well as update textbooks regularly, which Schallhorn feels is important.

“To support something that we can constantly edit and re-edit and revise and make changes as necessary,” Schallhorn said.

After a semester with the new, localized CK-12 textbooks, ninth-graders Matthew Erik and Clayton Panruk are sold on it, as is 10th-grader Dawson Erik.

“Because we can connect to what it’s saying,” Erik said.

The students said, along with the better sense of the Delta that the textbook gives them, they look forward to other parts of the textbook being translated since they all grew up bilingual, speaking Yugtun first.

They also said that though translating may be difficult, it would still be worth it.

Pokrszywinski also said that in addition to helping the district include more culturally relevant examples in their curriculum, in the long run it will help more students relate their everyday experiences to the language of science.

“Because there are so many climate deniers out there who don’t see the accelerated erosion, or the thawing permafrost, or the changes in the seasonal activities of animals, but our students are seeing that and they have those observations,” Pokrszywinski said. “I would hope that they can start to try and speak the scientific language, and claims of it and reasoning.”

Beginning this summer, LKSD will start the process of translating their kindergarten-through-sixth-grade science textbooks into Yugtun.

These textbooks will be used in immersion schools, and the 17 bilingual schools throughout the district.

Categories: Alaska News

Inupiat leaders say offshore drilling proposal ‘ignored’ local concerns

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 17:58
The City of Utqiagvik is a member of Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, which recently wrote a letter to the Interior Department about the draft offshore drilling proposal. (Creative Commons photo)

Some of the oil industry’s biggest supporters got a lot more than they asked for in the Trump administration’s latest offshore drilling proposal. In early January, the Interior Department proposed opening up the vast majority of Alaska’s offshore areas to oil leasing. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Governor Bill Walker and others are already asking Interior to scale back, limiting oil lease sales to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and Cook Inlet.

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Now, Voice of the Arctic Inupiat (VOICE), an advocacy group of Inupiat leadership organizations across the North Slope, including tribal councils, municipal governments, Alaska Native Corporations and others, is also weighing in.

To be clear, VOICE isn’t against oil development. Last year, the group made a big push to allow drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When it comes to offshore oil development in the Arctic, VOICE doesn’t yet have an official position.

But it does have a position on how Interior went about its latest proposal.

In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, VOICE wrote, “with respect to the Arctic [Outer Continental Shelf] announcement on the [Draft Proposed Program], we feel the concerns of local organizations were ignored and that deeply disturbs us.”

VOICE chairman and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation president Rex Rock Sr. said, ”we expressed our concerns and we felt that we were being ignored, such as the Barrow and Kaktovik whaling areas and the 25-mile Chukchi Sea buffer.”

In the letter, VOICE writes those particular areas are “critical to Northern Alaska food security” — they’re used by local communities for whaling and other subsistence hunting.

Interior’s draft proposal would allow oil drilling in these waters, although the proposal states that excluding the Barrow and Kaktovik whaling areas and the 25-mile Chukchi Sea coastal buffer “may warrant further analysis.”

Rock said North Slope leaders had already made it clear to the federal government that those areas should stay off limits.

“We had already worked this with the past administration and said, ‘here are the areas that we ask that you stay away from,’” Rock said.

Rock added, “we’ve always said that for us consultation is huge, you need to come in and talk to the people that are here.”

VOICE’s letter concludes that Interior decisions affecting the North Slope “must be based on consultation, coordination and engagement with Alaska Natives.”

The Interior Department has not yet responded to a request for comment on the letter. However, Interior has stressed the plan is not final; it’s still possible to remove many of the areas where offshore drilling is currently proposed.

public hearing on Interior’s draft offshore drilling plan proposal is set to take place in Anchorage on February 21.

Reporter Ravenna Koenig contributed to this story.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 17:52

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

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Murkowski says Pruitt’s Pebble decision surprised her

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media – Washington D.C.

Sen. Murkowski says the EPA administrator’s move to keep alive proposed limits on the mine seemed out of character.

New federal report looks at wildlife in a changing ANWR

Elizabeth Jenkins, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau

“My attitude is science can only help us in understanding what’s likely to happen,” said Todd Atwood, a USGS wildlife biologist.

Inupiat leaders say offshore drilling proposal ‘ignored’ local concerns

Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage

In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, VOICE wrote, “with respect to the Arctic [Outer Continental Shelf] announcement on the [Draft Proposed Program], we feel the concerns of local organizations were ignored and that deeply disturbs us.”

Alaska House passes early school budget bill, but leaves the funding out

Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau

The Alaska House passed a bill yesterday that would provide most of the funding for school budgets separately and earlier than the main state budget. It’s intended to prevent widespread layoff notices to teachers that have been caused by the Legislature passing budgets late the last three years.

Walker: ‘Why is Juneau not the Switzerland of Alaska from a financial standpoint?’

Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau

Governor Bill Walker says more of the people making investment decisions for the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation should work in Juneau.

Anchorage Chamber of Commerce against initiative to regulate bathrooms

Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce says it opposes a controversial voter initiative that seeks to limit who can enter bathrooms and other spaces, like locker rooms, based on a person’s biological sex at birth rather than their gender identity.

Wasilla man convicted in first-ever killing of trooper dog

Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

A jury has convicted a Wasilla man in the fatal 2016 shooting of an Alaska State Trooper dog, the first to be killed in the line of duty.

Nome deep-draft port back on the table

Zoe Grueskin, KNOM – Nome

More than two years since it shelved the project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take a new look at a deep-draft port in Nome.

Moore extends Quest lead as he arrives in Dawson

Zoe Rom, KUAC – Fairbanks

Allen Moore remains the leader of the Yukon Quest, by quite a margin.

New science textbooks could bring students closer to science behind climate change

Christine Trudeau, KYUK – Bethel

Studying high school science in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta comes with a whole new textbook. A textbook that’s free, open source, available in print and digital formats, and customized geographically to rural southwestern Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Chamber of Commerce against initiative to regulate bathrooms

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 17:04
The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce says it opposes a controversial voter initiative that would regulate the use of public bathrooms in the city. Proposition 1 on the Anchorage municipal election ballot seeks to limit who can enter bathrooms and other spaces, like locker rooms, based on a person’s biological sex at birth rather than their gender identity. Supporters say it would protect privacy and give businesses and churches the ability to regulate bathrooms in accordance with their beliefs. Opponents say the measure would discriminate against transgender residents. In a letter, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce said this week the measure would be bad for business and that it would mark Anchorage as “unwelcoming.” Kati Ward is campaign manager for Fair Anchorage, a coalition advocating that residents vote “no” on the proposition. Ward said negative impacts to other cities and states that passed similar initiatives — causing the cancellation of large, revenue-generating events — was likely on the minds of Anchorage Chamber of Commerce board members. “While they may have a more conservative reputation, I think that at the end of the day it relates back to the economy,” Ward said. “And we know that this ballot proposition, like it has done in the Lower 48, isn’t good for communities, for various reasons.” The Anchorage Assembly passed a law in 2015 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That pertains to housing, employment and public facilities. Proposition One would amend the law in regards to so-called “intimate” spaces, including bathrooms. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce represents more than 900 companies that employ over 50,000 people. The election is April 3, but ballots for Anchorage’s first-ever vote by mail are set to start going out in mid-March.
Categories: Alaska News

Wasilla man convicted in first-ever killing of trooper dog

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 17:03
Alaska State Trooper K9 Helo, killed in the line of duty in 2016, and handler Trooper Christopher Havens. (Alaska Department of Public Safety photo) A jury has convicted a Wasilla man in the fatal 2016 shooting of an Alaska State Trooper dog, the first to be killed in the line of duty. K9 Helo, a Belgian Malinois was chasing Almando Abarca after Abarca led troopers on a high-speed chase. Troopers say Abarca ditched his car near where the Parks and Glenn highways meet and ran into a wooded area, where he shot Helo multiple times. Troopers returned fire and hit Abarca once. The jury on Wednesday found Abarca, now 27, guilty of killing a police dog, as well as attempted murder, assault and failure to stop at the direction of a police officer. Palmer Assistant District Attorney Shawn Traini said the jury heard testimony from troopers Jared Noll and Christopher Havens, Helo’s handler. “Trooper Noll had to grab Helo and race Helo to the hospital as Helo’s dying in front of him, and when he testified before the jury, he certainly was very emotional,” Traini said. “And Trooper Havens, who was Helo’s partner for several years, that was hard on him, to have to relive what was a very scary and emotional night for him.” Abarca faces up to four years behind bars for shooting Helo and up to four years for each assault and failure to stop conviction. He also faces between five and 99 years for the attempted murder conviction. Abarca’s sentencing is set for May.
Categories: Alaska News

Nome deep-draft port back on the table

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 16:56
The Port of Nome. (Joy Baker, Port Director)

More than two years since it shelved the project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take a new look at a deep-draft port in Nome. The Army Corps and the City of Nome entered into a formal agreement last week to split the cost of a new study of the regional benefits of a port expansion in Nome.

A deep-draft port able to handle large ships would be the first of its kind in US Arctic waters.

According to Nome’s mayor Richard Beneville, that’s significant.

“It’s important, it makes sense and Alaska needs it,” Beneville said. “The world needs it, but Alaska really needs it.”

Beneville’s vision for a maritime Arctic starts in Nome but would eventually see ports throughout the region. He says it will help diversify Alaska’s economy, beyond dependence on oil and gas extraction. And he sees it as a way to make the most of record-low sea ice levels.

It’s a vision shared by Alaska’s congressional delegation. One of the loudest voices in Washington calling for a Nome deep-draft port is Senator Dan Sullivan.

“There’s challenges of course, but there’s also opportunities opening up in the Arctic as the sea lanes become more prominent and the shipping traffic increases,” Sullivan said. “The way in which we can take advantage of them is to have more infrastructure in place to do that.”

Last week’s announcement starts an investigation by the Army Corps into the potential impacts of expanding Nome’s port. That study could take up to three years and cost as much as $3 million, which the Army Corps and City of Nome will split evenly.

The City has already secured $1.6 million from the state for this purpose, and City officials hope the investigation could be completed in less time, thanks to existing research.

The Army Corps singled out Nome as the best spot for an Arctic deep-draft port in March of 2015.

“And that is when Shell pulled out of the Chukchi and ceased operating in their oil and gas development, and the regional study was essentially paused,” Joy Baker, Nome’s Port Director said.

Baker says with Shell out of the Arctic, the Army Corps felt they’d lost the economic justification for a port expansion. Instead of moving ahead with a Nome-specific study, the Corps put the project on hold for at least a year.

But getting started again has taken longer than that.

“We are basically reactivating after two years and four months,” Baker said. “We are actually able to move forward now and pick up where we left off in October of ’15.”

Nome City officials worked closely with Alaska lawmakers to restart the project. Despite the halt in official action, Baker says these last 2 years and 4 months have been busy.

“Meetings, trips to visit the delegation in DC, letters, conferences, many, many teleconferences,” Baker said. “You name it, we’ve done it.”

Baker says the key was getting the Army Corps to understand that things work a little differently in a remote, rural location. Baker says it’s easier to justify the expense of an infrastructure project in a densely populated city in the Lower 48. With dimming prospects for oil and gas development, Baker says they had to make the case that expanding the port would do more than just boost Nome’s economy.

Sullivan says broadening the Corps’ scope was a challenge.

“This was part of my frustration, because Nome plays an important role as a regional hub to many of the smaller communities throughout Western Alaska,” Sullivan said.

Baker gives Sullivan and the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation much of the credit for getting the deep-draft port back on the table. Alaskan lawmakers pushed for changes to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which allow the Corps to consider benefits to the region as a whole and not just the city of Nome. They added language to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act on the strategic importance of an Arctic port. Sullivan, who serves on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, put a hold on the nomination of the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, to press the issue.

In December, the Corps issued a memorandum recommending they pick up where they left off and begin a feasibility study of expanding the Port of Nome.

Port Director Baker is matter-of-fact when asked about the two-year delay:

“It happened, so. Now we’re moving forward. I’d like to put the shovel in the water before I retire,” Baker said.

By her own rough calculation, that means Baker could be putting off retirement till at least 2023.

City officials and representatives from the Army Corps will discuss the budget, schedule, and scope of the study at a planning meeting scheduled for late April in Nome.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski says Pruitt’s Pebble decision surprised her

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 16:49
Sen. Lisa Murkowski takes questions from reporters in the basement of the Capitol in 2017. Photo: Liz Ruskin

If you were surprised when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took a left turn on the proposed Pebble mine last month, you’re not alone. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was, too.

Pruitt announced a decision to keep alive a proposal from the Obama administration to protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a proposal Murkowski and other Republicans had complained was egregious federal overreach.

Murkowski says she got the news from Pruitt, just before the public announcement.

“I think I was just generally surprised. And I think part of it is because the administrator has typically taken an approach that less reg – I don’t want to say less regulation …. ,” Murkowski said, pausing to choose her words carefully. “He has been more favorably inclined to find paths forward where there have been regulatory impediments placed.”

Murkowski has not taken a position for or against the mine. But she was highly critical when President Obama’s EPA proposed restrictions on Pebble, prohibiting it from damaging more than five miles of fish streams, among other limits. Murkowski called that a “pre-emptive veto.” Pebble had not yet applied for its permits. Murkowski says what the Trump administration has done is different.

“The action that they took does not halt Pebble’s application. It says that they may continue through that process,” Murkowski said. “That’s the difference.”

But Obama’s EPA administrator said her action wasn’t blocking Pebble’s application, either.

“If the company is ready for permit application, they’re still free to submit that, and we’d encourage that,” then-administrator Gina McCarthy said at a 2014 hearing, answering questions from Murkowski.

Pebble did not file its application until late last year. Murkowski says Administrator Pruitt wants a credible process and has set a high bar for Pebble to meet.

Categories: Alaska News

New federal report looks at wildlife in a changing ANWR

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 14:28
A polar bear mother watches carefully with her cubs along her side along the Beaufort Sea. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

When the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) opens up to drilling, this largely untouched land could have new visitors as oil and gas exploration gets underway.

So, what does that mean for the animals who already live there? A new federal report doesn’t answer that question. But it does provide some context for what to expect.

When Congress passed the Republican tax overhaul bill in late December, Todd Atwood didn’t realize opening ANWR was part of the package deal. He’s a polar bear biologist with the United States Geological Survey. And while he says the speed of the decision was unexpected:

“You know, from a science perspective, we’re not caught off guard by this.” Atwood said. “This is stuff we’ve been thinking about for a while.”

By “stuff,” Atwood is referring to the place where humans and polar bears meet.

Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Atwood says, historically, Beaufort Sea bears would den in the winter on ice. That was the case 15 years ago when his agency put together a report on animals living in ANWR. But an update to that report suggests that larger numbers of polar bears are denning on land.

A mother polar bear and cub on the Endicott Road in Prudhoe Bay. (Photo courtesy of the United States Geological Survey)

Also, the bears are coming ashore to scavenge for food, as the quality of sea ice diminishes.

Atwood says it’s like two worlds more frequently coming together.

“People and polar bears in the same place and then a big pile of tasty bow head whale scraps to attract the bears and keep them focused on that area,” Atwood said.

Now, add to that the industrial activity one could expect in a newly opened ANWR. Roads would have to be built, and down the line, platforms for oil rigs.

Atwood says there are some uncertainties.

“How many people are we going to have sharing space with how many bears that doesn’t shake out in a way that bears aren’t at risk and people aren’t at risk?” Atwood said.

He says the concern is that polar bears could be driven from their den earlier than normal from all the racket — especially during a build up phase.

But Atwood says wildlife biologists aren’t completely in the dark with how it could play out.

The far north has experienced something like this before.

 “The Prudhoe Bay industrial footprint,” Atwood said. “They’ve been sharing space with polar bears for decades now.”

Once the infrastructure is built, Atwood says there are ways to mitigate harm. Oil companies have to comply with federal guidelines and report polar bears denning nearby. Infrared technology has been used to make that detection easier.

Last year, Hilcorp shut down a road for a few weeks, as a mother bear emerged from a den with her cubs.

But polar bears aren’t the only iconic animal to use the national wildlife refuge. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates through and their calves are born in the refuge in the summer months.

While oil production is still a ways off, Todd Atwood says the more we can learn in the interim about the wildlife, the better.

“My attitude is science can only help us in understanding what’s likely to happen,” Atwood said.

Atwood says an abundance of research is how you make management interventions — if the time comes.

Atwood is going into the field with his team this spring to study denning polar bears and cubs.

Categories: Alaska News

Chief Justice Stowers says courts will examine sex harassment policies

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 10:30
Alaska Chief Justice Craig Stowers delivers the State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday. Behind him are Senate President Pete Kelly, left, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Court System is reviewing its policies to prevent sexual harassment. That’s according to Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers. He spoke to the Legislature Wednesday in the annual State of the Judiciary address.

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“You know, we learn some stuff in kindergarten usually, and this is one of those things,” Stowers said of not harassing others. “And it still is hard to believe in this day and age that you would see the kind of instances of sexual harassment in the workplace or anywhere. There’s no place for it in public life, and you know that and I know that.”

Stowers said he’s forming a working group to examine the harassment policies. He said he isn’t aware of any cases of harassment by judges or court employees.

Stowers also talked about other changes to the court system, including changes to rural courts.

They include adjusting court hours and staffing to match smaller case loads. And the system plans to hire more non-law-trained deputy magistrate judges in rural areas. Stowers said they will handle uncomplicated judicial work. The changes will save $400,000.

Stowers quoted the Star Wars character Yoda in encouraging the Legislature to address the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

“The operative idea is that, notwithstanding your differences, you must act,” Stowers said. “‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’”

Stowers also requested that the Legislature convert a district court judge position in Juneau to a Superior Court judge position to help handle the workload.

It was Stowers’ last address of a three-year term. The court will vote for a new chief justice before Stowers’ term ends on June 30. He will remain on the court.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 10:21

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

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Alaska prosecutors make case for rebuilding amid soaring caseloads

Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

Alaska has seen an upward trend in crime in recent years. At the same time, the Department of Law’s Criminal Division has been hit with deep budget cuts. Now, prosecutors are making the case for rebuilding their capacity so they can hold more criminal offenders accountable.

Bristol Bay residents weigh in on EPA Pebble reversal

Avery Lill, KDLG – Dillingham

Opponents and advocates of mining in the Bristol Bay region are weighing in on the recent Environmental Protection Agency announcement regarding the proposed Pebble Mine. Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in late January the agency will suspend its withdrawal of Obama-era proposed protections for the Bristol Bay Watershed.

Chief Justice Stowers says courts will examine sex harassment policies

Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau

Stowers quoted the Star Wars character Yoda in encouraging the Legislature to address the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

25-year-old Bethel man picked to lead replacement of state Rep. Fansler

Teresa Cotsirilos, KYUK – Bethel

House District 38 Democrats selected Ben Anderson-Agimuk, 25, from Tununak and Bethel, and Fansler’s former aide, to chair their local party. It’s the caucus’ first step toward replacing Rep. Zach Fansler, who resigned last week amidst assault allegations.

Women’s cross-country ski team eyes first Olympic medal

Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team has never won an Olympic medal. The team hopes to make history at the upcoming Winter Games in PyeongChang.

Temperatures drop as Quest mushers race to Dawson

Dan Bross and Zoe Rom, KUAC – Fairbanks

Temperatures again dipped to extremes this morning along the Yukon Quest trail between Circle and Dawson City. Eagle officially registered minus 40, while readings of 50 below or colder were unofficially reported at low points elsewhere along the Yukon and Forty Mile Rivers.

Juneau Assembly to intervene over AEL&P purchase

Jacob Resneck, KTOO – Juneau

The City and Borough of Juneau will petition state regulators for a seat at the table as it reviews Alaska Electric Light & Power’s acquisition by Hydro One of Canada. The Juneau Assembly unanimously approved $75,000 in legal fees to make its case to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

Invasive species haven’t made the Bering Sea their home… yet

Zoe Sobel, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Unalaska

The Bering Sea has kept invasives at bay for now, but warming waters look to make it a more welcoming environment in the future.

Endangered orcas are starving. Should we start feeding them?

Tom Banse, Northwest News Network – Olympia

Washington state officials have proposed a new tack to save the Pacific Northwest’s critically endangered orca population. Their idea is to boost salmon hatchery production by 10 million to 20 million more fish per year to provide more food for the iconic killer whales.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska prosecutors make case for rebuilding amid soaring caseloads

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2018-02-08 09:28

Legislators in Juneau are hearing some hard numbers this week on how difficult things have gotten for state prosecutors.

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Alaska has had upward trends in recent years with violent crime, like murder and assault, and property crime, like vehicle theft and burglary. At the same time, the Department of Law’s Criminal Division has been hit with deep budget cuts.

Now, prosecutors are making the case for rebuilding their capacity so they can hold more criminal offenders accountable.

According to the Department of Law, district attorneys have had to prioritize going after violent felonies ahead of any other cases, including non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

“The offenses are still occurring, the crimes are still occurring,” Deputy Attorney General Rob Henderson said. “We do not have the resources to prosecute all the offenses that come in the door, and so we have to prioritize.”

Simply put, some offenders are not being held accountable. It makes sense: Prosecutors are going to focus on putting murderers behind bars ahead of car thieves.

But that means some cases are not prosecuted at all, or the criminal charges are resolved in other ways, like plea agreements, which are easier to deal with but sometimes come with lighter sentences.

“When we resolve a case, it is a very hard conversation to have with a victim of any type of crime, no matter what the crime is, but any victim, that you’re unable to prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law because you don’t have the resources to do it,” Henderson said.

To fix this, Gov. Bill Walker is asking the Legislature for more than about $1.2 million to add five state prosecutors. Two would be based in Anchorage, and there would be one each added to the district attorneys offices in Bethel and Kotzebue. The plan would also add support staff.

Another position is a statewide drug prosecutor, already funded under last year’s budget. Longtime Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Katholyn Runnels has been hired to fill that role and started this week, focusing on large-scale drug dealers fueling Alaska’s opioid epidemic.

Runnels said she will be targeting the traffickers who bring drugs to Alaska.

“We’re seeing a spike in different crimes, and a lot of that leads back to the drugs that are being brought into the state, you sort of see this ripple effect in that crimes across the board tend to go up,” Runnels said. “Theft crimes, burglaries, vehicle thefts, shooting violence, are all connected to drugs.”

But while prosecutors try to keep pace with rising crime, so has the Public Defender Agency, which represents people charged with crimes who can’t afford private defense attorneys.

State Public Defender Quinlan Steiner said lawyers in his office are already struggling with their own heavy caseloads. If more prosecutors means more charges filed, and there are still the same number of public attorneys available, Steiner said that, too, is a problem.

“It will certainly create a bottleneck, as we are unable to meet with clients and assist them in their cases in a timely manner. And we’re starting to see that now,” Steiner said.

The governor has requested more funding for the Public Defender Agency along with the additional prosecutor positions. But it remains to be seen what the Legislature includes as it crafts its state operating budget.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Assembly to intervene over AEL&P purchase

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 16:57
Citizens concerned about Juneau’s electric utility being acquired by Canadian power company Hydro One attended Monday’s Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

The City and Borough of Juneau will ask state regulators to make the city a party to negotiations over the local electric utility’s transfer to a Canadian power company. And it committed money for lawyers to help make that happen.

Juneau business owner Randy Sutak distributed stickers and leaflets to the more than 30 people attending Monday’s committee meeting. He urged the city to protect ratepayers.

“If you don’t have a seat at the table or if you’re not trying to ensure yourself a seat at the table, then there’s no incentive for anybody to negotiate with you,” Sutak said. “In other words, you have to take what you get.”

Alaska Electric Light & Power was bought in 2013 by Avista of Spokane. Avista is being acquired by Hydro One, one of Canada’s largest power companies.

But the acquisition requires approval by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska which has received critical public comments from customers and lawmakers concerned about rates and the fate of utility assets.

The largest prize is Snettisham Hydroelectric Project. The federally built hydro complex was completed in the early 1970s and produces about two-thirds of Juneau’s electricity. It’s owned by the state of Alaska, but AEL&P has an option to acquire it.

Mayor Ken Koelsch laid out his top goals for negotiations. Number one was the fate of the Snettisham Hydro Complex.

“When current bonds for Snettisham Hydroelectric Facility are retired,” Koelsch said, “the Snettisham assets should remain in the State of Alaska or local CBJ ownership.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Assembly member Jesse Kiehl who said he worried a piece of critical infrastructure could become collateral for an out-of-state corporation.

“We just don’t know who will control the corporate board in Spokane 50 years from now when Snettisham’s turbines will still be spinning,” Kiehl said. “So by and large, old hydro is cheaper than new hydro, or newly bonded or re-bonded hydro. So I think the mayor’s language is the best protection for Juneau’s ratepayers in the long term.”

AEL&P President Connie Hulbert also attended the meeting. After conferring with higher ups, she released a statement:

“AEL&P supports the RCA process, which is designed to consider the public’s input and interest,” Hulbert wrote immediately after the meeting. “We are confident that the merger on the horizon for Avista will not negatively impact AEL&P or Juneau, and that AEL&P will continue to operate as we do today, making local decisions to serve our customers.”

Hulbert added that many of the questions and concerns expressed by the public and members of the Assembly are addressed in a lengthy brief filed Tuesday the RCA.

The Assembly committee set aside $75,000 for expected legal fees and it tasked the city manager to negotiate with Hydro One to secure a deal that could make a formal intervention unnecessary.

It’ll be up to the RCA to decide whether the city will be a formal party to the process.

Categories: Alaska News

Invasive species haven’t made the Bering Sea their home… yet

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 15:05
European Green Crab. (Public Domain photo courtesy of Washington Sea Grant)

Native species are well adapted to living in the challenging environment of the Bering Sea, but increased shipping means there are more opportunities for invasive species to hitch a ride in. And as the waters warm, the ecosystem will become more hospitable making it easier for them to settle.

Zoologist Jesika Reimer is part of a team studying the threat.

“What we really wanted to do was look at what invasive species have the potential to arrive,” Reimer said. “We wanted to know where should we be looking for them — so, what ports are getting a lot of traffic? And we wanted to know if a species arrives, can it survive?”

The reason to focus on the Bering Sea was twofold. First, there aren’t really invasive species there yet and second, it’s one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world and serves as a link to the Arctic.

For the past three years, the team at the Alaska Center for Conservation Science has been compiling data to identify the largest threats. At the top of the list researcher Amanda Droghini says are species that are geographically nearby, reproduce quickly, change their environment or are in direct competition with existing species.

One of the biggest threats is the European green crab.

“The European green crab tends to be a very voracious hungry predator with a high reproductive rate,” Droghini said.

While the green crab can survive in the Bering Sea right now, Reimer says it can’t reproduce.

“It’s not warm enough for them to have offspring and for those offspring to survive, grow, become adults and go on to reproduce themselves, Reimer said. “But when we do look at the climate models and we look in the future we see that as things are warming up we jump over this threshold where European green crab weren’t able to reproduce, where now it opens up so they can.”

Removing invasives once they have taken root is challenging on land, but it is especially difficult in marine environments. So the researchers believe taking a proactive approach will help keep non-native species at bay.

Ideally all of Alaska’s coastline would be monitored — scientists would keep tabs of what organisms exist in a given area and look for changes. And Droghini says there is some monitoring right now being done in Dutch Harbor, Nome and the Pribilof Islands, but the efforts are patchy and dependent on funding.

“Without a consistent monitoring program how will we ever be able to detect the species when they arrive?” Droghini said. ” We know that the earlier we detect them the greater chance we have of eradicating them”

The next step for the science is fine tuning the modeling to imagine if invasives arrive how they might spread through the Bering Sea and might interact with the existing ecosystem.

Without strict international regulations, ships may continue to — knowingly or unknowingly — transport non-native species wherever they travel.

The Bering Sea has kept invasive species at bay for now, but warming waters look to make it a more welcoming environment in the future.

Categories: Alaska News

25-year-old Bethel man picked to lead replacement of state Rep. Fansler

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 14:31
Ben Anderson-Agimuk speaks at the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention in October 2017. On Tuesday, House District 38 Democrats selected Anderson-Agimuk to be their party’s chair. (Photo courtesy Ben Anderson-Agimuk)

House District 38 Democrats took their first step last night toward replacing Rep. Zach Fansler, who resigned last week amidst assault allegations.

The caucus selected Ben Anderson-Agimuk, 25, from Tununak and Bethel and Fansler’s former aide, to chair their local party.

His first job will be to help replace him.

Anderson-Agimuk wouldn’t comment on Fansler’s resignation — he still works for the Legislature and thought that would be inappropriate.

Anderson-Agimuk did say what he’s looking for in Fansler’s replacement. He wants a candidate who would vote with the Democrat’s majority coalition in the State House, and who would be willing to run for re-election in six months in what could be a grueling campaign.

“There would be a lot of village travel,” Anderson-Agimuk said. “Your campaign will be as tough as your opponent, and we don’t know what we’ll have in store.”

The House District 38 Democrats need to nominate three prospective candidates for him to review, which will be done by a selection committee: a panel of four or five District 38 constituents.

But they couldn’t select the committee without a party chair.

The next step in the process will be for Anderson-Agimuk to accept applications from potential committee members, which he will forward to the state’s Democratic Party for review.

Fansler’s resignation is effective Feb. 12. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker needs to select Fansler’s replacement by March 14.

Categories: Alaska News

Women’s cross-country ski team eyes first Olympic medal

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 12:15
Alaskan skiers Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall will represent the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

The United States always has had a strong showing in the Winter Games, but not in cross-country skiing. The U.S. women’s team has never won a medal.

Alaskan skier Kikkan Randall came close in Sochi four years ago. Since then, U.S. women have been racking up big wins at international races. The team hopes to make history in 2018.

On a bright, cold training day before heading to South Korea, several Olympic athletes are training in the snowy mountains near Anchorage.

Kikkan Randall pushes one ski and glides on the other, like she’s skating on ice.

Randall is 5’5″ and all muscle, but this this five-time Olympian doesn’t take herself too seriously. Randall has bright pink highlights in her hair.

The Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea will be Kikkan Randall’s fifth Olympics. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

“The pink hair is going on about twelve years now,” Randall explained.

For decades, she said, it was downhill skiers like Picabo Street and Lindsey Vonn claiming the skiing spotlight.

“I was kind of frustrated at the time,” Randall said. “Because cross country skiing was kind of pushed off as this, ’Oh you guys just wear spandex and you disappear off into the woods and it’s kind of a lame sport,’ and I was like, ‘No sprint racing is coming up. We’re really fast and dynamic,’ so I thought I want to show the fun side, so I put pink tips in my hair.”

With pink tips in her hair and multiple podiums in international races under her belt, Randall’s time to shine came four years ago at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Peggy Shinn was sitting in the stands by the finish line. Shinn is a sports journalist and author of “World Class: The Making of the Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” a book about the women’s cross country ski team.

Sports journalist Peggy Shinn’s book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team.”

“And I was all excited because this was going to be the race where the U.S. was going to win a medal,” Shinn said.

Women’s cross country skiing made its Olympic debut in 1952, but the American women didn’t even field a team until 1972.

Since many of these races take place in their backyard, the Scandinavians have dominated the sport. In 2014, though, the Americans were set to earn their first Olympic medal.

In the quarterfinals of a sprint race, Kikkan Randall lunged across the line.

“And there was this amazing hush that went over the crowd,” Shinn explained, “and nobody breathed for a few seconds when they realized what had happened– Kikkan Randall was not advancing to the semi-finals.”

Randall still chokes up when she talks about Sochi.

“That’s the beauty of the Olympics,” Randall said, “and also the agony– it’s one day and if it doesn’t quite go right, that’s your chance.”

But another beauty of the Olympics? They come around every four years.

This year, the American team is deeper. And spending months together racing in Europe every year means they’re closer than other teams. They’re also more confident than ever.

“We definitely have a chance at a medal,” said American skier Jessie Diggins. Diggins has been racking up her own set of medals at international races.

Diggins and Anchorage skier Sadie Bjornsen earned bronze in the classic team sprint at the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. 

“To the line they come– Jessie Diggins, of the United States, gets the Bronze for the U.S.” excalimed the race announcer.

Once she crossed the finish line, Diggins collapsed on the snow with her skis still attached.

“That’s probably the best feeling there is,” Diggins said.

A feeling the American women could replicate for the first time ever at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

“And that just gives me goosebumps,” Diggins said, “because I know that we are coming into this with a serious fighting chance and we’re going to be swinging hard.”

The American women will come out swinging at their first of six cross-country ski races on Saturday, Feb. 10.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislators hope to fix uncertainty plaguing school budgets this session

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 11:52
Rep. Paul Seaton said he hopes the Legislature will pass House Bill 287 to avoid budget uncertainty for Alaska school districts. (KTOO photo)

This session, some state legislators hope to put an end to the uncertainty school districts across the state face when it comes to their budgets.

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House Bill 287 and Senate Bill 131 both address K-12 school funding, but in different ways.

HB 287 would split next school year’s education budget off from the state’s main budget. It calls for about $1.3 billion from state savings.

SB 131 isn’t itself a budget bill, but a process bill. It would require the Legislature to pass a separate public education budget by April 1 each year.

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens is sponsoring SB 131, and Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton is sponsoring HB 287. Seaton said they spoke with each other about their bills, but they didn’t plan them together.

“So he asked me whether that would interfere and I said, ‘No, that would be good because that’s looking at the long term,’” Seaton said. “In other words talking about future legislatures and what they will do, and this bill is looking at doing an appropriation to accomplish the goal this year while we have control of the budget.”

Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton is critical of that approach. She said on Thursday that prioritizing education over everything else in the overall budget doesn’t seem fair.

“I think that education is a very important issue in our state, but I also think that crime has risen and public safety is also a very important issue in our state,” Tilton said. “So if you start to look at the different agencies, and we do go to the constitution, see what’s constitutionally mandated but public safety is also constitutionally mandated. So where do we decide who’s the winners, who’s the losers? Whose budget gets funded first?”

For several years when there was plenty of money in the general fund, the Legislature planned education funding several years in advance.

At the end of last school year, hundreds of pink slips went out to untenured teachers across the state. Weeks later, they were hired back when the Legislature finally resolved the budget.

Even though Juneau Superintendent Mark Miller knew he was taking a risk, he decided to put his hopes in the Legislature flat-funding education, rather than lay off teachers.

Miller said he does not want to have to make that choice again.

“Anything we can do to help stabilize funding for education, so that we have an idea when we budget of how much money we’re going to be able to spend, is encouraging,” Miller said.

The House may vote on HB 287 Wednesday when it goes to the floor for a third reading. SB 131 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

KTOO and Alaska Public Media reporter Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

If rental assistance is a lifeline for preventing homelessness, why is it so hard to get?

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2018-02-07 00:01
Dion Wynne sits in his car, filling out an application for rental assistance. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

The Solutions Desk looks beyond Alaska’s problems and reports on its solutions – the people and programs working to make Alaska communities stronger. Listen to more solutions journalism stories and conversations, and share your own ideas here.

This is part two of a series about a man on the brink of homelessness. Find the first part here.

When Anchorage resident Dion Wynne was unexpectedly hospitalized for more than a month last fall, he realized he was going to have financial difficulties. His medical providers called for backup.

“They’d seen what I was going through and the stress that I was having that I may have to move out of my home,” he said. “So, they said, ‘We think we need to get the social worker in.'”

Dion wasn’t going to be able to return to work any time soon, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to cover all of his expenses. The social worker helped him figure out which programs he could apply for and which he couldn’t.

“I filled out all that paperwork, and I received [public assistance],” he recalled. “They gave me Food Stamps. They put me on Medicaid, and they let my daughter be on Medicaid.”

[Related: Some old solutions still work – helping people buy food with SNAP]

Though it helped with some things, it wasn’t enough to cover his rent.

For confidentiality reasons, Dion’s social worker couldn’t talk to me directly to tell me all of the resources she and other caseworkers try to access for Dion and others. Instead, she sent me to Anchorage’s Aging and Disability Resource Center. It’s the first stop for lots of people in the city who are seeking rental assistance.

“We get so many requests” for help, said ADRC resource specialist Jasmine Bracey. “I want to say each of us probably get like 10 calls a day, maybe, between all three of us.” And that’s just from people in Anchorage who know about their organization.

Despite the agency’s name, the workers counsel anyone who is trying to find resources in Anchorage. Sometimes, but not always, the ADRC has a small pot of federal money that they can give to people for rental assistance. The amount varies from year to year, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $141,903 for rental assistance statewide in FY2017.

Before ADRC can give someone some of the money, the resource specialists have to see if the person is eligible. A primary qualification is employment – the person has to have worked in the past 30 days for most rental assistance. But what about situations like Dion’s, where he couldn’t work because of an illness?

“I don’t really know what would happen,” Jasmine said. “Because they wouldn’t be able to get assistance if they hadn’t worked in that last 30 days.”

“The reason that they have to work is they have to show that they’re sustainable,” explained Jasmine’s colleague, Karla Wright.

For most rental assistance programs, a person can only get help once in their life. Unlike some forms of public assistance, it doesn’t provide consistent, sustained support.

 

“The whole point in this program is that someone has hit a speed bump, and we’re helping them get over that speed bump,” Wright said. The person has to be able to demonstrate that they can continue forward without more help paying their rent.

Dion hit a speed bump when he was hospitalized for over a month, had his big toe amputated, and couldn’t quickly go back to work. His unique situation disqualified him from receiving some avenues of assistance.

Short-term solutions don’t help all of the people, all of the time. That’s why Karla and Jasmine work with people to develop longer-term solutions for maintaining housing, which includes reassessing how they spend their money. They have conversations about budgeting and refer people to financial literacy classes.

Anchorage’s Department of Health and Human Services building lit up in winter colors. (Courtesy of DHSS)

“When people are writing out their income, it’s like, ‘Wow, I spend like $700 on just my car,’ or $200 on a phone bill. So then it kind of lets people see what they’re really spending their money on, so then we get to talking about things like that,” Jasmine said. Oftentimes people develop their own solutions when talking through it all.

For Dion, he can’t really cut many more expenses. He drives an aging car, most of his personal belongings fit into a couple rooms. His utilities are included with his rent.

[Related:How to end homelessness in Anchorage, together]

Karla said the real solution for preventing homelessness for many of the people who are living paycheck to paycheck is to not deny when they are in dire straits.

“I think the key is–and we tell people this all the time–is communication,” Karla said. “If you know that you’re not going to be able to pay your rent, for whatever reason, instead of waiting for that eviction notice to get put on your door or to be handed to you, go ahead and try to be proactive. Go ahead and give us a call before that day, and talk to your landlord.”

That’s what Dion has been doing since the beginning — trying to be proactive. The first step he took was speaking to his landlord, and the result was positive.

“She was supportive of me because she knew what my goal was as far as opening up a foster home, and she was supportive of that,” he said.

The landlord is willing to wait while Dion tries to pull together resources. But he still needs help. He can’t access federal rental assistance so he’s turning to the next resource Karla and Jasmine often suggest — the faith community.

Join Dion on the next step of his journey as he tries to stay in his housing by subscribing to the Solutions Desk podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or NPR.

Do you have other suggestions for people struggling to pay their rent? Add them to the comments section.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s only tribal college now offering bachelor’s degree in business

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-06 18:13
Iḷisaġvik College’s main campus on the northern side of Utqiaġvik. The college launched its first bachelor’s program last fall. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

You can now get a bachelor’s degree without leaving the North Slope. Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only tribal college, launched its inaugural bachelor’s of business administration this past fall.

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The main campus for Iḷisaġvik College is located in what’s known as the NARL complex in Utqiaġvik; it’s the spot where the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory used to operate until it was shuttered about 40 years ago. A short drive north of town, it’s a collection of scattered Quonset huts and a boxy blue building lofted up on stilts.

The President of the college, Dr. Pearl Brower, says that the vision for higher education on the North Slope began back in the 1970s with the Borough’s first mayor, Eben Hopson Sr.

Hopson felt strongly that local education was the key to self-governance, and he made it one of his top priorities.

Shirts and hats for sale in the Iḷisaġvik College Bookstore. Iḷisaġvik is currently Alaska’s only federally recognized tribal college. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

“He recognized that that was going to be one of the most important things for the future of the North Slope given the fact that we were playing such a major role in oil and gas development, and the fact that we were on the edge of the Arctic in regards to science and climate change,” Brower said.

Over the years, higher education here has gone through several different iterations. But in the 1990s Iḷisaġvik College was established in its current form, offering vocational certificates, associate degrees, and short-term workforce development training. And now, exactly one bachelor’s degree as well.

At 5:30 p.m. in one of Iḷisaġvik’s classrooms, professor David Rice is teaching a managerial accounting course to a classroom of five students. The main topic is budgets. How you set them, who within an organization should get a say in how they’re set, and the advantages and disadvantages of different budgeting tactics.

Iḷisaġvik professor David Rice, teaching a class in January on managerial accounting. One of the students in this class is in the new bachelor’s degree program. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

Not all of the students in this class are part of the bachelor’s program. But one of them — Roxanna N. Evikana just started the program this semester.

Evikana grew up here on the North Slope. She attended some college in Anchorage and Washington State, but now that she’s back on the Slope, she’s excited that she can work towards her degree without leaving behind the things that are important to her.

“Me and my family try to live a subsistence lifestyle,” Evikana said. “I believe that’s what’s best for my children growing up… and being home, being able to go to college at the same time is just… that is the best.”

Evikana currently works as an accounting manager for Utqiaġvik’s village corporation. She says she joined the bachelor’s program mostly because it was a personal goal of hers. But also because she thinks she may want to open her own business one day.

Evikana says there isn’t a ton of entertainment in town, so she’s leaning toward that. “Bowling, movies, you know, something fun,” Evikana said.

Roxanna N. Evikana is currently a student in Iḷisaġvik’s new bachelor’s of business administration program. It’s been a longtime goal of hers to get her bachelor’s degree. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

Her professor David Rice says that most of the students in the Bachelor’s program are like Evikana — they’re not taking the course because they don’t have jobs. They’re taking it to open up more opportunities down the road.

“They’re just making sure that they’re getting the training so they can move up to upper management,” Rice said. “That keeps the jobs here in the local population. That keeps the money here in the local population. We don’t have to bring anybody up from the lower 48 or even from Anchorage.”

President Brower echoes this idea. She hopes the bachelor’s program will give local students the qualifications they need to fill positions that might otherwise go to applicants from elsewhere.

“We see this influx of an outside workforce in our state,” Brower said. “We have every ability to… have local control of that. But that takes education. In today’s world — it’s not the world of our ancestors — in today’s world we need that education to go along with our indigenous experiences.”

While the bachelor’s in business administration is Iḷisaġvik’s first, Brower says the college hopes to soon have another. They recently started offering courses in elementary education with an indigenous focus, and they hope to grow it to a bachelor’s program in the coming years.

In December, Iḷisaġvik College announced that starting this semester, the college will waive tuition for all Alaska Native students, including for the bachelor’s in business administration.

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka sewer emergency required “all hands on deck”

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-06 18:04
The sewer crisis Friday (02-02-18) happened below ground, when Thomsen Harbor Lift Station flooded and the city lost the ability to send wastewater to the treatment plant on Japonski Island. Instead, the water flooded the dry well, below this manhole cover. The city’s water, wastewater, and public works crews responded, along with Sitka Electric and Juneau-based Boreal Controls. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The City of Sitka dealt with a messy situation Friday when a vital part of the sewer system failed. The Thomsen Harbor Lift Station was down for 36 hours, meaning all raw sewage on Baranof Island had to be diverted into the harbor so it wouldn’t back up into homes and businesses. Quick thinking crew members and local businesses were able to cobble together a solution.

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If all roads lead to Rome, all sewer pipes — at least on the Baranof Island side of Sitka — lead to the Thomsen Harbor Lift Station. The facility is underground. Environmental Superintendent Shilo Williams peers over the edge of a hole in the ground, lined with pipe painted light blue and a ladder.

“Underneath this can is a whole room that houses three very large pumps,” Williams said.

That room, known as the dry well, also houses the electric equipment necessary to power the pumps that move Sitka’s sewage off Baranof Island to a treatment plant on Japonski Island.

Around 4:45 a.m. Friday morning, one of those three pumps broke apart.

“This dry well, which is never supposed to be wet, started filling with sewage. And it knocked out of all the equipment. The lift station was completely dead,” Williams said.

The water was rising fast. Williams says it was several feet high by the time a flood light went off and facilities operator Bob Reid arrived.

“This was a catastrophic failure. We’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Williams said. “I will say that the crews handled it impeccably. The repair couldn’t have gone any smoother, any faster, any better than it did.

Williams is unmistakably proud of her crew, who worked around the clock to get the situation under control. That included salvaging equipment submerged in sewage and giving the dry well a thorough cleaning. It was messy, back-breaking work. When asked how her crews managed to deal with the smell, Williams chuckled.

“You know,” Williams laughed. “They always say it takes a different breed to be a wastewater operator and to be honest, it’s hardly anything we even think about.”

The dry well at the Thomsen Harbor Lift Station flooding with sewage early Friday morning. City crews spent all day emptying and cleaning the dry well. (Photo courtesy of Shilo Williams)

To prevent that river of sewage from backing up into homes and businesses, crews temporarily redirected the wastewater towards a storm drain and into the harbor. The pollution posed an environmental concern and City and Borough of Sitka issued a PSA calling for Sitkans to limit their toilet flushes and shower times until further notice.

Williams said that conservation effort made a difference throughout the 36 hours the lift station was ultimately down. She estimates 800,000 gallons of raw sewage entered Thomsen and Eliason harbor in that time.

“I know 800,000 gallons sounds like a lot, but in the scheme of things, into the water it’s discharging into…it could have been a lot worse,” Williams said.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and other environmental agencies were alerted to the situation.

Come Saturday morning, the city had some lucky breaks. It didn’t rain, so sewer flow was low. The two remaining pumps dried out. Crews were able to restore the sewer connection by 5 p.m. that evening. That’s in large part due to the work of Sitka Electric and Boreal Controls of Juneau, installing new electrical equipment above ground.

Parts aren’t easy to come by on an island of 9,000 people, so equipment had to be expedited through Alaska Airline’s GoldStreak program or plucked from surrounding facilities.

“We were able to rob some components from some of our infrastructure that we had,” Williams said. “Silver Bay Seafoods was able to get us the big conduit that we needed. It was really a kind of community effort.”

With the nightmare over, Williams has begun to investigate what went wrong. She suspects that gravel is the culprit, which naturally accumulates over time and may have slowly chewed away at the pump.

Built in 1982, the lift station (like many pieces of Sitka infrastructure) is prone to failure. “

It’s all of our wastewater that’s collected right here and then sent over,” Community Affairs Director Maegan Bosak said. “So the fact that it’s aging infrastructure really is a cost for concern. If these fails continue to happen, it’s really a cost for taxpayers.”

Despite its age and importance, the Thomsen Harbor Lift Station is not high on the city’s punch list for public works projects. The 2012 Municipal Sewer Master Plan suggests upgrades in 10 to 20 years. The recent failure has kickstarted a conversation about what can be done sooner and the city has ordered a new pump. Now that electrical equipment has been installed above ground, away from potential flooding, Williams said she’d like to see it stay there.

Categories: Alaska News

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