The British Columbia government has decided to not file charges in the Mount Polley Mine disaster.
Critics in Southeast Alaska say the lack of enforcement action increases their concerns about similar mines near salmon-rich transboundary rivers, which begin in British Columbia and flow through Southeast.
Mount Polley’s tailings dam broke Aug. 4, 2014, sending millions of gallons of silt and water into nearby creeks and rivers.
The three-year statute of limitations for filing charges is over and the province said it is taking no legal action.
The central B.C. mine is owned by Imperial Metals, which also owns the Red Chris Mine in the Stikine River watershed.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Mining Coordinator Guy Archibald said he’s very disappointed.
“The Mount Polley investigation found that the contractors were not following the plan of operation for maintaining the tailings dam and that contributed to its failure,” Archibald said. “Why nobody’s being held responsible for this is very surprising.”
B.C. environmental officials issued a statement Aug. 1 calling the dam collapse, “one of the worst environmental disasters in our province’s history.”
Environment Minister George Heyman said the investigation is not over.
Heyman promised provincial officials would work with Canada’s federal government to complete their inquiry.
Archibald said he doesn’t expect federal charges to be filed, either.
“Since the Mount Polley investigation, we’ve seen mines moving forward with the same failed technology as in the case of Mount Polley,” Archibald said. “Mines continue to be permitted and existing water-tailings structures are still on the books. Nothing has really changed on the ground from business as usual in the last three years.”
Industry and prior British Columbia representatives have pointed to improvements in tailings-dam design and construction, saying they’re safe.
This week we’re hearing from Phil Runkle in Nicolai. Runkle grew up in Nicolai and raises dogs with his family.
RUNKLE: Well I spent 37 days out in the Farewell Burn living out of an Arctic Oven on a fairly good sized lake with a nice island. We got trapping out there every winter. We usually have a trap line heading that way. And we got the dogs here — we’ve got 22 dogs at the moment. So I just thought, “Let’s just take 12 dogs out there, I’ll follow you guys” — my brother Andrew Runkle and my uncle John Dennis. They were heading out on snowmachine, and I followed them with dog team.
The first trip took two days, ’cause the dogs hadn’t gone on such a long run yet. A few days into the trip, I decided to stay, and they [his family] came back to Nicolai. It felt right, you know. It’s so peaceful out there, so quiet. I had four one-year-old dogs. It was their first big trip. They did awesome, and it was good to get that personal time with the dogs. We just doing various runs on the lake out there. Working on their gee and haw, trying to get a feel for some of the pups who might be good leaders in the future, just kinda see where they work better on the team.
And a lot of fishing. They ate a lot of pike out there.
I would have to say you need to, somewhat, be comfortable with yourself. I don’ think I would’ve made it as long as I did without the dogs.
You know, I hope to one day buy that small island. I don’t know how I would have to go about doing that, but I would like to spring out there and spend the summer there sometime.
When animals are removed from the Endangered Species List, who keeps tabs on them? Often, the work of monitoring populations falls on volunteers.
This is true of one of Southeast Alaska’s most iconic seasonal visitors – the humpback whale. Researchers have banded together to keep a close eye on these beloved marine mammals.
28 year-old Madison Kosma is perched on the bow of an inflatable raft, aiming her camera at a humpback whale working its way through Frederick Sound, north of Petersburg.
Kosma thinks of it like a game. It’s one that requires fierce concentration, and a surplus of patience, because whales are constantly moving targets.
“It’s like playing 2D chess with someone who’s playing 3D chess,” Kosma said. “And they always know where we are but we have no idea where they are.”Madison Kosma carefully labels a tissue sample of skin and blubber taken from a humpback whale. (Photo – Nora Saks)
Kosma needs crystal clear shots of its fins, body and especially the fluke, because each one has a unique pattern. When she gets them, she rattles off numbers to her colleague, who jots them down in a waterproof notebook.
A pleasure craft motors over. Kosma yells across the deck, announcing that they’re researchers with the Alaska Whale Foundation and that they’re part of a big effort to photograph and document every humpback passing through this section of the Inside Passage.
“We just wanted to let you know, so you know we’re not some ‘randos’ harassing the whales!” Kosma said.
Afterwards, once the snapshots are taken, the crew zooms off. A few miles away, there’s a whale lounging cooperatively near the surface. The captain idles the boat parallel to it.
Kosma sets her camera down, picks up a crossbow and loads it without a word. She chooses a moving mark on the charcoal-colored mass, takes careful aim, and squeezes the trigger.
The arrow sails through the air and appears to glance off the whale’s side. It flicks its tail defiantly, and disappears with a splash. Kosma retrieves the arrow and removes the specialized tip, or bolt.
“The bolt does that big core sampling like a tree. But this has a barb on it, so once it goes in, it can’t come out. Once it pulls out,” Kosma said.
And, it worked. It’s filled with a crayon-sized amount of glossy black skin and blubber that is bubble gum pink. This is the way to get a biopsy, and Kosma knows that from the outside, it might not look like conservation.
“But then if you look on the inside, the crossbow is actually a child’s crossbow,” Kosma said. “It’s not that powerful. It’s kind of like giving the whale a shot or a bee sting.”Three humpbacks treated volunteers to bubble net feeding at the end of a long day on the water. Permit 18529 issued to J. Straley. (Photo – Nora Saks)
And, this one tissue sample contains powerful stuff. It will reveal the whale’s genetic fingerprint, and much about its biology and life history.
It’s all for a project called the Survey of Population Level Indices for Southeast Alaska Humpbacks. That’s a mouthful, but everyone calls it SPLISH, which is a lot more fun to say.
SPLISH involves teams from seven independent research groups, fanning out across the waters of northern Southeast Alaska during the same two-week period. Their goal is to find out how many humpbacks there are, where they are and how well they’re doing.
It’s a mini version of a larger project called SPLASH that was done over a decade ago.
That’s because, while most humpback populations were recently removed from the Endangered Species List – there’s very little federal money to keep monitoring them long term.
Phil Clapham is a large whale expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The funding tends to go towards those species for which we know there’s a management problem, which are in some cases in the public eye. The thing about humpbacks is they’ve come back screamingly well,” Clapham said.
But not everyone agrees. Professor Jan Straley isn’t as comfortable calling it an ecological success story just yet.
“Not in Southeast. Not what I’ve seen in the last year. I’m not convinced the whales are doing that well,” Straley said.
Straley is a veteran marine biologist at the University of Alaska, and one of the brains behind SPLISH. She and her colleagues have recently noticed humpbacks that look sickly, and have fewer calves.
Straley wonders if the population is just reaching carrying capacity, or if the conditions in the ocean are changing so rapidly that they’re struggling to keep up.
Either way, and it could be both, it’s too soon to tell.
“If it shows that there is an issue with the health of these whales, we’ve got something big happening,” Straley said. “Or maybe not big, but at least something is happening that we don’t know yet.”
For now, Straley and her collaborators in the science community are keeping close tabs on humpbacks in the region, on a shoestring budget, with a lot of help from volunteers.
Volunteers like the ones on the inflatable raft. As the sun begins to set, the crew is still on the water, buzzing from GPS point — to whale — to GPS point.
It’s been a wildly successful day in the field, their best one yet. They’ve documented almost 30 whales, snapped over 300 photos and gotten two biopsies. But spending 12 hours with the same four people on an inflatable raft the size of a kiddie pool, with no protection from the elements, can cause even the hardiest of spirits to sag.
But then, the group gets a special surprise. Big bubbles appear on the sea’s surface and start swirling clockwise, forming a perfect circle that perks everyone up.
“Sick, huh?” Kosma said. “It’s so cool. Oh there we go!”
Three humpbacks emerge from the depths, right in the center of the ring, like the mighty cetaceans of the apocalypse. Their mouths are hinged open to gulp down massive quantities of fish. This is a cooperative feeding strategy called bubble netting. And it is a sight to behold.
“I’ll be so bummed out, and then it’s like boom! There’s a huge group of bubble netters, and then I’m warm again, there’s blood in my fingers, blood in my toes. I’m pumped, I’m excited, I’m awake,” Kosma said. “It’s just incredible.”
Even after a long day of repetitive wildlife spotting, for Madison Kosma, this still feels like something exceptional.
The Dillingham Police Department is looking for confidential informants to help them build drug cases.
Confidential informants help police by going undercover to buy drugs from local dealers and reporting to the police. Chief Dan Pasquariello explained the program.
“The Dillingham Police are trying to make cases against persons that sell heroin and/or methamphetamine and other controlled substances in this town,” Pasquariello said. “One way we do that is we’re prepared to give rewards to people who want to become confidential informants and help the police and help the community.”
Pasquariello put the word out through a call to Open Line Tuesday.
That call seemed to cause some confusion.
“We are not giving them $500 to buy heroin,” Pasquariello said. “That mystifies me how people could take that message.”
Confidential informants help the police build a case against dealers. Distribution of a controlled substance carries heftier penalties than mere possession. Pasquariello believes these people prey on those in the community with addiction issues.
“No one’s a little kid and says when I grow up I want to be a heroin addict. Just through series of circumstances they end up doing it,” Pasquariello said. “Most addicts I talk to are not happy with the situation. Well you can help this community of Dillingham with the heroin problem by becoming a confidential informant.”
Pasquariello is aware helping the police could come with stigma.
“We need to change the rules where ‘Ooh, you’re a snitch or a narc and that’s a bad thing,’” Pasquariello said. “No, that’s a good thing. Helping the community is a good thing.”
Pasquariello added that this is part of the larger effort by the community to combat drug use.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said Wednesday that he and Gov. Bill Walker will run for re-election next year. He also said they’ll run together.
Even for incumbents, that may be an uphill fight.
Mallott went further than Walker has in talking about next year’s election. He spoke to host Pete Carran on Juneau radio station KINY.
“Well, we have both decided that we will run again,” Mallott said.
Mallott said the decision isn’t absolute, because they don’t know what may occur in the future. But he said their minds are made up to run again.
“Whatever we do, we’ll do together, for sure,” Mallott said.
Walker is a former Republican who ran without party affiliation in 2014. Mallott is a longtime Democrat who won the party’s nomination for governor that year. Mallott then decided to join Walker’s ticket.
Mallott didn’t say whether he and Walker will seek the nomination of a political party. But he noted that their non-affiliated run last time was successful.
Walker’s political spokeswoman is Lindsay Hobson, who is his daughter. She declined to comment on whether Walker is running for re-election.
But Hobson may have confirmed a re-election campaign in a roundabout way. She said she isn’t saying that Mallott was inaccurate.
Mallott’s comments were received warmly by Alaska Republican Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock.
“We are happy to have our candidate take on two Democrats,” Babcock said. “And we think Gov. Walker represents Democrats, and we think the Democratic party will get its act together and will have an upfront Democrat. So, from our perspective, having two Democrats running is a good thing.”
Walker faces a potential challenge. If there is a Democrat running separately on the ballot, those votes would likely come at his cost.
Babcock said he doesn’t think it’s possible for Walker to run as a Republican.
“I don’t see any avenue for Bill Walker to try to run in the Republican primary,” Babcock said. “I mean, he’s governed as a Democrat, with Democrat policies, and Democratic appointments for the most part. And we see him as just a Democrat in independent clothing.”
The Republicans may have a large field. While Wasilla state Sen. Mike Dunleavy is the only announced candidate, former senators John Binkley and Charlie Huggins, former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and businessmen Bob Gillam and Scott Hawkins have met with party insiders about possible campaigns.
The Alaska Democratic Party endorsed Walker three years ago. Party executive director Jay Parmley said he wasn’t surprised by Mallott’s comments.
Parmley said the party hasn’t talked with Walker and Mallott about how they would run.
“And we will cross that bridge whenever there’s a complete formal announcement and the governor and lieutenant governor both declare their complete intentions as to the way they are choosing to move forward,” Parmley said.
Parmley said Babcock shouldn’t be focused on who will run against the Republican candidate.
“I’m not concerned who the Republicans are going to nominate,” Parmley said. “It’s going to be in my view sort of a clown parade on that side.”
Parmley said he’s not concerned that both Walker and a Democrat will appear on the ballot.
“The reason I’m not concerned about anything is because it’s not a reality,” Parmley said. “The fact of the matter is, the governor and the lieutenant governor are going to make a decision. We may have other Democrats who make a decision. And we will work all of that through as we go.”
A major unknown on the Democratic side is whether former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich will run.
The filing deadline for the primaries is June 1, almost ten months away.
Correction: This story hasn’t been updated to reflect that the Alaska Democratic Party endorsed Walker three years ago, not four.
Zinke tweets beer pic showing he’s A-OK with Murkowski
Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media – Washington D.C.
If harsh words were spoken, Sen. Lisa Murkowski appears to have patched things up with Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke. Zinke tweeted a picture of himself and Murkowski having beers together, two Alaskan Brewing Company pale ales.
Lt. Gov. Mallott says he and Gov. Walker will run for re-election
Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said Wednesday that he and Gov. Bill Walker will run for re-election next year. He also said they’ll run together. Even for incumbents, that may be an uphill fight.
Both sides seek to drop Alaska abortion lawsuit
Abortion-rights advocates and the state of Alaska are seeking to dismiss a lawsuit after the state medical board adopted new regulations for abortions after the first trimester.
Britsol Bay sees an unexpectedly large salmon run
Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham
It appears that this year the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run has blown forecasts out of the water. The state’s preliminary tally for this year’s total run is 56.2 million. That’s about 35 percent bigger than the preseason forecast. So far, the harvest now stands at 37.5 million fish, which is 10 million more than was expected.
Foretold Disaster – the Exxon Valdez oil spill
Rachel Waldholz, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. We sometimes look back and see it as an unprecedented, unthinkable event. But, in fact, people warned about it — and they tried to prevent it. Before the pipeline was even built, fishermen in Cordova fought to keep oil tankers out of the Sound.
Climate change may have driven gray whale up Kuskowkim
Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK – Bethel
Climate change may be responsible for pushing Alaska’s Gray Whales up into estuaries and rivers like the Kuskokwim.
Changing climate pushes polar bears toward more dangerous interactions with humans
Carter Barrett, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau
Human-polar bear interactions are part of life in Arctic communities, but as melting sea ice forces polar bears onto dry land, they are becoming more common and potentially more dangerous. This is the message of a recent scientific paper.
Climate expert predicts warmer-than-normal fall, continuing 10-year trend
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
National Weather Service climate expert Rick Thoman said there’s a good chance that all of Alaska will be warmer than normal in August and the next couple of months. But he said there’s near-certainty that coastal areas along the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering and Beaufort seas will be warm through October.
Southcentral Alaska to feel hotter weather this weekend
Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage
Unseasonably warm spell weather is coming for Southcentral Alaska, just in time for the weekend.