The tsunami warning that rattled Alaskans last week exposed weak spots all over the disaster safety net. An unfortunate coincidence struck the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks that night.
“Twenty minutes or so before the earthquake occurred, unrelated, Golden Valley Electric Association had a modest regional power outage,” State Seismologist Michael West, director of the Earthquake Center, told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.
West said the outage shut off networking equipment at the Geophysical Institute, where the Earthquake Center is housed, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“So essentially, the Alaska Earthquake Center, all of its data and products, were dark for about an hour or so,” West said. “Yeah, not a proud moment, really.”
The center collects data from about 130 seismic monitoring stations around the state, what West calls the backbone of earthquake monitoring in Alaska. But the Tsunami Warning Center had other stations supplying information. If the earthquake had been catastrophic, West said the data outage might’ve been a problem for, say, responders trying to determine which communities were hardest hit.
West told committee chair Lisa Murkowski this was a known vulnerability.
“We’ve been clear with stakeholders for several years now that we do not have back up systems in place,” West said. “We do not have modern continuity of operations. I mean, the reasons are fairly simple.”
West said the center’s revenue sources, state and federal, have been pared back.
West acknowledged the bad timing was fairly astounding.
“When we develop in-house scenarios to test,” West said after the hearing, “this is one that people would write off as unrealistic: ‘Let’s have a power failure, and then an earthquake!'”
A spokeswoman at the Fairbanks utility confirmed the power failure was unrelated to the quake. She said heavy snow fell on a distribution line Monday night, briefly cutting power to part of the city.
The Earthquake Center continued to put out information on social media early Tuesday morning, during its data outage.
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.
Dion Wynne drives slowly through Anchorage, heading to yet another appointment.
“This will be my third time going over there,” the middle-aged man says, his ringing phone cutting him off again.
Dion’s phone rings constantly. First, it’s the nurse, then the pharmacy. He juggles appointments with medical providers and social service agencies. And he’s one of the thousands of Alaskans each year who is on the brink of homelessness.
Dion’s life used to be filled with very different types of appointments.
“Barbecues, birthday parties. Several birthday parties with so many kids,” he says, chuckling to himself. “Birthday parties almost every month of the year, almost!”
Dion and his wife raised three biological children and dozens of foster kids. They ran a therapeutic foster home in Anchorage for eight years. He says at one point, they had 10 young people in their house. For most of his life he’s provided in-home care for people with disabilities.
“I believe that’s what God put me on this Earth for,” he says. “To take care of people. I took care of elderly and I took care of middle-aged people and I took care of kids.”
Dion left the state for couple years for health reasons but returned in the spring of 2017 to continue working as an at-home health care provider. In early October he rented a large, furnished house in Anchorage for himself and his teenaged daughter, so he could start pursuing his foster care license again. That’s when the trouble began.
Dion’s doctor asked him to soak his foot because of a sore on the bottom, so he did. A few days later, “my leg stopped working. I passed out on the job twice. Didn’t know what was going on. Went to the doctor. He thought it was due to my diabetes, but it wasn’t.”
In mid-October, the day before he was due to move into his new home, he went to the hospital because of a serious infection in his foot and leg, and he stayed there for a month and a half. Doctors had to amputate his big toe.
“And then, when I got out of the hospital, I thought I was gonna be able to go back to work,” he said. “I wasn’t able to go back to work, so that that what put me in this situation.”
Dion can’t pay his rent. He burned through savings while he was in the hospital and was helping other family members. His long-term disability check isn’t enough, and he’s caring for his daughter.
For Dion, it’s not just his housing that’s at stake — it’s the additional income from his dream job of running a therapeutic home.
Dion isn’t alone. Health and safety-related incidents — like illnesses, deaths in the family, and car accidents — cause about a quarter of the cases of homelessness in Alaska.
He’s doing what he can to avoid joining that statistic, but he won’t be able to go back to work until he can easily walk again in a few weeks or months. For now, he’s enlisted the help of his nephew, Latrell Wynne. Latrell runs errands for him and makes sure he doesn’t fall when he does try to get around with his walker.
“I’m my uncle’s feet,” Latrell explains as walks across an icy parking lot to pick up some more of his uncle’s paperwork. “I’m doing all the moves — all the moving for him.”
For Latrell, the experience is strange. He’s used to seeing his uncle living in nice homes and caring for others. Usually Dion is the one looking out for him.
“This is the first time he hasn’t been independent. He’s normally doing things on his own,” Latrell says of his uncle. “It’s a whole ‘nother ball game. It’s a little bit harder.”
The situation frustrates Dion, too. He says he’s doing everything his physical therapist and nurse tell him to do. But healing — and asking for help — take time.
“I just want to get back to work,” he says. “I really want to get back to work, so I can pay my own way. That’s really what I want to do.”
Over the next few weeks on the Solutions Desk we’ll report on the resources and strategies available to Dion and others who are trying to keep their housing.
Have ideas on how to help? Leave them in the comments section or fill out the form here. Make sure you don’t miss any of Dion’s story by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or NPR.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said Rep. Zach Fansler hasn’t responded to House majority leaders’ request that he resign.
Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, said in a press availability Tuesday morning that the caucus is giving Fansler time.
A woman alleged that Fansler slapped her repeatedly, rupturing her eardrum, when she denied his sexual advances.
“Rep. Fansler has constitutional rights, and he’s not been criminally charged yet,” Edgmon said. “To ask for his resignation: It’s a bold step. And it’s something that we acted very definitively and very quickly on, because quite frankly our policy towards inappropriate treatment and, certainly, violence towards anyone, much less a woman, is something we just won’t tolerate.”
Edgmon said any further steps – such as expelling Fansler from the majority or from the Legislature – won’t be determined until after lawmakers hear from Fansler, a Bethel Democrat who took office last year.
Edgmon said the allegations have been shocking to caucus members, who have worked closely with Fansler. He said they honor the woman’s courage in coming forward.
“I know Zach well, and I truly wish him the best,” Edgmon said. “Knowing him as I do, I think he’s going to make a decision that certainly will be best for him, but I think he’s also keeping the caucus in mind, and so it’s my hope that his decision will come sooner than later.”
Fansler hasn’t appeared in the Capitol since James Brooks of the Juneau Empire reported the allegations Saturday.
Early-rising Alaskans and night owls will be treated Wednesday morning to a celestial trifecta: a super blue blood moon.
- A super moon is when the moon will be at its closest to the Earth, making it appear bigger and brighter.
- It’s also a blue moon because it’s the second full moon of the month.
- And it’s a lunar eclipse, causing the moon to appear blood red for the same reason our sunsets look red. The Earth’s atmosphere will scatter blue light and cast the moon in red, while also casting our planet’s shadow on the moon.
Omega Smith is the planetarium manager at University of Alaska Anchorage. She said it is the first super blue blood moon in about 150 years.
“It is a spectacular event but it is going on all night long, so it’s not something that’s one moment,” Smith said. “For astro-photographers, you can go out and capture it as the shadow goes across the moon. And it makes some spectacular photos.”
Full moons aren’t normally great for stargazers, she said, because the light normally drowns out the stars.
“But as the Earth kind of takes away the moon light, and kind of casts a shadow across the moon, you’ll notice a lot of background stars easier to see because the lunar light’s not drowning them out,” Smith said. “It’s really good to view stars and pull out your telescope and look at deep sky objects on a lunar eclipse as well.”
The eclipse will begin about 2:45 a.m., peaking at about 4:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. It will end about 7 a.m.
The National Weather Service says that moon watchers in Anchorage will see partial cloud cover, with clouds lessening in the Palmer-Wasilla area. Nome to Fairbanks in the Interior will have clear skies.
The prospects of seeing the eclipse aren’t great in Juneau and Southeast Alaska, meteorologist Brian Bezeneck said.
“The northern half of the panhandle, which includes the city of Juneau and the surrounding area, there’ll be a little bit better of a chance of seeing the lunar eclipse when it happens,” Bezeneck said. “However, I’m thinking it’s going to be fairly cloudy. There might be a few breaks that would allow you to view it.”
Cooler temperatures may help with clearer skies. Temperatures will likely be in the lower teens.
The Trump administration has proposed significant cuts to the tsunami warning system. That includes all funding for dozens of sophisticated data buoys. Tsunami experts worry about this but are even more concerned about proposed cuts to something a whole lot more basic.
A string of eight communication buoys are anchored off Alaska’s southern edge, about 200 miles from land. They’re called DART buoys – Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis.
Each buoy is tethered to an instrument pack on the seafloor. It beams data to a satellite and from there to the tsunami warning centers in Palmer and Honolulu. The U.S. has 39 of these buoys, many along the Pacific Rim. They cost $12 million a year.
Alaska state seismologist Michael West says the buoys are both expensive and useful.
“They’re the one kind of sensor that really directly measures the wave height, as opposed to inferring it from the presence of an earthquake,” West said.
But West said the buoys are too close to Alaska to provide much warning time when a near-shore quake sets off a tsunami.State Seismologist Michael West. Photo: Geophysical Institute.
Last week the earthquake itself, measured by land-based seismographs, triggered the initial warning that got thousands of Alaskans out of their homes in the middle of the night.
And the Trump budget would cut sensors like those, too.
Geologist Lori Dengler, at Humboldt State University, said both kinds of technology are important.
“The DART buoys are absolutely critical,” Dengler said.
The buoys warn distant shores of a tsunami. Alaska generates a lot of earthquakes, so DART is particularly useful to Hawaii, for instance, and to California, where Dengler is.
“But in 2011 darts were very important for Alaska,” Dengler said, referring to the 9.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan that year, triggering a tsunami. “And when we have our great big Cascadia earthquake – which I hope won’t happen in my lifetime but could – DARTs will be very important for Alaska, to know just what we’re sending to you.”Tsunami expert Lori Dengler. Photo courtesy of Lori Dengler.
Beyond the hardware, the Trump budget proposes to eliminate one of the two tsunami warning centers and cut 60 percent of the personnel. It would also cut grants the states use for tsunami preparation and evacuation plans. Dengler says that kind of spending is critical for an effective warning system.
“I’m as concerned about the proposals to cut outreach and education because to me, without outreach and education, without community involvement, you might as well not spend a penny on any of it,” Dengler said.
Dengler said a research trip to Indonesia after the massive 2004 tsunami forever changed her thinking on this. She went to towns where nearly every resident died.
“I spent two weeks going to community after community where you’d see one survivor,” Dengler said. “It was horrible.”
Then Dengler went to the village closest to the earthquake epicenter. They had only eight minutes between the quake and the first massive wave, so she expected the same terrible death toll. But in this village everyone knew to run to high ground.
“There was no tsunami warning. They have no electricity,” Dengler said. “But they have a long oral history, a long oral tradition of what to do when the ground shakes for a really long time.”
If Alaskans think they evacuated for nothing last week, Dengler says they are wrong. People in coastal towns figured out if they were in a tsunami zone. They found their shelters and thought about evacuation routes. Dengler says they laid down “muscle memory” about how to get up and go.
In the Indonesian village that survived in 2004, Dengler says it had been five generations since the previous killer tsunami but residents still ran after every major earthquake. One time they waited on high ground for a week and no wave came. Dengler recalls asking if they worried about false warnings.The 2011 tsunami that struck Japan killed some 20,000 people. Photo: Liz Ruskin
“And they looked at me as if I was absolutely crazy and said ‘Every earthquake is a chance to practice our evacuation,'” Dengler said. “And on December 26, 2004 they got it. You know, practice paid off. They all lived.”
Dengler says whether the warning comes via cell phone, siren or prolonged shaking, the important thing is to evacuate from low-lying areas, and leave fast. Every time.
The U.S. Department of Commerce declined to make anyone available for an interview about the proposed cuts to the tsunami warning system. In a written statement, a department spokesman said the cuts “streamline” elements of the program while ensuring safety.
Congress has not adopted the tsunami warning cuts. Lawmakers have been keeping the government operating with a series of temporary spending measures that continue spending at last year’s levels.
The administration is due to release its 2019 budget request next month. The Department did not say whether it will also include cuts to the tsunami warning system.
Alaska-grown band Portugal. The Man won its first Grammy at the Recording Academy’s 60th annual awards show, held in New York City on Sunday.
The band’s founding members, John Gourley and Zach Carothers, are from Alaska and met at Wasilla High School, where they started playing music together. They’re joined by fellow Alaskan Eric Howk, as well as Zoe Manville, Kyle O’Quinn and Jason Sechrist.
Based in Portland, the band is known for music often described as “alternative.” But they took the Grammy award for best pop duo or group performance with their catchy song “Feel It Still.” It was their first-ever Grammy nomination.
In accepting the award Sunday night, Carothers mentioned growing up in small-town Alaska.
“This is crazy for us,” Carothers said. “Our heroes were dog mushers and stuff like that. This is nuts.”
Along with some onstage shenanigans by the band, Carothers also briefly shared the band’s appreciation for Alaska Native culture and gave shout-outs to several rural Alaska communities.
“Shishmaref, Barrow, Bethel. All the indigenous people in Alaska and around the world. You’re beautiful, your culture’s beautiful. Thank you for inspiring us,” Carothers said. “And, yeah man, rep where you’re from. Be proud of who you are and where you’re from.”
“Feel It Still” spent weeks at the top of music charts, peaking at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. At the Grammys, it beat out other songs with heavy radio play, including “Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber and “Thunder,” by Imagine Dragons.
As of Monday, “Feel It Still” was still at 23 on the Hot 100.
It’s the year of the budget at the Alaska legislature.
And while lawmakers debate new taxes and drawing from the Permanent Fund, oil prices marched steadily upward in January. Two days ago, the price of Alaska’s oil jumped up above $70 dollars per barrel for the first time in three years.
And, that’s big news in Juneau. Some senate Republicans point to those rising oil prices as an argument to bolster their reluctance to vote for an income tax.
It’s big news for Alaska too. Because that’s right about the price point when the state starts making nearly $70 million dollars for every dollar the price increases. But that doesn’t go far when you’re facing a budget deficit in the billions. Sure, the gap between what the state spends and what it makes starts closing faster. And that price is much higher than the $56 per barrel the state projected for the next year.
State Tax Division Director Ken Alper said if prices stay in that range through next June, the state expects to bring in about $200 million more than previously thought.
“That will cover a little less than one-tenth of the deficit which is estimated at about $2.5 billion,” Alper said.Tax Director Ken Alper with the Department of Revenue speaking on oil tax credits to state lawmakers this February, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
That deficit has been hounding lawmakers for years now. They’ve cut the budget. They’ve argued over new taxes. Meanwhile, they’ve been drawing billions out of the state’s savings accounts for the last four years.
“We’re getting near the bottom of the barrel of those funds,” Alper said.
Alper said there really isn’t enough money left in those savings accounts to cover the budget deficit for another year.
Alper said lawmakers are realizing that the Permanent Fund’s earnings are the most promising source of money to pay the bills. But spending money from Alaska’s Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government is unprecedented. And negotiations over how to tap into the Permanent Fund are tense.
Budget gridlock has brought the state to the brink of a shutdown twice in the last three years.
There is a chance that the legislature could cobble together just enough money to cover next year’s budget deficit without taxing Alaskans or tapping into the Permanent Fund.
It turns out that one of those other savings accounts — the Constitutional Budget Reserve — isn’t completely tapped. It will have about $2.1 billion dollars in it by the end of this fiscal year. Add that to the $200 million the state could bring in from higher oil prices and that budget gap gets much smaller.
But, state budget director Pat Pitney said it would be a bad idea to drain that budget reserve.
“We don’t want to spend that down to zero. That is the shock-absorber account for the state’s finances,” Pitney said.
Pitney said that budget reserve is the savings account the state uses to cover the gap between when its income rolls in and when it has to pay its bills. It’s basically the state’s cash flow account. Spend that down to zero and if something goes wrong, like widespread damage from an earthquake or a tsunami, there’s nothing to fall back on.
There are a few other places lawmakers could look for more money. But, they could be as politically unpopular as tapping into the Permanent Fund. One would be to drain the $1 billion the state has in the Power Cost Equalization funds — that subsidizes the high cost of rural energy in the state. The other is about $300 million used to fund merit scholarships for Alaska college students.
But Pitney said that pulling together one more year of balancing the budget on savings doesn’t solve the problem of the state having a budget that is tied so firmly to oil prices.
“And hoping for the next dollar of oil is, is just putting our future on hold,” Pitney said.
Pitney said the reality of a week or a month of higher oil prices can be totally outweighed by a month of low oil prices. She said the state is past the time when it can hope for oil prices to save it.
The U.S. Senate on Monday rejected a bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of only two Republicans to vote “no” on the procedural motion.
Murkowski says she opposes late-term abortion and could be in favor of a ban on elective procedures after 20 weeks, provided the bill has adequate exceptions, in cases of rape and incest, or if the woman is at risk of grave harm to her health. Murkowski says the bill fell short.
“I think there are some exceptions that have been included that are very narrow, and in my view almost unworkable,” Murkowski said, immediately after the vote.
Murkowski says the bill was an effort to send a political message, rather than a realistic effort to pass a limitation on the procedure. If there had been an opportunity to amend the bill, supporters might have picked up more votes, including hers, Murkowski said.
Sen. Dan Sullivan voted yes, as did most Republicans, including Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. Ernst says a fetus at that stage is a child.
“At five months, babies have grown nails on their fingers and on their toes, hair has just begun to grow on their heads,” Ernst said, “And an ultrasound can tell an expectant mother and father whether their baby is a boy or a girl. ”
As expected, the procedural vote fell far short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. The tally was 51 to 46.
The fallout from the assault allegations against Bethel Democratic Rep. Zach Fansler continued Monday, with members from both parties calling for him to resign.
Fansler didn’t show up in the Capitol on the first weekday since the Juneau Empire reported that Juneau police and the Department of Law were investigating him.
The Juneau Empire reported Fansler was drunk and slapped a woman repeatedly, rupturing her eardrum, when she denied his sexual advances.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz said Fansler can’t adequately represent his constituents at this point.
“I join House majority coalition leadership in calling for Representative Fansler’s resignation,” Spohnholz said. “I think that as leaders, we are called to a higher standard — the highest standard – of behavior, ethical and moral.”
The House majority caucus is scheduled to meet Monday evening.
It will be the first caucus meeting since the allegations became public and could lead to Fansler being removed from the caucus and losing committee assignments.
If Fansler doesn’t resign, he could be expelled from the House by a two-thirds vote – or 27 of 40 — of House members.
The House Rules Committee also is meeting tonight. That committee would be responsible for starting the process of expelling Fansler.
Spohnholz said Fansler’s position in the House shouldn’t wait for the resolution of a potential legal case.
“It’s clear that Representative Fansler stepped over a line,” Spohnholz said. “Whether the court of law convicts him of that is a separate matter.”
Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett said she expects Fansler to “do the right thing” and resign.
“We have got to stop tolerating this behavior,” Millett said. “We have got to stop sweeping it under the rug. And we have got to honor the victims and their bravery coming forward.”
House members said they believe Fansler is still in Juneau.
It’s not clear when or if he will visit the Capitol again.
About 100 cities and boroughs in Alaska levy a sales tax. Many also levy taxes on hotel accommodations, alcohol, tobacco, commercial fish harvests, car rentals and more. Combined, the taxes raised over $350 million for cities and boroughs in 2016. Join us as we discuss local taxes — and the local debates about raising them.
HOST: Larry Persily
- Dan Dickinson – Former director, State Tax Division
- Call 550-8422 (Anchorage) or 1-800-478-8255 (statewide) during the live broadcast
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org (comments may be read on air)
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, January 30, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
Although Sitka’s dreams of selling bulk water on the world market haven’t amounted to anything, the community has made quite a bit of cash not selling water.
Garry White told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that Sitka has made almost $1.5 million dollars selling water rights.
And he’s still getting calls.
Sitka has an enormous storage tank for water, White said to a full house at the Chamber of Commerce. It’s called Blue Lake. The reservoir now supplies the bulk of Sitka’s hydroelectric needs, and all of the community’s drinking water, with about 9.5 billion gallons to spare.This 24-inch manifold, which can deliver 1 million gallons of water an hour, is located next to a new floating dock at Sitka’s Gary Paxton Industrial Park. Outfitted with extended dolphins, the dock could accommodate a Panamax ship. Park director Garry White thinks the pipeline, plus the new dock, could be a game changer for bulk water at the park someday. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)
Since 2009, a succession of entrepreneurs and speculators has paid to reserve the right to export that excess water, but none, to use legal terms, has performed.
“And we haven’t sold a drop of water (audience laughter). But it’s been such a competitive thing that folks have paid us money to have the right to have a contract to export water,” White said.
The total is about $1.5 million so far, with another $90,000 due from the latest player, Arctic Blue Water Alaska, Inc. The day after the chamber luncheon, White notified the board of Sitka’s industrial park that Arctic’s payment was overdue, and the company will have 45 days to pay or the contract would be cancelled. White told the board, “They’re probably going to come up with the cash.”
So why do investors keep coming back to Sitka’s water? Clearly, there are catastrophic water shortages occurring in places like Cape Town, South Africa, but no one’s found an economically viable pathway for using Sitka’s surplus to address shortages in other parts of the world. Factoring in shipping costs, which White says can be about $.03 per gallon, desalination technology becomes more affordable.
Nevertheless, White describes desalinated water as chemically “dead.” He told the chamber that there are businesses who see a different niche for Sitka’s water.
“Right now I’ve been having conversations with a group out of Costa Rica. The interesting thing is that they actually market water with high-end coffee and tea. And someone’s willing to pay for this. I don’t know who is. I mean, I buy my coffee at a gas station,” White joked. “But some people like the high-end coffees and they’re willing to pay for a high-end water to go with their coffee. And the reason that he called us from Costa Rica is that the ideal pH for coffee water is 6.9. Our water has a pH of 6.9. Apparently we have great water for coffee. We also have a really low dissolved solid content in our water, which also makes it really great for coffee, and for drinking overall.”
Just recently the contractor completed work on a new 250-foot floating dock at Sitka’s industrial park, adjacent to the 24-inch bulk water line that could conceivably load a Panamax cargo ship one day. White thinks the dock will be a game-changer, once the economics of water have been resolved.
“Someday I’m still convinced that we’re going to be able to sell our water,” White said, “But it won’t be this year.”
Unalaska’s mayor will face a recall election in March. Frank Kelty has been accused of backroom dealings regarding the city dock — accusations he has repeatedly denied.
In an investigation, KUCB has been unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing. Those in favor of the recall say they have other concerns about Kelty’s leadership.
In October 2017, a petition to recall Mayor Frank Kelty was issued with one charge: “attempting to sole-source land use agreements” for the city dock.
The petition’s sponsors have accused the mayor of giving one shipping company, Matson, first crack at an agreement that would give it priority mooring at a section of dock. City code requires a public bidding process.
But beyond making the allegation, none of the 10 sponsors have offered any proof that the mayor has negotiated illegal deals.
“There’s a legal definition of proof – and then there is the evidence that the sponsors believe supports the allegation,” Dee Montier-Burke said. She helped research and write the recall petition. “We’re not lawyers. We cannot provide proof to the public that this happened, because there are a lot of things that we do not have access to.”
A KUCB public information request for Kelty’s emails referencing dock agreements did not reveal any wrongdoing by the mayor.
But between Oct. 1, 2016 and Oct. 13, 2017, Kelty did exchange about a dozen emails with Matson representative Marion Davis that mentioned dock agreements.
Matson repeatedly pressed Kelty on the issue – asking him to help the company obtain a formal agreement. While Kelty seemed to share Matson’s desire to complete the deal, there is no mention of specific contracts or negotiations in the emails.
Kelty denies he was involved in any misconduct.
“To state that I was going behind the council’s back and behind administration’s back trying to cut my own agreement for Matson Lines is a total falsehood and couldn’t happen,” Kelty said. “I’m not able to do that as a mayor. Agreements are put together by the city manager’s office.”
A preferential use agreement is similar to a long-term lease on a house: The city guarantees a company space for its boats to dock.
Here’s former city manager Dave Martinson explaining how those agreements benefit Unalaska.
“The city can obtain long-term guaranteed revenue,” Martinson said. “That revenue is useful in insuring the city can meet its obligations, our local processors are better protected, and the labor force used at the Unalaska Marine Center is is not affected.”
Matson had an agreement with the city. But it expired in 2013 due to stalled tariff negotiations. The deal has continued informally since then.
In a statement, Matson’s Kenneth Gil says that beyond Unalaska, the company has had preferential use agreements in Kodiak and Anchorage for decades.
“In order to provide our reliable weekly service to Unalaska, we need to be able to count on the availability of facilities and plan for the long term,” Gil said.
Matson owns the container crane on Unalaska’s dock and provides regular barge service for mail and groceries.
Despite those benefits, Unalaska hasn’t opened a public bidding process for dock agreements — at least, not yet. Former city manager Dave Martinson said he wasn’t against those agreements. He just wanted to wait until the city’s major dock renovation was finished.
“Because operationally, we don’t know what that all is going to look like post-construction,” Martinson said. “I also indicated at the time that we would do a request for proposal [that] allows many companies to compete.”
Days before his September resignation, Martinson said multiple companies had expressed interest in dock agreements and that the Ports and Harbor Department was working on a request for proposals. But today, Matson has no such agreement, negotiated by Kelty or anyone else.
Kelty says the alleged dock deal isn’t really why people wanted to recall him anyway. He says residents are upset because he beat former mayor Shirley Marquardt and because the city manager resigned controversially.
“The only way they could come after me is to go with the recall route, because otherwise the next election for me is in two years,” Kelty said.
Petitioner Dee Montier-Burke doesn’t deny that. She voted for Kelty, but now she’s unhappy with his leadership. So even without proof of an illegal deal, she says she’s comfortable moving forward with the recall.
“It’s clear that there’s something going on that seems fishy and that’s enough for the petition. But at this point, the petition is no longer really about the allegation itself,” Montier-Burke said. “It’s about — Do the citizens of the community of Unalaska feel like the mayor is of sound body and mind to continue to lead them on the state and federal stages?”
The initial application for the recall petition included three other charges, but City Clerk Marjie Veeder determined the only sufficient charge was “attempting to sole-source land use agreements.”
When asked by KUCB which part of city code backed up that charge, Veeder was unable to do so.
The recall election is scheduled for March 6.
State regulators met with the public in Anchorage last Friday to discuss the permits for the proposed Donlin Gold Mine. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has released two draft permits that tackle one of the mine’s thorniest issues: how the company plans to dispose of chemicals like arsenic next to a river of subsistence fishermen. Meetings were held in Aniak and Bethel earlier.
The Donlin Gold Mine is going to produce a lot of trash. It’ll suck thousands of gallons of water per minute out of the ground and use it, along with a chemical process involving cyanide, to help strip microscopic flecks of gold out of the rock. That leaves a lot of ground-up rock behind. According to DEC engineer Tim Pilon, the mine will generate a literal mountain of it.
“Where it’s a valley now?” Pilon asked. “They’re going to turn it into a hill.”
Contaminated water will drain from the mine pit or seep from its tailings, some of it tinged with chemicals like arsenic. And all of that waste needs somewhere to go.
According to the DEC’s draft permits, some of that waste is going to pour into Crooked Creek, a nearby waterway that teems with salmon in the summer. At peak production the Donlin Gold Mine will dump up to 4,500 gallons of wastewater a minute into the creek – though it would have to be treated first.
Over the past two weeks, the DEC has presented the permits at public meetings in Bethel and Aniak, where community members depend on the Kuskokwim River for their food. Many residents did not trust the plan put forth by the state for the mine.
“We are playing with our lives here,” Evon Waska said at the Bethel meeting. “They depend on the Kuskokwim River.”
Kathy Hanson of Bethel agreed.
“I don’t see why we have to take a risk with our land so that someone else gets to make money,” Hanson said.
According to DEC engineer Allan Nakanishi, the Donlin Gold Mine’s water treatment system would be “world class.” The DEC is imposing strict limits on the levels of certain chemicals, like arsenic, that the facility can release.
“Ten molecules out of a billion would be arsenic, and the rest would be water,” Nakanishi said. “That’s how low those values are.”
Waste that’s too dangerous to discharge will be contained on site. Any tailings exposed to the mine’s cyanide, for example, will be funneled into a large pond lined with thick plastic and then heavily monitored. Many local residents who spoke were skeptical about the monitoring, fearing the Donlin Gold Mine will be mostly “self-monitored” – in other words, regulating itself.
Aniak resident Dave Cannon is a former fish biologist. He doesn’t trust Donlin Gold to self-regulate and thinks an accident could inevitably happen. He also suspects the permitting process is deliberately confusing.
“It’s been overwhelming for me and I’m a professional biologist, to be honest with you,” Cannon said. “The draft of the Environmental Impact Statement stood what, 14, 15 inches high?”
Other community members put more faith in the company. Carl Morgan is a former state senator who’s also from Aniak. He used to work for Donlin Gold and showed up to our interview wearing the company’s jacket. He thinks the mine is worth the risk.
“We want the strictest regulation with Donlin,” Morgan said. “Yes, mother nature might do something, an earthquake or something. We can’t guarantee anything with mother nature.”
But Morgan says unemployment in Aniak is severe.
“There’s nothing better than a paycheck instead of a handout,” Morgan said. “People who are against a mine, they don’t see that.”
The mine still has a long way to go before it’s authorized; these are just two of dozens of permits that Donlin Gold needs. The DEC is holding its final public meeting today, but will accept written public comments on the permits until February 13.
When a powerful 7.9 magnitude earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska hit early Tuesday morning, it sent a host of people and systems into motion. Tsunami sirens were blaring and Emergency Alert System, or EAS, messages were broadcasting over radio and TV stations. But there were parts of the EAS that failed. Local, state and federal officials are now working to sort out those kinks.
When the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer decided to issue Tuesday’s tsunami warning, it had to get that message out to the public as fast as possible. The National Weather Service operates the center and it passed the warning on through three primary systems.
National Weather Service offices around the state broadcast the warning over weather radios. Those radios can activate EAS messages at radio and TV stations, but they also set off tsunami sirens and alert those listening to them.
The warning is also sent out through two internet-based systems. The first is called EMnet, which stands for Emergency Management Network. The state contracts out for that service. The other, known as IPAWS or the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, is run by the federal government.
Both of these services are constantly listening for a signal from the Tsunami Warning Center.
“The FEMA IPAWS system listens to that. Comlabs, who runs EMnet, listens to that feed as well, and it appears that there is a programming error in that link,” Bryan Fisher, Chief of Operations at the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said. “So, it said specifically, ‘do not send it across EAS.’”
Fisher explains that EMnet and IPAWS were supposed to pick up Tuesday’s tsunami warning and send it across the Emergency Alert System.
The systems also listen to each other incase one gets the initial signal and the other doesn’t, but since both were told not to send the message across the EAS, that message stopped there.
However, IPAWS didn’t completely fail. It’s is also responsible for push notifications to cell phones.Tsunami push notification sent out through the wireless emergency alert system via IPAWS. (Aaron Bolton, KBBI News)
“So, it said send it over the cell phone piece, which did work, the wireless emergency alert system, and it blocked it from going to EMnet and EAS,” Fisher said.
The state and boroughs also have the ability to send a signal to EAS equipment, but when warnings are in the National Weather Service’s purview, both typically refrain from doing so.
That left one more method to initiate most EAS equipment, weather radios. When the tsunami warning was issued, National Weather Service offices in Juneau, Kodiak and Anchorage took that message and broadcast it over those radios, triggering EAS equipment across Southeast Alaska and in Kodiak.
But there were some hiccups on the Kenai Peninsula. The National Weather Service in Anchorage said it transmitted four messages to weather radios, but only one made it.
“So, what we’re investigating now is what happened to the second, third and fourth messages that the National Weather Service sent out over NOAA weather radio,” Dennis Bookey said, co-chair of the Alaska State Emergency Communications Committee.
Bookey is one of many people trying to sort things out.
“We’re pretty certain that the audio message, should you have been listening to NOAA weather radio, you’d of heard the whole thing,” Bookey explained. “But there’s electronic coding that gets inside that message that then triggers receivers at the broadcasting and cable facilities. That apparently didn’t trigger them.”
GCI in Homer successfully picked up and broadcast the lone message, but at KBBI, the signal wasn’t clear enough for its system to decode, something the station is working to fix.
KBBI’s system can also be triggered by IPAWS and KSRM in Kenai, but KSRM General Manager Matt Wilson said it received nothing from the National Weather Service in Anchorage.
Officials at every level of government are working to dissect the problem, and Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan expressed concern at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee meeting Thursday, which happened to be holding a hearing on Emergency Alert Systems.
“Fortunately there was no tsunami, but it was very scary for hundreds if not thousands of my constituents. It would be good to learn from this so we can be ready next time,” Sullivan said.
Bookey said an event with no actual threat like Tuesday’s tsunami warning will be a great lesson because it’s the best test the system could ever have.
“We try our best to do that every March with our annual test, but because of regulations and a lot of variables at play, there’s only so far we can go,” Bookey said. “So, nothing could be more valuable than having a real event and dissect what did and didn’t work.”
Bookey adds that once the issues are diagnosed, changes will likely be made to the system.
The leader of the Alaska House Majority Coalition, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, is asking House District 38 Rep. Zach Fansler to resign following accusations of assault.
The Juneau Empire reports that the Alaska Department of Law and local police are investigating allegations of Fansler hitting a woman twice in the face with an open palm and rupturing her eardrum after she tried to escape his sexual advances in a hotel room. The victim says that the attack followed a night out drinking in Juneau bars on January 13. Fansler’s lawyer, Wallace Tetlow of Anchorage, told the paper that Fansler denies the allegation.
“We deny the allegations. They’re not true,” Tetlow said on Saturday afternoon. “And if charges are filed, we’ll deal with those successfully in court.”
Edgmon released his statement calling for Fansler’s resignation six minutes after the Empire published its article on Saturday afternoon. In it, Edgmon says that he became aware of the information the day prior.
“Zach Fansler is someone I and many others respected and trusted,” Edgmon wrote, “And who worked hard for his district. His behavior is a betrayal of trust which has created feelings of shock and deep sadness among everyone I have spoken to.”
The Senate Democrats quickly added their support to Edgmon’s request.
“The Senate Democrats commend the swift action of the House Majority Coalition today in demanding the resignation of Representative Fansler,” Sen. Berta Gardner of Anchorage wrote in a press release issued about an hour after Edgmon’s statement. “Whenever an act like this occurs, the accused needs to be held accountable.”
The Empire identifies the woman accusing Fansler as a state employee who does not work at the Capitol. She asked that her name be withheld, and the paper does not usually identify victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“I am overcome with sympathy and respect for the victim,” Edgmon wrote in his statement. “It takes immense bravery to bring these matters forward. I honor and am deeply grateful for her strength and courage, and want to make clear our caucus will not tolerate this behavior.”
Sen. Gardner’s statement held a similar response. “Physical violence against anyone needs to be taken seriously,” Gardner wrote. “It is unacceptable in any form. We stand in support of the victim in coming forward and appreciate the brave steps taken to do so.”
According to the Empire, the victim went to the Juneau Urgent Care the day following the attack. A medical form states that she was admitted for “ear trauma with possible TM rupture.”
In a series of text messages between the woman and Fansler, the Empire writes that Fansler apologized, texting, “I’m embarrassed and ashamed of myself.”
This is the second time that Rep. Bryce Edgmon has called for a representative from his own caucus to resign. In early December he called for Rep. Dean Westlake, a Democrat from Kotzebue, to resign following allegations of sexual harassment by seven women that were later substantiated by a legislative report.
Fansler said that he was relieved to see Westlake’s resignation letter. “Hopefully it’s sending the message that this won’t be tolerated,” he told KYUK in late December.
The four Republican candidates for Alaska governor each said Friday why they think voters should elect them.
They met for the first candidate forum in Southeast Alaska, at T.K. Maguire’s restaurant in downtown Juneau.
Former House Speaker Mike Chenault of Nikiski said his experience with both the Legislature and in the construction industry have prepared him to be governor.
“I’ve got the leadership background, in knowing how the Legislature works – and how it should work with the governor,” Chenault said. “I also have a business background. I come from a family business for 35 years, and know how to employ people.”
Former Wasilla Sen. Mike Dunleavy criticized Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who is an independent.
“Have the last three years been the best years in the history of the state? Absolutely not,” Dunleavy said. “We have so much to look forward to, we have so many opportunities, we can be developing so many of our resources, and get ourselves out of this fiscal mix.”
Anchorage business owner Scott Hawkins is making his first run for office. He said he would have three priorities as governor.
“One’s arresting the crime wave. Two is getting our fiscal house in order, which includes getting the dividend back to a formula-driven program,” Hawkins said. “And, three, turning this economy around.”
Petersburg handyman Michael Sheldon also hasn’t run for office before. He laid out a hard line on abortion.
“I’m an old-school Republican,” Sheldon said. “I may be the new kid on the block, but I remember the days of old. I want to stop abortion in Alaska. We’re killing 1,500 babies a year in Alaska and that’s got to stop. If I have to take executive action the first day of office, I’ll do so. If I get in trouble for doing that, that’s just fine.”
Four of the five Republicans running for lieutenant governor also spoke.
They include Anchorage Sen. Kevin Meyer, former Wasilla Rep. Lynn Gattis, former Alaska National Guard Col. Edie Grunwald of Palmer and Wasilla resident Stephen Wright, an Air Force veteran.
All of the attendees criticized Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s oversight of the House District 40 Democratic primary in 2016.
Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens also is running for lieutenant governor, but didn’t attend. He cited a legislative ethics rule that lawmakers can’t use state-funded travel to attend political events. He said that includes the forum, since the state paid for him to fly to Juneau for the legislative session.
The Capital City Republican Women hosted the event.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has asked Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke to exclude most of the state from his draft plan for offshore oil and gas leasing.
Earlier this month, Zinke had proposed opening 14 of Alaska’s 15 offshore planning areas, all but the North Aleutian Basin in Bristol Bay.
In a joint letter Friday, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young, praised Zinke for taking an “inclusive” approach to lease sales in Alaska. But the delegation wrote that its priority is to see leasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and in Cook Inlet.
The lawmakers asked Zinke not to hold lease sales in the remaining 11 planning areas off Alaska.
“We believe the strongest near-term offshore program in Alaska is one that focuses on the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Cook Inlet,” they wrote. “Such a program will maximize agency resources and reflect the areas with the broadest support for development among Alaskans.”
Their letter delighted Austin Ahmasuk, marine advocate for Kawarek Inc., the Native non-profit based in Nome.
“Finally! Finally,” Ahmasuk said. “You know, we spent years advocating for the northern Bering Sea.”
In December 2016, then-president Obama responded to pleas from Kawarek and other groups to protect that region. He issued issued an order that created the “Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.” Then, in May, President Trump rescinded the order.
Ahmasuk was further dismayed to see the Bering Sea included in Zinke’s “draft proposed plan” for oil leasing. Ahmasuk said it’s a relief to have Sen. Murkowski and the rest of the delegation reject the idea.
“It certainly feels like a long time coming and I’m very happy that she – she and the delegation-have issued this letter,” Ahmasuk said.
Commercial fishermen also objected to opening the Gulf of Alaska and other planning areas to leasing.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing a five-year plan for off-shore lease sales nationwide. It has scheduled one public meeting on the plan in Alaska. It was postponed due to the government shutdown and is now set for Feb. 21 in Anchorage.
In a surprise announcement today, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the proposed Pebble Mine may pose an “unacceptable” risk to Bristol Bay.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency is suspending its effort to reverse an Obama-era proposal to put restrictions on the mine — a potential blow to the controversial project, which had been gaining momentum in recent months.
The decision isn’t final. EPA said Pebble Limited Partnership can still move forward with the permitting process for its gold and copper mine. Pebble submitted a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December, after the company reached a settlement with the Trump administration last spring.
But in a statement, Pruitt said the Bristol Bay fisheries deserve protection.
“It is my judgement at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there,” Pruitt said.
Pebble opponent Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay called the announcement “huge.”
“We are celebrating this decision in Bristol Bay today,” Hurley said. “This is confirmation that even the Pebble Mine is too toxic for the Trump administration.”
Governor Bill Walker also praised EPA’s decision, saying in a statement he’s conveyed to Pruitt his concerns about the mine “many times.”
Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole did not criticize Pruitt’s statement, saying only that EPA’s announcement doesn’t change the company’s plans to keep pushing ahead.
“The EPA confirmed that we have the right to participate in the normal, lawful permitting process under the Clean Water Act, and today’s news doesn’t change our approach,” Heatwole said.
EPA said it will continue gathering information on the mine’s potential impact on Bristol Bay, including more opportunity for public comment.
There have been numerous attempts recently to sidestep U.S. Forest Service management of the Tongass National Forest. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has a few plans in the works.
And now the State of Alaska is petitioning for more attention to be given to a very old debate. The Roadless Rule was created to protect wilder areas on federal lands.
But critics say it limits access to timber and mining in Southeast — putting jobs at risk.
If you listened to Gov. Bill Walker’s State of the State speech last week, you might have caught it.
Peppered among tidbits about a natural gas pipeline and budget concerns, there was this:
“Today, my administration filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to undertake a rule making process to restore the Roadless Rule exemption to the region,” Walker said.
Which could give Alaska a pass to build new roads in the Tongass. And that’s only the latest effort to increase access to logging.
Even by a state forester’s standards, there’s been a lot to follow.
“It’s very complicated,” Chris Maisch, a director at the Alaska Division of Forestry, said. “You could do a half hour interview just on the history of this.”
Maisch says the state is asking the the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open up the issue for more public discussion on the Roadless Rule. If approved, Maisch estimates it’s a process that could two years or longer.
And while this tactic might be different than what it’s tried before, he says the ask isn’t anything new.
Maisch says there’s a legal and economic argument to be made: Alaska should be exempt from the Roadless Rule.
“Well, the state has always had the position and has never wavered from that,” Maisch said.
But Austin Williams, a director of law and policy at Trout Unlimited, thinks the state’s petition could “turn back the clock.”
“And really undo a lot of the good work that has been done over the last several years,” Williams said.
Sticking with the current forest service plan for the Tongass, Williams said, makes the most sense. It was created with years of community input, and finalized in 2016 — outlining a transition away from cutting old growth trees.The U.S. Forest Service has focused its efforts to areas not subject to Roadless Rule, such as the Big Thorne Timber Sale on Prince of Wales Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Williams said the economy in the region has shifted to industries like tourism and fishing. He asserts that rehashing the Roadless Rule debate isn’t a step moving forward.
But Williams says more public discussion is better than some of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s latest efforts on the Tongass.
“That is much preferable, I think, to a budget appropriations rider that doesn’t have that same type of public involvement,” Williams said.
Last November, Sen. Murkowski attached a rider to the Senate Interior Appropriations bill that could exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule.
Congress has until Feb. 8 to agree on a budget.
In the meantime, the State Division of Forestry is keeping its fingers crossed that one of those efforts sticks.
This week we’re hearing from Gail and Daniel Jones from Willow. Gail grew up in Anchorage while Daniel is originally from California. The couple owns and operates Jonesers Alaskan Valley Nectar.
GAIL: We make the handmade nectars and teas all from wild-harvested local flowers, berries, herbs and mushrooms. We work with gardeners that grow for us, farms that grow for us. And then we wild-harvest.
DANIEL: Everything that we can pick and can get time off to pick is done by ourselves. We work with local herbalists to create it. Farms, we work with. We used to joke that people that owed us money had to go out and pick. So, little things like that.
GAIL: We started as a tea company, and we needed something to enhance our teas, and that’s where the nectars started. We have over 100 teas. The nectars aren’t quite there yet, but it definitely matches up to every single one of the teas that we do. And they’re all originals.
Fireweed is from the flower blossoms and flower pollen that we harvest within a 200-mile radius. It very high anti-inflammatories, and it is our local flower pollen. We also do the chaga mushroom from the birch tree. It’s the highest antioxidant mushroom in the world. It’s anti-cancerous. It’s building your immune system. We make that in a nectar form, a powder form, a tea form. Different ways to intake natural resources.
DANIEL: If you’ve ever gone to a Wal-Mart or a grocery store, and gotten a jelly or jam off a shelf, and read the ingredients and things that have to keep it preserved, and not knowing if it’s been there three or four years. And you have a product that you’ve created from the ground up, here in the Valley, that you’re proud of, nothing on the table here is older than a month old. That says something, that says something and you stand behind your product.
GAIL: Yeah… I get to be with my family. I harvest. I get to be outside all the time. Different events, festivals. I do farmer’s markets. I have my own indoor market in Downtown Anchorage. I do the Downtown Anchorage market. I mean, I’m out there and it’s fun. A lot of my friends will come up and they won’t believe it’s like a real job. And I’m like, yeah absolutely. It’s great.