Alaska News

Chinese warships in Bering Sea as Obama visits Alaska

APRN Alaska News - 3 hours 26 min ago

A U.S. official says five Chinese warships have moved into the Bering Sea near Alaska after participating in a naval exercise with Russia.

President Barack Obama is in northern Alaska near the Arctic Circle to discuss climate change. But officials say the U.S. military has been aware of ships and has been tracking their movements for days. The official says the ships are operating in international waters and are not viewed as a threat.

The official says the U.S. believes this is the first time the People’s Liberation Army’s navy has operated in that region. There are three surface warfare ships, one amphibious assault ship and one supply vessel.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic leaders outline local priorities in letter to President Obama

APRN Alaska News - 5 hours 7 sec ago

Arctic waters seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: NASA Goddard Center.

A celebration took place in Kotzebue as final preparations are made for President Obama’s visit today. And with the spotlight on the Northwest Arctic hub — for the first visit by an American president above the Arctic Circle — local leaders have drafted a letter outlining their vision for the Arctic’s future.

Putting to rest clean-up efforts and last-minute preparations, Kotzebue residents gathered at the community school for a potluck Tuesday night — sharing food, song, and culture with the dozens of visitors from the president’s advance team and relatives who came to see the historic visit firsthand.

A round of Native Youth Olympics games and music from the Midnight Sun Drummers and Dancers were the backdrop as locals gathered to talk about what they hope the president takes away from his trip. For elder Enoch “Attamuk” Shiedt, it’s changes in the land he’s seen first hand.

Shiedt has worked for years as a subsistence coordinator. He recalls his grandpa telling him when he was just nine years old that the warming trend will eventually hurt his people.

“And now it’s here,” Shiedt said. “It’s not only global warming — it’s the erosion that’s the worst thing up this way. We’re losing some of our villages.”

Linda Hadley — originally from Deering but now teaching kindergarten in Kotzebue — sees it more as a historical moment.

“I believe it’s a momentous occasion,” she said. “It allows the president to see what a community the size of ours in the Arctic is about.” She said that having someone of his caliber come and visit “provides our community a voice in the national conversation.”

But outside the school halls and across town, the region’s part of that conversation was taking shape in the form of a letter to the president, outlining local priorities from climate change to energy.

Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule was the first signature on the letter that includes tribes, Alaska Native corporations, local governments, health care providers, and more. On climate change, the letter points squarely to Kivalina — the community of about 400 on a barrier island along the Chukchi Sea coast.

“There are immediate needs for sure,” said Joule about the situation in Kivalina. “The community does need to get to safety. But more than that, the community needs to relocate.” Joule says this is not a time to be shy. “It’s a time for education — for Alaskans and for the people of the United States.”

Bearing the brunt of a changing climate, the shorefast ice that once protected the community from turbulent weather now forms later and later — bringing storms, flooding, and erosion. In just ten years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the village will be uninhabitable.

While details are still few, the White House has announced a plan to put the Denali Commission — an independent federal agency working in Alaska since 1998 — in charge of a new mitigation and relocation effort for communities across Alaska. It’s a partnership Tim Schuerch with Manilaq said is a good fit.

Schuerch said the Denali Commission has been a great partner in developing most of the village clinics in the region.

“We do have a lot of confidence in the efficiency and effectiveness what it comes to the Denali Commission, in terms of assisting us with our infrastructure needs, including those that are needed to respond to climate change,” he said.

The letter covers a lot of ground — outlining the need to develop a deep-draft port above the Arctic Circle and advocating sharing federal revenue from offshore oil drilling with local residents. In many ways it’s an academic breakdown of what northwest Alaska leaders say they’ll need for the future.

But Wayne Westlake, the president and CEO of NANA Regional Corporation, said it’ll take more than just a letter for Kotzebue’s voice to be heard. Westlake said he hopes the president gets the “feeling” of the region.

“There’s something here that is important not only to our country, but to the health of the people of the region,” he said. “And that’s what I’m hoping for — that he’ll get that feel that you can’t describe. He’ll tell his grandkids about it.”

President Obama begins his last day in Alaska with a morning in Dillingham. He’ll land in Kotzebue around 5 o’clock this evening, and should be flying back to Anchorage — and eventually Washington, D.C. — by 9 o’clock tonight.

Categories: Alaska News

Even with another icebreaker, US fleet pales against its Arctic neighbors

APRN Alaska News - 6 hours 59 min ago

The Coast Guard vessel Healy is considered a medium icebreaker. President Obama has promised to speed up the acquisition of a heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard’s fleet. Photo: USCG.

President Obama wants to beef up America’s fleet of icebreaking ships.

He made the announcement Tuesday before stepping on a non-icebreaking tour boat to see the glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Obama proposed to speed up construction of a heavy icebreaker by two years. He wants the new ship to be polar-ready by the year 2020, rather than 2022.

Obama also said he plans on working with Congress to expand the nation’s fleet of icebreakers.

The U.S. Coast Guard has two icebreakers in working condition, and just one of those two vessels is a heavy icebreaker — the Polar Star. By comparison, Russia has a fleet of about 40. Canada, Finland and Sweden each have six icebreakers or more.

The Congressional delegations of Alaska and Washington state have long called for more ice breakers. In an email, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office said Obama’s announcement is less a plan than an acknowledgment that the needs must be addressed. In an email, Murkowski spokesperson Matthew Felling said the senator “awaits seeing the priorities espoused today reflected in dollars in the President’s budget next year.”

One of the Coast Guard’s two working icebreakers is currently at 87.5 degrees north latitude. It’s a few days away from the North Pole on a science mission.

Chief scientist David Kadko with Florida International University says the polar ice has been thinner than anticipated. That’s allowed the Healy to burn less fuel breaking through the ice, and it’s made the work of the 51 scientists on board smoother. German and Canadian icebreakers are also cruising the Arctic for science this summer.

“It’s quite historic: three icebreakers from three different countries working together, and collaboratively,” Kadko said.

The three ships are working to get a baseline of conditions throughout the Arctic Ocean. They want that snapshot of the Arctic chemistry before the expected increase in shipping and resource extraction brings more pollution to the top of the world.

Climate change is the main theme of the president’s highly publicized three-day tour of Alaska. The president has not taken any questions from the media, and he is not expected to do so while he’s here.

The White House press office said Tuesday that Obama will increase ongoing efforts to chart navigation routes through the Aleutians and Bering Sea and more closely monitor sea level and sea ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

U.S. Coast Guard’s 2015 list of major icebreakers:

Categories: Alaska News

Obama Does Seward

APRN Alaska News - 11 hours 20 min ago

 

President Obama, with a National Park Service interpreter, on Resurrection Bay. Photo: Liz Ruskin

President Obama is flying to Dillingham and Kotzebue today , the final day of his Alaska trip. The White House says he’ll announce a new role for the Denali Commission in helping Alaska communities respond to climate-change impacts. Yesterday, Obama indulged his sweet tooth in southcentral Alaska, and Mother Nature indulged him with stunning fall weather in Seward.

His morning began at Snow City Café, in downtown Anchorage, where he bought cinnamon rolls. Then he flew by helicopter to Seward. As the temperature rose to above 60 degrees, he walked the path to Exit Glacier,

“You guys have been seeing these signs as we’ve walked that mark where the glacier used to be — 1917, 1951,” he said at a wide spot on the trail overlooking the toe of the ice field, where a herd of journalists had stationed themselves. “This glacier has lost about a mile and a half over the last couple hundred years.  But the pace of the reductions of the glacier are accelerating rapidly each and every year.”

While the reporters were sent back to the trailhead and the press vans, Obama went on to film an episode of a reality TV show, “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.”

In the afternoon, the president stopped in at a gelato shop in downtown Seward called Sweet

Obama thanks Coast Guard medivac team on duty for his boat tour. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Darlings. Obama bought frozen treats for reporters and members of his entourage. The president took orders — “Chocolate? Cone or a cup?” –and then asked the shop staff to ring up the total. It’s not every day the president of the United States buys you ice cream, one reporter said.

Throughout the day, Obama’s motorcade passed crowds of well-wishers. Some held signs thanking him for restoring the name Denali to Alaska’s highest peak. A few protestors waved “Shell No” signs, but one large banner praised his decision to let Shell drill in the Chukchi Sea. It’s a policy green groups complain undercuts the main theme of the trip — Obama’s call to cut carbon emissions.

On the street outside the icecream shop, if there were critics in the crowd, they kept quiet. Obama reached across the security line to shake hands and greet children.

“Hey, you still have ice cream on you!” he told one boy.

“It’s not ice cream,” the boy said.  “It’s hot chocolate.”

 

At the Seward harbor, with sunlight shimmering on the water, Obama boarded a tour boat, the Viewfinder, to see Resurrection Bay and Bear Glacier.

Journalists followed in another vessel, and the two boat captains circled each other to line up the perfect shot for the cameras: Obama, on the bow, gesturing toward the river of blue ice. He shouted over to the press boat that the ice bergs in the water were as large as a Costco store.

 

Around 7:30 p.m., with the sun low and the mountaintops turning gold, the president’s motorcade to him back to the Seward airport. Before he boarded Marine 1 to head back to Anchorage and the Hotel Captain Cook for the night, Obama walked down the tarmac to thank two firefighters standing by in the cab of a  Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department truck. He also shook hands with five orange-suited Coasties, the medivac team on hand while the president was on the bay.

Categories: Alaska News

Obama on Exit Glacier: ‘We want to make sure our grandkids see this’

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:37

Obama stands in front of Exit Glacier near Seward. Photo: Liz Ruskin/APRN.

APRN’s Liz Ruskin is traveling with the President. She says Obama is on a tour boat called the Viewfinder, not a Coastguard cutter.

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President Obama is in Seward today. He landed early this afternoon in his helicopter, called Marine One and then hiked to Exit Glacier to highlight how much the rivers of ice in the state are retreating because of global climate change. He called the glacier “spectacular” and said, “we want to make sure that our grandkids can see this.”

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:36

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

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Obama on Exit Glacier: ‘We want to make sure our grandkids see this’

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

President Obama is in Seward today. He landed early this afternoon in a helicopter and then hiked to Exit Glacier to highlight how much glaciers in the state are retreating because of global climate change.

Reactions to GLACIER trickle in

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

As the President continues to visit sights in Alaska during a trip focused on climate change and Arctic policy, reactions are to his speech at the close of the GLACIER conference are still forming.

Medicaid expansion begins in Alaska

Associated Press

The state began enrolling newly eligible residents in the Medicaid program Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Kotzebue prepares for a presidential visit

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

As president Barack Obama plans to shift his focus to western Alaska by midweek, residents of Kotezbue — the northwest Arctic hub of about 4,000 people — are making final preparations for the president’s historic visit above the Arctic Circle.

 

 

Fed judge subpoenas ex-EPA official in Pebble case

David Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham

A federal judge in Anchorage has ordered a former EPA official to appear in a case involving whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency acted improperly in the lead up the agency’s proposed restrictions against the Pebble mine.

Governor declares disaster in Sitka, opening new lines of relief funds

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

On Friday, Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration for Sitka. On August 18th, seven landslides caused extensive damage to private and public property, including city roads and utilities. Three men died. And now that the worst of the emergency is over, the city is facing the question of how to pay for the response.

Bird flu monitoring underway as waterfowl season opens

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

Duck season opens Sept. 1. An outbreak of pandemic bird flu in the Lower 48 has wildlife managers monitoring migratory waterfowl nationwide, including in Alaska, where it has not yet been detected.

Presidential enthusiasm touches down in Seward

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Crowds lined the Seward Highway below the city’s airport Tuesday morning, in anticipation of a glimpse of President Obama’s arrival. A glimpse was about all they got.

Categories: Alaska News

Medicaid expansion rolls out

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:35

The state began enrolling newly eligible residents in the Medicaid program today.

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That’s after the Alaska Supreme Court refused yesterday, to temporarily block the state from expanding Medicaid.

It was a victory for Gov. Bill Walker, who announced this summer he was expanding Medicaid without the approval of the Legislature.

Lawmakers sued after Walker announced he was going forward without their consent.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner denied the request from lawmakers to halt expansion while a lawsuit moves forward. The Alaska Supreme Court on Monday agreed, saying lawyers for the lawmakers failed to show Pfiffner erred when denying the motion for a preliminary injunction.

The state expects about 20,000 low-income Alaskans, mostly childless adults, to sign up for health care under the first year of Medicaid expansion.

Categories: Alaska News

Fed judge subpoenas ex-EPA official in Pebble case

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:33

A federal judge in Anchorage has ordered a former EPA official to appear in a case involving whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency acted improperly in the lead up the agency’s proposed restrictions against the Pebble Mine. Phillip North’s emails were reportedly destroyed, and he has apparently left the country.

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Judge H. Russel Holland, in an order issued last Thursday, agreed with the Pebble Partnership that retired EPA ecologist Phillip North likely knows more than any others “what was transpiring within” the agency while the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was being developed.

“We just really want to get a complete picture of what was going on there, and certainly talking to Mr. North as a central person in all of this, would be very beneficial,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership.

As part of its lawsuit alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, Pebble requested the subpoena. Holland clearly agreed with Pebble’s arguments on the centrality of North’s role, and the necessity that he appear, which he said would “further the interest of justice.”

“It is not possible,” Holland wrote, “for Pebble to obtain equivalent testimony or records from anyone else within or outside the EPA. Mr. North’s personal appearance is necessary. Indeed, the court would be surprised if the EPA were not as anxious as Pebble to obtain testimony and access to documents controlled by Mr. North.”

Phil North retired from EPA two years ago, having spent much of his career in Alaska, often around mineral development projects. Pebble alleges North was instrumental in encouraging agency involvement in Bristol Bay, perhaps several years prior to a 2010 request by area tribes.

In its various federal court endeavors to halt the EPA’s preemptive veto of the project, Pebble has obtained hundreds of pages of emails and other documents it says show improper coordination between the agency and various groups and scientists opposed to the mine. But Pebble says they have very little of the official government paper trail that should have been left behind Mr. North’s involvement; according to the EPA, North’s emails from 2002 to 2010 were lost when his computer hard drive allegedly crashed.

Pebble, and Congress, have raised a number of questions about the missing emails, and the timing of yet another Obama administration agency claiming loss of official communication brought additional media scrutiny.

“We were not told about the emails crashing until the eve of a Congressional hearing into this matter,” said Heatwole. “Then in the course of the various court cases here, we find out that there was at least one zip drive that was encrypted. Nobody knows what is really on that, or why a level on encryption was necessary, and that just adds to the intrigue, if you will,” he said.

More than just emails are missing; the EPA told Congress it does not know where Mr. North went after his retirement. It was reported he was taking his family sailing, or may have gone overseas to New Zealand or Australia. Pebble, and Judge Holland, believe North is in Australia.

Heatwole said the unknown whereabouts prompted the subpoena request.

“It was part of the decision behind filing the documents with the court to seek to compel testimony, to be able to have an opportunity to ask a lot of questions of him as to what was really his role and what was going on,” he said.

Pebble filed the motion for the subpoena, which Judge Holland granted last week.  In his motion, Holland said EPA’s rebuttal to the motion “bristles with commentary” but offered no basis for opposing the subpoena. In a footnote, Judge Holland also added that some of Pebble’s observations with respect to Mr. North “are just a bit inflammatory,” and that EPA’s comments were “not at all helpful.”

Phillip North has been ordered to appear for deposition in Anchorage on November 12.

In a previous ruling, Judge Holland allowed part of Pebble’s lawsuit alleging EPA FACA violations to proceed, and the case is still in the discovery phase.

Categories: Alaska News

Governor declares disaster in Sitka, opening new lines of relief funds

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:32

On Friday, Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration for Sitka, in response to seven landslides on August 18th. The slides killed three men and caused extensive damage to private and public property, including city roads and utilities.

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“It looks like a lot of our costs to date in responding to the emergency will be covered, both labor and contractors,” said City Administrator Mark Gorman. “So we are very, very encouraged by this declaration.”

On Friday, Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration for Sitka, in response to seven landslides on August 18th. The slides killed three men and caused extensive damage to private and public property, including city roads and utilities. In a letter to the legislature, Walker said he would cap relief at $1 million for the moment. Individual assistance is also available. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW photo)

In a letter to the legislature, Walker said he would cap relief at $1 million for the moment, but that the incident is ongoing and total recovery costs are unknown. According to Gorman, the cost of emergency response alone is estimated to be over half a million dollars.

“We mobilized the contractor community. We had numerous excavators out there and heavy equipment. That comes at a very high price tag,” said Gorman. The city will likely be reimbursed for theses costs.

The Disaster Relief Fund is divided up into two categories. The biggest portion – called the Public Assistance (PA) Program – is earmarked for critical infrastructure, like repairing roads and restoring utilities. Debris clean-up is also included.

A smaller portion includes funding for affected individuals and families, available through the Individual and Family Grant (IFG) Program.

“The maximum dollar amount for the individual family grant program is $16,450,” said Jeremy Zidek with the Division for Homeland Security and Emergency Management, with implements disaster assistance in Alaska.

The IFG program provides financial assistance to people who suffered damage to a primary residence, primary mode of transportation, or to defray the cost of medical, dental, and funeral needs.

It also includes a temporary housing program. “So, if a family of five had a three bedroom home, we would look to give them a three bedroom home that would suffice for their family and be similar to what they had before the disaster,” Zidek said.

However, Zidek added that houses under construction, which includes a handful of damaged properties in the Kramer avenue area, will likely not qualify.

“[Individual assistance] is a program of last resorts. When people don’t have any other assistance to turn to, they can turn to the state program,” said Zidek. “And in the case of a homeowner that has another home to go and reside in, that becomes what they need to do and not use the state’s individual family grant program.”

One population that may qualify for state funding, however, is local businesses. According to Zedick, if a minimum of five businesses are impacted, they may request assistance in the form of a small, 1 to 2% interest loan.

State officials will be in Sitka tomorrow, Sept. 2, and Thursday, Sept. 3, to walk city officials and families through the process of procuring disaster relief funding. A verification team with the Division of Homeland Security has reached out to some affected Sitkans already, but Zidek said there are many who still qualify and should apply.

Sitkans may apply to the individual and family grant (IFG) program by calling 1-855-445-7131 Monday through Friday (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) or apply online atready.alaska.gov. The deadline to apply is October 26th. 

The state requests that applicants have the following information with them:

  • Description of damages and/or losses
  • Home ownership documentation 
  • Insurance information
  • Personal identification
  • Proof of occupancy (utility bill)
Categories: Alaska News

Presidential enthusiasm touches down in Seward

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 17:30

Crowds lined the Seward Highway below the city’s airport Tuesday morning, in anticipation of a glimpse of President Obama’s arrival. A glimpse was about all they got.

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In Seward, people line up for a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. Photo: Ellen Lockyer/KSKA.

Officials closed the Seward Highway for more than an hour about a half mile on either side of the intersection with Exit Glacier Road. Despite the distance, crowds parked and walked as far as they could, standing across the road from the airport, hoping to get a look of the president when he landed. Overhead a military helicopter circled, then circled again. Security seemed somewhat understated. Two sawhorses blocked the highway and two security guards waved people to one side of the road.

Choppers dance with the landing area ahead of the president’s arrival. Photo: Ellen Lockyer/KSKA.

The three Osprey military aircraft sent in for security purposes flew in, looking like science fiction come to life. Wings tips at right angles and rotor blades whirling, as they landed one by one in advance of the president.

Seward folks were standing proud, eager to see Obama if they could.

But Obama’s plan to tape a reality show with a British outdoorsman while in Seward drew some amused comments.

After more than an hour, the big, historic, moment finally came..

And just like that, the motorcade flashed by and was gone in less than a minute.

Categories: Alaska News

Kotzebue prepares for a presidential visit

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 15:21

As president Barack Obama plans to shift his focus to western Alaska by midweek, residents of Kotezbue — the northwest Arctic hub of about 4,000 people — are making final preparations for the president’s historic visit above the Arctic Circle.

Everyone from fishermen to local leaders are getting ready for the president’s visit — and have their own hopes for what he takes away.

Marine One waits in a hangar in Kotzebue. Photo: Matthew Smith/KNOM.

On Monday, all of Kotzebue was put the finishing touches on cleanup efforts and last-minute planning for President Obama’s visit. More than ten derelict houses had been knocked down as part of a community-wide cleanup that saw rusty cars, broken-down snowmachines, and more hauled away. But on Monday afternoon, Nelson Griest Junior was untangling his salmon net.

“From the last storm, it was pretty high — the water came up and washed my net out, and that’s where I’m at,” he said.

Nelson said he had a good summer netting chum salmon in Kotzebue’s small commercial fishery. He was working out of Kotzebue’s North Tent City — a city-built campground along a sliver of beach, offering fish racks and campsites for rent from May through September. It’s how Nelson’s spent his springs and summers since he can remember.

“It’s where I was born,” he said. “Lived down here over 15 years. My parents used to come here ever since the 70’s. Every summer, they pretty much came down here. Springtime, they’d go out hunting ugurk and seal.”

This summer, his camp in the tent city fell into the water — and it wasn’t the first time.

“It’s eroding,” he said. “It got my fish rack down here — dropped it down, fell one time. We put it back up. It’s really eroding down the coast, and every time the sand or rocks go down, there’s always ice in the bottom, on the tundra. So there is lots that’s melting, and I’m happy the president is coming. I’m excited.”

Nelson isn’t the only one talking about climate change in the lead up to Obama’s visit.

“It’s such an honor for him to come to our village — to see first-hand our concerns as a native community here,” said Nicole Stoops, the executive director of the Kotzebue IRA. She said the concerns go beyond impacts to seal hunting and salmon fishing — it’s a connection to the land that goes back generations.

“It’s not such a simple thing to move a community as there are a lot of cultural ties to where they are now,” she said. “Just to understand the cultural ties the people have to the land, as well as finding something that would be logical and reasonable for the community members to feel comfortable on a move to relocate somewhere.”

Some of Kotzebue’s erosion issues — mainly along Shore Avenue, also known as Front Street — have been dealt with, at least for now, according to city manager Derek Martin. After 50 years of half-measures, Martin said it was a tremendous effort to finally get it right.

The community of Kotzebue photographed in July 2012. Photo: ShoreZone via Flickr Creative Commons.

“The permanent fix to this erosion problem along Shore Avenue [was] to install a series of sheet-pile bulkheads along 75 percent of Shore Avenue there,” he said. “That provided the necessary infrastructure to prevent further erosion and to protect the roadway. But this was a fix that worked for this community as part of our erosion problem, as part of our climate change problem here in Kotzebue.”

It’s a solution Martin said he hopes to showcase during the president’s visit — one that demonstrates the resilience of rural communities. It’s the kind of resilience Kotzebue Mayor Maija Lukin had to call on when her appendix burst this weekend.

What started off with nausea on Saturday turned into an emergency medevac to Anchorage and the quick removal of a dangerously inflamed appendix. Mayor Lukin was out of the hospital by Sunday, but she was only able to book a flight back home Monday night. It’s just one of the challenges about living in rural Alaska she puts up with to continue with her family’s traditions.

“I know the time that he’s here is very short, and we’re showing him the best of everything we have. But it’s a very hard life that people don’t quite understand,” she said. “We choose to live in Kotzebue because it’s a beautiful place — it’s above the Arctic Circle. It’s a place where you can raise your children to hunt, fish, live off the land, and do what we were taught from our parents and grandparents.”

But while many prepare to press the president on climate change, many in Kotzebue just as quickly bring up the elephant in the room — or, in this case, the oil rig in the sea. Shell Oil is pursuing exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer and staging ships, tugs, crews, and more in Kotzebue.

Some residents say they’re opposed to the drilling outright. Others say they’re more open to the idea. But on the eve of Obama’s visit focused on climate change, many in Kotzebue are quick to point out the incongruity: The president they’re eager to welcome and talk openly with about their needs when it comes to climate change … is the same president who authorized Shell’s Arctic drilling.

For Nelson — still tending his fishnets — it’s straightforward.

“It’s not a good place to drill, I guess,” he said. “Because in fall time, when the ice is coming and the waves are getting bigger — I’m not sure about the cleanup. I think it’s going to be pretty hard in the Arctic.”

Oil and erosion, subsistence and climate change solutions — all topics on the minds of Kotzebue residents on the eve of the president’s visit to the Alaska Arctic.

Categories: Alaska News

California man found dead on a boat in Wrangell

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 15:08

A California man was found dead Tuesday morning on a fishing vessel in Wrangell.

Lester Daniels Ortua, a 34-year-old deckhand on the Pacifica, likely died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Wrangell Police Chief Doug McCloskey said Ortua’s death is still being investigated.

He said police were notified around 6 a.m. and recovered the body from Wrangell’s downtown harbor. McCloskey said the death occurred while the boat was in the harbor.

The body has been sent to the state medical examiner for an autopsy.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge grants Pebble request to subpoena former EPA official

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 12:36

A federal judge in Anchorage has ordered a former EPA official to appear in a case involving whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency acted improperly in the lead up the agency’s proposed restrictions against the Pebble Mine. Phillip North’s emails were reportedly destroyed, and he has apparently left the country.

Judge H. Russel Holland, in an order issued last Thursday, agreed with the Pebble Partnership that retired EPA ecologist Phillip North likely knows more than any others “what was transpiring within” the agency while the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was being developed.

“We just really want to get a complete picture of what was going on there, and certainly talking to Mr. North as a central person in all of this, would be very beneficial,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership.

As part of its lawsuit alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, Pebble requested the subpoena. Holland clearly agreed with Pebble’s arguments on the centrality of North’s role, and the necessity that he appear, which he said would “further the interest of justice.”

“It is not possible,” Holland wrote, “for Pebble to obtain equivalent testimony or records from anyone else within or outside the EPA. Mr. North’s personal appearance is necessary. Indeed, the court would be surprised if the EPA were not as anxious as Pebble to obtain testimony and access to documents controlled by Mr. North.”

Phil North retired from EPA two years ago, having spent much of his career in Alaska, often around mineral development projects. Pebble alleges North was instrumental in encouraging agency involvement in Bristol Bay, perhaps several years prior to a 2010 request by area tribes.

In its various federal court endeavors to halt the EPA’s preemptive veto of the project, Pebble has obtained hundreds of pages of emails and other documents it says show improper coordination between the agency and various groups and scientists opposed to the mine. But Pebble says they have very little of the official government paper trail that should have been left behind Mr. North’s involvement; according to the EPA, North’s emails from 2002 to 2010 were lost when his computer hard drive allegedly crashed.

Pebble, and Congress, have raised a number of questions about the missing emails, and the timing of yet another Obama administration agency claiming loss of official communication brought additional media scrutiny.

“We were not told about the emails crashing until the eve of a Congressional hearing into this matter,” said Heatwole. “Then in the course of the various court cases here, we find out that there was at least one zip drive that was encrypted. Nobody knows what is really on that, or why a level on encryption was necessary, and that just adds to the intrigue, if you will,” he said.

More than just emails are missing; the EPA told Congress it does not know where Mr. North went after his retirement. It was reported he was taking his family sailing, or may have gone overseas to New Zealand or Australia. Pebble, and Judge Holland, believe North is in Australia.

Heatwole said the unknown whereabouts prompted the subpoena request.

“It was part of the decision behind filing the documents with the court to seek to compel testimony, to be able to have an opportunity to ask a lot of questions of him as to what was really his role and what was going on,” he said.

Pebble filed the motion for the subpoena, which Judge Holland granted last week.  In his motion, Holland said EPA’s rebuttal to the motion “bristles with commentary” but offered no basis for opposing the subpoena. In a footnote, Judge Holland also added that some of Pebble’s observations with respect to Mr. North “are just a bit inflammatory,” and that EPA’s comments were “not at all helpful.”

Phillip North has been ordered to appear for deposition in Anchorage on November 12.

In a previous ruling, Judge Holland allowed part of Pebble’s lawsuit alleging EPA FACA violations to proceed, and the case is still in the discovery phase.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Homeless Shelter Receives State Grant

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 12:03

Bethel Winter House was recently awarded a $29,000 grant from the state.

The money comes through the Community Initiative Matching Grant Program, during a time of unprecedented statewide budget cuts. This is the second year in a row the shelter has received a grant from the state.

Winter House chair, Eva Malvich, says they’ll now be able to hire two full-time volunteer coordinators to run the shelter during the notoriously difficult-to-cover weekdays.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services funds the grants to non-profit organizations that provide essential human services such as food and shelter.

Bethel Winter House is scheduled to open at the new Salvation Army location in Tundra ridge on December 1st.

Categories: Alaska News

Kotzebue Prepares for President Obama’s Visit

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 12:00

Photo of Kotzebue. (Photo by Neal Herbert/National Park Service, Alaska Region)

As President Barack Obama plans to shift his focus to western Alaska by midweek, residents of Kotzebue — the northwest Arctic hub of about 4,000 people — are making final preparations for the president’s historic visit above the Arctic Circle.

Everyone from fishermen to local leaders are getting ready for the president’s visit — and have their own hopes for what he takes away.

On Monday, all of Kotzebue was put the finishing touches on cleanup efforts and last-minute planning for President Obama’s visit. More than ten derelict houses had been knocked down as part of a community-wide cleanup that saw rusty cars, broken-down snowmachines, and more hauled away. But on Monday afternoon, Nelson Griest Junior was untangling his salmon net.

“From the last storm, it was pretty high — the water came up and washed my net out, and that’s where I’m at,” he said.

Nelson said he had a good summer netting chum salmon in Kotzebue’s small commercial fishery. He was working out of Kotzebue’s North Tent City — a city-built campground along a sliver of beach, offering fish racks and campsites for rent from May through September. It’s how Nelson’s spent his springs and summers since he can remember.

“It’s where I was born,” he said. “Lived down here over 15 years. My parents used to come here ever since the 70’s. Every summer, they pretty much came down here. Springtime, they’d go out hunting ugurk and seal.”

This summer, his camp in the tent city fell into the water — and it wasn’t the first time.

“It’s eroding,” he said. “It got my fish rack down here — dropped it down, fell one time. We put it back up. It’s really eroding down the coast, and every time the sand or rocks go down, there’s always ice in the bottom, on the tundra. So there is lots that’s melting, and I’m happy the president is coming. I’m excited.”

Nelson isn’t the only one talking about climate change in the lead up to Obama’s visit.

“It’s such an honor for him to come to our village — to see first-hand our concerns as a native community here,” said Nicole Stoops, the executive director of the Kotzebue IRA. She said the concerns go beyond impacts to seal hunting and salmon fishing — it’s a connection to the land that goes back generations.

“It’s not such a simple thing to move a community as there are a lot of cultural ties to where they are now,” she said. “Just to understand the cultural ties the people have to the land, as well as finding something that would be logical and reasonable for the community members to feel comfortable on a move to relocate somewhere.”

Some of Kotzebue’s erosion issues — mainly along Shore Avenue, also known as Front Street — have been dealt with, at least for now, according to city manager Derek Martin. After 50 years of half-measures, Martin said it was a tremendous effort to finally get it right.

“The permanent fix to this erosion problem along Shore Avenue [was] to install a series of sheet-pile bulkheads along 75 percent of Shore Avenue there,” he said. “That provided the necessary infrastructure to prevent further erosion and to protect the roadway. But this was a fix that worked for this community as part of our erosion problem, as part of our climate change problem here in Kotzebue.”

It’s a solution Martin said he hopes to showcase during the president’s visit — one that demonstrates the resilience of rural communities. It’s the kind of resilience Kotzebue Mayor Maija Lukin had to call on when her appendix burst this weekend.

What started off with nausea on Saturday turned into an emergency medevac to Anchorage and the quick removal of a dangerously inflamed appendix. Mayor Lukin was out of the hospital by Sunday, but she was only able to book a flight back home Monday night. It’s just one of the challenges about living in rural Alaska she puts up with to continue with her family’s traditions.

“I know the time that he’s here is very short, and we’re showing him the best of everything we have. But it’s a very hard life that people don’t quite understand,” she said. “We choose to live in Kotzebue because it’s a beautiful place — it’s above the Arctic Circle. It’s a place where you can raise your children to hunt, fish, live off the land, and do what we were taught from our parents and grandparents.”

But while many prepare to press the president on climate change, many in Kotzebue just as quickly bring up the elephant in the room — or, in this case, the oil rig in the sea. Shell Oil is pursuing exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer and staging ships, tugs, crews, and more in Kotzebue.

Some residents say they’re opposed to the drilling outright. Others say they’re more open to the idea. But on the eve of Obama’s visit focused on climate change, many in Kotzebue are quick to point out the incongruity: The president they’re eager to welcome and talk openly with about their needs when it comes to climate change … is the same president who authorized Shell’s Arctic drilling.

For Nelson — still tending his fishnets — it’s straightforward.

“It’s not a good place to drill, I guess,” he said. “Because in fall time, when the ice is coming and the waves are getting bigger — I’m not sure about the cleanup. I think it’s going to be pretty hard in the Arctic.”

Oil and erosion, subsistence and climate change solutions — all topics on the minds of Kotzebue residents on the eve of the president’s visit to the Alaska Arctic.

Categories: Alaska News

Bird flu monitoring underway as duck season opens

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 10:17

Green-winged teal. Photo: Fish and Wildlife Service.

Duck season opens Sept. 1. An outbreak of pandemic bird flu in the Lower 48 has wildlife managers monitoring migratory waterfowl nationwide, including in Alaska.

Earlier this year a hunter in Washington state shot a green-winged teal that tested positive for pathenogenic bird flu. Since then, it’s been detected in most other Western states and several midwestern states, which means efforts to monitor the current outbreak are well underway.

Dan Rosenberg with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game is the statewide waterfowl coordinator.

“It’s not likely that we’re going to find birds with highly pathenogenic influenza in Alaska, but the possibility is always there.”

There are two active flu strains being dubbed “highly pathenogenic” right now. Rosenberg clarifies that terminology:

“Highly pathenogenic refers to their effects on poultry. It’s not in reference to effects on wild birds or on humans.”

Fish and Game is advising hunters to abide by a lot of the normal protocol for safe game handling:

“We are always advising hunters not to handle or eat obviously sick birds,” Rosenberg says.

….Wear rubber or disposable Latex gloves when you handle birds. Wash your hands, knives and countertops after handling waterfowl…..

“Don’t eat, drink or smoke when you’re handling the animals so there isn’t that tendency to take your hand from the bird to the food to your mouth,” Rosenberg says. “And thoroughly cook birds to 160-degrees Fahrenheit.”

Bird hunters in the Palmer Hayflats and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge may run into field technicians asking for samples from hunter-shot birds.

Also new this year: the price of a federal duck stamp goes from $15 to $25. And in Alaska, the rules for exactly who needs a federal duck stamp have changed.

Bag limits for certain goose species have also changed in certain hunting districts.

Find those changes and more specifics from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Categories: Alaska News

Obama hears from a roundtable of Alaska Native leaders

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 08:41

Sen. Dan Sullivan greets President Barack Obama and Gov. Bill Walker as they disembark from Air Force One. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott waits on the left. Photo: Marc Lester.

President Barack Obama is in Alaska to learn and talk about climate change. Before giving a speech to dozens of foreign ministers and dignitaries from around the world attending a conference on climate change, the president met with Alaska Native leaders.

President Obama spent an hour meeting with a dozen Alaska Native leaders from across the state on Monday, including Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium president Andy Teuber.

“He told us up front that he was there to listen, and he did. He listened to everybody around the table, including all the tribal or indigenous leaders,” Teuber says. “And he followed up with questions and took copious notes, and Secretary Jewell was in the room with us and several members of his administration staff members. And we look forward to following up with members of his administration on the points that were made and some of the challenges that were presented.”

During his speech, President Obama mentioned some of what he’d learned.

“They described for me villages that are slipping into the sea and the changes that are taking place, migratory, fauna, what used to feed the animals beginning to vanish,” the president says. “It’s urgent for them today but that’s the future for all of us if we don’t take care.”

Dalee Sambo Dorough is the former chair and current expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She says the president also struck a theme for international audiences.

“I think that it was first of all important that he acknowledged the impact of climate change on Alaska’s indigenous peoples. And the refrain that he had in terms of that we can’t do this alone was a really strong message to all the foreign ministers seated around the table that we need collective action. And I think it was also important that he underscored the fact that we need to do this much faster.”

The president will visit Seward, in southcentral Alaska, and the predominantly Alaska Native communities of Dillingham and Kotzebue in western and northwestern Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Obama Announces Icebreaker Program in Seward

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-09-01 07:10

The U.S. is accelerating it’s icebreaker program as part of a newly announced initiative to build capacity in the Arctic.

The White House said in an early morning press release that during his visit to Seward and the Exit Glacier on Tuesday, President Obama will propose speeding up acquisition of a “replacement heavy icebreaker” by two years, from 2022 to 2020.

Obama also plans on working with congress to plan for an expanded icebreaker fleet, “To ensure the United States can operate year-round in the Arctic Ocean.”

Generally, it is Alaska’s congressional delegation that calls for more vessels able to operate in the icy-waters of the high north, and rarely is there much traction.

In the same release, the White House sketched a new observer program in Alaska’s marine waters, partnering federal agencies with Alaska Native communities to gather data on changing ecological conditions, and expanded scientific scientific research projects on Arctic biodiversity.

Categories: Alaska News

Obama Lands in Alaska; Says Time is Now to Act on Climate

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-31 22:56

Air Force 1 landed at Joint base Elmendorf-Richardson yesterday and President Barack Obama’s motorcade sped downtown, where made a speech at the Dena’ina Center about climate change. He struck a somber note in urging global leaders to get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama said Alaska’s fire season has grown by more than month since 1950, and thawing permafrost threatens the home communities of 100,000 Alaskans. He called the Arctic the leading edge of climate change, and said if global leaders don’t act to curb carbon emissions, devastation will strike worldwide.

“We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair,” he said. “Submerged countries. Abandonned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Indigenous people who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millenia.”

But the president says it’s not too late to avoid irreparable harm, and he says the country is already moving to cleaner energy.

Obama held a roundtable meeting with more than a dozen Native leaders for about an hour before the speech. Kawarek CEO Melanie Bahnke had the seat next to Obama. She says their main message was to include them in decisions that affect them.

“He responded to each of us in turn and we’re looking forward to partnering with the federal government … (as we are) grappling with climate change, erosion but also when we look at the opportunities that are being presented to us by increased shipping,” she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was at the table for that meeting, but she says the White House didn’t coordinate with her office much, and the only announcement they notified her of in advance was the Denali name change.

“It has been difficult to make sure that Alaskan voices are heard, and that the president will be able to see a view of Alaska that’s real and genuine. I think there’s some frustration,” she said.

The president’s Alaska trip began with an afternoon touchdown. Gov. Bill Walker came down the stairs from the aircraft with Obama. Walker flew to Washington, D.C. Sunday so he could take Air Force 1 back. At the Hotel Captain Cook, after riding in the motorcade from the military base, Walker said he’s not sure how much time he got with Obama to discuss Alaska issues, but says his face time included a presidential tour of the 747, cockpit to tail.

“So that was a big tour, then we had a couple times we sat down (for) visits,” Walker said. “So I don’t know, an hour and half, something like, that would be my guess . Then the ride over here from JBER. So it was really good. It was very meaningful.”

In the evening, the president’s motorcade went to south Anchorage, where Obama had dinner at the home of Alaska Dispatch News Owner Alice Rogoff.

APRN reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Alaskans rally against drilling, climate change outside of GLACIER conference

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-31 20:08

Protesters in downtown Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA

 

About 200 people gathered on the Park Strip in downtown Anchorage on Monday afternoon to protest offshore drilling in the Arctic and to speak in favor of stronger measures to fight climate change.

Danielle Redmond with Alaska Climate Action Network helped arrange the protest, which featured a model of Shell’s drilling rig with the moniker “Polar Profiteer” instead of “Polar Pioneer.” She says they’re glad that President Obama is in Alaska and has spoken about climate change, but he hasn’t done enough.

“The message that has become clear to us is it’s absolutely up to us, to ordinary people, to create the political space that is needed for real change.”

Redmond says it’s hard for Alaskans to speak against the human causes of climate change. “People are terrified and they feel like they’re the only ones and are alone. Because we’re an oil state. Our economy depends on it. And so it is a challenging thing to confront that and face that reality and to find solutions on how to move forward in a better way.”

Protesters constructed the “Polar Profiteer” to oppose offshore drilling in the Arctic. Hillman/KSKA

“I’m here at the climate rally is because I feel pretty strongly that the way to look at this topic is through science,” says Anchorage resident Terri Pauls as she waved a dark blue Earth flag. “I just find it super disappointing that so many people chose to ignore or dismiss solid science. I believe we have over 12,000 studies from many decades now.”

Carl Wassilie from Western Alaska joined the event. He also attended protests against Shell in Seattle. He says he objects to offshore drilling because he says the oil industry has not helped Alaska Natives and infringes upon their rights.

“We’re still in the same situation we were 40 years ago, getting third world diseases in the villages. Adn that’s with 40 years of drilling onshore, primarily onshore in the Arctic. We don’t need to go offshore. It’s not going to help the planet and it’s not going to help the people.”

Alaskans gathered to speak out again climate change in downtown Anchorage ahead of President Obama’s arrival. Hillman/KSKA

Others spoke about the impacts of drilling on wildlife and subsistence hunting.

Americans for Prosperity had also planned a rally, but it was canceled for logistical reasons.

Categories: Alaska News

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