Alaska News

Gold Miners Push Back Against Nome Over ‘Negative Social Impacts’

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:18

A vocal show of frustration from Nome’s mining community took center stage at this week’s City Council meeting. The miners were angry about a letter the city sent to the State Department of Natural Resources complaining about impacts from the recent gold mining boom.

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During public comments there were remarks on two new liquor license applications filed with the state, as well as concerns over Nome’s worsening musk ox problems. But for around an hour the only comments came from gold miners.

“We’re feeling like you’re throwing rocks at us the way some of this is written,” said Kenny Hughes with Nome’s chapter of the Alaska Mining Association.

He and others were angry about language in a letter City Manager Josie Bahnke sent July 15th to the Department of Natural Resources. In it, Banke wrote to DNR commissioner Joe Balash, “There has been some economic benefit from the offshore mining, but the negative social impacts that we are experiencing far outweigh the benefits.”

The letter refers to the 2011 DNR lease sale that opened up the current offshore dredging boom. The sale brought in millions in revenues for the state, but left Nome without the money to accommodate increased port activity, putting the city on the hook for new costs–everything from extra employees to setting up port-o-potties for human waste.

“We are a mining town,” Bahnke said, responding to criticisms of her letter. “But we haven’t heard anything from DNR since June, and that’s been frustrating. We’ve sat down, we’ve told them over and over and over what our concerns are, and there’s never any follow up that’s been done. I apologize for any negative connotations in there, but it’s more or less, I guess, in response to the frustration with no response from DNR.”

Commenters also felt left out for not being CC’ed on the letter to the state, or being included in more formal dialogues. Many had printed copies of the document with them, reading from it at the podium. Many took umbrage with the claim that their work brings only “some economic benefit” to the community.

“I’m an American. And when I come to Nome, I’m a citizen of Nome—I got just as many rights as anybody else around here. I’m not taking a backseat to anybody,” said Homer resident Vern Atkinson, who owns a dredging operation in Nome and is financially compensated by the Discovery channel for appearing in their Bering Sea Gold franchise. “When I come here I cover all the ground I stand on. And I don’t like being put down and, and—because I’m up here mining. And you people are sharing in the benefits of it.”

The extent of that economic boom is debatable. While the mining sector brings in money for some businesses, councilmember Stan Anderson says municipal entities—like the port, roads, city service providers—get very little of those revenues. Around 5%, Anderson said, referring to historical data and analyses the city has collected.

The matter became heated when commenters pushed for the city to define what was meant in the letter by “negative social impacts.” Mayor Denise Michels offered several examples, like a rise in methamphetamine and heroin use.

“Don’t laugh at this. This is [a] really serious issue,” said the mayor, her voice rising as skeptical scoffs rose from the crowd. “Those are some of the social issues that are happening in Nome.”

“Not because of gold,” someone shouted back from the public gallery.

“No not because of gold,” the mayor responded, “but these are new social issues that came up.”

Bob Haffner, a long time Nome resident and miner, was one of the few voices insisting neither side–the city or the mining community–is doing enough to accommodate the other’s needs.

“My kids are native—I want them to be able to subsist, I want them to be able to go down to Belmont Point and fish. By golly we don’t have to have all our dredges sitting right on shore. Y’all got boats. We need to make some room, too, guys. It’s not just them. We need to make some accommodations, too. And we’re not communicating.”

But almost everyone that came for public comment left once it ended, leaving chambers sparse–even as the council moved into voting on a seasonal tax that would have raised revenues from summer sectors. Like offshore mining.

The council ultimately voted not to bring that seasonal tax to voters.

They did settle a disputed contract, though. A bid by to maintain the city’s fleet of 32 emergency response vehicles from Trinity Sails—a business owned by KNOM’s chief engineer Rolland Trowbridge. That bid, as the lowest qualified offer, was accepted. Councilmember Matt Culley said the matter never should have been held up by zoning issues that were inappropriately considered during council discussions.

The council’s vote on the contract was split 5-to-1, with only councilmember Tom Sparks dissenting.

Categories: Alaska News

NOAA Investigating Ferry, Humpback Collision

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:17

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement officials are investigating a collision between the state ferry Kennicott and a humpback whale near Kodiak. The incident brought a multi-agency team of scientists to the island to help determine whether the collision caused the death of the sub-adult humpback whale.

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Categories: Alaska News

Higher Wildfire Potential Could Impact Northeastern Alaska Caribou Herds

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:16

(Map from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Rural Communities in Northeastern Alaska could be left without caribou in the future.

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That’s according to a recent study. Scientists believe climate change could increase wildfire potential in lichen-rich boreal forest where the Central Arctic and Porcupine caribou herds forage in the winter. A decline in habitat could mean less opportunity for area subsistence hunters.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Assistant Wildlife Biology Professor Todd Brinkman recently coauthored a study with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey that shows caribou herds in Alaska’s northeast could lose 21 percent of their winter habitat in the near future.

“They are very migratory, almost semi-nomadic in some sense,” Brinkman said. “So, them moving all over their massive range, isn’t anything new.”

(Photo from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

“The new thing with this study is that the proportion of high quality winter habitat is anticipated to decline over the next century.”

The study looks closely at the effects of predicted increasing temperatures and how that may influence the flammability of the forest in Northeastern Alaska and Northwestern Canada. Brinkman says the findings don’t really surprise him

“Well, not super surprised,” he said. “I think we know with increasing temperatures in the Arctic, there’s likely going to be more wildfires, higher severity, more frequent, but what was kind of novel about his work is that we were able to better quantify the extent that boreal forest may be affected.”

Brinkman says changes in caribou distribution in the winter means residents in Arctic Village and Old Crow in Canada’s Yukon will have to become more flexible.

“A lot of these climate drivers are out of local control,” Brinkman said. “So how this study might be of value to local is they can start to think about how they might respond or anticipate a change in local caribou distribution.”

The findings were published in the most recent issue of the journal PLoS One.  The research is part of the Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative funded by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Categories: Alaska News

GCI Completes Purchase of 3 Southeast TV Stations

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:15

GCI has completed its purchase of three television stations in Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. The deal means the telecom giant now owns almost every commercial TV station in Southeast Alaska.

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GCI announced Monday that its subsidiary, Denali Media Holdings, had officially closed its purchase of Southeast’s three CBS affiliates: KTNL in Sitka, KXLJ in Juneau, and KUBD in Ketchikan. According to GCI spokesman David Morris, the company paid about $1-\ million to buy the three stations from Colorado-based Ketchikan TV.

GCI Antenna. Photo by Sir Mildred Pierce/Flickr Creative Commons.

GCI now owns six broadcast TV stations, five of them in Southeast. In 2013, the company bought the two NBC affiliates in Southeast – Sitka’s KSCT and Juneau’s KATH – as well as the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, KTVA.

Morris says that viewers won’t see any programming changes in the near term. But down the line, GCI is hoping to roll out services that would allow viewers to watch GCI content on demand on their TV, computer or phone.

“Where everything is moving at least in this field is on-the-go-type TV services, so that you can see what you want on the device that you want, and this is all part of the integration strategy, at least, that we’re looking long term on how to provide that kind of thing,” Morris said.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable TV operator, and also provides internet, telephone and cell phone service. The shift into broadcast television over the last two years marks a big change for the company.

“What we are doing is preparing for future technology developments and quite frankly industry changes,” Morris said. “Entertainment is a ever-changing field, and we want to be able to bring the latest technologies and developments to Alaska as soon as we can, and this is our first steps into being able to do that.”

GCI first announced its intention to buy the three Southeast CBS stations in December 2013. The Federal Communications Commission had to approve the sale; it did so in May.

Asked if GCI has any other acquisitions in the works, Morris would only say, “we’re always looking for some opportunity out there.”

Categories: Alaska News

No Plans Yet For Commercial Kuskokwim Opening

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:14

For the second consecutive week, it’s “wait and see” for fishermen who are eager or anxious for the next commercial opening on Kuskokwim River.

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The prospect of commercial fishing again dominated the discussion at a Wednesday meeting of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. There haven’t been any openings since July 21st, and that’s the way many upriver subsistence fishermen with empty freezers wanted it to stay.

(Photo by Shane Iverson / KYUK)

Alice Kameroff from Lower Kalskag responded to reports from lower river fishermen bringing in plenty of cohos and says she hasn’t put any silvers up yet.

“I wish they wouldn’t open commercial and let the silvers reach up here so we can put a lot of fish away too,” said Kameroff.

Greg Roczicka of Bethel suggested managers wait until at least the midpoint of the run before any opening.

“We want to make sure there’e enough fish to get past in sufficient numbers and densities and because of that increased subsistence need and demand that’s there from chinook restrictions,” said Roczicka.

Theodore Brown spoke in support of an opener and said plenty of fish will make it past his and others’ commercial nets.

“This lower river area is like 5 miles from bank to bank, there’s a lot of escaping where the fish pass through, even if there’s an opener, like a 4 hour opener, we’re lucky to fill half a tote of fish for 4,5,6 hours,” said Brown.

State Area Management Biologist Aaron Poetter says the cohos have not reached the 25-percent point of the run at the Bethel Test Fishery yet. He’s waiting for more information before making the call on any commercial opening.

“We’re so early in the run, when we try to make projections out to what the run could be or will be at the end of the season with such little, data, the precision is not there yet. Given the needs expressed by middle and upper river about the amount of coho needed for subsistence, we’re going to take it day by day and look at the projection each day,” said Poetter.

In other action, the group passed a motion in support of a proposed exchange program between different parts of the river.

Categories: Alaska News

Aniak Youths Rescue Bald Eagle

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:13

An Aniak woman came across an injured bald eagle earlier this week. With help from her community in remote Southwest Alaska, she gave the bird a second chance and brought it to the care of veterinary experts.

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An eagle rescued near Aniak Tuesday and sent to Anchorage. (Photo by Jared Thorson)

Around 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, Amanda Hoeldt was riding a four-wheeler with a friend just outside the village of Aniak in Southwest Alaska, when she noticed something unusual in their path, a bald eagle

“We saw this eagle up the bank, 10, 15 feet from us, so we stopped the four wheeler to take pictures and the it started running forward and in front of the four wheeler cause were stopped and it saw us and was staring at us,” Hoeldt said. ”And then its wing was dragging. So I jumped off the four wheeler and started following it because if his wing was dragging and he wasn’t flying away then I knew he was hurt so I wanted to help.”

At one point, the eagle jumped in the Kuskokwim River and began trying to swim away. She says she went after him.

“I didn’t really think about it. I just jumped off the four-wheeler and tried to get him,” Hoeldt said. ”And then when we had him wrapped in the blanket I was kind of in awe because when we had him wrapped in the blanket he was so much bigger than I thought he would be and he was so much heavier.”

Hoeldt secured Eugene the eagle in a dog kennel.

But she held onto him the three miles back to town. When she got home, the eighteen-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage student, who is home for the summer, built a plywood pen for the bird with her friend. In the morning, her father contacted Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Nick Zito who reached out to Bird TLC a raptor rehabilitation center in Anchorage. Officials there said they’d take the bird. RAVN airlines donated transport from Aniak.

In the meantime, the eagle had escaped from the makeshift pen. Hoeldt recaptured the bird, and after much hissing, she says she put him into a kennel donated by a local dog rescue organization, Canine Comfort. With the eagle secured, trooper Zito put the bird onto the afternoon flight, which brought it to Guy Runco with Bird TLC in Anchorage.

“Well the eagle looks bright alert and responsive. It is up and eating. It does have a droopy left wing. I’m not sure the extent of the injury to its left wing but our volunteer veterinarian will be able to figure that out,” said Runco.

The eagle in the Kuskokwim River. (Photo by Jerod Thorson)

Hoeldt says she sent a note along with the eagle, that she and her friend named, ‘Eugene’.

“I wrote a little note on the dog crate asking them to please take care of Eugene the Eagle and I left my number on it, but I realize it’s probably pretty difficult when they run a whole recovery center to keep track of just one bird and to keep in touch with him,” Hoeldt said. “It would be really cool to see if he makes a full recovery or if the just keep him someplace like a wildlife park or if they even try to fly him all the way back out here or try to move him somewhere else.”

Runco says if all goes well, the eagle will be treated and returned to the wild.

Categories: Alaska News

Eight-Year-Old Busks For A Cause

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:12

This isn’t the first time Sophia Nylen has donated her earnings to a cause. Her mother says she’s given money to The Glory Hole. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

One of Juneau’s youngest buskers is raising money this week for a good cause.

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Elementary school student Sophia Nylen can sometimes be seen playing her violin in downtown Juneau with an open violin case to collect money. This week, all proceeds will go to the family that lost their Twin Lakes home to a fire on Friday.

It’s a drizzly Monday afternoon in downtown Juneau. Eight-year-old Sophia Nylen stands in front of the new Heritage Coffee Roasting Company espresso bar on South Franklin Street playing Hunter’s Chorus on the violin.

Like any busker in a city, Sophia gets various reactions from people walking by.

“I like playing for the people because the people enjoy music, and some people don’t like it. They just walk by and go, like, ‘Eh.’ They don’t really care,” she says.

Sophia has been busking since she was 5. She says the money she gets isn’t always for her musical talent.

“When I was little, everyone liked me because I was so adorable,” Sophia says.

She once made $120 in one session.

“They weren’t looking at me playing the violin. They were just looking at me, like, my face.”

Sophia started wanting to play the violin when she was 3.

“I kept asking my mom and she said, ‘Fine. I’ll call the teacher and see,’” Sophia says.

According to Ildi Nylen, Sophia’s mother, the teacher said, “‘You know. She’s quite young. They don’t start this early. But bring her to a group lesson.’”

The plan was for Sophia to see how hard it was to play the violin.

“Well, I took her to the group lesson and by the end of the lesson, she convinced the teacher to start to teach her. She’s quite headstrong, in a good way,” Nylen says.

Sometimes Sophia plays downtown for an hour. Sometimes she plays for 15 minutes.

“Last time she played about 20 minutes, she made $35,” Nylen says.

If you ask Sophia, in the past few summers of playing her violin downtown, she’s earned “maybe a million.” Her mom says it’s more like a couple hundred dollars.

Sophia puts a lot of it in the bank to save for college, and sometimes, she says, she gets to spend some of it.

“I bought this shirt because it’s an Under Armour and I like going hiking a lot so I got it,” she says.

The shirt is black and hot pink. In her hair, she wears a light blue feather.

“I like buying girlie stuff because I’m a fashionista,” Sophia says.

Sophia plays downtown a few times a month during the summer and usually on the weekend. But this week is different.

“On Friday, we were driving by the fire and I saw smoke and we looked behind us and we saw a huge fire. It was, like, flames everywhere,” Sophia says.

The single family home in the Twin Lakes area was destroyed.

“The next day after that, I said to my mom, ‘I want to go play my violin for the people that don’t have their house anymore,’” Sophia says.

Owners Amber and Lucas Schneider have three children.

Sophia plans on playing for an hour each day this week and will give everything she earns to the family.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 31, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:10

Individual news 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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ASRC Gets Option To Buy Into Offshore Chukchi Drilling Operations

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska & Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and a handful of North Slope village corporations now have the option to buy into offshore drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea. It’s part of a new agreement with Shell Oil. But with the future of that company’s Arctic operations up in the air, the deal raises more questions than answers.

For more about the agreement between Shell and the North Slope corporations, we have APRN’s Liz Ruskin, who was at the Anchorage press conferences announcing the deal today.

Gold Miners Push Back Against Nome Over ‘Negative Social Impacts’

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

A vocal show of frustration from Nome’s mining community took center stage at this week’s City Council meeting. The miners were angry about a letter the city sent to the State Department of Natural Resources complaining about impacts from the recent gold mining boom.

NOAA Investigating Ferry, Humpback Collision

Brianna Gibbs, KMXT – Kodiak

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement officials are investigating a collision between the state ferry Kennicott and a humpback whale near Kodiak. The incident brought a multi-agency team of scientists to the island to help determine whether the collision caused the death of the sub-adult humpback whale.

Higher Wildfire Potential Could Impact Northeastern Alaska Caribou Herds

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Rural Communities in northeastern Alaska could be left without caribou in the future.  That’s according to a recent study. Scientists believe climate change could increase wildfire potential in lichen-rich boreal forest where the Central Arctic and Porcupine caribou herds forage in the winter.  A decline in habitat could mean less opportunity for area subsistence hunters.

GCI Completes Purchase of 3 Southeast TV Stations

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

GCI has completed its purchase of three television stations in Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. The deal means the telecom giant now owns almost every commercial TV station in Southeast Alaska.

No Plans Yet For Commercial Kuskokwim Opening

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

For the second consecutive week, it’s “wait and see” for fishermen who are eager or anxious for the next commercial opening on Kuskokwim River.

Aniak Youths Rescue Bald Eagle

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

An Aniak woman came across an injured bald eagle earlier this week. With help from her community in remote Southwest Alaska, she gave the bird a second chance and brought it to the care of veterinary experts.

Eight-Year-Old Busks For A Cause

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

One of the capital city’s youngest buskers is raising money this week for a good cause.

Elementary school student Sophia Nylen can sometimes be seen playing her violin in downtown Juneau with an open violin case to collect money. This week, all proceeds will go to a Juneau family that lost their home to a fire on Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Dismisses State’s Lawsuit Over National Wildlife Refuge Closures

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 16:30

A federal judge has dismissed the state’s lawsuit over the closure of national wildlife refuges during the partial federal government shutdown last year.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason called case moot.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restricted access to refuges nationwide during the 16-day shutdown last October. The state sued as Congress was poised to pass legislation to end the shutdown.

The lawsuit was later amended to add the Alaska Professional Hunters Association as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit claimed the closure violated provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and asked Gleason to block future closures that don’t comply with the law.

Gleason said the feds’ response to a future shutdown may be different.

A Department of Law spokeswoman said the state was evaluating a possible appeal.

Categories: Alaska News

Borough Could Be First To Allow Lifetime Auto Registration

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 10:55

According to Bill Stoltze, who’s currently running for a state Senate seat, the state Department of Motor Vehicles takes in millions of dollars more a year than it spends on motor vehicle services.

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Stoltze sponsored legislation during the past legislative session that would give municipalities the option to allow permanent vehicle registration for residents. That bill passed, and goes into effect January 1of next year. Stoltze says the bill takes money from the DMV and puts it back into people’s pockets.

 Mat Su Borough Assemblyman Jim Colver wants the Borough to be the first government entity to try out lifetime registration.

“It’s a fairness issue, and it makes a lot of sense. The registration was raised in 2002, the state registration, and the state of Alaska is collecting excess revenue above and beyond of what it costs to run the division of motor vehicles, by the tune of about m aybe fifty million dollars.”

 Colver’s proposed ordinance would create the authority for the Borough to implement the new state law.

 This is how it would work. The owner of an automobile at least 8 years old, or of a non- commercial trailer, can elect to pay a 25 dollar tax on top of the standard state two year registration fee at the time of registration renewal. In addition to the state fees, the Borough collects a 70 dollar road tax on vehicles 8 years or older. So paying the 25 dollar permanent registration tax in addition to the 270 dollars in state and Borough fees for one car would free the owner from having to renew registration again for the lifetime of the vehicle. But permanent registration is not transferable if the vehicle is sold.

 Mat Su Assemblyman Matthew Beck says the proposal could help people who own rarely used autos, such as classic cars.

 ”I think of the people with plow trucks around here and they take it on the public roads once every other week, or however often it is snowing to go get gas, and that’s the only time it goes on the public road. A lot of people have trailers for hauling stuff here and there. They haul their trash over to the landfill. They use that once a month.”

 There is a downside, in that the state, and the Borough, would lose some revenue in motor vehicle fees, Colver says.

 ”You renew your licenses bi-annually every two years.  So really the reduction won’t start taking place until about 2017. It’s very gradual.”

 The 70 dollars the Borough collects for each car 8 years or older is distributed to the various road service areas in the Borough. If the ordinance passes, depending on the number of vehicle owners who opt in favor of permanent registration, those road service areas could see fewer dollars – potentially, more than two million dollars.  More than 83 thousand motor vehicles in the Mat Su are eight years old or older, compared with a population of 96 thousand people.

 Colver plans to introduce his ordinance at the upcoming Borough Assembly meeting on August 5. I’m Ellen Lockyer

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Finalizes Tax Cuts for In-State Refineries

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 10:24

After getting through all of the security clearances and checks, guests were ushered into the fire station at the Tesoro refinery where Governor Parnell put his signature on the dotted line.

Parnell sponsored HB 287, which started out simply enough. It was initially written to extend the contract to sell North Slope royalty oil to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. Then some amendments were made that included some tax credits for qualified infrastructure expenditures. That credit could be worth up to $10 million per year for five years, for each refinery. House Speaker Mike Chenault represents the Nikiski area. He says the bill was necessary to keep Alaska refineries open.

Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

“The royalty issue was the issue that concerned folks in this facility,” says Chenault. “We were able to add a couple pieces that were able to help refineries up north. We were proud to work on it, so you can continue your jobs and continue to support the community that you live in.”

The Tesoro plant in Nikiski and the Petro Star refinery in North Pole are the only two left in the state after Flint Hills closed in May. When that happened, some other last minute changes were made, namely a resolution to provide more subsidies to the remaining refineries, sponsored by Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole.

“The resolution is really about the Quality Bank, which is a really important part,” says WIlson.

The Quality Bank is the system by which refiners connected to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are charged for the crude oil they take out of the line and then process into another product. The subsidies in Wilson’s resolution help offset what refineries are charged by the Quality Bank.

“But we know the Quality Bank takes a lot of the profit for them,” says WIlson. “So, what this does is that it just directs the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor and everybody else, to make it a formula that works better for what we have here.”

Rather than actually change the formula, which is up to the Federal Energy Commission, the resolution provides real dollars that make up for the Bank charges. Parnell said before he signed the bill that it leveled the playing field for refineries, and would help spur more investment in them.

“There’s also a royalty provision in here that enhances the ability for producers to sell to refiners as well,” says Parnell. “This bill is just a very important step forward in making sure that we have a more healthy in-state refining industry, lots more jobs for Alaskans, and we provide that level playing field for every company to take advantage of.”

Parnell signed a few other bills while on the Kenai Tuesday. He started off in the morning at the Snow Shoe Gun Club. In front of a soundtrack of target practice at the club, he signed Senate Bill 77. Sponsored by Senator Peter Micciche, that bill lets the state Board of Game create a special hunting season for Alaskans aged 8-17 to take big game.

The other bill that became law Tuesday was Representative Paul Seaton’s House Bill 75. It deals with the Pick. Click. Give. program, that allows people who receive a PFD from the state to donate a portion to a non-profit organization.

“There was one part of the program that said if your budget was more than $250,000 a year, you had to have a certified public accountant audit, which meant that for those groups that were just above that range, they had to spend more to get the audit than they would get in donations,” says Seaton.

Seaton’s bill removed that requirement completely. This year, Alaskans put $2.7 million of their PFD into non-profit coffers, with an average donation of more than $100.

Categories: Alaska News

KSM Mine Wins Environmental Approval From British Columbia Government

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:44

A controversial mine planned for an area northeast of Ketchikan just won environmental approval from the British Columbia government.

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Toronto-based Seabridge Gold was granted what’s called an Environmental Assessment Certificate Wednesday. The corporation is developing the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell prospect, not far from the Southeast Alaska border.

Seabridge still needs similar approval from Canada’s federal government. It got a provisional OK earlier this month. The final public comment period for what’s called the KSM mine ends August 20th.

Provincial approval was granted on the same day the National Council of American Indians released a statement opposing the KSM and similar developments near transboundary rivers. That came in support of efforts by a Southeast tribal coalition critical of a half-dozen projects planned for near the border.

Seabridge Gold still needs to raise much of the $5.3 billion needed to develop what it calls one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world.

Categories: Alaska News

SEARHC to Receive $53 Million Settlement from Federal Government

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:43

SEARHC serves about 17,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians in Southeast Alaska. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium will receive a $53 million settlement from Indian Health Service for about fifteen years of unpaid contract costs.

Now SEARHC president and CEO Charles Clement hopes the federal agency will continue to pay its bills.

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The Indian Health Service pays the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium to provide health care services to about 17,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians in Southeast.

But for more than 15 years, IHS failed to reimburse SEARHC for nearly $40 million in contract support costs.

SEARHC CEO and president Charles Clement says contract support covers such things as building insurance, audits, electricity bills and other compliance activities required by IHS.

“We don’t have a choice whether we buy insurance. We have to have an audit every year. We pay an auditor to come in and fully audit everything. And it’s genuinely bizarre that they would say, ‘You have to do this, but we’re not going to compensate you for that,’” Clement says.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act requires such costs be paid in full. When that doesn’t happen, Clement says SEARHC has to use other revenue to pay the bills and that means sacrifices in patient care.

“We hear lots of feedback from patients about access to care and timeliness of care and formularies and we try to resolve them and take them into consideration continuously. But, at the end of the day, when you spend all the money that you have providing these services, there’s only so much that you can do,” Clement says.

SEARHC has an annual operating budget of around $115 million. Clement says almost half comes from IHS, with the rest from a slew of grants and third party payers, like Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies.

2014 is the first fiscal year in more than 15 years that SEARHC has received full support payments from IHS.

The two entities signed the final settlement agreement July 23. Clement says SEARHC will likely receive the entire payment in the fall. He says the settlement puts an end to any contentious issues between SEARHC and IHS.

“I’m ecstatic. This is a big deal. I mean to have something this big interrupting a relationship that we have with the Indian Health Service. It’s hard to just overlook the fact that you have a deal and someone’s not fulfilling their end of the bargain, because the Indian Health Service is really our partner. And so to have that resolved is a huge relief,” Clement says.

The settlement includes interest and will go into a reserve fund. Clement says SEARHC also will use the one-time payment on deferred building maintenance, information technology and medical equipment.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich recently introduced a pair of bills requiring the federal government to honor contractual obligations made with tribal organizations. Heather Handyside is Begich’s press secretary.

“His two new bills will ensure that these payments are not just made at the whim of the current senate and house representatives and president but are going to be written into law so that they will not only be approved but also funded, and won’t come out of discretionary funding. So those are all important steps to make sure this doesn’t continue the same cycle that we’ve seen historically,” Handyside says.

SEARHC is one of several tribal organizations across the state that filed claims and reached a settlement with IHS for unpaid contract support. Settlements range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $150 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Food Bank Seeks Donations After Spike in Users

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:42

The Food Bank of Alaska is asking for donations after seeing a spike in users.

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The bank purchased nearly 40,000 pound of bulk food, but needs more. The bank provides food to more than 100 partners that serve people in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and 200 partners across the state.

Last year, agencies served up to 100 people on busy days. This year, they are typically seeing 250 people, including seniors, veterans and families.

Officials say the numbers are up after a food stamp reduction and the end of extended unemployment benefits last year. Plus, more children are at home during the summer, meaning they are not getting meals at school.

There also have been fewer donations to the Food Bank this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

In Tok, Some Grumbling Over Electricity Rate Hikes vs. Energy Sustainability

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:41

Alaska Power Company customers in Tok and elsewhere in the Interior are unhappy that their electricity bills went up earlier this year. Some are frustrated that they’re being charged more partly because they’re conserving electricity – and generating it themselves.

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It used to cost a lot of money to heat Tok School during the coldest months of winter.

This biomass-fueled boiler at Tok School burns chipped timber waste to generate heat and electricity for the campus.
(Credit KUAC file photo)

“It was not uncommon to have bills for Tok School that were $30,000 a month,” says Scott MacManus, an administrator with Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District.

MacManus says those kinds of electricity bills convinced district officials they had to do something. So in 2010, they used an Alaska Energy Authority grant to build arenewable-energy system that burns wood chips to generate heat and electricity for Tok School.

This year, they invested in efficient lighting and put in place an energy-conservation program.

“We’ve undertaken a lot of efforts to save energy, because the cost of power is so high that it’s taking away from our kids our ability to provide a higher-quality education,” he said.

MacManus says those investments paid off: the biomass-fueled cogeneration system and energy-conservation effort have cut the school’s annual electricity bill about a third.

But he says those savings are being offset by Alaska Power Company raising its rates earlier this year, with another rate hike pending for early next year.

“We’ve dropped several hundred thousand dollars over the course of the last several years to do this,” he said. “…And their argument is, essentially, because we’re saving money, they have to charge more. Because we’re saving energy, they have to charge more.”

That’s part of the reason for the rate hike, says Mike Garrett. He’s the executive vice president of Alaska Power and Telephone, or AP&T, the parent company of Alaska Power Company.

Garrett concedes his company loses revenue when customers use less electricity – especially big customers, like the school district. It loses even more when big customers go away altogether, like the Coast Guard’s LORAN radar station, which shut down in 2010, and the Westmark Hotel, which closed last fall and hasn’t reopened for the summer tourist season.

“It’s a pretty simple math,” he said, “that if your costs go up, and the demand for the energy that you’re selling goes down, your rates are going to go up if you’re trying to recover those costs.”

Garrett says AP&T requested an 18 percent rate hike last year, its first such request since 2009, to close the gap in revenues created by falling demand and rising overhead costs.

“Maintaining lines. Maintaining generators. Going out and repairing when there’s a storm. Or costs associated with outages at 50 below. Those kinds of costs only get recovered whenever we do a rate case.”

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska granted AP&T an interim rate hike of 6 percent, effective last January, while it considers the company’s request for an 18 percent increase. It’ll announce its decision on that in February.

The commission also granted AP&T’s requests for cost of power adjustments, which enable utilities to charge customers more to cover the rising costs of fuel to generate electricity.

MacManus says he understand the economic realities that AP&T is facing. But he says the company needs to do more to adapt to changing conditions, like phasing out its oversized and inefficient diesel-fueled generators. And using more renewables to generate electricity. And encouraging, instead of discouraging, its customers to do the same.

“They have people who are willing to invest. People who would invest their own money into a power-system solution, as long as they were able to get something back out of it.”

Richard Kemper is one of those people. He’s set up a solar panel at his home in Tok, installed efficient lighting and he practices energy conservation.

Kemper doesn’t like the idea of paying more for electricity. But he believes it’s the price that we’ll all have to pay in order to transition into a sustainable-energy-fueled future.

“I think that we are in a transition period, from a time of cheap fossil-fuel power and not really caring about efficiency as far as energy goes. And it’s going to be a bumpy road.”

Kemper says homeowners should assume personal responsibility to solve the high-energy-cost problem by investing in an alternative-energy system. Because it’s the right thing to do – and because, eventually, it’ll pay off.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage economic outlook slow to moderate

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:41

Consumers in Anchorage are feeling positive. The city’s Consumer Optimism Index has reached a four-year high — 63 out of 100. The score is based on random phone surveys of at least 350 households. But the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation says that doesn’t mean everything is looking up. 

The three-year outlook for Anchorage shows only slow to moderate economic growth. On the one hand, data compiled by the economic research organization McDowell Group shows personal income is expected to grow nearly five percent each year for the next three years. Tourism is has reached a record high. Passenger volumes at the international airport are up two percent.

But on the other hand, airport freight volumes will remain steady. “What’s happening is that the industry — the logistics supply chain industry — is getting more efficient,”  AEDC president Bill Popp explained to a luncheon on Wednesday. “They’re getting smarter about ordering further in advance. So they’re making use of surface transportation as an alternative to more expensive air cargo. We’re also seeing another interesting effect. We’re seeing these new generation aircraft that can carry more tonnage. So you don’t need as many planes to carry the same amount of tonnage.”

The data does predict a slight increase of 3 percent per year growth at the Anchorage Port, however it’s still much less than it was 10 years ago.

The population of the city will only increase by one percent each year from 2015 to 2017. “This is predicated on fruitfulness locally,” Popp said. “More babies. And it is not predicated on people moving to town. We actually have a net outflow of adults.”

He said it’s partially because of the city’s lack of housing and high cost of living.

As for employment, Anchorage is gaining private sector jobs, but it’s losing almost as many government jobs, primarily from the federal government and from schools. Overall employment is predicted to increase by one percent per year.

Popp said the biggest challenges facing the Anchorage economy are declining oil production and prices because of the revenue and jobs the resource brings to the state.

Categories: Alaska News

2015 Yukon Quest Purse Over $127,000

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:40

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race organization announced the 2015 race purse Wednesday. The first 15 mushers to cross the finish line next February stand to win a percentage of more than $127,000.

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That’s a more than $12,000 increase from last year. The extra moneys comes from what was not paid out in 2014. Last year’s race saw only 12 finishers.

Official sign-ups for the 2015 race open this coming Saturday, August second.

The 2015 Yukon Quest starts in Whitehorse on Saturday February 7th.

Categories: Alaska News

Meetings To Highlight Southeast Transportation Projects

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:39

Southeast Alaskans can learn more about regional transportation projects at a series of meetings starting next week.

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Categories: Alaska News

As Budget Deficit Looms, Juneau Assembly Eyes Tax Breaks

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:38

Gladi Kulp shows her senior tax exemption card at IGA. She says she normally doesn’t use it for small purchases, but her cashier knows her and prompted her for the card number. She saved about 85 cents this trip. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

With another year of multimillion dollar budget deficits on the horizon for the City and Borough of Juneau, an Assembly committee is reviewing the city’s 37 sales and property tax exemptions.

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Through sales tax exemptions in 2013, the city gave up nearly $78 million in revenue that could have paid for city services like education, libraries, police and fire protection, road maintenance and parks.

Assembly members on the committee are well aware that this is the hard part of being in elected office.

“If we make any changes that are going to cost anybody any more money, they’re not going to be popular,” Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis said at the committee’s first meeting last week.

After a long pause, Assemblywoman Kate Troll pointed out, “This is not a popularity committee,” which lead to hearty laughter from the committee.

With no changes, the city predicts it will be about $7 million short in the next budget year. The committee and city finance staff agreed that tightening exemptions on big-ticket goods and services is a good idea. Right now, the sales tax paid on a single good or service is typically capped at $375.

“Well, I definitely agree the cap is a good one,” said Sales Tax Administrator Clinton Singletary. “It hasn’t been adjusted since ’91, so it’s been awhile.”

Those caps saved taxpayers more than $5 million last year.

The senior citizens’ sales tax exemption is also under review and bound to be more controversial.

Assemblywoman Kate Troll says she’s interested in scaling it back so wealthier seniors no longer qualify. She also wants to create a new exemption on unprepared foods.

“That would benefit a larger cross section of Juneau. And, actually, people that probably are more deserving or needing of that exemption on food than some of our well paid seniors,” Troll said.

Senior citizens saved almost $2.9 million through the tax break last year.

Both the number of senior sales tax exemption cards issued and the dollar value of untaxed sales have grown steadily since at least 2006, according to finance department figures.

That lines up with a graying trend in Juneau demographics. The Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development projects Juneau’s 65 and older population will grow much faster than the overall population in the coming decades.

The tax exemption review committee meets again Aug. 7. Its report is due to the full Assembly by the new year. Similar tax exemption reviews were last completed in 2005 and 2006.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Signs Bill Honoring Late Walter Soboleff

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:37

Gov. Sean Parnell has signed legislation honoring the late Tlingit elder Walter Soboleff.

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HB217 designates Nov. 14 of each year as Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. That date was Soboleff’s birthday.

The bill signing ceremony was held in a downtown Juneau park, not far from where work is underway on a cultural center bearing Soboleff’s name that is being built by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Soboleff’s children were on hand for Wednesday’s bill signing, which also featured Alaska Native dancing.

Soboleff died in 2011 at age 102. He was a respected spiritual leader, remembered by Parnell as a man who loved all Alaskans.

Categories: Alaska News
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