Alaska News

Military Training Becoming More Difficult in Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 17:02

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The Army’s highest-ranking soldier in Alaska says the military trains here so it can operate in the Arctic, which he calls one of the world’s most difficult environments. Major General Mike Shields says it’s becoming more complex with climate change.

 

Categories: Alaska News

East Anchorage Drug Bust Part of State-Wide Rise in Heroin, Cocaine, Meth

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 16:23

The operation was led by the Special Assignment Unit, which focuses on supply-level drug interdiction.

Anchorage police seized a large supply of illegal drugs at an East Anchorage residence over the weekend. 

Officers with the police department’s Special Assignment Unit received information that drugs were coming in and out of a house on Rocky Mountain Court near Russian Jack Park. Department spokesperson Jennifer Castro said the tip allowed officers to obtain search warrants that led to the cache of drugs–estimated by APD to be worth $111,000 at the street level. Intercepting drugs before they get that far is exactly where the Special Assignment Unit focuses its efforts.

“You kind of have to think of it as a large retail store,” Castro explained. “You’re shutting down the retail store and so therefore they’re not able to supply those goods and services that the dealers are trying to provide to their clientele. So, when we’re able to make busts at this level we know that it’s going to have an impact all the way down to the street level.”

Castro says a seizure the size of last Friday night’s is a big deal for the department’s drug interdiction efforts. Besides the value, the department believes they halted the supply of drugs to more than a hundred dealers and users.

But more unusual was the discovery of three different hard drugs all in significant quantity: 24 grams of heroin, 101 grams of cocaine, and 683 grams of methamphetamine. All three drugs are on the rise in Alaska, according to the Department of Public Safety.

“Across the state we’re seeing an increase from all law enforcement of seizures of heroin, cocaine and meth, as well,” said Castro. “So when we look at those trends we are seeing increases in those. Especially a dramatic increase in seizures of heroin.”

Both suspects were charged with two felony counts for misconduct involving a controlled substance, one connected to the sale of methamphetamines, and the other related to intent to distribute near a recreation area.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Begich Concedes Senate Race to Sullivan

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 15:59

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has conceded the Alaska Senate race to Republican Dan Sullivan.

Begich called Sullivan to congratulate him Monday. He said he urged Sullivan “to adopt a bipartisan resolve in the Senate.”

Sullivan led the one-term incumbent Begich by about 8,100 votes on election night Nov. 4, and maintained an edge as ballot counting continued.

In a statement, Begich said he was proud of the work he accomplished, in areas including energy development, veterans’ health care and protecting postal service in Alaska.

He said the state deserves a bright future with expanded economic opportunity and a strong, prosperous rural Alaska. He also said he supports equality for all Alaskans and the results of an election have never diminished his desire to achieve those goals.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Tribe Drops Funding for City Transit

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 15:29

Bethel’s tribe, ONC announced Monday that they will no longer provide funding for the city’s transit system. The announcement came at a joint meeting of the tribe and the city council at ONC’s offices. Gloria Simeon, President of the ONC Council, says uncertainty of federal funding is a big reason they’re pulling the money.

“The sequestration and what’s happening on the national level leaves us in a quandary because we don’t know what the funding is going to be in the next few years,” Simeon said.

“We have a new administration coming so we need to kind of close in our funding until we know what’s happening and being basically two years paid in advance in our agreement with the city, we cannot advance any more money in in-kind contributions.”

The city has been managing the transit system with contributions from ONC and matching state and federal grants since 2008. Simeon says ONC has contributed about three quarters of a million dollars to date and the council voted unanimously at their regular meeting last week to stop funding it. She says ONC needs to devote more resources to their low-income housing project.

The city council in their Tuesday regular meeting showed strong, but cautious interest in stepping in to fund the system. They would have to commit nearly $100,000 from their 2016 budget, which won’t be done until June.

John Sargent who manages the city’s grants said Monday ONC cut comes as the city is poised to secure significant transit funding.

“We have four buses right now,” he said. “We just got a brand new bus for $63,000 on last year’s grant and we have a bus in the current budget for next year. That would be another $63,000 bus, which we could get delivered and we were hoping to apply for a third bus. So within two years we would have had three new buses.”

Shannon Sumner says her decision to move to Bethel from Seattle to work for the Kuskokwim Campus of UAF was partially due to the city’s transit system. She says she rides the bus to work every day and her budget will feel a pinch if it goes away.

“I buy a bus pass. It pretty much costs me $3 a day to get to and from work,” Sumner said. “If I take a cab it’s going to cost me $12 a day to get to and from work, and that is a big huge budget difference.”

Bethel will have to find another source of funding quickly as a grant requiring matching funds is due in December. If they don’t, Bethel’s bus service could end June 30th.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Marijuana Entrepreneurs Face Special Business Burdens

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 15:06

With the passage of Prop. 2 this month, Alaska joins Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana. While the state figures out how to regulate marijuana commerce, several federal laws sit as roadblocks to the business of cannabis.

Alaskans who hope to operate marijuana businesses will have to defy U.S. drug law, of course. But they’ll also face other federal rules they’re likely to find severely inconvenient and perhaps crippling to their enterprise.

One problem is a bit of tax code called 280E. This provision, enacted in the 1980s, prevents narco-traffickers from deducting business expenses, and the IRS enforces it against state-licensed pot businesses, too. Taylor West, deputy director of the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association, says it means marijuana businesses can’t deduct costs like rent and payroll when they file their tax returns.

“What that results in is businesses paying an effective tax rate or somewhere around 70-75 even 80 percent on their net profit,” she said.

It’s crushing to small businesses, West says, even though a few legitimate deductions remain.

“So oddly enough,” she said, “one of the things that a cannabis dispensary, for instance, can deduct is the cost of buying the marijuana.”

Another big impediment for pot entrepreneurs is the banking rules.  Banks typically refuse to allow marijuana businesses to open accounts, out of fear that they’ll be implicated in money laundering or other federal crimes. West says some members of her industry trade association have found ways around it.

“But the majority at this point are still having to operate entirely in cash, without the benefit of any sort of safety or accounting ease that comes from having a checking account,”she said.

Earl Blumenauer, a congressman from Oregon says, regardless of how you feel about legalizing marijuana, it’s not a good idea to force these businesses out of the banking system.

“Restricting them from having bank accounts, is absolutely insane, unfair and unwise if you care about money laundering, tax evasion or just theft,” he said at a press conference last week at the Capitol.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., one of the most outspoken Republicans for federal marijuana reform.

Blumenauer, who represents part of Portland and its eastern suburbs, is pressing for a raft of bills that would ease federal restrictions on marijuana, but the most pressing are the tax code and the banking rules.

“We need congress to act on two serious problems, not just for those states that have legalized adult use but for 23 states and counting that have legalized medical marijuana,” he said.

Blumenauer says a coalition of about 180 House Democrats and 50 Republicans supports liberalizing federal marijuana law. One of the visible Republicans is Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California.

“My message to my fellow Republicans is ‘Wake up and see where the American people are,’” Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher, from conservative Orange County, says Republicans should join him to support principles like personal liberty and limited government, or just raw politics.

Alaska Congressman Don Young is already on board. He co-sponsored a Rohrabacher bill to block federal prosecution of people who buy or sell marijuana in compliance with state laws. Spokesman Matt Shuckerow says Young supports a state’s right to determine the nature of criminal activity within its borders. But one of the biggest impediments to marijuana commerce may be congressional indifference. The leaders of both parties, in the House and the Senate, haven’t made federal marijuana reform a big priority.

Categories: Alaska News

Virus Implicated in Sea Star Wasting Disease Epidemic

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-11-17 11:00

A mysterious illness causing mass die-offs of Pacific starfish has baffled scientists since the epidemic first started in the summer of 2013. But scientists think they may now have an answer. A new study points to a virus as the likely cause of dwindling sea star numbers from Mexico to Alaska.

Sea star wasting disease is affecting starfish populations throughout the Pacific, from Baja California to Mexico. Photo credit: Kit Harma, pacificrockyintertidal.org.

If you’re a starfish in the Pacific, sea star wasting disease is pretty much your zombie apocalypse. Marine microbiologist Dr. Ian Hewson has witnessed the gruesome effects of wasting disease first-hand.

The first symptom is arm curling.

“The ends of their arms start to flex upwards and they start to detach from the rock’s surface,” Hewson says.

Then they undergo a process called pretzeling.

“So they basically fold themselves into a pretzel, their arms cross over each other, they’re almost as though they’re tying themselves into a knot.”’

Next the starfish lose some of their internal pressure and deflate. And then lesions start to form.

Tube feet and underside of a giant star (Pisaster giganteus) collected from Monterey Bay, Calif. The mouth of the animal is located at the center of the arms. A lesion between the top arms is characteristic of early sea star wasting disease. Photo courtesy Cornell University.

“Once the lesions appear the animal almost certainly starts to die.”

The sea star’s arms begin to fall off.

“And then they undergo this process of melting. It’s often reported that they just start to dissolve.”

Up until recently, scientists didn’t know what was causing mass sea star die-offs in the Pacific.

Hewson is the lead author on a new study that identifies a particular virus as the cause of the current wasting disease outbreak.

After observing how it spread in aquariums, Hewson and his team isolated the common thread: a virus they’re calling sea star associated densovirus.

Sea star wasting disease epidemics are nothing new. But past incidences have been directly related to El Nino events — warmer seawater. The current outbreak in the Pacific is different. It’s startling for both its severity and its range — from Baja California all the way up to Alaska.

Hewson guesses it’s the largest marine epidemic biologists have ever seen. And it’s still spreading; farther south into Mexico — and farther north.

“The sea stars in Alaska have started to become really affected by this disease,” Hewson says.

Earlier this year there were just a handful of isolated reports of sea star wasting disease around Juneau and Sitka. Since then it’s been observed in Glacier Bay and as far north as Homer.

“It is, you know, spreading. It seems not to be affected too much by the waters getting cooler,” Hewson says. “I have every expectation it will move into sea star populations further along the Alaska coast — probably out into the Aleutians.”

Apart from its geographical breadth, what’s also unique about this outbreak is how many different species of starfish are affected — at least 20, possibly more.

“Indeed it is very peculiar to find a virus that is capable of infecting across such large numbers of species.”

Most viruses are host-specific — meaning they can only survive and proliferate in one kind of animal. But the virus Hewson identified, sea star associated densovirus — or SSaDV — is a remarkable generalist; it’s even found across different groups of echinoderms, like urchins and brittle sea stars.

And the story gets even weirder.

Size matters. Smaller, juvenile sea stars, for example, can tolerate high viral loads without showing symptoms of wasting disease.

“Whereas the adult sea stars, when they don’t have the virus present they’re perfectly fine and healthy, but when the larger sea stars have a much smaller number of viruses than the juveniles, but when they have the virus present, they die.”

Hewson says they have no idea why smaller sea stars seem to be immune, or protected, from the virus.

So what’s the prognosis?

“You know, it’s probably going to continue until it reaches a point where it can no longer move around.”

Hewson says viruses play an important ecological role in marine environments. The current epidemic of wasting disease is severe, true, but Hewson says this kind of die-off is cyclical.

“No virus wipes out its host population entirely. There’s never been an extinction as a result of a virus.”

It’s too early to tell how Pacific marine environments will change as a result of the outbreak, Hewson says. Sea stars are major predators, and in places where they’ve been wiped out scientists are already seeing changes, notably in prey abundance, which has a ripple effect. What those changes will look like long-term is unclear.

In the meantime, scientists like Hewson will rely on public sightings of sea star wasting disease to track how far the epidemic is spreading and which species of starfish are affected.

If you live in a coastal area and have seen wasting disease, scientists ask that you log your findings at pacificrockyintertidal.org.

Categories: Alaska News

Healthcare.gov Has Smooth Launch in Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Sun, 2014-11-16 14:51

Healthcare.gov was working smoothly in Alaska this weekend for the start of open enrollment. Enroll Alaska reported Friday that the site was miscalculating the subsidy amounts for Alaskans looking for health insurance in “window shopping” mode. But the company said it had signed up 40 people on Saturday- the first day the site was live- with no apparent problems.

The open enrollment period lasts three months until February 15th.
Categories: Alaska News

Parnell concedes gubernatorial race to Walker

APRN Alaska News - Sat, 2014-11-15 20:30

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has conceded in the state’s gubernatorial race, issuing a statement a day after independent candidate Bill Walker was declared the winner.

Parnell wrote on Facebook Saturday that he met with Walker Saturday morning, offering him office space to help with the transition.

Walker grabbed a slim lead on election night, but the race was too close to call while absentee and questioned voters were counted this week. Walker won Friday when it became evident that Parnell could not overcome Walker’s lead.

Parnell has served as governor since July 2009, when Sarah Palin resigned. He won election in his own right in 2010.

Walker, an attorney and former mayor of Valdez, is the first candidate unaffiliated with a party to be elected governor since statehood. He is scheduled to be sworn in on Dec. 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Increases Lead, Begich Closes Gap Slightly

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:48

Unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker has increased his lead in the governor’s race.

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The Division of Elections tallied nearly 20,000 ballots this morning, with still more to be counted later this evening. An afternoon update by the Division showed Walker with nearly a two percent lead over Republican incumbent Sean Parnell — about 4,500 votes.

Meanwhile, the gap in the Senate race shrunk slightly. Democratic incumbent Mark Begich began the day 8,000 votes behind Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. Begich made up some ground mid-day when rural absentee votes were counted, but then lost it with the most recent update.

Neither Parnell nor Begich have conceded their races, though the Associated Press called the Senate race in Sullivan’s favor on Wednesday after concluding the difference between the candidates was insurmountable. Both candidates are outside the half-point margin required for an automatic recount.

The Division of Elections will stop today’s count in the early evening, and then resume tallying the estimated 14,000 remaining ballots Monday.

Categories: Alaska News

With No Power, Tuluksak Residents Scramble to Save Meat

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:45

After a week without power, a backup generator is scheduled to arrive in Tuluksak Friday. But families have already lost hundreds of pounds of moose, fish, birds, and berries.

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Fred Napoka met the airplane Thursday morning to pick up a new generator. As a smaller unit buzzed in the background, Napoka and a few helpers got to work setting it up. Napoka’s new 4000-watt gas generator came at just the right time.

“With this warm weather, it won’t take too long to have the freezers thaw out,” said Napoka.

Families are takings shifts with generators and running cords to their neighbors in attempts to save food. It’s not uncommon for people in the village more than 50 miles upriver from Bethel to have multiple freezers where they store subsistence food, which makes up the majority of their diet.

The more than 400 residents have been without power for a week. The Tuluksak Traditional Power Company has been unable to repair their generator following a blown piston. The state is sending an emergency generator on a DC-6. It’s large enough to power the entire community, but it’s too late for some. Veronica Andrew lists her losses.

“80 pounds of meat, 70 pounds of bird, about 100 pounds of fish,” said Andrew.

Roy Nicholai’s more than 150 pounds of moose was no good.

“I have to give it to the dogs I guess, because I can’t cook it and eat it, because I know what will happen to me if I do that,” said Nicholai.

A long list of regional and statewide organizations are keeping close communication with Tuluksak. Community members filled out surveys Thursday listing how much food was inedible. The state wants to be ready to ask its food charities for help, if it becomes necessary.

The local store manager, Andrew B. Alexie, still had food on the shelves, but said customers were out in force.

“It’s a hectic week,” said Alexie.

Crews continued to work on the power plant Thursday and clear space for the temporary unit. The state says Tuluksak can use it as long as they need, as they come up with a longer-term solution.

Peter Andrew Senior, the President of the Traditional Council, which runs the utility through the tribe, says the generator has had a hard life.

“It’s very old and very outdated. I don’t know how old it is. The mechanic said it’s an outdated generator and it’s very hard to find parts for it,” said Andrew.

People have been depending on wood stoves for heat, and camp stoves for cooking. Marie Andrew was dealing with limited access to the washateria by bringing out the old washboard.

“Since the lights are off, I’m washing clothes by hand,” said Andrew.

When asked their plans for restocking freezers after the unplanned November thaw, many hoped state and federal managers could open up additional hunting for moose and caribou. Andrew had another simple solution.

“Go ice fishing,” said Andrew.

In an unseasonably warm November, many residents’ calendars have been tossed aside. As freezers go warm, some even moved up Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks, to save the turkey from going spoiled.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: November 14, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:45

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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Walker Increases Lead, Begich Closes Gap Slightly

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

Unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker has increased his lead in the governor’s race. Meanwhile, the gap in the Senate race shrunk slightly.

Murkowski Questions Differing National Guard Investigation Results

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Two different Pentagon agencies investigated the Alaska National Guard for allegedly mishandling sexual assault complaints. They came to opposite conclusions, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants to know why.

Healthcare.gov Miscalculates Subsidies in Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

November 15th marks the start of the second open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, when individuals can sign up for health insurance on healthcare.gov.  But even before it opens for business, there are signs the website isn’t working correctly for Alaskans.

With No Power, Tuluksak Residents Scramble to Save Meat

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

After a week without power, a backup generator is scheduled to arrive in the Southwest Alaska village of Tuluksak Friday.  But families have already lost hundreds of pounds of moose, fish, birds, and berries.

Students Call For Action, Public Comment On U-Med Access Road

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Students at the University of Alaska – Anchorage are trying to motivate their classmates and the community to get informed about a controversial infrastructure project – the U-Med District Northern Access Road. They say the public still has a chance to shape the project’s future.

Candlelight Vigil Raises Awareness About Homeless Students

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Dozens of people gathered at Farnsworth Park in Soldotna for a candlelight vigil last night. It’s a joint effort of the Kenai Peninsula School District and community groups to raise awareness about homeless youth and families in the area.

State Celebrates First Dr. Walter Soboleff Day

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Today is the first annual Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska, and dozens of the late Tlingit leader’s friends and relatives marked the occasion with a parade through downtown Juneau.

AK: Tlingit Dance

Anne Brice, APRN Contributor

Dancing can be a celebration, an expression of joy or sorrow, or a way to tell a story. For one man in Sitka, it’s a way to teach people about his Native culture and values, and to carry on his tradition. With elders in the community growing older or already gone, he says it’s his responsibility to learn and pass along the teachings to the younger generation so they can grow up proud to be Tlingit.

300 Villages: The Stampede

This time we’re heading to an unofficial community near Denali National Park boundary called The Stampede. Molly McKinley lives in The Stampede.

Categories: Alaska News

Candlelight Vigil Raises Awareness About Homeless Students

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:43

The sign that marks the entrance to Farnsworth Park reads “Dedicated to the children of Soldotna.” During the day, kids can often be seen playing on the equipment or in the grass.

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But the nighttime vigil held at the park was for kids who often go unseen.

“They don’t want to be known because they don’t want to be known as one of those kids that doesn’t have the family support and is struggling,” says Krista Schooley.

She knows because she’s been one of them. She was born and raised in Soldotna. She’s 40 years old now and a proud parent and grandmother. But, she says, a long time ago, her life was very different. A series of very bad events led to her becoming homeless.

“A lot of just trauma in my life. I was raped when I was 14 and it just made me go downhill. I ended up being a mom of two by the time I was 17. From the age of 17 to 19, I was a couchsurfer; I went from couch to couch,” says Schooley.

As a homeless teenager, she struggled to find safe places to sleep at night, food, but most of all, support.

“There wasn’t really anything out in the community to help me get on my feet,” says Schooley.

Kelly King coordinates the Students in Transition program for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Each year her program identifies between 200 and 300 homeless students in the district. And the number is rising.

“Going about trying to find what resources are available, it’s very difficult when you’re on your own,” says King. “It’s hard for me to imagine being 16 years old and trying to channel public assistance for food stamps and trying to figure out how I’m getting to and from school.”

Then there’s finding shelter, running water, heat and much more. Her program helps youth navigate the specifics of getting the help they need so they can stay in school.

But the reason she and others have organized the vigil for the last five years is to shed some light on this incredibly important issue that she says, isn’t talked about enough.

“Well, I think in society in general, there’s a really negative stigma attached to the word homeless,” says King.

She says she hopes events like this will motivate people to really think about the issue without stigmatizing it.

17-year old Soldotna High School student Lana Chesley is doing just that. She’s seen how being in that position goes beyond personal life. She’s had homeless classmates and friends it takes its toll on school life and social life as well.

“I knew it was really hard because most kids grow up with all sorts of electronics and gizmos and money and stuff,” says Chesley. “And the people who I knew did struggle because they couldn’t connect with their friends like that. So I think it’s a struggle for them as an identity thing because they can’t relate to their peers as anyone else did.”

She’s glad this vigil is specifically for kids and their families. It’s hard enough to just be a teenager much less one without a stable place to call home.

“When I put myself in their place and try to feel what they’re feeling, I can’t really imagine it,” says Chesley. “So I guess there is a semblance of sadness in my heart because I really don’t know how they feel and it hurts me that they’re hurting because I know they are.”

Schooley says it is hard, but it’s also possible to turn things around.

“I got my life together, healed through all the pain and trauma and found out what was happening here and it’s just unacceptable,” says Schooley.

She went from being homeless herself to now working with kids in the same position. But despite having that experience, she was still surprised to find out how big the problem is on the peninsula.

“These are families and students and individuals who are really that invisible population amongst the crowd but they are very much here and very much present,” says King, who hopes that making the unseen seen, even just for one night, could spark the change that is sorely needed.

Categories: Alaska News

State Celebrates First Dr. Walter Soboleff Day

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:42

Today is the first Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska, and dozens of the late Tlingit leader’s friends and relatives marked the occasion with a parade through downtown Juneau.

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Walter Soboleff passed away in 2011 at the age of 102. (Sealaska Photo)

Soboleff’s oldest son, Sasha, says humility and inclusiveness are his dad’s lasting legacy. The Presbyterian minister accepted people of all races at his church in Juneau at a time when the town was segregated.

“This man worked well over a hundred years to do things for not only the people of Alaska, but for those who strove to better themselves to do what they need to do. And what was key to his heart and key to his spirit was the service to his God and Jesus Christ,” Sasha said.

Soboleff would have been 106-years-old today. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 102.

He was involved in the Alaska Native civil rights movement of the 1940s, and later in life helped launch efforts to revitalize Native languages, as well as traditional art and spiritual practices.

“He is one of those that started off by writing down Tlingit values, so that people can have a starting point on what it meant, what our values meant,” Ed Thomas, former president of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, said.

Thomas says those values include honoring your ancestors and elders and having a sense of humor.

Earlier this year, the Alaska Legislature unanimously passed a bill making Nov. 14 Dr. Walter Soboleff Day. Gov. Sean Parnell signed it into law in July.

 

Categories: Alaska News

State OKs Wishbone Hill Coal Permits

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:29

The federal Office of Surface Mining has contacted the state regarding the status of coal mining permits for the Wishbone Hill site near Palmer. Last month, the state gave Usibelli Coal the go-ahead to begin mining, after years of delays and legal hurdles. But OSM has criticized the state Department of Natural Resources for it’s handling of the many extensions and renewals of the permit since 1991.  

In October, Usibelli Coal got the news: the state approved renewal of the Wishbone Hill mining permits, which allows Usibelli to operate the mine.

This month, [Nov. 4] in a letter to the state’s coal mining regulatory program director, Russell Kirkham, the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement,  OSM for short, upholds the state’s decision, but not for the reasons that DNR had expected.

 The state’s final decision on the renewal of the permits for a five year term is not in question, according to OSM’s Robert C. Postle, who authored the letter. But Postle pointed out the state’s allowance of extensions and it’s failure to pull the permits because of inactivity at the mine site, are not within the provisions of the coal mining regulatory program.

 Kirkham says he can’t discuss the letter or it’s contents, because the matter is under appeal.

 The Trustees For Alaska legal firm is appealing Wishbone Hill’s October permit approval. Since Usibelli began work on the mine in 2010, Trustee attorneys have thrown legal challenges against operations at Wishbone Hill, based on the premise that the mining permits are invalid. Trustee attorney Vicki Clarke says until now, OSM had agreed with those who are challenging the permits

“The final decision was very recent, and it is a complete 180 (degree) from the original decision, and in our opinion, isn’t consistent with the law.”

The federal government regulates coal mining in the US, under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The federal act allows individual states to develop coal regulatory programs consistent with federal law. Alaska has developed its own program under the Alaska Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1983.

According to Postle’s letter, both the federal and the state regulatory programs require mining to commence within three years of the issuance of a permit. If not, the permit becomes invalid. Reasonable extensions are allowed. But, Postle says here’s the rub. Wishbone Hill’s two permits were granted in 1991, but since then, the mining operation changed owners twice, and DNR granted an extension only once in the 18 years between 1991 and 2010, when Usibelli began operations.

Postle says, in his letter, the state erred, not because it now allows Usibelli to mine, but because DNR never officially terminated the permits due to the earlier owner’s inaction at the mine site. He  says, permits do not just terminate by themselves – official action must be taken by authorities.

Postle says Usibelli is not at fault, because the permits it was operating under in 2010 were never invalidated by the state, so in effect, Usibelli was not operating without a permit. Lorali Simon is Usibelli Coal’s spokesperson.

“We have maintained the legitimacy of these permits since day one. Usibelli acquired the leases and the permits to the Wishbone Hill project in 1997, and we have actively maintained them with a desire to further develop the Wishbone Hill coal mine.”

But a number of conservation groups in the Matanuska Valley and the Chickaloon Tribal government have been fighting the mine. Lisa Wade represents the the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. Wade says the OSM’s decision only highlights the fact that the state failed to pay attention.

“If the state isn’t managing its permit this closely, if they are not following their own rules at this stage, then, if operations are to start, would they follow their own rules in ensuring the health and the safety of the community, which has changed dramatically since 1991, when the permits were first issued.”

Wade says suburban homes now are in close proximity to the mine site, as is an elementary school run by the tribe. And she adds, the tribe has been requesting tribal government to government consultation with OSM since 2011, to no avail.

“Because we are pressing for a review of this file. Of the entire case, because right now, this project, if it goes forward, has the possibility of damaging ecosystems, and our entire community.”

And Trustee Vicki Clarke hints at a looming lawsuit.

“Ultimately, the court needs to make a determination whether the application of the law is legal. And so, the appeal will be before DNR, and then, we’ll see what ends up happening after that.”

But Postle says that neither federal nor Alaska coal regulations expressly state whether permit termination occurs automatically at the end of three years, or or whether administrative action is required. So, he concludes, the federal government cannot require Alaska to invalidate a permit simply because a permit holder misses the three year deadline.  The permit will not terminate automatically, rather, it remains valid until the regulating authority takes action to terminate it.

“Courts do not favor automatic forfeitures where it is not mandated by “clear and unequivocal” language, he said.

Postle further states that Alaska’s coal regulatory program managers need to be explicit and timely in issuing notice of termination to permit-holders who do not meet the three year deadline. He says mining permits cannot be kept alive by default, and recommends that the state work with his office on a plan to address the state’s shortcomings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Students call for action, public comment on U-Med Access Road

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:26

Students at the University of Alaska – Anchorage are trying to motivate their classmates and the community to get informed about a controversial proposed infrastructure project — the U-Med District Northern Access Road. They say the public still has a chance to shape the project’s future.

The planned-but-not-yet-permitted U-Med District Road would cut through what is now woods and wetlands to connect Bragaw Street to Elmore right between the UAA and APU campuses. The legislature set aside $20 million for the project in 2013. UAA Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Bill Spindle said they are still negotiating what the university would get in exchange for the land to build the road.

“You know, if we can do value, instead of money, you know, an extra roundabout, an extra cross over, that’s a benefit to us,” he said.

The proposed preferred route for the U-Med District Northern Access Road.

Spindle said the plans for the road and even the exact route are not set in stone. And that’s the major point that students from the Environmental Planning and Problem-Solving class want to get across: the U-Med District Road is not a done deal.

Senior Jennifer Howell says the class is hosting an educational forum because they want students and community members to have the tools to participate in the upcoming Army Corps of Engineers public comment period.

“Cause it’s a little bit more than saying, ‘Oh, I think this is a good idea or a bad idea.’ The requirement is they are substantive comments, and that’s been a learning process as students in the classroom.”

Howell explains the Corps is involved because the proposed project involves filling in wetlands. She says the class isn’t taking a position on the topic, but they want people to be aware of the process.

“We don’t really know what the Corps of Engineers is going to say, and that’s why it’s really cool that there is a public process still and it’s really important for us as students in the UAA community to actually get involved in that. It’s not a done deal. And we have a voice. If we don’t use the voice, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. But we do have a voice and it’s important that we get involved.”

Howell said most students don’t know about the project, so the class is inviting speakers from the UAA administration, like Spindle, to talk about why the road is necessary and to answer questions.

“Well, this road for us is all about safety,” Spindle said.

Spindle explained the road will reduce traffic problems on UAA Drive, move cars to the outskirts of campus, and the roundabouts would slow traffic. The University’s 2013 master plan shows potential roads extending from them toward potential future projects built in the area that is now used for outdoor recreation. But Spindle downplays those plans.

“You can look on the master plan, you can go all they way back and see all kinds of things that we’ve dreamed about putting there. But the reality is right today that we don’t see any of them. But that doesn’t mean we won’t at some point because that is land for university and that’s the intent of the state. But again, we’re very sensitive to the needs of the community, the conservation qualities of that area, and we will always take that into account.”

The student-led meeting will take place at the UAA Library on Tuesday at 5:30 pm. The Corps public comment period will begin once the Department of Transportation submits the permit applications.

Categories: Alaska News

Healthcare.gov Miscalculates Subsidies In Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 16:03

November 15th marks the start of the second open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, when individuals can sign up for coverage on healthcare.gov. But even before it opens for business, there are signs the website isn’t working correctly for Alaskans. 

Most Alaskans who buy individual insurance on healthcare.gov receive a subsidy to help pay for it. But right now, the website is underestimating subsidy amounts for Alaskans. Enroll Alaska noticed the problem as the company tested the site. Joshua Weinstein is president of Northrim Benefits Group, which oversees Enroll Alaska. He says the company will advise customers on their choices, but won’t sign them up until they know it’s working:

“I’m just concerned that if we enroll people with the wrong subsidy amount, how would that get rectified later? So our strategy is to just hold off a little bit… until we know the subsidy calculations are fixed.”

When healthcare.gov launched in October last year, the website wasn’t functional. Over the last several months, the Obama Administration has emphasized the new version of healthcare.gov will be much improved, but not perfect. Susan Johnson is regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She addressed the subsidy glitch at anews conference in Anchorage:

“I was on a phone call with D.C. this morning, they’re working on that, it’s high on their list. I’ll be talking to them again this afternoon and we’ll hope to get that fixed as quickly as we can.”

Johnson couldn’t provide a timeline for when it will be fixed. But in the meantime, the United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Primary Care Association are preparing to help Alaskans across the state sign up for health insurance. Both groups received navigator grants from the federal government. Sue Brogan, with the United Way, says the organization will hold a lot more public events this time around:

“What we learned last year is that Alaskans sought more of a human touch to find their way through the process. That individuals could make decisions, but what they needed first was a better understanding of the ACA, the ins and outs of health insurance and their coverage options.”

For the first enrollment period, navigators- who help people enroll- were based in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. This time, navigators with the Alaska Primary Care Association will be in Barrow, Bethel, Girdwood, Fairbanks, Juneau, King Cove, Sitka, Skagway, Soldotna, St. Paul, Talkeetna, Unalaska and Willow. The United Way also has three navigators in Anchorage.

And if Enroll Alaska’s experience holds, they will be busy. Joshua Weinstein says he’s been impressed with the level of interest the company has seen:

“At least for the first week, every available appointment is taken. We have five or six licensed agents who are working strictly on the individual market. And then some of our group agents and consultants are also stepping in to fulfill the need.”

The open enrollment period ends February 15. You have to sign up by December 15 for coverage that starts January 1.

During the last open enrollment period, about 16,000 Alaskans signed up for Affordable Care Act insurance.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Stakeholder To Sell Holdings In Alaska Rig

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 15:47

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has announced plans to sell its ownership stake in a Cook Inlet rig, which will be transported to South Africa for offshore exploration, pending final approval.

The authority, set up by the Alaska Legislature to provide financing for businesses that expand the state economy, said Friday it and other owners have been unable to secure a long-term charter for the jack-up drilling rig, the Endeavor-Spirit of Independence.

The rig arrived from Singapore in 2012. Initial plans called for keeping it in Homer for a few days, but it wound up staying more than seven months because of delays and repairs.

The Endeavor is owned by Kenai Offshore Ventures, LLC, involving AIDEA and partners. The partnership plans to purchase AIDEA’s shares.

Categories: Alaska News

Bering Strait School District Superintendent Placed On Administrative Leave

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 15:21

There’s been a shake-up in leadership at the Bering Strait School District. The BSSD Board of Education has placed superintendent Brett Agenbroad on administrative leave, and appointed Bobby Bolen as acting superintendent until a permanent hire is made.

The decision was announced during last week’s board meeting in Anchorage. Agenbroad was with the district for about a year and a half, and will be on leave until his contract ends next June 2015. BSSD employees were notified earlier this week. Board members did not provide comment on why this decision was made.

Acting superintendent Bobby Bolen has been with the Bering Strait District for about 10 years. He has worked in the district office, in Savoonga as assistant principal, and most recently as principal in St. Michael. Board chair Aurora Johnson says he was selected for the interim position because of his experience with and knowledge of the district.

Craig Sherwood, who was the assistant principal in Stebbins, will take over Bolen’s post as interim principal in St. Michael. Both Bolen and Johnson say their priority is making sure students aren’t adversely affected by the changes in leadership. The search for a permanent superintendent will begin in January.

Board chair Johnson also affirmed that a few new members were elected to the board in the recent election. Moving forward, she says the board shares Bolen’s goal of adjusting BSSD’s curriculum to match rising state standards.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Questions Differing National Guard Investigation Results

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 15:18

Two different Pentagon agencies investigated the Alaska National Guard for allegedly mishandling sexual assault complaints.

They came to opposite conclusions, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants to know why.

The Alaska Republican sent a letter today to the inspector general of the Defense Department asking for a review of the investigations of the Army Inspector General. The Army IG concluded the Alaska allegations couldn’t be substantiated. A letter summing up those findings, sent to Murkowski in May, said the Alaska Guard’s method of gauging morale and attitudes about leadership — called “climate sensing sessions” – did not reveal concerns about sexual assault and harassment reporting. The report itself was heavily redacted.

Then, in September, a report by another agency – the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations – was released. It reported significant distrust of leadership, favoritism, ethical misconduct and injustice.

Murkowski called it highly irregular that two professional investigations would come to such different conclusions. Calling for greater transparency, she asked for an unredacted version of the first report. She also asked the IG to ensure that the Guard whistle blowers don’t face retaliation.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: The Stampede

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-11-14 15:06

This time we’re heading to an unofficial community near Denali National Park boundary called The Stampede. Molly McKinley lives in The Stampede.

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Categories: Alaska News

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