The commander of the Sitka-based Coast Guard cutter Maple has been temporarily removed from command after officials received reports of problems on board.
Lt. Commander Fred Seaton had held the top slot on the Maple since June of 2012. On September 20, the Coast Guard opened an investigation after receiving reports of a “poor command climate” on the cutter, said Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow. That investigation is still underway, but preliminary results prompted the district commander, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, to temporarily relieve Seaton of his command, as of October 1. Seaton has been reassigned to Air Station Sitka for the length of the investigation.
Wadlow said policy prohibits him from discussing details before the investigation is complete. But he said Seaton was relieved of command because of a “lack of confidence.”
“It appears that the commanding officer of the Maple was acting in a manner that’s not consistent with the standard of conduct that’s expected of Coast Guard leaders,” Wadlow said. “Coast Guard commanders are placed in a position of high authority, and they are expected to create a positive command climate where people can come to work and they can grow professionally and they have a safe working environment.”
Lieutenant Raymond Reichl has taken over as the Maple’s temporary commanding officer. Reichl was formerly second in command, as the cutter’s executive officer.
The Maple is a 225-foot buoy tender, one of two such ships in Southeast Alaska, which maintain buoys and other navigational aids in the region between Juneau and Ketchikan. It has a crew of about 50 people.
Officials now say there was no threat from a suspicious white powder found in a package at the State Office Building in Juneau on Friday.
The incident prompted the building to be evacuated shortly after 10 o’ clock this morning.
Juneau Fire Marshal Dan Jager says the FBI determined the substance was some sort of packing material.
“They were able to confirm with the company that was on the shipping label what it was,” Jager said. “And they were able to confirm that, yes, this company down south did send a box to that address, and it was a packaging material.”
FBI officials could not be reached for comment.
Governor Sean Parnell’s Spokeswoman Sharon Leighow says the package was sent by a pharmaceutical company from California and contained tax documents. Employees with the Department of Revenue on the 11th floor of the State Office Building opened it at about 9:45 this morning.
Leighow says four employees were thought to have been exposed to the substance.
The building was closed Friday while a hazmat team secured the package.
Leighow says it will re-open as usual on Monday.
It’s been nearly 4 and a half months since a spring break up flood ravaged Galena. Much progress has been made to repair damaged infrastructure from power and water lines, to roads, and public buildings. Over 50 homes have been fixed or rebuilt, but many others remain in disrepair. Some Galena residents have struggled to navigate a tangle of assistance programs.
Jen Hildebrand’s home was one of the most photographed in Galena this spring. Already in rough shape the house sat immersed in a flood formed lake for weeks.
“I always prayed to god for a new house I just didn’t think it would take out the whole town to get it,” she said.
Hildebrand happily watches as a forklift swings trusses into place on her new house. The small three-bedroom designed by the Fairbanks based Cold Climate Housing Research Center sits high atop gravel and steel pilings.
“I’m gonna see that next flood comin’ on that river,” Hildebrand said.
The new house will also be super energy efficient, a village dream home, but Hildebrand, like many Galena residents, had to negotiate a web of bureaucracy and programs to finance it.
“There’s always a catch if your eligible, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, but then you can’t get this,” she said. “Yeah, I had to fight for it, we all did.”
Neighbor Frieda Beasley checks in on the progress, happy for her friend and sad about her own situation.
“It was a frustrating summer; battling with the insurance company, with FEMA and the SBA, the misunderstanding and how well you have to read between the lines, and how frustrating it is to get all those of phone calls of rejection,” she said. “Right at the very first meeting FEMA told us, all of us were going to get $32,000.”
Beasley says income and flood insurance disqualified her and her husband from getting the government payout. They’re using insurance money and a bank loan to rebuild, but complications have delayed the project until next summer, so like many they’re staying in a relative’s home.
“There are people that are couch surfing,” Karl Edwards, who heads up flood recovery for the state, said. “A lot of people prefer to stay with relatives, than be in a shelter or somewhere else, and we’re trying to help them all.”
Edwards acknowledges some people have fallen through the cracks.
“Unfortunately that is true,” he said.
But he points to the success stories, knowing winter is bringing the re-building season to an end.
“We have got some people back into their homes; we do have some homes completed,” Edwards said. “We have about a week left of large teams here in Galena working, so they’re trying to wrap up as much as they can before they leave.”
“And the goal or the hope is that they can at least get shells on houses, so that people can do inside work through the winter.”
Edwards credits numerous volunteer crews from faith based organizations who have helped people rebuild. The state, FEMA, Salvation Army, Americorps and other government and tribal organizations have also provided food, clothing, and temporary housing.
Local teacher Adrianna Hevezi was a renter who lost her place in the flood and is one of 20 or so living at a shelter for the winter.
“I have a job; this is home to me, so why should I move?” she said. “My son is graduating this year, this is his home, his friends are here, so we are trying to stay.”
Hevezi doesn’t blame the government for some people’s struggle to recover from the flood.
“I don’t expect the government to give me anything, so whatever I got, I was thankful,” she said. “You know, it was unfortunate what happened; things happen in life and you just have to be resilient, and do the best you can.”
Hevezi has purchased a heavily damaged home with plans to rebuild it. That kind of self reliance is taken is taken to the extreme in another Galena housing project.
“Absolutely zero help of any sort,” Jake Pograbinsky said.
He is aiding friend Gilbert Huntington, put together a log cabin, a labor intensive endeavor pursued without any government assistance. The locally cut wood shines bright from hours of work using machinery the men cobbled back together after the flood.
“Everything we used was drowned out,” Pograbinsky said. “This forklift was drowned; the mill that we used to mill the logs has drowned.”
“This is why we are both staggering with exhaustion.”
Pograbinksy says he’ll get to fixing up his own place next summer, a plan many Galena residents have not adopted by choice.
Meera Kohler, President of the Alaska Villages Electric Cooperative, says they are still on schedule for a Spring takeover of Bethel Utilities Corporation. AVEC is a non-profit electric utility serving Western Alaska. The buyout would cut electric rates for customers in Bethel, Napaskiak, and Oscarville. The coop’s other 52 villages should experience lower rates as well.
“We expect those savings actually to show across the AVEC system,” Kohler says.
BUC is a for-profit company and AVEC is not, and therein lies savings, says Kohler. She says AVEC’s cost structure is different than BUC’s.
“They are a tax paying entity so included in their rate base is a component that goes to the federal government to pay income taxes, corporate income taxes. We don’t have to do that,” Kohler says. “So, that comes right out of the rate base.”
They expect rates to be 8 to 10 percent lower immediately. There will also be more options for customers paying their bills.
“We’re going to be accepting credit cards for payment,” Kohler says. “And once everybody is fully integrated into our system, you will be able to go on-line and look at your account on-line, pay your bill on-line, do all sorts of things that you can’t do at this particular point in time.”
They’ll keep the power plant which Kohler says is well run by competent staff. And they’ll keep the same office building in the downtown area.
“We will continue to operate the utility over here pretty much like it has been,” Kohler says.
BUC and AVEC jointly filed in July to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for an approval of the transfer. Kohler says if all goes well, the RCA will rule on the transfer by December 12.
“Then we will start the process of all the various things that need to happen to transfer the utility completely to us,” Kohler says. “And we anticipate taking operation of BUC on May 1st of next year.”
AVEC’s long term plan includes looking for funding sources to improve the equipment at the power plant and eventually seek wind power integration to reduce their dependency on fuel which powers the power plant.
Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will spend the next four years studying various aspects of Pacific walruses in the far north. The $1.7 million project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Scientists will use thousands of samples housed at the University’s Museum of the North, as well as stories and interviews preserved in the University’s Rasmuson Library to answer questions about everything from the marine mammal genetics to changes in habitat over the last 2,000 years.
In a lab in the basement of the Museum of the North, three scientists brainstorm about how best to make use of a set of walrus teeth.
“These teeth are full of DNA,” Link Olson said. He’s the curator of Mammals at the Museum.
He’s holding a bag of golf ball-sized yellow teeth. Some of them are marked with rust-colored lines.
“That’s blood. That’s residual tissue that can be used to get DNA from even if we aren’t able to drill into the teeth,” Olson explained. “So, this otherwise seemingly worthless material is actually a gold mine of information and what we’re going to be getting out of it is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Olson is part of a larger research team that was recently awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
For his part, he uses DNA sequencing technology to piece together the genetic story of the Pacific Walrus over the last 2,000 years.
“Foremost in my mind is whether or not these are able to adapt evolutionarily to some of the changes they are facing,” he said.
Walrus habitat has declined in recent years, due to changes in sea ice extent. That’s why lead researcher Nicole Misarti says the project is timely.
“There are a lot of villages on the northwestern coast and northern coast that rely on walrus for food all winter long, they rely on the ivory to bring in money from carvings and artwork,” Misarti said. ”So it’s important as far as sustainability of villages is concerned and the other level of it is they’re a good species to look at as the Arctic changes.”
The team will look at everything from walrus habitat to genetics and they’ll use thousands of available samples to answer their questions. They will also use archived interviews to learn more about traditional knowledge of the Pacific Walrus.
It’s the largest study of its kind.
Misarti says it also spans a time period longer than any other marine mammal study.
“We’re hitting other time periods that were also much warmer than things have been for the last few hundred years, and so if sea ice was receding then, we might see some changes as well and it probably did receded then because the medieval warm was a fairly warm period,” she said.
Some of the changes scientists hope to discover could be hidden in walrus bones.
Lara Horstmann is an Assistant Professor at UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She plans to extract hormones from ancient and modern bone specimens.
“Cortisol is a stress response hormone,” Horstmann explained. ”So, this is something we could get at to look at stress response in the past and today and see if that has changed. So, are animals today more stressed than they were 2,000 years ago?”
Horstmann’s work involves methods that have never before been used in marine mammal research.
“Well, it’s fairly new in the forensic world,” she said, “So people have tried it, but at this point in time, we don’t even know if it’s going to work, so this is highly experimental.”
If it does work, she says the data will provide a wealth of information.
A number of Alaska Native Organizations will participate in the study.
The funding will also pay for two student research positions at UAF and four Alaska Native high school students will take part in 2016.
This week, we’re headed to the community of Kenny Lake on the edge of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Vicky Koelzer is co-owner of the Kenny Lake Mercantile.
The University of Alaska Anchorage’s hockey team is putting its turbulent off-season behind it. And with a new athletic director and head coach at the helm, the team has an opportunity to take advantage of a clean slate of sorts.
The team is practicing at the Sullivan Arena this week, preparing for their first big tournament of the season. The forwards and defensemen start off with some passing and skating drills to get their blood flowing, and new head coach Matt Thomas is firing pucks on net to help the goalies loosen up.
There’s a lot of pressure on a new coach when they take over a team; some of it’s from fans, some from the staff and players, and, according to Coach Thomas, a lot comes from him.
“I embrace that pressure; it’s why I’m in this business; it’s why I coach. I’ve got gray hair to prove it; I’ve got enough stress – and I should be getting massages weekly because the stress is in the shoulders and the neck, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.
Thomas is taking over a team that hasn’t had a winning season in this millennium, and he recognizes that it can be a tough trend to break. But, he wants the players and staff to improve every day and recognize what their strengths are so they can take advantage of them.
“I think you coach based on the players you have and the type of team you have and right now we’ve got a team of very committed, hard-working players that – if we play a good team game – I think it gives us a chance to win every night,” Thomas said.
And with a shaken up Western Collegiate Hockey Association – which features six new teams, including UAA’s in-state rivals, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks – there should be plenty of opportunities to win.
Thomas says the makeup of the old conference put programs like UAA’s – that didn’t have the resources of the larger programs – at a disadvantage, but, he thinks the conference’s new look will level the playing field.
“I think you’re going to see a very competitive conference where every team is truly committed each night and has a strong belief that they can win,” he said.
Not all of Thomas’s duties are on the ice.
He and his staff have been busy all summer working to bring in new recruits and they have had some success, but not necessarily with the top Alaskan prospects, because they want to play somewhere else.
“Right now, the program needs to get to a higher level of winning and tradition and really bring a lot of pride to the young kids that when they grow up they want to be part of this program – and right now that’s not the case,” he said.
Thomas says having the team become more involved with youth hockey programs in the area will be a big step in fixing that problem.
“Looking towards the future it’s something that we’re certainly looking to do, because we do want all the talent that is in Alaska we want it all to stay right here in Anchorage and be a part of UAA hockey,” he said.
Coach Thomas and the rest of the Seawolves are hosting the 2013 Kendall Hockey Classic this weekend In Anchorage, where they will face off against Air Force and Quinnipiac.
This year’s University of Alaska Anchorage Atwood Chair of Journalism is the first Native to hold the position. Alaska residents come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and the state is home to half of the nation’s tribes, yet most of the reporters in the state are white. Does this matter? What changes when there is more diversity in reporting?
HOST: Lori Townsend, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Mark Trahant, Atwood Chair of Journalism, University of Alaska Anchorage
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
- Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
At 1.6 million acres, the Wood Tikchik State Park is the largest of its kind in the United States. With no road or trails, the park remains a quiet preserve for the fish and wildlife it was created to protect.
The Tikchik River winds a gentle 60 miles through the pristine northern most regions of the park. Once every couple of years, the park’s rangers float the river to get a better look and feel for things in that unique wilderness area.
Large and lonely at the north end of the Wood Tikchik State Park sits Nishlik Lake, a fine place to begin a float of the Tikchik River. Four of us camped two nights there, catching lake trout from the shore, and finding big, old grayling in a smaller unnamed lake a short hike away. For Chief Ranger Bill Berkahn, this is as good as the job gets.
“We don’t get up here very often, by airplane a few times a year to do some work, but a lot of it is maintaining that familiarity with the park,” he said. “A lot of it is staying in touch with what’s going on out here, and you can’t do that sitting in front of a computer, waiting for the phone to ring.”
Part of staying in touch with the park, believe it or not, is what the ranger staff calls test fishing, and about a mile or so into our float of the Tikchik River the fishing gets really good.
“Well we are on the Tikchik River,” Berkahn said, laughing as a fish hits his line. “Crystal Clear water and a pool with numerous, numerous 17-inch graylings, I don’t think it gets any better than this.”
Big, beautiful grayling, some bright silver with shimmering turquoise, others a cool burnt umber, are astoundingly abundant in the Tikchik. We find them in every pool, around every bend of the river.
“Beautiful, big dorsal, 18 inches; There he goes,” Berkahn said, as the fish splashes back in to the water.
Just a few miles from Nishlik Lake, the first few crimson red sockeye streak by.
Alison Eskelin, the park’s only other ranger, points to them out as we pass by. We count sockeye by the dozen, then by the hundreds, and soon we’re drifting over thousands. Eskelin’s surprised to see so many, this far up river.
“The most breathtaking thing is floating down river and seeing these pockets of crimson red salmon, all schooled up together, waiting to spawn and take their place in the ecosystem,” she said. “For the health of the river, for the health of the population, for the subsistence that all the people use those fish for, and having them that far up into the system, how many miles have they traveled to get up there?”
You need a map to put perspective on the incredible journey these salmon have undertaken. Up the Nushagak, left on the Nuyakuk, past the falls, across the lake, and on up the Tikchik to their final destinations.
We continue our test fishing, casting behind the sockeye, and reeling in one grayling after the next.
Passing through an unnamed canyon, we stop to watch a nesting pair of peregrine falcons are agitated by our presence
“These are the only two I know of in the park,” Berkahn said, when I asked him if that was a common occurrence. “They were here the last time we came through, a couple of years ago.”
Each evening on the Tikchik, it’s easy to find a suitable gravel bar for camp, usually pre-stacked with driftwood. The further down river we travel, the thicker the mosquitoes seem to be, but the fire helps.
Matt Wedeking is a ranger from Chugach State Park, who was impressed by his first trip to Wood Tikchik.
“Unspoiled Alaskan wilderness and it should stay that way,” Wedeking said. “Alaska State Parks should do what they can to keep that the way that it is.”
“The opportunity this park provides is something that has to be kept and conserved for others; and so I can take my kids out here.”
The scenery on the Tikchik float is striking, from sprawling high alpine tundra hemmed in by endless mountains, to the lower pine forests woven with creeks and streams. Ranger Bill Berkahn says he never tires of the visual experience.
“Part of why this park was set aside is because of its outstanding scenic resources,” Berkahn said. “Those are the words that are used in the management plan and I haven’t been let down.”
“Every turn on the river opened up a new vista, a new view, a new mountain, a new ridge, you can’t get tired of it.”
A week passes on the Tikchik and we don’t encounter a soul, not a boat, or plane. The pace is easy, the fish and wildlife are abundant. This is Alaska at its best and it’s a little hard to leave it behind.
As it stands, the Bering Sea crab harvest is on hold until fishermen receive their permits from federal government. But three Pacific Northwest congressional leaders have an idea to get the season back on schedule.
To pay those employees’ salaries, they want to use cost recovery fees. Fishermen pay cost recovery fees — up to 3 percent of the value of their catch — to NMFS every year. It’s supposed to cover the expense of managing fisheries.
The members of Congress urged Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker to consider their proposal in a letter sent on Wednesday. They write that any delays in the crab fishery “may result in significant economic harm to fishermen and processors who are required by statute and regulation to fully reimburse your agency for the administration of the allocation of this public resource.”
The Bering Sea crab fisheries are supposed to open on October 15.
A salvage operation and clean-up efforts are still underway in Haines, where a 78-foot tender sank last weekend in the boat harbor.
The tender Neptune is being raised from the bottom of the Haines Harbor, although progress is going more slowly than anticipated.
That’s according to Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Erikson who has been on scene this week observing the salvage operation and monitoring the leaking fuel from the vessel that is polluting the harbor.
“The tides were not working in our favor yesterday so the vessel slipped a little,” he said. “They were able to push the nose back up to where it was.”
“This afternoon they’re looking to go ahead and swing the stern back to the rocky shelf to keep it a little higher as the tide comes in and then work on it again when the tide goes out.”
But now that the boat is at least partly above water, containment booms surrounding the harbor were removed Thursday. Booms remain around the tender to contain fuel and oils still leaking and cleanup continues, but boats are now able to move freely in and out of the harbor.
The Neptune sank while moored at the harbor Saturday, Oct. 5. Containment booms were placed at the harbor’s entrance and no fuel was reported to have escaped into Port Chilkoot or Lynn Canal, but the state and Coast Guard required boats leaving the harbor, including the Haines fishing fleet, get hosed down at a decontamination station.
The boat’s owner estimated there was about 1,600 gallons of fuel on board when it sank. It’s unclear how much of that leaked, but it’s far less than the 10,000 gallon benchmark that would make it a major spill, Erikson said.
“It’s still considered by national standards a minor spill, but by Alaska standards it’s still not good,” he said. “It’s not something we want to see.”
Erikson said it’s unlikely the spill will have any lasting effect. Wind and rain will continue to help dissipate the fuel, he said. And it doesn’t seem to have affected any wildlife.
Pam Randles with the Takshanuk Watershed Council in Haines on Tuesday surveyed the harbor and nearby shores. She said she didn’t find any sick or dead wildlife.
“I found a whole bunch of critters and none of them showed any signs whatsoever of any damage or illness or any oil on their feathers or fur,” Randles said. “And I probably saw 100 gulls, 75 crows and some mallards and some sparrows and some harlequin and golden-eye jacks and a seal – and they were all fine.”
A marine salvager from Juneau is working on floating and pulling the boat from the water, working with the tides. Once ashore, Erikson said the Coast Guard will investigate the cause of the sinking. A marine surveyor will also determine if the 76-year-old wooden tender can be fixed and returned to the sea.
The U.S. Forest Service employs about 400 people in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
And most of them are on furlough, awaiting a call from the federal government that they’ll soon be back to work.
With the partial U.S. government shutdown in its second week, KTOO’S Rosemarie Alexander takes a look at the impact on the Tongass.
The telephone message at Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center is similar at offices throughout the Tongass:
“We are not in the office at this time. We are on furlough without out access to email due to the lapse in federal government funding.”
But the forest isn’t closed. There are no gates across the hundreds of trails and miles of roads.
“I’ve had a number of questions in the last 24 hours about guides and special use permits for outfitter and guiding, and for the most part they’re still active, says Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole. “We haven’t shut down any of that.”
Folks with current reservations are also welcome to use Forest Service cabins, but new reservations can’t be made because the reservation system is shut down, Cole says.
“They might need to bring their own toilet paper,” says Juneau District Ranger Marti Marshall. “They can use the outhouses, we’re just not servicing them.”
The Forest Service also is not collecting garbage.
“And that is a pack it in, pack it out message” she says.
Marshall is one of 10 Tongass district rangers who are working during the shutdown. They’re called “accepted” employees.
“Maybe the most frustrating for all of us is we’re only to work on the accepted activities, law enforcement and activities that protect health and safety. I’d love to be catching up on my pile of work on my desk, but no,” she says.
As for the number of Tongass employees laid off due to the partial government shutdown, Cole says “it’d be easier to tell you how many people are on.”
In addition to the rangers, the list includes law enforcement officers, most like those in the Juneau district have a wide geographic territory to cover. They’re not always able to check the Forest Service buildings, or for example, Ketchikan’s fleet of boats. So that falls to the rangers.
“They’ve got to run them every so often or the batteries go dead and they fill up with water and sink,” Cole says.
Cole says the aviation program manager and a fire coordinator are working as well as a few employees responsible for shutting down projects, including about 25 active timber operations, the largest on Lindenberg Pensinsula and Zarembo Island.
“We’ve given them time to do an orderly shutdown; erosion control work, get volume that’s in the water out, and get it scaled,” he says. Normally the the timber crews would work until snow falls.
Most of those laid off from logging projects are not federal employees. But some others from the private sector are still working on road construction crews on Prince of Wales Island. Cole says projects allowed to continue depend on a variety of factors, and that decision is made case-by-case.
In the Juneau Ranger District, the snow is coming down the mountains above Mendenhall Glacier. But with the hurried shutdown, a crew remains on call to complete a trail project, or pull out equipment when the snow flies at lower elevations.
The project is called “the Aztec stairs of torture up West Glacier Trail,” Marshall says, laughing.
With so few boots on the ground in the Tongass, Marshall says the Forest Service is counting on its communities to help during the government shutdown.
“Since we aren’t out there, we want people to be our eyes and ears. If they see something suspicious or damage occurring, please call Juneau Police Department or our law enforcement officers,” or police in other Tongass towns.
It’s fortunate the Southeast Alaska tourist season ended just before the federal shutdown and the forest is winding down for winter.
“Thank goodness we’re not in the desert southwest or back east, where it’s fall color time, when it would be their busy time of year,” Marshall says.
Both Marshall and Cole worked for the Forest Service during the last government shutdown in 1995 and understand the anxiety some employees are feeling.
“Everyday people were wanting to know if they were going to go back to work or not,” Cole recalls. “It finally worked itself out.”
Marshall says “it’s just difficult to listen to the news. And I hope we don’t come back to a mess.”
Marshall says if people see vandalism or other damage to Juneau District Ranger property, or anything out of the ordinary, they can call her 789-6244.
The man who started Fairbanks Natural Gas and now runs another gas company, is poised to build a North Slope LNG processing plant that could supply trucked in gas to Fairbanks.
The city of Anchorage is hoping to build a road through green space in the city’s university area.
It would be provide additional access to one of the busiest business districts in Anchorage, but neighborhood councils in the area are strongly opposed to the new road. And public feedback at a town hall meeting on Tuesday evening was overwhelmingly negative.
Forty people stepped up to the podium on Tuesday night to address a crowd that filled most of the seats in East High School’s commons.
The meeting was hosted by State Senator Bill Wielechowski and Representatives Geran Tarr, Andy Josephson and Max Gruenberg – all Democrats from Anchorage. They heard testimony that had a common theme.
“I am very disturbed by this project,” Helen Nienhueser, an area resident since 1969, said. “And I’m also very disturbed by the process that we have gone through to get this $20 million for this.”
“It was a backroom deal that happened in the closing moments of the legislature with all the local representatives opposing it.”
According to Senator Wielechowski, the “backroom deal” Nienhueser refers to is a $20 million allocation from the state that was added to the capital budget by House Finance Committee Co-Chair Bill Stoltze – a Republican from Chugiak – in the closing days of the legislative session.
“There was just an uproar from the legislators in the area,” Wielechowski said. “[There] were many conversations with him and his staff urging him to take it out.”
“There were motions made on the floor to strip it out and it was not something that the legislators in the area wanted or felt was needed quite frankly.”
There weren’t enough votes on the floors of the House or Senate to nix the funding.
Wielechowski says it is a case of politicians from outside Anchorage mandating a project that area residents have largely opposed for decades.
“It really is, I think, a slap in the face to the local community to completely disregard the will and desire of the community,” Wielechowski said.
Many of those who spoke at the town hall were in favor of a “no-build” option, but the project’s manager, Eric Miyashiro, says the state favors a road.
“It didn’t really meet the purpose, or the goal, of the project, which was to improve access to kind of Northeast Anchorage,” he said.
Miyashiro also says there is a disconnect between what U-Med businesses want and what nearby communities want.
“We have gone to all the community councils in the area and a lot of folks have real concerns about the project on the community councils and are not in favor of it, but on the other hand we have all the major institutions inside the U-Med district that are right in the middle of developing the project,” Miyashiro said.
One-million dollars was previously allocated to the project for preliminary engineering and environmental work.
According to Miyashiro, the recent $20 million dollar allocation might be enough to completely finish the road – depending on which of four options for the road are chosen.
“The two routes that are further east, those would probably be routes that would have four lanes and we would probably be short a little bit of money on those,” he said.
The engineering company DOWL HKM is currently working on the preliminary engineering, environmental, right-of-way and utility needs as well as cost estimates for the four different routes.
Miyashiro says this preliminary phase should be complete by the end of December.
After that, a steering committee will take the preliminary findings and comments from the public into account to decide on the preferred route.
The General Education Development test, better known as the GED, is the standard high school equivalency exam. This January, the test will be updated –made more rigorous according to the test developers. But with the update comes a deadline: those currently working toward a GED need to finish before Dec. 31 or they’ll have to start over next year.
Sitka’s water system is back in business.
Local officials feared the coastal community would run out of water this morning after the main line broke.
A contractor rebuilding Sitka’s Sawmill Creek Road damaged the line yesterday afternoon while blasting rock. Water began flowing through the pipe again this morning after repairs were completed.
A Sitka official says the Sawmill Creek Road contractor is responsible for the cost of repairing Wednesday’s water-main break.
Sitka Public Works Director Michael Harmon says Anchorage-based Quality Asphalt Paving will be asked to cover the costs. City and company crews worked together to reach and fix the damage.
He says it’s at least the second time blasting has stopped water flowing from Blue Lake, Sitka’s water source.
“They are responsible, definitely in our mind. And we will be pursuing to recoup the funds, not only of our staff, but equipment and so forth,” Harmon says.
The company did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment.
Officials feared the community would run out of water this (Thursday) morning after the line from Blue Lake was damaged.
The contractor ruptured the line about 3 p.m. Wednesday while blasting rock. Water began flowing through the pipe again this (Thursday) morning after repairs were completed.
The city’s industrial park and some nearby neighbors were reconnected later because they’re supplied with a different pipe, which also broke. Users in those areas were advised to boil water during the next two days.
Harmon says the earlier contractor-caused water-main break took place in June.
He also says a September water-line break closer to town happened at the same time blasting took place. He says the explosion may have increased pressure, blowing out a weak, old pipe.
Officials on Wednesday asked residents to conserve water to slow the drain on Sitka’s storage tanks. They said the tanks held about a 12-hour supply.
Meanwhile, grocers saw a run on packaged water Wednesday night.
Max Rule is chief financial officer of the parent company for two Sitka stores. He says shelves were largely emptied of bottles, as well as gallon sizes.
“And interestingly enough, we also sold a tremendous amount of water containers. So I imagine folks were probably taking those containers and filling those up from the taps and getting stockpiled for the evening,” he says.
He says water is back on shelves today (Thursday).
Options for health insurance coverage can be pretty limited in Alaska for small businesses and the self-employed. That includes commercial fishermen, who make up a major segment of the economy. Some in the industry say the cost and lack of access to comprehensive health insurance is a barrier to new fishermen and an ongoing concern for those already in the business.
I have to disclose right at the beginning, I commercial fish part of the year but this story wasn’t originally going to involve me personally. I was just going to be the usual, detached narrator. I was confident that when I was working on my boat, I was covered by the comprehensive insurance my wife and I get through her state job. In the course of researching this story, I found out I was wrong. But I’ll get back to that later.
First, here’s a full-time fisherman Lance Watkins, who works in multiple fisheries:
“So when I listen to the news these days, they’re all about getting small businesses going again. We want small businesses to thrive and go and go small business. I know I’m a very small business as an owner of my small fishing business but I know other owners of their very small businesses and their business decisions are extremely restricted because they have to worry about the high cost of health care.”
Watkins is a slim, healthy, 36-year old who is married with two young children. He says his family used to pay for a temporary policy, hoping his wife could find a job with benefits. When she became pregnant with their second child, he says they were unable to qualify for a regular policy because insurance companies considered pregnancy a preexisting condition. They ultimately ended up getting insurance for the kids through the state-run Denali Kid-Care program.
Watkins was denied private insurance for himself because he’s a dive fisherman. He eventually qualified for major-medical coverage through the Alaska Comprehensive Health Insurance Association. That state organization sells insurance to Alaskans who can’t get it anywhere else. But it’s limited and like other insurance, it’s not cheap:
“The way I figure it is it’s a ten thousand dollar deductible and a five thousand dollar premium for me. I’m paying 15 thousand dollars a year before I get any type of benefit from the health insurance. But I realize that health insurance is there in case something extremely catastrophic happens and that’s why you pay it. So, I don’t go to the hospital or go to the clinic. I take care of myself and if something catastrophic happens, that’s what the insurance is there for. So, I’m playing the game.”
Watkins is playing it safer than many fishermen, who choose to forgo insurance altogether. According to a 2009 study by a health-care-reform advocacy group called the Small Business Majority, 32 percent of Alaska fishermen were not covered. 75% said they preferred having the choice of a private or public health insurance plan.
For Watkins, the problem is systemic:
“I wish universal health care could work because I’d rather pay a little bit more in taxes and not have to fight insurance companies for my medical claims.”
The Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act of 2010 did not include a public, or government-funded option, as many had hoped. However, starting in January it will prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. That’s an idea 84 percent of Alaska fishermen agreed with, according to the Small Business Majority poll. The new federal law will also help subsidize the cost of private insurance, depending on income.
But the rates are expected to continue increasing.
“There’s one direction that rates for individuals and families keep going who are not included in a group and that’s up, up, up, every single year.”
That’s Petersburg –Wrangell insurance owner Sue Erickson.
“What we’ve seen as the rates have changed year after year is families and individual fishermen opting for higher deductibles as a way to offset the monthly premium, but it gets to the point where you need to be pretty sick before the health insurance carrier’s going to kick in.”
Even Erickson wonders how long she’ll be able to insure her half-dozen employees. She says it’s critical to provide those benefits, but the cost is ridiculous for a small-group plan like hers. Erickson’s husband is a fisherman who is covered under her policy. She says it would be less expensive for him to get an individual policy but she doesn’t want him to risk changing insurance because of a preexisting back condition.
He’s like plenty of fishermen who depend on coverage from another job or their spouse’s group insurance. I fall into that later category. I’m covered under my wife’s insurance with the Alaska State Employees Association Health Benefits Trust
Erickson suggested I make sure I’m actually covered while I’m fishing.
“Anyone, It wouldn’t be just fishermen, there are some policies that exclude work-related injuries for a self-employed person,” she said.
So my wife and I called the Trust and were told that in fact our plan does not cover work injuries. Sure enough, page 73 of our benefits booklet says in no uncertain terms that the plan does not cover “charges in connection with an occupational injury or illness.” I had already planned on buying insurance for my crew and now I’ll need to buy additional coverage for myself if I want to play it safe.
United Fishermen of Alaska conducted a 2007 survey that found fishermen’s options for both health care delivery and insurance were limited. Access is a particular problem for the many fishermen in more rural communities without a nearby hospital. According to the survey, Alaska’s relatively small pool of potential customers and high health care costs discouraged carriers from offering individual or small business insurance packages here.
“I think it’s a barrier to growing Alaska’s small business base through the commercial fishing industry,” said UFA Executive director Julianne Curry, who knows the situation first hand, “After I graduated from college and I was kicked off my parents’ insurance plan I paid for my own insurance and it was extremely, extremely expensive . Because I was self-employed and I worked in the fishing industry it was really one of my only options. I always did it because I knew I was probably better off but if it came down to me being able to make a boat payment or me having health insurance, I’d have to make that difficult choice and I know There’s a lot of people in the fishing industry who have to make the choice between being able to afford health care or being able to afford their boat payment and their gear payment and their house payment.”
Fishermen hurt on the job can apply for aid through the Alaska Fisherman’s fund. Velma Thomas is administrator for the fund, which exists partly because fishermen in Alaska are not covered under workers compensation law:
“So there’s a kind of that paradigm. How does a commercial fisherman get coverage? We’re not an insurance company but we’re an emergency medical fund to assist with medical bills after other private insurance that maybe available to the fisherman.”
For instance, injured deckhands can seek medical benefits through their skipper’s crew insurance, if they have any. By law, the Fisherman’s fund can only pay up to 10 thousand dollars per claim. Applicants can ask the program’s advisory council for more, but there’s no guarantee.
In the 2012 fiscal year, Thomas says there were 670 claims and the fund paid out around 866 thousand dollars in benefits. Over the last few years, only about 11 percent of applicants had health insurance.
A landmark tree in Fairbanks is gone. The 75-foot-tall white spruce that stood in front of the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge farm house was cut down Monday. The tree was dying from stress cracks and a beetle infestation and needed to come down. But, it won’t be forgotten.
Monday night’s Anchorage planning commission meeting drew a healthy crowd. About half the people in the gallery were there to speak to an issue that has drawn organized opposition from residents of Chugiak . Commissioner Terry Parks put the item on the table.
“Madame chair, i make a motion on case 2013 068 that we approve the Eklutna master plan for the planned community district. “
Eklutna, Inc. has two permit applications before the planning commission. The first, a called a master plan, would allow Eklutna to develop 68 acres of land the corporation owns within the municipality. The second, for a conditional use permit, would allow Eklutna to use 17 acres of the land as a landfill for inert debris collected from demolished buildings.
Shortly before the meeting, Eklutna’s representative, the engineering firm Dowl HKM of Anchorage, requested the commission postpone discussion on the conditional use request, to allow Dowl additional time to gather hydrological data at the landfill site. But debate on the master plan stayed on the agenda. Parks did not like that idea
”The master plan was put forward, because the landfill is something they wanted to do. And I don’t think that’s exactly what’s been presented here tonight and the way we have looked at it. I will not be supporting my motion. I think that this is a real convoluted approach to a bigger problem, which is the conditional use for the landfill. “
Parks, along with five other commissioners, balked at even considering the master plan, because he said, there is no clear definition of what Eklutna plans to do with the total acreage, with the exception of the landfill area. Commissioner Stacey Dean agreed
“There’s some real issues as to how this has been presented to us and to the public. And to have it as two separate cases, to have one pulled and one kept in place, is not necessarily fair to the process. I almost feel like it is a .. shell game. “
As did Commissioner Jon Spring
”If they are going to go ahead and do all those additional studies, maybe it make more sense for them to proceed with an application for a landfill permit through ADEC, so that we can then review all the information that might be pertinent to this landfill instead of just a scattering of studies that the petitioner thinks are appropriate. “
And commissioner Tyler Robinson
”I also struggle with the need, and I don’t feel that the need (for a landfill ) has been that well defined. “
In the end, the commission voted not to approve the master plan, but for one vote in favor. The conditional use permit for the landfill is contingent on the master plan approval. That’s okay with Maria Rentz, who led Chugiak homeowners’ opposition to the landfill.
”I have to say that six months ago, we didn’t have a chance. It was actually much, much better than I expected. The commissioners voted six to one to oppose the rezone application, which would have included the monofil. I have no doubt that Dowl and Eklutna will be appealing (the decision) to the Anchorage Assembly.”
Rentz calls the decision a step in the right direction
The application for the conditional use permit for the landfill was postponed until such time as the petitioner receives a landfill permit from the state. Dowl’s representative refused comment on the issue at meetings end.
The Anchorage Assembly continued hearing testimony on two proposals about when to hold a vote whether a controversial labor ordinance should be overturned.
More than 30 people turned out to testify on the issue. Most were in favor of putting the issue on the ballot sooner rather than later. Union member Jason Alward was one of them.
“Kicking the can down the road as elected officials of our community in this case would be disgraceful. Please support an election on this matter in April of 2014.”
That’s when the next municipal election is scheduled. The alternative proposal schedules a vote after April elections but no later than April 2015. Whether the issue will appear on the ballot at all awaits an Alaska Supreme Court decision, which labor officials say the court has agreed to expedite. The labor ordinance passed last March, but was suspended in September after unions gathered more than 22-thousand signatures. The labor law takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights. In a surprise move at the close of the hearing, Assembly member Dick Traini introduced an a new ordinance that would repeal the controversial labor law in it’s entirety and reinstate the original law. The assembly postponed voting on the on the proposals but could do so at their next regular meeting October 22nd.