Alaska News

359 years for man convicted of double-homicide, sexual assault of a 2-year-old

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-08-21 16:00

A man has been sentenced to 359 years in jail for the beating deaths of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of a 2-year-old child.

KTUU reports Jerry Active claimed during Friday’s sentencing that he is innocent and didn’t receive a fair trial.

He was found guilty in April of 10 felony charges, including two counts of first-degree murder and multiple counts of sexual assault.

Active was 24 when accused of the May 25, 2013, beating deaths of 73-year-old Sorn Sreap and her 71-year-old husband, Touch Chea.

Active was also accused of sexually assaulting Sreap, her 2-year-old family member and her 91-year-old mother.

The Associated Press normally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Sreap’s family appeared in local news media to talk about the case.

Categories: Alaska News

BC officials to visit Alaska for transboundary mine dialogue

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-08-21 15:39

Drilled rock cores wait for analysis at the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell project, one of the British Columbia mines planned for near the Southeast Alaska border. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

British Columbia officials travel to Southeast Alaska next week to discuss concerns about transboundary mines.

B.C. Minister of Mines Bill Bennett and Deputy Minister of the Environment Wes Shoemaker will lead the seven-person delegation. They’ll spend four days in Juneau and Ketchikan.

Meetings with state officials are being led by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who chairs the state’s transboundary mine working group. B.C. officials will also meet with tribal, industry, legislative and conservation leaders.

Mine critics are gearing up for the chance to confront Bennett and others about regulations and permits they consider lax.

Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders says the mines could pollute rivers that flow into Alaska and threaten valuable fisheries.

“I do think this issue of upstream development means that we’re taking on the risks and receiving no benefits. It’s uniting all of us on this side to come up with a better relationship with Canada.”

British Columbia officials will also meet with the Southeast Conference, a regional development group, and the Alaska Miners Association.

Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett says she understands critics’ concerns. But she says B.C. mines could be good for Alaskans.

“There’s a lot of contracting that happens with a mining project, a lot of associated trickle-down jobs that happen with the mining projects that we could very well have a part in.”

The itinerary also includes the Greens Creek Mine, near Juneau, which stores waste rock dry, rather than under water behind a dam. Some officials will also travel up the transboundary Taku River to B.C. and Alaska fisheries field camps.

Environmentalists also plan a rally on the Capitol steps at noon Wednesday to share concerns from around the region. The group Inside Passage Waterkeeper collected hundreds of rubber boots to present to the governor as part of its campaign.

Categories: Alaska News

A year after Roxanne Smart was killed, Chevak still waits for justice

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-08-21 12:03

The community of Chevak in Southwest Alaska has been breathing a collective sigh of relief after the arrest of a man in July for the murder of Roxanne Smart. The 19-year-old was found stabbed to death in the middle of town last August. But it was a tough year for the tight-knit Cup’ik community as they waited for law enforcement to make an arrest.

Smart’s friend Kerri Tall stands by a memorial beside the old Chevak health clinic where her friend was found.

“At night, it’s not that busy, at night it’s a different story,” said Tall.

Kerri Tall, of Chevak, started the facebook page, ‘Justice for Roxanne Smart’. Photo by Daysha Eaton/KYUK.

Tall explains there’s a midnight curfew for 4-wheelers, the main form of transportation here, so there would have been fewer people around when Roxanne Smart was killed in the middle of the night.

A wooden cross bearing her name leans up against the building supports along with a black and brown stuffed animal puppy, a coffee mug covered in forget-me-nots, and personal notes weighted down with rocks.

Roxanne Smart’s body was found behind the old Clinic in Chevak on August 27th, 2014. Photo by Daysha Eaton/KYUK.

Tall says Smart was a quiet woman who loved her new baby and had a soft spot for dogs. And Tall says she can’t think of why anyone would want to hurt her.

She was really shy, quiet. She always had a puppy to play with and she didn’t deserve any of what she received,” said Tall.

What led up to Smart’s murder isn’t clear, but court documents say she was found naked from the waist down and stabbed multiple times in the neck and chest. Alaska State Troopers reportedly arrived soon after and took DNA samples from several suspects.

“To me it was hard on me, I mean she’s my age. I felt like he was out there and I was scared,” said Tall.

Tall didn’t want to sit idle and started a facebook page to keep attention on Smart’s case before it went cold. She and two other women from Chevak kept the page updated with images of their friend, calling it ‘Justice for Roxanne Smart’.

The town had to live for nearly a year with a killer among them while they waited for the lab samples to come back.

Lieutenant Christopher Thompson, the deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation who oversees all major crimes investigations, didn’t want to go on tape for this story, but he says investigators went to Chevak three times between August 2014 and July 2015 and identified several people of interest in the case. He says a rape kit was administered. No arrests were made during that time.

A memorial to Roxanne Smart who was killed in Chevak, August 27th 2014. Photo by Daysha Eaton.

Tall walks past the bustling corporation store to her Auntie’s house which is kitty corner to the old health clinic where Smart’s body was found. Her Auntie, Etta Tall, says Roxanne was a regular at her ‘teen nights’ where she did positive activities with young people.

“She was with my youth group in the beginning. She did the fry bread power day, we had fry bread power day, and she was so happy. If I would ever do a program, she would always want to be there to help out. She was that kind of a person,” said Tall.

On July 23rd investigators returned to Chevak to interview Samuel Atchak, one of the original people of interest. Investigators say the 19-year-old admitted to placing Smart in a “choke hold” that night with his arms until she blacked out and to raping her. But he denied stabbing or killing Smart. The next day, while he was being arrested and charged for assault and sexual assault, an affidavit says Atchak admitted to stabbing and murdering Smart that night. Tall says that changed the dynamic in Chevak.

“I think it’s like a relief and a release. When I first heard about it, it was very thick here, the atmosphere was different. But now I come back I can feel like a relief here in Chevak,” said Tall.

Larry Barker is the superintendent of the Kashunamiut school district in Chevak.

“My biggest question is why it took 11 months for the DNA testing to take place,” said Barker.

He says everyone in the village wonders what took so long.

“Because it did leave the village with concerns and lots of questions. You know, no arrests were taking place and the whole village was wondering what was going on and you know, probably a little scared,” said Barker.

Troopers says it took 11 months to charge the suspect because they were waiting on DNA samples that were first sent to the state crime lab and then to another out-of-state lab, for further analysis.

Senator Berta Gardner has called for an audit of Alaska’s crime lab, citing a huge backlog, specifically of rape kits.

Lieutenant Thompson, with the Troopers, says the last lab report came back June 25th, which gave investigators enough evidence to confront the Atchak in July. Troopers say more details will come out in court.

Atchak was arraigned in Bethel Superior Court August 4th. He pleaded not guilty. His case will be back in court in October.

Categories: Alaska News

Archaeologists uncover new Yup’ik artifacts near Quinhagak

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-08-21 08:00

At a site near the Southwest Alaska village of Quinhagak archeologists are racing against time to uncover Yup’ik artifacts before the effects of climate change cause them to erode into the sea. The old village continues to reveal artifacts that give a glimpse into the daily lives of Yup’ik people hundreds of years ago.

The crowning artifact found this season, says Rick Knecht, the lead archeologist and a professor from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, is a mask — half human, half walrus — in nearly perfect condition. It’s wrapped in several layers of plastic as Knecht keeps the mask damp and cool in a refrigerator at base camp.

“It’s got amazingly lifelike contours with the cheek bones, and the nose, and the forehead and so on. Beautifully carved out of wood, and as you can see it’s got two little conical tusks that represent that transformation into a walrus. And these are in fact made out of walrus ivory. It’s got a little beard here, and half of it are human hairs and then on the other half are sea mammal hairs, maybe walrus whiskers,” said Knecht.


Knecht says the mask could have been a used by a Shaman. He unearthed it, about five miles outside Quinhagak, on the edge of the Bering Sea, where archeologists have spent the six field seasons scraping dirt from the remains of a 500-year old Alaska Native sod house. Today’s discovery of a wooden bowl gives another clue about how Yup’ik people lived.

“On the bottom of the bentwood bowl is an ownership mark left by the person who carved that and these ownership marks were inherited between families. We have about six or seven ownership marks we see consistently throughout this site, which we believe was a very large sod house divided up into compartments which were domestic spaces for women and children,” said Knecht.

His team has found tens of thousands of household items, jewelry and weapons, among other things. The dig is composed of what’s left of an entire village at the site of the ancient community of Arolik.

The objects look much younger than the centuries they’ve endured. That’s because they’ve been encased in permafrost. Wood and leather items can survive for hundreds of years. The oldest objects date as far back as seven hundred years.

Unseasonably warm temperatures at the dig site– nearly 80 degrees- create another set of variables for the crew to deal with. Conditions that Knecht say are driving the crew to work as fast as possible before more washes away.

Dig site. Photo: Daysha Eaton/KYUK.

In the early 1600s, right around the time that Shakespeare was publishing plays and poems in England, Knecht says, these people were crafting art too: carving intricate ivory jewelry and weaving baskets. Then, in the middle of the 17thCentury, says Knecht, their communal, sod house was attacked and burned.

Carlotta Hillerdal is a co-investigator with Knecht on the project. Back at the dig, she points to a burnt orange streak running along the dark soil of the dig’s dirt wall.

“This site was abandoned around 1640. So that’s where we have the kind of orange and black soil that you see in the wall over there that we dug. That’s the roof of the last phase of the structure that stood here that was burnt down and abandoned,” said Hillerdal.

The evidence at the site corresponds with local Yup’ik lore about the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ a time of fighting between tribes during an earlier climate change that strained resources.

Those are stories that Yup’ik elder Annie Cleveland knows. She says, when she was a girl, she remembers walking on the beach just outside of her village and finding old spears and human remains along the shore.

“When my grandmother and I used to walk down the beach to get some driftwood or pick berries we used to find spear-anek (spears) and maybe a human bone and skull and we used to put the bones back up there and dig a little bit and cover them,” said Cleveland.

That spot where she and her grandmother kept reburying things has turned into the dig called Nunalleq, meaning ‘old village’. Cleveland says the project is bringing to life history for Yup’ik people in her village and giving them a sense of pride. The Native corporation in Quinhagak eventually wants to develop eco-tourism around the site, but rapid erosion has made getting artifacts out the priority.

As they dig, researchers are finding that the village is larger than expected. With the new discoveries they’ve tacked on another season of fieldwork to unearth more history before it’s too late.

The archeologists will ship the artifacts to Scotland for study and preservation before they return them to the region. Tribal leaders say they will eventually display them either in Bethel or Quinhagak.

Archeologist, Rick Knecht will give a talk about the Quinhagak Archeology dig on Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. in room 118 at the Kuskokwim Campus of UAF in Bethel.

Categories: Alaska News

Story-telling gives refugee teens a voice in their new community

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 17:47

Olive Mtoni records Furaha Sefania outside of UAA. (Photo courtesy of ATMI.)

Everyone has a story to tell, but it may not be the story you’d expect. An Anchorage non-profit called StoryWorks is helping teenagers find their stories, and this summer they focused on students who arrived in the state as refugees.

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A group of students and their story-telling mentor lounge on couches at UAA telling each other about their lives.

“Did you learn something from that day?” Rosey Robards asks 17-year-old Furaha Sefania.

Sixteen-year-old Olive Mtoni interjects in Swahili, translating for her new friend. Both girls are originally from the Congo, but Mtoni’s family fled the war-torn nation to Rwanda before she was born. Sefania’s went to Mozambique. They met for the first time at East High in Anchorage late last year. But that’s not the story Sefania has chosen to share…

Wakati nilikuwa nacheza mpira na rafiki zangu, na mdogo…” Sefania tells her story.

She’s talking about a time when she was 12 years old and playing soccer with her friends back in Mozambique. Her little sister calls her to come eat and she refuses to go. When she finally heads home two hours later, the food is gone. Her sister laughs because she received extra, and her mother admonishes her – if you like soccer so much, than you can eat it! Sefania says she learned to listen to her mother. So why tell this story?

Niliona tu, tuongee.” She just thought of it when chatting.

And that’s the whole point – stories are just moments to help people understand each other. That’s why 11-year-old Khalil Edais participated in the program. He was born in Anchorage but he loves storytelling and wanted to learn about the other kids.

“A lot of the kids have stories to tell, so this is like a big camp for them because they have big stories from their countries that they told here, so it’s pretty big for me to come here.”

Edais learned about a girl who climbed a tree, was distracted by a monkey, and ended up at the hospital getting shards of wood pulled from her arm. A boy told about the disappointment of leaving home for a cold place but eventually making new friends.

Jessica Kovarik, the program director of Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, says these stories can help the community understand people from other nations.

“We really wanted to give the youth an opportunity to have some voice and to learn to tell their stories and recognize how powerful their stories are and how much they have to share with the community.”

Rosey Robards chats with Iqlas Dubed. (Photo courtesy of ATMI)

Twelve-year-old Iqlas Dubed shares the story of her first bee sting – just a month ago, near the Campbell Creek Science Center.

“Then I ran around, ran around, ran around. Then came, I was out of breath, so I was just like ‘It hurts! It hurts!’ And the bee was still on my hijab so I took it off.”

The sting taught her what goes around, comes around. She laughed at other kids who were stung on previous days, then was hurt herself. But telling the story taught her “Don’t be scared to tell others. Other people that you don’t know.”

She said she feels kind of brave now.

RAIS helps resettle about 100 to 140 refugees in Anchorage each year. StoryWorks started in 2014 and teaches high schoolers from around the community to find their voices.

Categories: Alaska News

Second body recovered from slide, crews hone in on the third

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 17:42

Search crews have recovered two bodies from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka. One man remains missing but search dogs have alerted to a third location on the south side of the slide, where work focused Thursday afternoon. Officials hoped to recover all three bodies before heavy rain predicted Friday.

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Recovery crews halt work while a trained cadaver dog scents the site where the body of 62-year-old William Stortz is thought to be located. A dog previously alerted at the location of the green stake in the center of the image. (KCAW photo, Robert Woolsey)

Search crews were finally able to get to work in earnest late Wednesday and Thursday, after a day in which officials kept work on the site to a minimum out of fear of more landslides.

Crews found the first body at about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday evening, and recovered the second body just before 1 p.m. Thursday, both on the north side of the slide. Both bodies were first found by dogs with the Juneau-based search team SEADOGS.

By Thursday afternoon, dogs had identified a third site, where crews hoped to find the body of 62-year-old William Stortz, Sitka’s building official. Stortz was inspecting drainage in the subdivision at the time of the landslide with two other men who managed to escape. Stortz and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, ages 26 and 25, had been missing since the Tuesday morning slide.

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell was at the Kramer Avenue site for most of the day Wednesday. She said it was a relief to the families to have some closure.

“Obviously it’s good to know what’s happened to your loved one, and we can move on from hoping and wishing to just being able to grieve.”

The area around Kramer Avenue remains unstable. The slide moved downhill another 2 feet overnight. The city has posted firefighters at each end of the slide with airhorns, to signal an evacuation if any additional movement is detected. But McConnell said crews were just happy to be able to work.

“It’s a huge relief, and I know so many of the volunteers and people working have been frustrated because they couldn’t do anything initially, so it’s just been a relief to be able to get in there and get to work and get going.”

Sunshine broke through for much of the day, Wednesday. As the clouds lifted it was possible to see the path of the landslide above Kramer Avenue, where it cut a swath down the hillside. A team of geologists brought in to assess the slide estimated that it started about 1400 feet up Harbor Mountain, or about 1000 feet above Kramer Avenue, where it wiped out one home and damaged another.

Searchers hoped to recover all three bodies before more rain predicted for Friday. The National Weather Service is predicting two to three inches of rain Friday night, and gusty winds. But meteorologist Joel Curtis said this storm will be less intense, with a limited risk of more slides.

“What’s different about this event is that it’s going to be spread out over much more time than the event that caused our mudslides and landslides around here.”

Officials have identified at least six landslides around Sitka caused by Tuesday’s heavy rains, including slides on the Blue Lake Road that are blocking access to Sitka’s main hydroelectric dam; and washouts on the Green Lake Road, on the way to the city’s other dam.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Thursday, August 20, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 17:40

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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Second body recovered from slide, crews hone in on the third

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

Search crews have recovered two bodies from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka.  One man remains missing but search dogs have alerted to a third location on the south side of the slide, where work focused this afternoon.

To stand a fighting chance, anti-Medicaid lawsuit needs to show irreparable harm

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Medicaid expansion is set to roll out in Alaska September 1st. It would offer health coverage to 40,000 very low-income adults who don’t have children. The lawmakers suing to stop expansion will ask a judge for a preliminary injunction. That would prohibit the state from implementing the program before the issue is decided in court. Both sides of the lawsuit have specific points they need to prove to win the case.

NOAA: whale deaths in the Gulf are three times the average

Associated Press

A federal agency has announced plans for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of 30 large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May.

As fur seal numbers in the Aleutians decline, one population is curiously thriving

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

A team of scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service is on an isolated island in the Aleutian chain. Or, to be more precise, they’re a bit north of the chain. They’re researching an exploding population of fur seals on tiny Bogoslof Island.

Flint Hills refinery asks for loosened cleanup standards 

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Flint Hills continues to push for a less stringent standard for removal of a spilled chemical from groundwater at the company’s shuttered North Pole refinery.

Transforming teaching: Nanwalek School received Apple tech grant

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

For students and teachers in the village of Nanwalek, this academic year will likely be very different from years past. They are the recipients of a technology grant from Apple that could change the face of education in the village entirely.

Storyworks: Refugees share their journeys

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Everyone has a story to tell, but it may not be the story you’d expect. An Anchorage non-profit called StoryWorks is helping teenagers find their stories, and this summer they focused on students who arrived in the state as refugees.

Categories: Alaska News

Transforming teaching: Nanwalek School received Apple tech grant

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 16:59

Nanwalek School – Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

For students and teachers in the village of Nanwalek, this academic year will likely be very different from years past. They are the recipients of a technology grant from Apple that could change the face of education in the village entirely.

Sally Ash is sitting in her large classroom at Nanwalek School. She grew up in Nanwalek and is now a Sug’stun language teacher.

“I think it gives them a background of who they are, where they come from, and the knowledge that’s sitting right here where they’re living. It enriches their life as they get older too, how to live and get along in the world but do it the right way,” says Ash.

She says it’s intertwined with values and culture.

“There’s a lot of studies being done that [say] if you know more than one language, it makes you smarter. And not only if a speaker wants to go outside of Nanwalek or somewhere else and become a rocket scientist, they could. Or, if they want to stay home and they just want to stay home and be a subsistence [person] or help out with the fish here or things like that, they could. They have a choice so they’re not stuck with one thing,” says Ash.

Like all of the teachers in the school, for years, she’s made due with aging instructional materials like her yellowing, dog eared dictionary, and too few copies of important textbooks. But now, one wall of her classroom is filled with a Smart Board, an interactive piece of technology that takes the place of the traditional chalkboard.

“I was so scared when we first got it. I was like, how is it going to benefit in my class? How am I going to use it?”

But school principal Nancy Kleine says Apple isn’t leaving anything to chance.

She was contacted by Apple last year to apply for the special grant program. Apple started the program to bring technology into schools in low income areas in response to President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative.

Nanwalek was the only school selected in the state of Alaska, and one of only 114 total in the country. As a result, it’s receiving an iPad for each one of its 80 students and every teacher and aide. In addition, all teachers are getting MacBooks. There are now Apple TVs in every instructional area, an iMac for the front desk, storage carts for the student’s pads and charging stations for every classroom.

“They’ve given us 17 days of professional development,” says Kleine. “They’ve given us three years of support. They’ve had team after team come out to test the infrastructure and work with us to develop a strategic plan so it really will be successful for our instruction.”

They’ve also provided funding for teachers to purchase apps specific tos their classes and subject areas. Kleine says that’s the key- it’s about more than just technology. It’s about changing the whole learning environment at all levels.

“We really have a lot of hope for this. With the students and the parents and the community being partners, I think we’re truly going to be able to transform teaching at Nanwalek school,” says Kleine.

Sally Ash already has big plans for her students and their new gadgets this year, both in the classroom and in the village as a whole, starting with the old books.

“The pages are really torn, well used books, that we want to put on the board so the kids will be able to see. And, we’ll be able to record the elders. And, we can take our iPad out and take pictures of things, identify them and write the name, and that sounds exciting to me too,” says Ash.

She also wants to set up regional speaking sessions with other schools in the Prince William Sound area using a video program.

“It really makes me happy,” says Ash. “I get really emotional because it’s one of my passions is that the kids- I want them to learn Sug’stun. And to hear them, is just a joy to my ears and my heart. Thank you very much, Quyana.”

And, like Sally Ash, Principal Kleine says she thinks this grant could have lasting benefits for the entire community far into the future.

“I just think this is an opportunity for these kids to grow and one of the things I’m really hoping that it does is that they will want to come to school and be engaged and be partners in this learning and attendance will grow,” says Kleine. “We are just totally launched for one of the most fabulous years you can possibly imagine.”

Categories: Alaska News

As fur seal numbers in the Aleutians decline, one population is curiously thriving

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 16:53

Northern fur seal pups on St. Paul Island, Alaska. NOAA photo.

Northern fur seals have been declining for decades in their stronghold on St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, but their numbers are taking off on Bogoslof Island, a couple hundred miles to the south.

A team of scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service has been camped out on isolated, mile-long Bogoslof, just north of the Aleutian chain, trying to piece together why.

Bogoslof is the top of a 6,000-foot volcanic cone about 50 miles west of Dutch Harbor. Only the top 300 feet of the cone rise above the Bering Sea.

“We first saw breeding animals there in the ’80s,” Mike Williams with the National Marine Fisheries Service said. “Now we’re looking at a large portion of the Alaska population is on Bogoslof, where there weren’t any in the ’80s.”

For centuries, most of the world’s population of northern fur seals has bred in the Pribilof Islands. Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov even located the then-uninhabited islands in 1786 by following the barks of fur seals through the fog.

Commercial hunting of fur seals stopped in the 1980s, but the big St. Paul population continued to fall.

“We’re concerned about the decline, so we want to keep track of what’s happening with this increasing population versus the populations in the Pribilofs and be able to at least have some idea of how their populations are moving,” Williams said.

Williams said why the Bogoslof population is increasing is “the million-dollar question.”

“I wish we knew,” he says.

A half-million or more fur seals haul out onto the Pribilofs each summer. Many of them head down into the Aleutians other times of the year.

Scientist Bruce Wright with the Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association, the federally recognized tribal organization of the Aleut people, said nobody knows why the Pribilof populations keep plummeting.

Only a small subsistence harvest of about 2,000 animals a year is taken. Wright said declining populations have made getting food harder in the Pribilofs.

“People out there have less access to that marine mammal, which they use for a food resource, so they’re suffering from that,” Wright said.

Scientists have lots of educated guesses but few answers about the decline – from the impacts of fisheries to climate change.

 

Toxic food to blame?

Wright has a hypothesis of his own: toxic food.

Blooms of harmful algae can cover the ocean in a living layer full of toxic muck. This year has one of the largest harmful algae blooms on record in the North Pacific. It reaches all the way to the Aleutians. At least two different toxins have turned up in unusually high amounts this year: domoic acid and the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The small fish that fur seals eat, like sand lance, can accumulate toxins from the algae. Wright said he wants to know if the Pribilof seals have been getting doses of poison when they feed in the Aleutians.

“But now we have this population off Bogoslof, in the Aleutian Islands, and I’m really interested to find out where those fur seals are feeding,” Wright said. “If they’re feeding in the Aleutian Islands, then that would help reject this hypothesis. But maybe they’re feeding out on the continental shelf of the Bering Sea and they’re not at risk, at least right now, of encountering toxic sand lance.”

Algae grow faster when the ocean is warmer. With warming ocean temperatures, it’s only a matter of time before we see big algae blooms in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean like we’ve seen in the North Pacific this year, according to Wright.

The NMFS fur seal researchers on Bogoslof are counting pups and females and putting satellite tags on a few of them to see where Bogoslof seals get their meals.

Categories: Alaska News

NOAA: whale deaths in the Gulf are three times the average

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 16:35

The carcasses of 30 whales that have stranded along the Gulf of Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula have puzzled scientists since the first discoveries this May, and now NOAA is giving the cases “unusual mortality event” status. That means that the stranding event is unexpected, involves a large number of marine animal deaths, and requires immediate attention. The designation gives the agency more resources for the investigation.

Since May 2015, 11 fin whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale, and four unidentified cetaceans have been found dead around the islands of the western Gulf of Alaska and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula, according to NOAA. Canadian authorities are also seeing an uptick in whale deaths off the coast of British Columbia.

NOAA Fisheries is declaring the recent deaths of 30 large whales in the Gulf of Alaska an unusual mortality event, triggering a focused, expert investigation into the cause. Graph: NOAA.

The reason for the whale deaths is unknown, but scientists are hypothesizing that biotoxins due to an unsually warm patch of seawater may be involved. At a media teleconference today to discuss the new UME status, NOAA Fisheries lead marine mammal scientist, Teri Rowles, says they’ve tested one whale out of the 30 reported.

“Most of the carcasses have been not retrievable. They’ve been floating and/or they’ve been stranded for a temporary period of time in inaccessible areas and a lot of those have been moderately to severely decomposed.”

They have run some tests for biotoxins, but so far the tests have been inconclusive. Rowles says the sample they collected tested negative for domoic acid — a toxin produced by algae that thrives in warm seawater conditions.

“We still have the saxitoxin results pending, but it hasn’t been a sample that’s been successful for us in the past, so even though the one sample we tested was negative, it was not the most appropriate sample to collect and test for biotoxins.”

Rowles says they can’t say for certain that the whale was not exposed to abiotoxins. In order to rule-in or rule-out possible causes of the whale deaths, she says they need more samples, but big whales are difficult to access in order to conduct necropsies.

“Trying to investigate large whale mortality events provides a lot of logistical complications and getting access to good samples, getting access safely to carcasses, and even finding a place for carcasses to be towed and examined.”

Bears feeding on a fin whale carcass in Larson Bay; Alaska; near Kodiak. Credit: NOAA; June 13, 2015.

Many of the whales have washed up in the Kodiak Archipelago. Marine mammal specialist Bree Whiteveen says there are a few reasons why that could be. One is the high number of fin, humpback, and grey whales that already pass through those waters during summer.

“As far as the number of eyes that we have around Kodiak is quite a big greater than you would have around the Alaska Peninsula and further west and so we may simply just be able to see more of the carcasses and not document additional carcasses, and further if it was a very localized event, then you would expect the carcasses to be more localized when they are finally sighted.”

Rowles says the next step is to put together the investigative team and pull the data together. She says it’ll be a slow process and it could be a while before they find an answer, if they manage to reach one.

Categories: Alaska News

To stand a fighting chance, anti-Medicaid lawsuit needs to prove irreparable harm

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 14:55

Medicaid expansion is set to roll out in Alaska September 1st. It would offer health coverage to 40,000 very low-income adults who don’t have children. The lawmakers suing to stop expansion will ask a judge for a preliminary injunction. That would prohibit the state from implementing the program before the issue is decided in court. Both sides of the lawsuit have specific points they need to prove to win the case.

Brewster Jamieson is a lawyer who handles a wide range of civil cases for the Anchorage branch of Lane Powell. He has no ties to the Medicaid expansion case. But he has a lot of experience asking for preliminary injunctions. He says to convince a judge to issue an injunction, you have to do a few things:

“You have to show that you’re likely to prevail on the merits, first off, and the court has to find that there is a likelihood that you’ll prevail, in addition you have show irreparable harm and no adequate remedy at law — and it’s a relatively high standard,” he says.

Irreparable harm is something money can’t fix. For example, if an historic building is about to be torn down, a judge might grant an injunction to a historical society to keep the building standing temporarily until they can prove it deserves to stick around long term. If you tear it down, it can’t be rebuilt exactly the same, so the damage is irreparable. Of course, the legislatures’ case is very different. Here’s Jamieson again:

“So here I think that you’d probably have the legislature arguing that unless the injunction is granted, there is really no way to fix the legal quandary that they’re in.”

Chad Hutchison is a lawyer who works for Republican Sen. John Coghill. He helped craft the case that convinced the Alaska Legislative Council they should sue the governor. But he’s reluctant to go into detail on how the lawyers will prove irreparable harm if Medicaid is expanded.

“Well, we have a few arguments, and with all due respect, I think we’ll keep them close to the vest until the court filing is going to occur,” he says.

But Hutchison will talk about the other big thing the legislature needs to convince a judge — that they’re likely to win.

“We believe we have a very compelling case.”

The case comes down to whether the group who would benefit from Medicaid expansion is considered ‘required’ or ‘optional’ under the law. The Governor needs the legislature to approve adding an ‘optional’ population to the Medicaid program. Hutchison says the U.S Supreme Court settled that question when it allowed states to choose whether to expand Medicaid:

“If you look at the Supreme Court Case, it’s clear that they did not require the states to expand the Medicaid population.”

Alaska’s attorney general disagrees. The state declined to talk about the case, but in a letter to Senator Coghill, Attorney General Craig Richards writes federal statute clearly lists the expansion beneficiaries in the ‘required’ category. Richards says the Court only struck down the penalty for not complying with Medicaid expansion — states would have lost all of their Medicaid funding if they didn’t expand. The Court did not eliminate the new ‘required’ category. Richards says just because there is no way to enforce the expansion requirement, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Brewster Jamieson says he’s really glad he’s not the judge deciding the case. He’s also thankful Alaska is a state with a solidly independent judicial branch:

“You don’t want a judiciary that is made up of political cronies, of either party. What you want is a judiciary made up of judges who will call balls and strikes and do the best they can to decide the issues. In Alaska I think we’re very fortunate to have a judiciary like that.”

Hutchison, with Coghill’s office, says the Legislative Council hopes to file their lawsuit in Superior Court on Monday. That will give the judge less than a week to hold a hearing in the case. The timeline is shortened by President Obama’s visit, because the courts won’t hold hearings when he is in Anchorage, on Monday, August 31.

Categories: Alaska News

Navy nuc submarine pops up in Dutch Harbor

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 09:11

A U.S. Navy submarine pulled into Unalaska Bay near the town landfill Friday morning. The sub made no contact with the Port of Dutch Harbor, according to Harbor Master John Days.

It did communicate with the Royal Pacific, a boat hauling wastewater from the Unisea fish-processing plant, as they were crossing paths.

The USS Seawolf returns to the Bering Sea from whence it came. KUCB/John Ryan photo.

As is usual for Navy subs, the boat did not identify itself by name over the radio.

“Royal Pacific, this is a US Navy submarine. In approximately 5 minutes, I’m going to be turning around, so request port-to-port, hopefully get this turnaround completed,” an unidentified voice from the submarine called over the VHF airwaves.

“Roger, port to port. Okay, we’ll swing to the west side here then,” the Royal Pacific replied.

KUCB tried to contact Navy officials to find out something about the sleek black submarine’s visit to Unalaska. But email, phone and Twitter messages all went unanswered.

The USS Seawolf in Unalaska Bay on Aug. 14, 2015. KUCB/John Ryan photo.

The tug Saratoga went out to the nuclear submarine. It transported two crew members to the sub and took two back to Dutch Harbor.

Tug captain Steve Devitt of the Saratoga said the submarine identified itself to him as the USS Seawolf. He said the crew told him the sub came up from “under the ice” because a crewmember had had a death in his family.

The USS Seawolf is homeported at Naval Base Kitsap on Washington state’s Hood Canal. It’s one of three Seawolf-class submarines. It was built in 1997 at an estimated cost of more than $2 billion.

The Navy calls the Seawolf “exceptionally quiet, fast, well-armed, and equipped with advanced sensors.”

Each Seawolf has eight torpedo tubes and can hold 50 weapons in its torpedo room. The Seawolf subs are nuclear powered, but they do not carry nuclear weapons.

After making the crew change, the Seawolf headed quietly out to the Bering Sea, with only its conning tower sticking above the surface of Unalaska Bay.

Categories: Alaska News

Body recovered from landslide debris

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-20 08:10

Search crews recovered a body from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka, at about 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening. The victim has not been identified.

Sitka Fire Chief Dave Miller reports that a team of cadaver dogs from Juneau led searchers to a sweatshirt on the west side of the slide, and subsequently to the body. Miller would not confirm the identity except to say, “It’s one of the boys.”

The found victim was located in the debris of the home that was destroyed by the landslide, according to an update sent by emergency services Thursday morning.

Elmer Diaz, 26, and his brother Ulises, 25, were working in one of the new homes under construction in the subdivision just off Kramer Avenue. The structure was completely obliterated by the landslide which struck Tuesday morning (8-18-15). The Diaz family has maintained a vigil at Sitka’s Grace Harbor Church since the event.

Still missing are the other Diaz brother, and William Stortz, 62, Sitka’s building official, who was inspecting drainage in the subdivision when the slide occurred.

Categories: Alaska News

Fleeing the slide: two city officials, tragically just one survivor

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 17:42

As crews continue to cautiously work through debris searching for the three victims of Tuesday’s deadly landslide in Sitka, it’s clear that the event could have been much worse. There are many homes below and to either side of the slide, and there were two other people directly in its path who escaped.

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David Longtin. Photo: Robert Woolsey/KCAW.

It’s not raining at the moment in Sitka, at least not down here close to sea level. But the amount water running through the Kramer Avenue slide suggests that the heavy clouds overhead are again saturating the slopes of Harbor Mountain.

City engineer David Longtin is working with some tree fallers and a track hoe to divert water away from the recovery area.

“It’s going to start raining again. And when it does start raining we don’t want more water to go in there. We want it to go in the ditch where it should be.”

Longtin has been here almost continuously since the hillside above Kramer broke loose Tuesday morning at 9:30. He had accompanied city building official William Stortz to the site to inspect the drainage in this brand-new subdivision after the extraordinarily heavy rainfall earlier in the day.

Longtin and  Stortz were standing in the drive complimenting the work of a third man, excavator Jerome Mahoskey, when the slide started.

“We heard a rumbling. It didn’t immediately dawn on us what it was. We looked at each other with puzzled expressions, and then we looked up the hill and saw these 200-foot trees falling like dominoes, boom-boom-boom, one after another.”

Although the slide was still far up the mountain, Longtin says it was moving fast. The subdivision was tucked into a small ravine, and it was clear that the slide could turn and head their way.

That’s when they started running.

“Of the three of us, William was the farthest uphill, but still within five feet of us. Jerome was next to me as we started sprinting down the hill. Out of the corner of my eye I saw William behind me with a concerned look on his face, and we just started running. I was aware of Jerome being next to me the whole time we were running — and not aware of William. I think I would have been aware of him, even though he was behind us. He’s 61 or 62 years old but very fit, very nimble. So we ran down the access road, got into Kramer. Started running down Kramer, and I decided to run up onto this 30-foot embankment — this pile of gravel — to try and stay above it all. Jerome decided to stay out on the road. You can see where the slide stops. Jerome was able to run past here before the slide got here. And from the time we started running until the time we got up here it was probably no more than 10 or 12 seconds — no more than that. And no sign of William.”

The search is still underway for Stortz’s body, and those of two other victims, brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, who were working in a house in the path of the slide.

Longtin doesn’t talk about whether or not he is lucky. He — and many other city workers and volunteers — are just too busy addressing the aftermath. But he brings an engineer’s perspective to the event — and how he survived it. Once the slide reached Kramer Avenue it was a mass of mud and interlocking trees — and it was slowing down.

“It was a solid, but it was acting like a liquid. It was flowing. Imagine mayonnaise. Maybe not quite that viscous. I was running as fast as I could downhill. It wasn’t nipping at our heels, but it wasn’t too far behind, either.”

The slide came to a halt about 100 feet above where it is now. Longtin says that there was no sign of William Stortz. He and Mahoskey went back up the slope to try and find Mahoskey’s truck, which had his two dogs inside. The slide pushed downhill twice more — about 50 feet each time. Then Longtin called 9-1-1 and began the work that he has been doing since.

Having been in harm’s way, this engineer is not too anxious about remaining there.

“You know there was a lot of potential energy up there before it released. But now it’s been released and I think it’s kind of reached an equilibrium more or less. I’m keeping my eye on it — don’t get me wrong — but I don’t feel that nervous being here.”

Governor Walker holds up a “before” photo against a a backdrop of damages from the Sitka landslides. Gov. Walker is in Sitka on Aug. 19 surveying the damage. Photo: Governor’s office.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, August 19, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 17:41

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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Gov. Walker visits Sitka, meets with families of those presumed dead

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

Governor Bill Walker was in Sitka today to assess the damage from a series of landslides that hit the city after heavy rains Tuesday (August 18). He also met with the families of three people missing since Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the search for the three men was proceeding slowly, hampered by fears of further landslides.

Running from the slide: two city officials, one survivor

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

As crews continue to cautiously work through debris searching for the three victims of Tuesday’s deadly landslide in Sitka, it’s clear that the event could have been much worse. There are many homes below and to either side of the slide, and there were two other people directly in its path who escaped.

Out with Mew, in with the new: DEA agent to take over as APD chief

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A man with a long history in drug enforcement will take the reins as Anchorage’s new police chief.

Ellis sentenced to 3 years, 2 suspended for death of 51-year-old cyclist

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

An Anchorage teen who pleaded guilty to hitting and killing a man on a bicycle will be sentenced to one year in prison with two suspended. Judge Michael Wolverton accepted the plea deal agreed to earlier this year.

Small-scale hydro project comes online in Iguigig

Tim Bodony, KIYU – Galena

A prototype in-river hydropower system is currently in operation at Igiugig in southwest Alaska. It’s part of a recent surge of research that has pushed in-river hydro power closer to becoming a reality for rural communities seeking an alternative to diesel-based electricity.

Glacier Bay’s missing stories find a new home in Tlingit tribal house

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

A $3 million dollar Tlingit tribal house is being constructed on the shore of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay—likely the first time the national park service has funded a tribal house.

Categories: Alaska News

Small-scale hydro project comes online in Iguigig

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 17:31

A prototype in-river hydropower system is currently in operation at Igiugig in southwest Alaska.  It’s part of a recent surge of research that has pushed in-river hydro power closer to becoming a reality for rural communities seeking an alternative to diesel-based electricity.
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Given that most rural communities in western and interior Alaska are situated on rivers, hydropower seems like an obvious renewable energy source.

Putting up dams on big rivers like the Yukon is unlikely to happen for environmental and economic reasons, but in-river hydropower is a possibility.  An in-river power system is like a wind mill, but in the water, using the kinetic energy of flowing waters to move blades, which spin a turbine and create electricity.

Photo: Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

Alaska Village Electric Cooperative President and CEO Meera Kohler is keeping an eye on developments with in-river hydro technology, and says it has some promise for her member communities scattered across rural Alaska.  But there’s a catch:

“Obviously, moving water has a lot of energy associated with it, and trying to harness that is the goal.  But being able to harness it with destroying the machine that is harnessing it every couple of weeks – that’s the challenge.”

The destruction that Kohler is referring to would come from one of in-river hydro’s biggest challenges to date: driftwood and debris.  Tests of small in-river turbines at Ruby on the middle Yukon River and Eagle on the upper Yukon were constantly plagued by driftwood.

Unlike the design tested at Ruby and Eagle, which was suspended just under the surface of the water by a small pontoon platform, the prototype in use at Iguigig right now sits on the river bottom.  It’s much wider than it is tall and looks like an old fashioned push lawn mower rather than a typical wind mill or table fan shape.

The prototype is called the RivGen, and it was designed by Ocean Renewable Power Company, which is based in Maine but has an office and several projects underway in Alaska.  Monty Worthington is ORPC’s Director of Project Development.  Having a hydropower system sitting on the bottom of a river, Worthington says, has several advantages.  It works quietly and out of sight, but….

“More importantly it gets us down below the floating debris in a river.  That can be wood, that can be ice in some cases.  Anything that is floating on the surface of the river we are no longer in the way of, and it also includes impeding navigation in certain areas, so we can be down a depth where boats are able to pass freely over the device.”

If placed in a river like the Yukon, the RivGen or any in-river hydropower system would still have to contend with heavy amounts of silt, grinding into and ruining moving parts.  Worthington says that ORPC has been testing various styles of bearings and seals for 6 years through a partnership with UAA, and have found some promising solutions.  But even materials containing diamonds are proving to be susceptible to silt damage over time, so bearings will need to be replaced as part of routine maintenance.

The RivGen test site on the Kvichak River at Igiugig is clear and mostly free of debris – not an ideal place to test the turbine’s ability to deal with driftwood and silt.  But the clear water does give researchers a better chance to watch how the blades impact fish, another important environmental consideration that hydropower designers must deal with.

At a test site on the Tanana River at Nenana, researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Energy and Power are putting some different in-river hydro designs through their paces in more challenging environment, including lots of driftwood and silt.

The most recent design to be tested comes from Oceana Energy Company.  It’s suspended just under the surface from a barge, and looks like a ring with shark fins embedded around it.  According to Alaska Hydrokinetic Research Center Program Director Jeremy Kaspar, the Oceana system worked without a problem for a month last fall and a month earlier this summer.  The Oceana unit was protected by a UAF-designed debris diverter placed just upstream, which Kaspar says was highly effective.

“The debris diverter is kind of a V, and we can adjust the angle.  At the tip of the V, there is a cyclinder that rotates, and when the debris hits that cylinder the debris starts to rotate it and the debris slides off the sides.”

The UAF team also changed the anchoring system to rely on a single line instead of many, reducing the amount of driftwood getting caught by the lines.

Future research is going to look at the potential problems caused by subsurface debris, like water-logged trees and root balls that bounce along the bottom of a river.  When silty water does not allow for video cameras to get a look at what’s going on, Kaspar says the researchers will use sonar.

“The other thing that we are going to be doing in conjunction with the sonar is having a mechanical means of detecting debris – basically we’re gonna put down a grate near the bottom and see if we can get some simultaneous impact measurements along with the sonar.  So then we will know what the sonar is seeing and what the impact forces are.”

As more of the engineering hurdles are crossed, Kaspar predicts that in another five years in-river hydropower systems will be ready for widespread use across Alaska.

“I am hoping that we start convincing the Department of Energy that they really need to fund these pilot projects in places like Alaska.  I think what we will probably see in the next few years is a few communities – Igiugig is almost there – adapting these technologies, with partnerships between the developer and the community.”

Regardless of the technical advances with in-river hydropower systems, no one thinks they can survive spring breakup, so they are all being designed to be removed from the water in the fall or winter before the ice goes out.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker visits Sitka, meets with families of those presumed dead

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 17:19

Governor Bill Walker was in Sitka today to assess the damage from a series of landslides that hit the city after heavy rains Tuesday (August 18). He also met with the families of three people missing since Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the search for the three men was proceeding slowly, hampered by fears of further landslides.

Gov. Walker visited Sitka a day after the fatal landslides. Photo: Governor’s office.

Walker arrived in Sitka early Wednesday morning and flew over the affected areas in a Coast Guard helicopter.

But, he said, it wasn’t until he was standing on the edge of the Kramer Avenue landslide — where trees are stacked 15 feet high and there’s a blank space on the hillside where a house used to be — that the scale of destruction came home to him.

“I mean, the size of the logs, they showed me a picture of the house before. I mean it was a substantial, significant size house…the devastation was just amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Three men are missing and presumed dead after a river of mud and debris wiped out a house and much of the road on Kramer Avenue, a new neighborhood about three miles from downtown Sitka. Walker said it reminded him of the scene in Valdez after the 1964 earthquake, and said he was “overwhelmed.”

“I’ve been governor about nine months now. I’ve prided myself by saying I’ve never had a bad day. Well. I can’t say that anymore. This is a really tough day. So.”

In a Tweet, Gov. Walker thanked local EMS responders for their efforts. Photo: Governor’s office.

Walker also met with the families of the missing men. All three were involved in construction in the neighborhood. William Stortz, age 62, is Sitka’s building official. He was inspecting the site Tuesday morning. Brothers Ulises and Elmer Diaz, ages 25 and 26, were working on one of the houses.

Meeting with family and friends of the Diaz brothers at Sitka’s Grace Harbor Church, Walker said he shared their frustration that search efforts aren’t happening faster. The area around the landslide remains unstable, and search teams have been held up by concerns about more landslides.

During a news conference with the Governor at Sitka’s Fire Hall, City Administrator Mark Gorman, choked up as he spoke about the three missing men — and Sitka’s response. Hundreds of Sitkans have signed up to volunteer in the search, or have dropped off food for those working on the search and evacuated from their homes.

“And what I found in the last 24 hours is heart-wrenching and it’s about community. William is a friend of many years, a…the Diaz boys grew up with my sons. And this is what this is about today. It’s about hurt and caring in our community…At the same time, I offer my profound gratitude to this community. It’s been a remarkably humbling experience to see the act of care and giving that is universal in Sitka. This is what this town is about.”

Gorman was echoed by Fire Chief Dave Miller. Miller said he’s worked with the Sitka Fire Department for about 28 years.

“And I think yesterday was, um, one of the hardest days of my life. When I had to talk to those family members and say, I am so sorry. First for what happened, and then that we are not allowing those teams to go in and start looking for your family members. The thing we have to worry about is, the safety of all the others, too.”

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell said she’s not yet ready to give up hope.

“It’s been a sad time, but there’s still people that have hope. And that’s the important thing that I think a lot of us need to keep in mind, is that, miracles do happen. And there are family members and friends that are hanging onto that, and I support that. You just never know. So we’re hopeful. And I’m going to stay that way until it just doesn’t make sense to be that way.”

Sitka has requested that the Governor declare a state of emergency, which would open up access to state funds for the response. Walker said the request is his staff’s top priority, and would be answered as soon as possible.

Categories: Alaska News

Ellis sentenced to 3 years, 2 suspended for death of cyclist Dusenbury

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 16:51

Judge Michael Wolverton as he prepared to issue the sentence. Hillman/KSKA

An Anchorage teen who pleaded guilty to hitting and killing a man on a bicycle will be sentenced to three years in prison with two suspended. Judge Michael Wolverton accepted the plea deal agreed to earlier this year.

Alexandra Ellis was 17 when she struck 51-year-old Jeff Dusenbury with her pickup on an Anchorage neighborhood street. Despite arguments by the defense that she be treated as a juvenile, she will serve time as an adult.

The sentencing hearing began on Friday and primarily focused on the scene of the accident and how fast the vehicle and bicycle were traveling. Wednesday’s testimony focused on Ellis’ ability to overcome her alcohol and substance abuse problems. Her substance abuse counselor said Ellis seemed fully committed to her treatment.

Before the accident she had spent nine months in a residential treatment facility as well. But as Ellis sobbed in the background, her father, Maurice Ellis, said she had changed since that day last July.

Maurice Ellis addressed the court during the sentencing hearing for his daughter, Alexandra.

“I would say undoubtedly, without a question in my mind, Jeff Dusenbury has saved my daughter,” he paused. “That’s the only way that I’m able to rationalize this whole thing—that he saved my daughter. That my daughter has a chance at a healthy, happy life because of him.”

Before the final sentencing, Ellis herself addressed the court and apologized to Dusenbury’s family.

“And I would like to end with saying I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the best version of the self that I can,” she said before breaking into sobs. “I’m very sorry for how I’ve hurt you and that I’ve taken away your dad. I’m so sorry. It will never be enough just to say it.”

In making his final decision, Judge Wolverton said the situation was sad for everyone involved, but he had no legal basis for rejecting the plea deal. He assured the public that the probation system works, and if a person breaks the conditions of probation they will face consequences. He then addressed Ellis directly.

Jeff Dusenbury was killed on July 19, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Jeff Dusenbury Sweatfest website.

“If you don’t make those lifelong, permanent changes, none of this will have made any sense whatsoever. None of it,” he said. “I think you can do that. I’m convinced based upon what’s been presented to me that you can do that.”

Both sides declined to comment on the outcome. Ellis will start serving her jail term on October 24.

Categories: Alaska News

Flint Hills refinery asks for looser cleanup standards

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 16:30

Flint Hills continues to push for a less stringent standard for removal of a spilled chemical from groundwater at the company’s shuttered North Pole refinery. Removal of the industrial solvent sulfolane is costing the refinery a lot of money, and opinions differ on how clean groundwater should be.

Historic sulfone spills at the refinery spread to groundwater, and Flint Hills is trying to purge the chemical from the water according to a state clean up plan. The state set the clean up standard of 15 parts per billion while it awaits results of two-year federal study on health effects of drinking low concentrations of the chemical.

Flint Hills has asked the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to consider upping the standard to 362 parts per billion, a level Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook says is backed by a state sanctioned review.

“They went ahead and convened a panel of experts last fall at the University of Alaska. And they determined — with the consideration of being safe,and putting in some parameters to take care of uncertainties — that Flint Hills was on the right track.”

Flint Hills has filed a request seeking an adjudicatory hearing on the clean up standard. Cook says it costs Flint Hills significantly more money to meet the more stringent standard, but stresses that the company continues to adhere to it.

The body of research on sulfolane is small relative to what’s known about effects other industrial contaminants and DEC Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan points to that uncertainty in erring on the cautious side until the study, using testing on animals is complete.

Ryan stresses that the cleanup standard Flint Hills is contesting is for groundwater cleanup on  refinery property.

The on site contamination is the source of pollution that’s spread to wells on hundreds of  surrounding properties in North Pole, where about 1,500 people live. Flint Hills has been providing effected residents with drinking water alternatives, including bulk water deliveries and installation of well water filtration systems, since the contamination was first discovered off site in 2009.

Categories: Alaska News

Glacier Bay’s missing stories find a new home in Tlingit tribal house

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-19 15:56

A $3 million Tlingit tribal house is being constructed on the shore of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay – likely the first time the National Park Service has funded a tribal house.

An artist’s rendering of the Huna Tribal House. (Image courtesy National Park Service)

Three carvers are chipping away on an Eagle moiety pole that will go outside the red cedar tribal house with a Raven. The crest of a Wolf, Porpoise, Brown Bear and Thunderbird are starting to form, representing the clans in the area.

Gordon Greenwald, the lead carver, says it’s taken over a month to get this far on the totem and it’ll likely be six more before it’s finished.

“Now we could complete it faster than that if we used some machines. Chainsaws and so forth to do some of the major cutting but we’ve chosen not to do it that way. We’re trying to do it all by hand.”

His team has been carving the pieces to go in the 2,500-square-foot Huna Tribal House for about five years. There’s a constant flood of cruise ship tourists in and out of the shed, asking questions and marveling at the handiwork. But Greenwald says he doesn’t mind.

“For people that are new to this area, it gives them a chance to learn about our people. Going away knowing  Tlingit people, knowing what our life was like. And for local people, they can stop and see something is being made in our homeland,” he says.

The house posts which will go in the Huna Tribal House. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

An interior and exterior screen is already complete. So are the house posts of the four clans that identify Glacier Bay as home:Wooshkeetaan, Chookaneidí, Kaagwaantaan and T’akdeintaan.

Tom VandenBerg, the chief of interpretation at Glacier Bay National Park says the clans are an inextricable part of the story of Glacier Bay.

“But there’s no physical sign of their history here unfortunately,” he says.

Bartlett Cove is the site of the new tribal house. It’s where the clans originally resided until an encroaching glacier forced them to relocate hundreds of years ago to what’s now called Hoonah. In 1925, Glacier Bay became a national monument and federal laws limited what the Huna Tlingit could do in their homeland.

“It’s difficult, you know. The parks service represents the stories of our nation. And it seems like some of the Native stories have been missing from some parks.”

VandenBerg says there are places like Sitka National Historic Park with Southeast Native totems, but “there’s not much in the way of Alaska Native stories being told in parks.”

The National Park Service received a request from the Hoonah Indian Association back in 1992 to build the tribal house. VandenBerg is unaware of anything else like it: a ceremonial house paid for by concessioners fees from businesses that operate within Glacier Bay.

Tlingit elder and park management assistant Ken Grant says it’s going to be an emotional day when the tribal house is finished.

“Our people really have a strong tie to the homeland. The feeling of being left out has been with our elders for a long time. Like they say in our language: they were buried with a sorrow in their hearts,” Grant says.

He hopes that it’ll provide a space for young Huna Tlingits to learn about their roots and enhance language and cultural preservation.

Gordon Greenwald says it’s been a long time for the project to come fruition.

“But now I’m looking back on it, I’m wondering why this hadn’t happened in all the other parks long ago,” he says.

Back at the shed, carvers Owen James and Herb Sheakley are singing a song about one of the Huna clans.

When Sheakley started this project five years ago, he says he didn’t know all of the stories and he didn’t know how to carve. He’s been practicing at home, making ceremonial hats out of spruce and working on the Eagle pole.

“It’s stuff like this that keeps me going. I can actually create this now,” he says. “Before I could look at this and say, ‘Hmm, I couldn’t do that.’ Making the knives, listening to my boss teaching me the formlines, this is the kind of thing I’m making now.”

Greenwald says he owes teaching to his mentors; passing on the knowledge so it doesn’t stop with him.

“On all of this work, none of us will sign it because none of this work is about us as individuals; it’s about our people,” Greenwald says.

The Huna Tribal House is expected to be dedicated next August.

Categories: Alaska News

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