Alaska News

US Senate Confirms Attorney General Nominee Loretta Lynch

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:07

The U.S. Senate today voted to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general.

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Both Alaska senators voted against her, saying she has not shown she has the independence to stand up to the Obama White House.

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski put it, the A.G. should serve as a “firewall against executive overreach, not an apologist for the President’s prerogatives.”

Lynch was confirmed by a vote of 56 to 43.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Miners Dispute Claim That ‘Much’ Of Alaska’s Federal Lands Are Open To Mining

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:06

Alaska mining advocates are taking issue with something Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week, while defending federal resource management in Alaska.

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Here’s what Jewell said: “We are in no way preventing development of Alaska’s resources on public lands. We’re facilitating development in a number of areas. Much of the mining in Alaska is on public lands.”

The Alaska Miners Association has written a letter to Jewell disputing that “much” of Alaska’s mining is on federal lands. Alaska has six big mines. Two, Kensington and Greens Creek in Southeast, are on federal land. The others are on state and Native land. Deantha Crockett, executive director of the mining group, says Alaska has more than 400 placer mines, but only about 80 are on federal land.

“I think our concern is when you say “much” you’re talking about 18 percent of placer mines, and two out of six large-scale mines,” Crockett said. “I guess I don’t consider that to be ‘much.'”

Crockett says the lack of mining activity on federal land didn’t happen by accident. More than 60 percent of the state is federal land, but Crockett says too much is closed to mining.

“And the then the acreage that is administered by the federal government that isn’t closed to mineral entry, frankly, there are tremendous permitting delays and a whole bunch of bureaucracy that’s affecting these operation from moving forward,” Crockett said.

Crockett says the BLM is hampered by staff turn-over and budget constraints. She says the Alaska Miners Association is offering to help the Interior Department simplify the permitting process to speed it along.

An Interior Department official, counting both pending and active mining plans and notices, says there are 176 mining sites on federal land in Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Jury Convicts Tanana Man In Evidence Tampering Case

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:05

A jury has convicted a 59-year-old Tanana man on evidence tampering charges after two Alaska State Troopers were shot to death.

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The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports Arvin Kangas began to cry after the verdict was read Thursday. The jury was to resume deliberations on whether aggravating circumstances could increase the sentence.

Prosecutors claimed Kangas moved handguns belonging to the two troopers after his son allegedly shot and killed them last year.

The jury heard about one hour of combined audio and video footage taken before, during and after the shooting.

The footage comes from audio recorders worn by the officers and nearly 30 minutes of video taken by a neighbor.

Arvin Kangas’ son, Nathanial Kangas, faces trial in November for the deaths of Sgt. Scott Johnson and trooper Gabe Rich..

Categories: Alaska News

UAF Announces Academic Program Cuts, Changes

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:03

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a list of academic program cuts and changes in response to reduced state funding. The cost saving measures are the first of numerous expected as UAF tries to cover a more than $20 million budget hole.

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Categories: Alaska News

Cessna 185 Makes Emergency Landing In Nome

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:02

A team of responders transporting the damaged Cessna 185 after it landed at Nome’s City Field on Thursday afternoon. (Photo: Francesca Fenzi)

A privately-owned Cessna 185 airplane made an emergency landing at Nome’s City Field airport on Thursday afternoon.

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Update Thursday, 3:45 pm: The Nome Police Department received a distress call regarding a small aircraft “that possibly would not make the city landing strip” just before 1 o’clock on Thursday. The Nome Volunteer Ambulance and Fire Departments were dispatched along with law enforcement officers.

Nome Fire Chief Jim West, Jr. says the single-engine Cessna 185 departed Nome earlier on Thursday, and was on its way to White Mountain when the pilot noticed the plane’s landing gear was out of alignment on one side.

The pilot returned to Nome, and performed an emergency landing at City Field that further damaged the plane’s landing gear — but resulted in no injuries, according to emergency personnel.

Nome Police confirm that the pilot was the only individual on board, and was not injured.

Categories: Alaska News

PSP: With New Lab, STA Takes A Gamble On Shellfish Testing

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:01

Jeff Feldpausch and Chris Whitehead stand in the soon-to-be biotoxin testing lab at STA’s Resource Protection Department, intended to test shellfish for commercial entities. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Despite the risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning — or PSP — Southeast Alaska has a robust dive fishery that includes geoduck clams. The entire industry hinges on weekly testing results from the Department of Environmental Conservation laboratory in Anchorage.

This scenario could change in the not-too-distant future. In part 1 of our 2-part series, KCAW’s Emily Kwong reported on efforts by Sitka Tribe of Alaska to monitor the waters of Southeast for PSP. In part 2 today, she tracks their plans to launch a commercial testing lab.

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If you’ve ever seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you may remember that scene with the golden eggs.

Willy Wonka: These are the geese that lay the golden eggs.

Veruca Salt: Are they chocolate eggs?

Willy Wonka: Golden chocolate eggs.

The green haired Oompa Loompas weigh the eggs on a scale to decide if they’re good or bad.

Wonka: If it’s a good egg, it’s shined up and shipped out over the world. But if it’s a bad egg, down the chute.

The same could be said for geoducks. These giant bivalves, with lolling necks like space worms, have a high market value, where they’re called xiàngbábàng (象拔蚌) or elephant trunk clams in China. Because these clams run the risk of carrying PSP toxins, divers cannot harvest an area before a few of it’s clams have been sent to the DEC and cleared for consumption.

“If you’re lucky you get the sample on a plane that day and it gets up to the lab in Anchorage,” said Larry Trani, a diver and member of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, or SARDFA. Harvest has to happen within a week, which means that by the time divers get a test result, they tend to do all their actual harvest in just one day. And that’s not a lot of time.

“Time is off the essence on this,” said Trani, “As far as making all the connections from Southeast Alaska to Hong Kong, or wherever they’re going.”

China imposed a five month ban on geoducks from Alaska in December of 2013 out of concerns for PSP toxins. (Photo courtesy of KRBD and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

Divers like Trani go down to the bottom of the ocean floor, breathing surface supplied air through a diving hookah, and walk the bottom, blasting the sand with a water gun and prying gooey ducks from their beds. It’s dangerous work, which Trani believes could benefit from the kind of lab Sitka Tribe wants to open.

“I can see that that would save time on the sampling and give us more days in which to conduct our diving,” said Trani. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”

That’s the appeal of a lab in Southeast, one Sitka Tribe hopes will persuade divers like Trani, shellfish growers, and harvesters to relocate some of their testing work to Sitka.

“It was two offices so we removed a wall and made this one large space…”

The man with the plan is shellfish biologist Chris Whitehead, who pitched the idea for a biotoxin lab to Sitka Tribe two years ago.

“I got really busy at writing grants and somehow they all got funded, said Whitehead. “Now it’s a matter of doing the work.”

That includes over half a million dollars from the Administration for Native Americans’ (ANA) Environmental Regulatory Enhancement Program to build the lab from scratch.

Jessica Gill is the tribe’s fish biologist and said, “When we get our first order, it’s going to be like Christmas!”

The most eagerly anticipated order is for the receptor binding assay, or RBA machine. The machine isn’t authorized to test gooey ducks for PSP yet, just mussels and soft shell clams, but Chris Whitehead believes that will change soon. And the exciting thing about the machine is that it eliminates the traditional testing method, practiced by labs throughout the country.

Whitehead explained, “They run whats called a mouse bioassay. So they inject this slurry of shellfish into a mouse…”

AmeriCorps volunteer Esther Kennedy is helping STA launch an early warning system for beaches in Southeast, so harvesters can know when it’s safe to dig and when to steer clear. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

And time how long it takes for the mouse to die. Based on that number, the lab can calculate the relative toxicity of the gooey duck for humans. With the RBA method, no mice need be harmed.

Jessica Gill, for her part, is relieved. She said, “I don’t think I could take the lab manager job thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to kill a bunch of rats today.’”

With staff to be trained and testing to launch, STA has secured 1.3 million dollars in grant money for the PSP project for the next three years. That includes $210,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indian General Assistance Program(IGAP) for fiscal year 2015, with plans to continue through 2017, $48,000 from theBureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), $527,000 from ANA to the build the new lab, and an additional $150,000 to support SEATT to conduct cellular toxin analysis, as detailed in Part 1 of our series.

Jeff Feldpausch, the Resource Protection Director, recognizes it’s a luxury that won’t last.

“We couldn’t keep this lab open on grants forever,” Feldpausch said. “It was going to have to be something that could stand on it’s own.”

And that means attracting commercial business. The goal is for the lab to become a source of unrestricted funds for the tribe.

But among SARDFA and other potential customers KCAW spoke with, the big question on their minds was this: Would the state of Alaska by okay with handing PSP testing over to a commercial entity?

Elaine Busse Floyd, the Environmental Health Director of the DEC, said, “Well I think that if they achieved FDA certification, that would be a terrific benefit to the Southeast Alaska community.”

Busse Floyd said that while it would nice to have a lab servicing Southeast, it’s never been done before and for good reason. The state does PSP testing for free.

“So it’s possible that the big influx of customers that you might think you were going to get because of being closer, you might not get because you’d be charging and we wouldn’t be,” Bussy Floyd said.

But the state may not always be there. Funding for PSP testing is safe this fiscal year, but that may change with future budget cuts.

The lab in Sitka would also have to earn certification from an alphabet soup of agencies, such as the FDA and the International Shellfish Sanitation Commission. Easier said than done, but STA’s Chris Whitehead has determination in spades.

“For a long time, there’s probably been a need to do something like this,” said Whitehead.
“I don’t know if I lucked out and just came in the right time to start it, but doors are opening for us to do this.”

Whithead hopes to win FDA certification by 2017 and to first test shellfish collected through subsistence, through the Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins Group, or SEATT. It’s an ambitious plan trying to address a basic problem.

“It all started out I just wanted to go dig clams and I had no one to call to see if it was safe or not.’

And Whitehead hopes this little-lab-that-could can answer that call.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Bill Walker Adopted Into Tlingit Clan

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 17:00

Gov. Bill Walker dances during a ceremony at a Tlingit Haida Central Council function April 17 where he was adopted into the Kaagwaantaan Clan. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

Gov. Bill Walker was recently adopted into the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan. The ceremony happened during the 80th Assembly of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, where Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott was also given a lifetime achievement award.

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In a video of Gov. Bill Walker’s adoption ceremony into the Kaagwaantaan Clan, a Tlingit tribal member places a $5 bill on the governor’s forehead to symbolize a payment for the name.

Then the crowd chants the governor’s Kaagwaantaan name four times. He’s now a member of the Eagle’s Nest House within the Kaagwaantaan Clan, which means Wolf Clan. The clan is part of the Eagle moiety. Walker said being adopted by the clan was a complete surprise.

“It was exciting. Something I’d not been a part of before. It was all brand-spanking new to me and was such an honor. … My adopted name now is Gooch Waak,” Walker says.

Leona Santiago is a tribal delegate from the Kaagwaantaan Clan. She says she came up with the name in 2008 for an adopted family member. And now it’s the name given to the governor: Gooch Waak, which means “wolf eyes.”

She says tribal elders wanted to adopt Gov. Walker into the Kaagwaantaan because of the lieutenant governor’s Native roots.

“Because Byron Mallott is Raven and the Tlingit way, Eagle/Raven is a balance,” she says.

This 10,000-year-old tradition creates equal representation for Tlingit families. Few Alaskan leaders have been adopted into Native clans. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott says it makes the relationship between him and the governor more whole.

“It was special to me. It is special for Tlingit people and I know it’s special for Alaska. The more we can bring those lives across this incredible state together, the stronger we are a state, so it was a good step,” Mallott says.

Recently, Gov. Walker introduced emergency regulations for the Indian Child Welfare Act. It would create lower barriers for extended family or tribal members to adopt Native kids. Essentially, less bureaucracy. Leona Santiago said the timing had nothing to do with adopting Gov. Walker into the Kaagwaantaan clan.

“No, that isn’t what we did. We did it to set the balance because Byron Mallott is a Raven,” Santiago says.

Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, and Tlngit Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson at council assembly April 17. Mallott received a lifetime achievement award. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

In the video of the ceremony, Gov. Walker dances to a traditional Kaagwaantaan song. He says being governor, you have a lot of one-and-done moments.

“And that wasn’t. That was a life changing moment for me and I knew that,” Walker says.

Gooch Waak or Gov. Bill Walker says he will continue advocating on behalf of all Alaskans.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 23, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 16:59

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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US To Assume Arctic Council Chair Amid Dispute Over Russian Military Moves

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The United States will take over Friday as chair of the Arctic Council, the international body of representatives from eight nations with territory in the region. U.S. delegates say they’ll focus on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and its peoples. Observers say the council’s work won’t be disrupted by divisions among some of its members.

 

US Senate Confirms Attorney General Nominee Loretta Lynch

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. Senate today voted to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Both Alaska senators voted against her.

 

Alaska Miners Dispute Claim That ‘Much’ Of Alaska’s Federal Lands Are Open To Mining

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska mining advocates are taking issue with something Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week, while defending federal resource management in Alaska.

 

Jury Convicts Tanana Man In Evidence Tampering Case

The Associated Press

A jury has convicted a 59-year-old Tanana man on evidence tampering charges after two Alaska State Troopers were shot to death.

 

The Blind Spot: Quitting Meth Alone, Together

Anne Hillman & Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

This week we’re exploring the Blind Spot, it’s a focus on the teens who are using substances but aren’t being caught by the system that’s set up to help them. In this story, KSKA’s Anne Hillman spoke with a couple relying on each other to get through their past methamphetamine addiction.

 

UAF Announces Academic Program Cuts, Changes

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a list of academic program cuts and changes in response to reduced state funding.  The cost saving measures are the first of numerous expected as UAF tries to cover a more than $20 million budget hole.

 

Cessna 185 Makes Emergency Landing In Nome

Francesca Fenzi, KNOM – Nome

A privately-owned Cessna 185 airplane made an emergency landing at Nome’s City Field airport this afternoon.

 

PSP: With New Lab, STA Takes A Gamble On Shellfish Testing

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

Despite the risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning – or PSP – Southeast Alaska has a robust dive fishery that includes geoduck clams. The harvest depends on weekly testing results from the Department of Environmental Conservation laboratory in Anchorage.

 

This scenario could change in the not-too-distant future.

 

Gov. Bill Walker Adopted Into Tlingit Clan

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

Gov. Bill Walker was recently adopted into the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan. The ceremony happened during the 80th Assembly of the Central Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, where Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott was also given a lifetime achievement award.

Categories: Alaska News

I Am A Carver | INDIE ALASKA

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 13:48

Iñupiaq artist Ross Schaeffer spent most of his life hunting, trapping, and fishing around Kotzebue, Alaska. Only in recent years has he transformed his lifestyle into creating artwork and carvings that blend traditional and modern techniques. Using age old materials such as woolly mammoth bone, Ross works on carvings inspired by his culture and natural environment, and encourages young folks to try artwork themselves.

Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: The Sobering Decision To Quit/How To Quit Meth Alone

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-04-23 06:40

This week we’re exploring the Blind Spot, it’s a focus on the teens who are abusing substances but aren’t being caught by the system that’s set up to help them. In this story, KSKA’s Anne Hillman spoke with two young women who are relying on each other rather than an organization to end their methamphetamine addiction.

Two young women sit in an empty classroom, their hands entwined. A knit cap is pulled low over Madison’s shaggy hair, and a Batman belt holds up her baggy pants. Kylie wears a pastel hoodie over her thin body and tight jeans. One of them is still a minor, so their names have been changed here.

More than a year ago, before ever meeting, they had both dropped out of school. But recently they re-enrolled.

They met when Madison joined her friend for dinner at Kylie’s dad’s house. Madison remembers the meal going well. “They had meatloaf,” she recalled, before adding, “and I met her.”

By the time they met, Madison had already started using meth.

“I was downtown Anchorage, in the JC Penny stairwell,” Madison said, remembering her first hit. “Believe it or not, a lot of people do drugs in all those places. So if you ever see people standing in the stairwell: they’re probably doing drugs.”

But then, after meeting Kylie, Madison stopped. She knew Kylie had grown up in a house where her father and older siblings often used drugs. Madison didn’t want her to have to deal with a girlfriend who was using, too.

Don’t miss the rest of the stories in our series, The Blind Spot.

Then Madison relapsed. With Kylie’s dad. And that was when Kylie decided it was time for her to try it, too.

“I was closer to my family if I did it,” Kylie said. She had felt cut out from the family.

Younger siblings were allowed to stay around when drugs came out because they didn’t know what was going on. Kylie, however, was older, and kept away when meth was around. But when she started using, she could stay.

That started Madison and Kylie on a six-month bender with friends and family members. They estimate they used thousands of dollars worth of drugs, but paid almost nothing for them. The meth made them escape.

“It makes you feel cut off from your emotions,” Madison explained. You just kind of get lost in this different world.”

The two of them would forget to eat or sleep. For Kylie the whole thing started with wanting to try it one time.

“And six months later you’re like 100 pounds and nobody—your own family—doesn’t want to be around you,” Kylie recalled. “It’s awful.”

They didn’t even like each other. Madison is whiny when she’s high, according to Kylie. Although Kylie is annoying in her own ways. “She’s just everywhere and then she’s not everywhere. And she’s always writing letters. Always writing, writing,” Madison contends. “And then she never sends the letters anyway.”

But when Kylie is off drugs, she’s a completely different person, a person Madison loves.

“She laughs a lot and she’s really goal-orientated, too, when she’s sober. She wants to get things done,” Madison said. “She looks out for herself.”

On the days they didn’t use meth, that’s the person Madison would see. And she detected a similar change in herself. She’d always known using meth was a bad idea, but it was seeing those differences in the people around her made her realize she needed a change if she was ever going to reach the goals she set for herself.

So Madison set an ultimatum for Kylie: if they were ever adults with a family they never wanted their kids to have a mother who was as messed up as she herself had been.

“It sounds really harsh,” Madison chimed in.

“But it’s the truth,” Kylie added. “She said that we didn’t need to set goals for when we had kids, we needed to do it before, so we were ready to have kids.”

Madison wanted to show Kylie a better life than she’d had. But Madison is also the one who first prompted Kylie to try meth. So why does Kylie still trust her?

“Nobody’s ever told me that they supported me or they believed in me,” Kylie explained, “but she has.”

In order to get clean the young couple had to get away from everyone who was still using, so they went to live with friends in Wasilla.

“If you try to quit and you’re still around all those people that do drugs”—Kylie starts.

“–It makes it a thousand times harder,” Madison swoops in, finishing the sentence for her. It’s part of an increasingly normal relationship between the two of them, squabbling over housework, and supporting each other through intensely personal choices.

“You have to make the decision to leave and get better for yourself,” Madison says. Although knowing that does not make it easier. Madison has relapsed since trying to get off meth. But she knows that is part of the process. Both women say it’s hard, but that together they’re trying.

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Wins Amendment to Let States Prosecute Mann Act

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:30

Sen. Dan Sullivan added an amendment to the human trafficking bill the U.S. Senate passed today. Sullivan says it addresses a problem he faced as Alaska’s Attorney General.

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“The key goal of this amendment is to enable the resources and cooperation between state and federal prosecutors to ensure all cases of human trafficking are pursued and victims have justice,” he said on the Senate floor.

In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department decided it would not pursue charges against Veco founder Bill Allen for allegedly having sex with underage girls. Sullivan says the feds also refused his request to let state prosecutors press charges under the federal Mann Act, which makes it a crime to transport people across state lines for illicit sex.  The amendment Sullivan added to the Senate bill today says the U.S. Attorney General has to grant requests to cross-designate state prosecutors to handle Mann Act charges, or to explain why that would undermine the administration of justice.

Bill Allen, once a big contributor to primarily Republican candidates in Alaska, was the government’s key witness in the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens on corruption charges. Allen served nearly two years behind bars for bribery and other crimes. He finished his probation last year. It’s unclear whether Allen could still face charges under the Mann Act.

Sullivan’s amendment was passed by voice vote. The human trafficking bill passed 99 to 0.

Categories: Alaska News

Rep. Young Advocating For Transfer Of Air Force Land To Galena

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:29

The Yukon River community of Galena could be relocated out of flood danger if a land transfer being pushed by Alaska Congressman Don Young goes through. The village, which is still recovering from a major flood 2 years ago, will likely approach moving with multiple steps over time.

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Categories: Alaska News

Unalaska’s Geothermal Hopes Stall Without City Backing

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:27

Makushin Volcano.

A years-long effort to bring geothermal power to Unalaska may be on its last legs. The city government is draining its accounts for exploring Makushin Volcano, saying the project is too expensive and risky to pursue any further.

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The private trust that owns the resource disagrees, but they’re stymied without local support.

Unalaska has been trying for three decades to find an affordable way to build a geothermal power plant for the city at Makushin Volcano. But it’s never gotten off the ground.

“Right now, it’s just pretty much a dead project,” says city public utilities director Dan Winters.

Winters says the city is clearing out its geothermal savings. They’vetransferred an expiring federal grant to Akutan, and rolled their local match back into the city’s general fund. And soon, the state Legislature will likely take back the rest of the geothermal account — a $1.5 million grant that was never used.

Unalaska wasn’t always so disinterested in geothermal exploration. In the 1990s and 2000s, they partnered with the private trust that owns the resource to court developers in the Lower 48. They evenwent together to Iceland a decade ago to look at geothermal projects there.

Trustee Jack Wood wants to see that partnership revived.

“I guess all we’re looking for is being able to have a fair assessment of where the project is, not just to say the project’s a failure,” Wood says.

Once upon a time, he says all sides agreed that Makushin was a “world-class” geothermal resource. A test well drilled in the 1980srevealed a hot-water reservoir that could generate at least 12 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough heat around 10,000 homes.

Back then, the state of Alaska had control of Makushin. But they stepped back when oil prices crashed. Wood came on as a consultant for the private company that took over the lease. And in 1995, Wood and a group of investors bought the resource outright.

“We formed the Alaska limited liability company called KSLC or Kiiguusi Suuluta Land Company, and proceeded to undertake bringing in other companies to help develop the project,” Wood says.

Steam issues from the geothermal test well drilled at Makushin Volcano in the 1980s. (Courtesy: KSLC)

Connecting Makushin to Unalaska’s electrical grid would require new wells, a power plant, dock and substations, plus miles of utility lines to stretch across water and rough terrain.

All that infrastructure is a big driver of the project’s up-front cost — anywhere from $100 million to more than $300 million.

Jack Wood says the city of Unalaska wouldn’t be expected to pay more than a third of that. But he does need them to sign on as a distributor, selling power to the town’s 5,000 residents and shipping companies.

Chris Hladick was Unalaska’s city manager for 14 years. In that time, Hladick says that he and the resource owners could never agree on a financial structure that wouldn’t raise electric rates for consumers.

“If it pencils out, it pencils out,” Hladick says. “And if it doesn’t, you’ve got to be willing to say that it doesn’t.”

But it did have a major leg up compared to other renewable energy projects in small towns, where figuring out what to do with extra power can be a challenge. Unalaska’s seafood processors can use as much electricity as the whole town combined – so much that, for the most part, they make it themselves.

Art Aliment is the engineering director for UniSea, the city’s largest plant.

“If somebody knocked on my door and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna put together a geothermal power plant and we’re gonna sell power’ — if I can buy it cheaper to what I’m making it now, then that’s definitely something we’re gonna be interested in, and we’ll move forward with it,” Aliment says. “If it’s out there available.”

But he says geothermal developers have always wanted firm commitments from the processors that they’ll buy a certain amount of power over a certain number of years. The fishing business fluctuates, and Aliment says they can’t make any promises.

That meant the city government had to charge ahead to make Makushin viable. But over the years, local support and funding broke down.

By the time Chris Hladick left Unalaska to become the state’s new commerce commissioner in March, the city was letting go of its Makushin savings and setting its sights back on diesel – buying a fourth generator and new waste-heat recovery systems to make the powerhouse sustainable as fuel prices fell.

Jack Wood thinks that’s short-sighted — but not for the obvious environmental reasons. He says it’s about the money: long-term savings for residents and industry. That’s especially as Unalaska looks to become an Arctic support hub, with new businesses that’ll need power, too.

But Wood and his group can’t do much without a change in leadership. Right now, Unalaska is looking for a new, permanent city manager. Makushin trustee Ed Fisch says they’ll reach out to that person to resurrect the project.

“It’s going to take a cooperative effort to get this thing done,” Fisch says. “If there is a city administration and a city council that wants to work toward that end, they will find ready participants in us. And if that doesn’t come to pass, you know what? Our kids will end up owning a part of a volcano.”

For now, though, they’ll shop Makushin around to private companies alone — and wait for a chance to bring the city back on board.

KSLC has posted more documents and communications with the city of Unalaska from past attempts to develop Makushin here.

Categories: Alaska News

Two Face Felony Charges for Alleged $25,000 Theft from Nome Schools

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:26

The Nome court. (Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file)

Two Nome residents—a man and woman—are facing felony charges for theft and falsifying business records after allegedly stealing more than $25,000 from Nome Public Schools.

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Court records show 28-year-old Ashla Marie Weston and 24-year-old Joseph Grubb face felony charges for three separate thefts that court documents allege were committed from February through December of 2012. One of those thefts, court records claim, exceeds $25,000, enough to warrant a charge of felony theft in the first degree. The other two charges claim the value stolen was more than $500 but less than $25,000.

Assistant District Attorney Tom Jamgochian said Tuesday only that “the alleged victim is [Nome Public] Schools.” School officials could not provide a total dollar amount missing from the district due to the ongoing investigation.

A grand jury indictment filed in Nome court on April 16 remains sealed from public view unless and until presented at trial or made public through a court motion.

The alleged thefts first came to light under former Superintendent Mike Brawner, who left the district in March 2013. Brawner at once opened up the school’s financial records to investigators. Current superintendent Shawn Arnold said that coordination continues.

“As soon as the allegations were brought forward to [Brawner], he turned that over to law enforcement immediately,” Arnold said. “And from there on out, we have continued to cooperate with the investigations, which are still ongoing.”

Messages to investigators with the Nome Police Department for additional details were not returned.

The grand jury also handed down six additional felony counts against Weston for allegedly falsifying business records; in this case, purchase orders dated from January to December of 2012. Court documents say the “false entries in the business records” of the district were filed “with intent to defraud” Nome Public Schools.

School officials say Weston worked in the district’s business office for several years leading up to 2012, but it was unclear when she stopped working there. In June of that year—the time of the alleged $25,000 theft—Superintendent Arnold said the staff at the district office was especially lean, as most staffers had time off for the summer.

Arnold said Nome Schools has taken steps to safeguard against any possible future incidents.

“The process is secured now. We didn’t know of some of the gaps in accounting. This process, it wouldn’t be able to occur now with the checks and balances that are currently in place. These were put in place as soon as the allegations occurred. There’s a much more transparent accounting system where nothing like this should happen again.”

Neither Grubb nor Weston returned messages seeking comments on the indictment. The two have not been arrested, but they are both subject to a summons to appear before the Nome court on Friday, April 24, to formally hear the charges against them.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Team Envisions Greywater Recycling

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:25

A greywater recycling system separates reusable water from sewage needing traditional treatment. Graphic courtesy Dump the Bucket.

A Bethel team is re-envisioning how household water is treated. They hope to build and test a custom greywater recycling system for hauled systems in Western Alaska that could steeply cut the amount of water households need to buy and reduce the amount of sewage they produce.

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Their “Dump the Bucket” project aims to treat and reuse water in specific parts of the house. Brian Lefferts is director of Environmental Health and Engineering for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which is leading the initiative.

He says a system like this would be much cheaper than building a centralized piped systems.

“In Bethel and the villages the most expensive part of the system is paying someone to drive around and deliver water. We’re hoping to reduce the number of deliveries and ultimately make water more affordable for people,” said Lefferts.

Many families on small haul systems end up rationing the amount of water and use a fraction of what’s needed to get the health benefit of clean water for bathing and waste disposal.

A greywater system involves routing plumbing so that waste from the toilet and kitchen sink go to sewage, while water from places like laundry, shower, and bathroom sink could be sent to an in-home treatment system.

“It would go into greywater holding tank that would run though a small treatment system with a really fancy biofiltration unit, and then ozonation or ultraviolet disinfectant, and then back to a gray water holding tank,” said Lefferts.

The water doesn’t have to go to offsite treatment and can be used several times in the home.

“Our plan is to try to retreat greywater in the home and provide it to taps that wouldn’t necessarily need potable water. We’d always have potable water available in the kitchen and bathroom sink from a community water treatment source,” said Lefferts. “We’d retreat greywater to actual drinking water standards, but we’d still classify it as gray water, and then provide it back into the home for other taps.”

The group is raising funds now to build a prototype in a lab setting and run it for a year. They’ll track household water usage and test for bacteria, phosphates, nitrites. They hope to keep the treatment system to about $10,000 but there would also be a certain level of re-plumbing involved. Lefferts says the technology exists for greywater systems, but they need to find out exactly how to build a system that works in rural Alaska.

“Every component is commercially available, but we’re putting it together in a way that’s never been tried before,” said Lefferts.

The group is trying to raise $15,000 on an online fundraising campaign and more for the test. More information is at dumpthebucket.org.

Categories: Alaska News

PSP: Tribal Partnership Seeks Modern Solution To An Ancient Problem

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:24

Esther Kennedy of the Resource Protection Department collects water samples every week from Starrigavan. Along with six other tribes in Southeast, the group is working to create an early warning system to protect shellfish diggers from PSP. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Of all the traditional seafoods in Southeast Alaska, none are more shrouded in myth — and genuine risk — than clams and mussels. Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP)killed two people in Southeast in 2010 and dozens more have fallen ill over the recorded history of the state.

For subsistence harvesters, there has been no way to measure the risk of clam digging — until now. In part 1 of a two-part series, KCAW reports on a partnership among Southeast tribes to create a regional water monitoring program.

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In Southeast, between Chicagof and Baranof Islands, there’s a waterway called Peril Strait. The name doesn’t come from winds ripping through the channel, but from a shocking event that happened in 1799.

“A Russian ship came in and the villagers had gone out and collected a bunch of clams from an area now called Poison Cove,” explained Jeff Feldpausch, the Resource Protection Director for Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

The incident he’s describing is the earliest documented case of PSP in the state. After eating the shellfish, 100 Aleut crew members of fur trader Alexander Baranof – died. Feldpausch added, “They only made it a few miles to the area that’s now called Dead Man’s Reach.”

Eat the wrong clam and you can die on the beach. That’s the grim pathology for PSP, which one state publication in 1982 called “Alaska Roulette.” In order to protect subsistence harvesters, the Sitka Tribe decided to invest in the latest science and to look really closely at what the clams themselves are eating.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is transmitted through bivalves, especially butter clams, mussels, and cockles. But it all begins in the water, in the naturally produced toxins of certain kinds of plankton. (Emily Kwong/KCAW)

I met Esther Kennedy of STA’s Resource Protection Department near the Starrigavan dock. She took note of the day’s conditions. “So it’s 10AM, it’s sunny, it’s calm.” Every Tuesday, Kennedy starts her morning by collecting water samples. From far away, it looks like she’s flying an underwater kite, dragging a net sedately through the water as microscopic creatures called phytoplankton get trapped inside.

“Most plankton is just beautiful and it looks like little Christmas ornaments and I have no problem with that,” said Kennedy. “But it’s a little bit unnerving to be looking at that and be like, ‘How many of those have I swum through in the past?’”

Alexandrium is a genus of dinoflagellates that leads to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. This cell was identified by a team of researchers at NOAA’s biotoxin testing lab in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of NOAA).

The vast majority of phytoplankton are totally harmless. But a few of them, particularly of the genus Alexandrium (they look like an acorn under the microscope) produce a chemical called Saxitoxin. Saxitoxin is 1000x more potent than cyanide, so potent it’s listed as a chemical weapon by the US military. Saxitoxin is what’s responsible for PSP.

The timer beeps. Three minutes are up and Kennedy pulls up net and bottle – now filled with water. She’ll take these drops of water back to a lab, and using a microscope, count what kinds of phytoplankton, toxic or not, are in the water that week.

So, how do these tiny creatures poison us? It works like this: when toxic-bearing phytoplankton accumulate in the water, it’s known as a harmful algal bloom, or a HAB. Some HABs are visible, even red, earning the nickname “red tide,” but many are not. As shellfish feed, the bloom’s toxins get trapped inside and have the potential to poison whoever eats the shellfish, whether a sea lion in Kodiak or a subsistence user in Klawock.

SEATT partners are monitoring for other kinds of toxic phytoplankton, such as Dinophysis. “It kind of looks like a pitcher filled with punch with Sangria,” said Kennedy. “We’re worried about that because it produced diuretic shellfish poisoning, which is very unpleasant but not high priority.” (Photo courtesy of Esther Kennedy)

“Here we are living with hundreds of bears wandering that will wander through the streets, but everyone is worried about the clams,” said Chris Whitehead, STA’s Natural Resource Specialist.

Chris Whitehead joined STA’s Resource Protection Department in the fall of 2013. In his former home of Washington State, there’s a hotline you can call to know which beaches are safe for shellfish digging.

WA HOTLINE: You have reached the Washington State Department of Health Shellfish Safety Hotline…

No such system exists in Alaska, so Whitehead wanted to create a local solution. He pitched the idea for a HAB monitoring program to several tribes. The response was instant.

“This is kind of the first step or kind of the poster child for collaboration on environmental issues,” said Jeff Feldpausch. Six other tribes have signed on for the project. Together, they form Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins group, or SEATT, with membership from Sitka, Juneau, Yakutat, Petersburg, Klawock, Craig, and Kasaan.

Matt Anderstrom does the water testing for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe at the Yakutat Lagoon. Two weeks ago, the lab saw its first sighting of Alexandrium – that’s the one that makes Saxitoxin. It was spotted by his younger daughter, Nellie.

“I’ve got flashcards and identification keys,” said Anderstrom. “[My daughter] was asking what the bad ones look like and as soon as she seen it, she lit up and was like, ‘That’s it, right there!”

Identification keys from NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network in Charleston, SC. Representatives came to Alaska to provide training to SEATT’s field workers. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Using the data field workers like Anderstrom and Kennedy are gathering, each tribe hopes to eventually create an early warning system for toxic bloom events in their area. In Sitka, Feldpausch imagines it will be a stoplight published in the daily paper.

“A green should be good to go, a yellow is proceed with caution, and a red, we have found saxitoxins out there,” said Feldpausch.

Right now, the Sitka Tribe is only testing the waters at Starrigavan. Feldpausch recognized that may not be enough for some harvesters.

“Eventually we may be able to grow and do other areas,” he said, “But I imagine there’s probably 50-60 beaches around here that people get their shellfish from. There’s no way to cover all those areas.”

Each tribe has focused their first year of fieldwork on one site and for Sitka, the choice of Starrigavan is strategic. In 2013, two locals suffered mild PSP cases in the middle of October.

White explained, “It used to be wintertime was somewhat safe, you didn’t have to worry about it. But because of climate change and warming conditions, the bloom may last all the way through October, November.”

So the old rule of thumb, that safe harvesting months had an “R” in them, basically September through April, is no longer true. In 2012, Alaska Magazine got in trouble with the state for saying otherwise. With PSP a threat any time of year, Whitehead says it’s more important than ever for communities to reclaim their beaches and know exactly what lurks in the water.

For more on PSP safety and prevention, check out the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation‘s fact sheet.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 22, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 17:23

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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With Legislature In Limbo, Walker Calls For Action On Bills

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Legislature blew past its adjournment deadline on Sunday, all but one committee meeting scheduled since then has been canceled or delayed indefinitely. Now, Gov. Bill Walker is calling on lawmakers to do work on bills for as long as it continues to be in session.

 

Sen. Sullivan Adds Amendment To Human Trafficking Bill

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Sen. Dan Sullivan added an amendment to the human trafficking bill the U.S. Senate passed Wednesday. Sullivan says it addresses a problem he faced as Alaska’s Attorney General.

 

Rep. Young Advocating For Transfer Of Air Force Land To Galena

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Yukon River community of Galena could be relocated out of flood danger if a land transfer being pushed by Alaska Congressman Don Young goes through. The village, which is still recovering from a major flood two years ago, will likely approach moving with multiple steps over time.

 

The Blind Spot: Harm Reduction at the Transit Center

Zachariah Hughes & Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

If you’re a teenager in Anchorage struggling with homelessness, hunger, or addiction there are few places to turn. All week we’ve been hearing about a wide gap between early exposure to drugs and alcohol, and the crises that bring people into treatment, part of our series called “The Blind Spot”  KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes visited one of the few organizations in Anchorage helping at-risk teens on their own terms, hidden in plain sight in one of the city’s busiest buildings.

Unalaska’s Geothermal Hopes Stall Without City Backing

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

A years-long effort to bring geothermal power to Unalaska may be on its last legs. The city government is draining its accounts for exploring Makushin Volcano, saying the project is too expensive and risky to pursue any further. The private trust that owns the resource disagrees, but they’re stymied without local support.

Two Face Felony Charges for Alleged $25,000 Theft from Nome Schools

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Two Nome residents are facing felony charges for theft and falsifying business records after allegedly stealing more than $25,000 from Nome Public Schools.

Bethel Team Envisions Greywater Recycling

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

A Bethel team is reenvisioning how household water is treated. They hope to build and test a custom grey water recycling system for hauled water systems in western Alaska that could cut steeply the amount of water households need to buy and how much sewage they produce.

PSP: Tribal Partnership Seeks Modern Solution To An Ancient Problem

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

Of all the traditional seafoods in Southeast Alaska, none are more shrouded in myth — and genuine risk — than clams and mussels. Paralytic shellfish poisoning — or PSP — killed two people in Southeast in 2010 and dozens more have fallen ill over the recorded history of the state.

For subsistence harvesters, there has been no way to measure the risk of clam digging — until now.

Categories: Alaska News

With Legislature In Limbo, Walker Calls For Action On Bills

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 16:18

Since the Legislature blew past its adjournment deadline on Sunday, all but one committee meeting scheduled since has been canceled or delayed indefinitely. Now, Gov. Bill Walker is calling on lawmakers to do work on bills for as long as it continues to be in session.

In a letter sent to Senate President Kevin Meyer and House Speaker Mike Chenault on Wednesday, the governor urged them to “use this time wisely,” and suggested they continue work on Medicaid reform and expansion. He also asked the Legislature to make progress on three specific pieces of legislation: a bill advancing an interior energy project, a bill dealing with the state’s child support program, and a bill — known as Erin’s Law — that would establish a sexual abuse prevention program in schools.

In an interview in the Capitol stairwell, Senate President Kevin Meyer said one of the reasons bills were not being heard was that his caucus hopes a deal will be struck on the budget that will allow them to adjourn soon. The Anchorage Republican also said that he wants to limit legislative gamesmanship, and cited an effort by Senate Democrats on Tuesday to roll Erin’s Law into a bill establishing Children’s Day.

“When we did take up a simple bill, people tried to hijack it and put something on there. A lot of mischief happens,” said Meyer. “So, we might be better off, if mischief is going to occur, not to hear any more bills.”

Meyer also said the Senate has met its constitutional obligation to pass an operating budget, and that its agenda for the session is complete. He blamed the adjournment delay on House Democrats, who are trying to secure more education funding at a time when the state faces a four-billion-dollar deficit. But he said if lawmakers cannot make a deal on the budget within the next few days, they may consider holding committee hearings again.

“The Senate feels like we’ve finished our work, and we’re ready to go home,” said Meyer. “Boxes are packed. We feel guilty, too, about getting paid a per diem for being here, because we want to be home and our work is done. But again, we’re kind of held hostage here by other side, because they can’t get an agreement. So, if it looks like that agreement can’t be reached anytime soon, then yeah, let’s just keep working.”

House Speaker Mike Chenault was occupied by negotiations and was not available for an interview.

More than 300 bills have been introduced this legislative session, but just 36 have passed both chambers.

Each day the Legislature goes past its statutory deadline costs the state approximately $30,000 — with $13,000 going to lawmakers in the form of per diem. While Wednesday was Day 93 of the Legislature’s 90-day statutory session, it can meet for up to 121 days, as provided by the Alaska Constitution.

Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: Harm Reduction at the Transit Center

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-22 09:10

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

If you’re a teenager in Anchorage struggling with homelessness, hunger, or addiction there are few places to turn. One of the few organizations in Anchorage helping at-risk teens on their own terms is hidden in plain sight in one of the city’s busiest buildings.

The POWER Teen Center is up a flight of stairs in the hectic Downtown Transit Center. Just past the glass doors is a walkway, and from there Calesia Monroe can see everyone downstairs waiting for their bus.

Calesia is 17, and has been employed as an outreach worker at Power–which is what everyone there calls it–for almost three years. On a tour one Friday, close to 5pm, the staff was closing up for the weekend, ushering dozens of young people out the door.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

In the front room people hang out, watch TV, and can sign up on a clipboard to see a nurse for STD/STI testing.

“People just sit out here and child out,” Calesia tells me. “And then we also have the condom giraffe,” she adds, opening a giraffe-shaped cabinet stocked with prophylactics for clients to take.

Condom giraffe, I should mention, is a giraffe shaped-cabinet stocked with condoms for clients to take.

The Power Teen Center is one component within Alaska Youth Advocates, a non-profit targeting an at-risk population between the ages of 14 and 24. It offers basic services like food and clothing, and connects at risk kids to resources like housing, counseling, and even treatment. Last year, the on-sight medical clinic tested more than 400 young people for sexually transmitted diseases.

Paid youth staffers like Calesia work at the center, but they also carry backpacks full of food and supplies doing street outreach in downtown Anchorage, and as far away as the Dimond Center.

“I think that we’re much more on the side of safety and linkage, as far as being the first line of contact,” says Chris Mortinson, who supervises the center and its staff.

“We use a harm reduction model, meaning we’re not going to kick out youth either because of them using or because of other different difficulties they may have,” Mortinson explains. The goal for him is looking past barriers young people may face in order to get them to reach other services.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

As Mortinson and I are talking inside the pantry, a young man pokes his head in and asks if he can fill up a bag of food. Mortinson immediately obliges, and helps him pick out dry-goods and a package of lunch-meat from a freezer.

Power’s approach is similar to the Housing First model, which is based on the idea you can’t help people in crisis with big life issues if immediate concerns like hunger and safety aren’t being met. That is part of the reason the center is located in the bus station.

“Our youth are here,” Mortinson said, “whether we’re here or not, our youth are downstairs and hanging out here.” One of the peer outreach works had recently told Mortinson that even on the days Power is closed, Saturday through Monday, there are often regulars leaning against the center’s glass doors.

Calesia is more candid about how the location fits with the mission. Many of the clients she works with are surviving poverty, addiction, and trauma. The geography of downtown and the bus system play a prominent role in that, so the center makes sense.

“A lot of drug-related activity is going on downtown, a lot of illegal activity is going on, a lot of people in need, and a lot of people coming in and out,” Calesia explained.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Power does not have data on how many young people they pull out of trouble. And that is intentional. They do not ask for IDs from clients or do any kind of tracking, because they know that for one reason or another some of them do not want to be found. But Mortinson and Calesia both say that at the anecdotal level they see the center making a huge difference in the lives of the young people it serves.

Some of Calesia’s perspective on what clients at the center face came from running away when she was 14 and her family was homeless

“I didn’t run away from home because it wasn’t a home,” she said. “But when I ran off to the Covenant House they immediately contacted my mother and she put me in a girl’s home.”

She liked the stability at the girls home, but then her mother pulled her out.

“So I was back on the streets,” Calesia said. Many of the housing and shelter resources for adults felt off-limits because she was still a minor. She doesn’t know what she would have done, or what she’d now being doing if she hadn’t been for the center. “I probably would have been doing some of the stuff that the clients here at Power are doing, and getting really deep into.”

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Still, hers is a happy story: in the fall Calesia is starting college at the University of Hawaii. She plans on majoring in Peace Studies, focusing on women, gender, and race, because she thinks it will help her work on behalf of underrepresented groups, including young people.

“Power has opened that door for me to be an advocate, a leader in my community,” Calesia said, her eyes brightening.

You can hear in her voice that this work is a double-edged sword for Calesia. It makes her laugh, gives her a sense of purpose, but it is exhausting, and she’s had to leave the job three times to give herself breathing room. She can tell she’s approaching burn out, and she’s not even legally an adult.

Anne Hillman and Zachariah Hughes received Alaska Press Club data journalism fellowships, which helped them produce this story. The training program was funded by the Alaska Community Foundation and Recover Alaska.

 

Categories: Alaska News

As Budget Negotiations Continue, Lawmakers Defend Position On Education Cuts

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-21 19:47

It is Day 92 of the legislative session, and lawmakers still have not reached a compromise on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports from a very quiet Capitol.

You know it’s bad when even lawmakers are taking to Twitter to vent about having to “hurry up and wait.” Since the Legislature failed to gavel out on Sunday, no standing committees have met, and only one bill — an act creating Children’s Day — has been put to a vote. A few key negotiators are very busy, but most everyone else is on the sidelines.

Outside of a 20-minute Senate floor session, the only scheduled activity that took place on Tuesday was a Senate Finance committee press conference, led by Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly.

“The cavalry of funding is not coming over the hill to rescue us,” said Kelly. “We don’t have the money.”

A handful of majority members said their purpose in calling reporters together was to convey how dire the fiscal picture really is, and to explain their position in budget negotiations. They reiterated that the state faces a nearly $4 billion deficit, and their reductions were not severe when put in that context.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, expressed dismay over public opposition to their committee’s budget cuts.

“We really need the dialogue to change so people understand what’s going on,” said Sen. MacKinnon. “At least how my e-mails are tracking, people are shouting about adding more money, and they believe the more e-mails that are sent to us shouting and asking or demanding more money, that somehow we’re going to be able to deliver that.”

Over the course of 45 minutes, they defended their position. Most of their energy focused on one $50 million cut, which has triggered an especially large outcry and caused disagreement with the Alaska House of Representatives in negotiations to adjourn the session.

“The loggerhead, as everyone knows in the room, is with education,” said Hoffman.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the majority, responded to public criticism the their committee clawed back school funding that was committed last year.

“They may have been a promise, but that promise was made in completely different financial times for the State of Alaska,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman went on to say that even though it was causing the hold up on gaveling out, the cut was small in the grand scheme of things.

“The difference between where we are in the House and Senate is a pittance — a pittance! — in comparison to the problem that this state is facing,” said Hoffman.

But opponents of the education reduction believe that it cuts both ways — that the Legislature is going long because of an appropriation that will neither make nor break the budget. Chris Tuck is the House Minority Leader, and he believes the Senate Majority is trying to paint his caucus as obstructionists.

“Yeah, I mean that’s fair to say,” Tuck told two reporters. “But we’re not holding public education hostage. We’re not holding kids hostage. We’re not holding seniors hostage. We’re not holding the sick hostage.”

House Democrats are in an unusual spot, in that they are involved in budget negotiations at all. Because the budget deficit is so large, lawmakers are looking at tapping the state’s constitutional budget reserve. The Legislature needs a three-quarter vote in each body to tap that rainy day fund, and votes from at least three minority Democrats are needed to get there. This means you have the House Minority, the House Majority, and the Senate Majority all with their demands at the negotiating table. The House Minority has said it wants more education funding and Medicaid expansion as conditions for their support, the Senate Majority wants to maintain the cuts that it put in place, and the House Majority is somewhere in between.

Tuck said that having more parties involved in negotiations complicates the dynamics, and that Republicans are still adjusting to it.

“They’re not used to being in this position, that’s for sure,” said Tuck.

As far as when negotiations should end, that’s unclear. Tuck said the earliest the Legislature will be out is tomorrow night. It’s the same answer he gave yesterday, and could be the same answer he gives tomorrow.

Categories: Alaska News

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