Alaska News

People Mover teams up with Google Maps to make bus route planning easier

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-17 16:55

Anchorage’s People Mover bus system is trying to become more people — and tech — friendly. You can now use Google Maps to figure out your bus route.

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As I unlock my bike from in front of the Downtown Transit Center, I type the name of my next destination into my phone. Instead of showing me bike trails and roads, it tells me which bus to hop on to get back to work – the number 45, scheduled to leave in two minutes.

The Google Maps app displaying bus route information for Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA

It took me about 15 seconds to plan my bus route. On other days I’ve poured over paper schedules or stared at timetables on bus stop walls. With the new system, I used Google Maps on my smart phone just like if I was looking for driving or biking directions. Mary Burt was waiting for the same bus.

“I think it’s a great idea. Just wish I had a smart phone. ‘Cause I get on the bus and I’m hurrying up looking, what’s the connection I can make at the next stop? How can I coordinate? If I could just download instructions, it could be wonderful.”

Public Transport Director Lance Wilber says that was the idea — to make the bus system more accessible, especially for visitors.

“It’s really like Expedia for buses. Or Orbitz. You make travel arrangements. You find out where you want to come, where you want to go, and the time you want to do it and it just brings it right up on the screen.”

People Mover has been working on the project for two years. They had to convert their bus schedules and routes into a data format that Google could use with their mapping program. Soon the transportation department will make the information available to anyone who wants to use it to design different transport apps. Wilber says they want to link the bus route planner with maps of the trail system as well.

When it’s time to board the bus, I glance at my phone but check my route the old fashioned way, too.

“Morning!” I say to the bus driver as I deposit my coins. “Where do I get off to go to the University?”

He patiently explains.

Settling in, I chat with other riders, like Roy Mcdole, who has used the buses for years. His dad used to be a driver.

“This is the route he drive. My dad was the singing bus driver, back a few years back,” he says proudly.

A People Mover bus. Hillman/KSKA

Mcdole doesn’t have a smart phone. But like many other frequent riders, he doesn’t really need a trip planning map.

“Most of the time, people just know where they’re going.”

Turns out, thanks to Mcdole, the driver, and the map tool, now I do, too.

I pull the yellow cord. Ding! “Stop requested,” announces the automated female voice. Then the bus driver tells me I should wait until the next stop. He can get me even closer.

You can check out the trip planner online here as well.

Categories: Alaska News

Tuck Fined $14,000 For Campaign Finance Violations

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:36

Rep. Chris Tuck addresses a joint session of the Alaska Legislature during debate about confirmations of the governor’s appointees, April 17, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

The minority leader of the State House has agreed to pay a major fine for mismanaging campaign funds.

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Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, acknowledged that he mixed up his campaign contributions with his personal savings and failed to make accurate and timely disclosures.

The consent agreement signed by Tuck and the Alaska Public Offices Commission describes a rat’s nest of accounting problems. It starts with a 2012 fundraiser at the Firetap restaurant that Tuck didn’t report as a contribution. That kicked off a process where APOC found that Tuck managed his campaign money as a section of his personal banking account. Over the past two election cycles, more than $16,000 “flowed” through his personal account, and more than $11,000 in campaign money had been used for personal expenditures.

According to the report, there were “so many errors that it is beyond the expertise of APOC staff” to “untangle” them.

Paralegal Delight Mells told the commission as much at their Wednesday meeting.

“Given the complexity of the issues compounded by the banking errors that resulted in the use of at least three different bank accounts, and the extensive time that has already been dedicated, the parties believe that this consent agreement is the most efficient means to resolving the violations and moving forward,” said Mells.

While the maximum penalty for the violations exceeded $700,000, the Commission agreed to a fine of $14,000 in an effort to match the proportionate harm to the public. Tuck is also required to forfeit $6,000 of leftover campaign funds and to correct his old financial disclosure reports. The Commission also acknowledged that Tuck took “great efforts” to deal with the reporting problems once they were brought to light.

Tuck says the errors were unintentional – that they were the result of sloppy accounting and not anything deliberate. For example, he says campaign funds went toward personal expenditures because he mixed up his debit cards, and that he tried to repay that money immediately.

Tuck wishes he’d been more careful.

“There was some mistakes there that, yes, they did happen,” says Tuck. “And I regret that they happened. I understand what I did. I’m sorry for making those mistakes.”

But Tuck also thinks that a $14,000 fine is too high. He says he alerted APOC to some of the errors mentioned in the consent agreement, and that the public wouldn’t be aware of them if he hadn’t been cooperative. He’s concerned that a fine of this size might prevent candidates from self-reporting if they bungle their records, and that it could potentially discourage people from running for public office.

Tuck says he would have taken the case to court, if he had the time and money.

“This is one of the toughest things I have ever gone through,” says Tuck. “I’ve gone through divorce and a custody battle, and this is right up there with that.”

Tuck is running for a fourth term in the State Legislature, and his race is uncontested. He says from here on out, he’ll have an accountant manage his books.

Categories: Alaska News

Kerry Names Ex-Coast Guard Boss Special Rep to Arctic

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:35

Secretary of State John Kerry today named former Coast Guard commandant Robert J. Papp Jr. as special representative to the Arctic. Kerry created the new position to elevate Arctic issues in America’s foreign policy and national security strategy as the U.S. prepares to assume the chair of the Arctic Council.

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Papp was head of the Coast Guard from 2010 until he retired in May. Both Alaska senators praised the appointment and said Papp has substantial experience in the region.  Papp says he’s seen the changing Arctic first-hand. When he was new to the service, in July 1976, he was sent in a helicopter to look for a way to get a Coast Guard cutter from Nome to the North Slope.

“I was amazed that, first of all, we didn’t find any leads in the ice going through the Bering Strait,” he said in a 2012 address. “And as we landed in Kotzebue, as I looked out across the water, all I could see was ice. Ice as far as I could see.”

Fast-forward three decades. As commandant, he decided to go back to Kotzebue.

“As we were landing, I looked out as far as I could see, and I saw no ice,” Papp said. “Same time of the year, 34 years later, no ice.”

Kerry also announced the appointment of former Alaska Lt. Governor Fran Ulmer as Special Advisor on Arctic Science and Policy. Ulmer says it will be in addition to her current post, as chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

“But this role is a slight expansion of that in that it will focus on some of the broader Arctic Policy issues that are specific to the 2015-2017 Arctic Council chair rotation,” Ulmer says.

Ulmer says it’s important for Alaskans to have an opportunity to engage with the Arctic Council.

“If you look at what has been done recently (on the Council) in terms of search and rescue, and oil spill response and research in ocean acidification and the health of marine mammals, these things are important regionally, nationally, locally, globally,” she says.

Secretary Kerry says Papp plans to visit Alaska soon to consult with policymakers there.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Joins Democrats on Vote for Birth Control Coverage

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:34

A U.S. Senate bill requiring companies to cover birth control in employee healthcare plans failed a procedural vote today . Both Alaska senators voted for the bill, aimed at undoing the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of only three Republicans to vote for the measure, dubbed the “Not My Boss’s Business Act.” It fell four votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

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The legislation would’ve restored a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires companies to provide workers with coverage for all legal forms of contraception. In the Hobby Lobby decision, the court allowed closely held companies to refuse birth control coverage on religious grounds.

The case is seen as pitting a woman’s access to contraception against her bosses’ religious freedom. Murkowski chose the other side of the issue in 2012, when she voted for an amendment to allow any employer with moral objections to opt out of the requirement to cover birth control. A few days later, Murkowski told Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O’Malley she regretted that vote and felt she’d let down people who’d believed in her.

Murkowski issued a written statement today saying her vote is consistent with her long-held belief that women should have access to affordable birth control. She says she’s still seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act but doesn’t think access to healthcare services should be restricted in the meantime.

The bill never stood much chance of passing, but Democrats hope the issue will help rally their base to the polls in November.

Categories: Alaska News

Authorities Investigate Explosion in Petersburg

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:33

Details are emerging about an explosion that injured a Petersburg person over the weekend and has brought federal explosives agents there to investigate.

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Petersburg police issued a press release outlining the incident and some of the resulting investigation. Since no criminal charges have been filed, police are declining to identify the person injured in the explosion Sunday other than to say it was a 59-year-old Petersburg resident.

In their press release, police say the department received a 911 call reporting a person laying outside of the hospital emergency room at one o’clock Sunday afternoon. The caller requested assistance getting the person into the hospital and reported the injury could have been caused by dynamite.

Emergency medical volunteers and firefighters along with local police officers helped hospital staff get the injured person into the emergency room. Police say the person confirmed the injuries were the result of an explosion. Police cordoned off the area shutting down the street and access to the emergency room. Officers found what appeared to be approximately 20 pounds of a gelatinized substance in a vehicle the injured person drove to the hospital. Officers notified hospital staff and moved a large dump truck directly behind the vehicle. Police say residents in the area were notified and some evacuated. Local police say they consulted with a local construction company, state Department of Transportation staff and personnel from Fort Richardson before public works employees moved the explosives away from the hospital.

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms are in town and have brought an explosive detecting dog. An investigator with the state fire marshal’s office is also here. A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew in five of the responders on Monday, along with a response vehicle and equipment. Police say three sites, including the unnamed location of the explosion, were secured by local police along with U.S. Forest Service officers.

Local officers along with federal agents served search warrants Monday at a home on North Nordic Drive along with the vehicle left near Petersburg Medical Center. Officers and agents processed the scene of the explosion and the vehicle left near the hospital. Residue from the explosion site and the vehicle were tentatively identified as a commercially available explosive.

A police car was stationed outside a North Nordic Drive home belonging to Mark and Pat Weaver Monday and police tape cordoned off the yard of that home from the street. Mark Weaver turned 59 on Saturday. Other property near Cornelius Road south of town belonging to Weaver was also cordoned off by police this week.

The police investigation continues and authorities say more information will be available later.

Categories: Alaska News

Permitting Officials Explore Alternatives For Donlin Gold Mine

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:32

Donlin Gold is in a multiyear permitting process for the proposed gold mine located north of Crooked Creek about 120 miles upriver from Bethel. Scientists and engineers are now studying not just Donlin’s proposed plan, but several variations that would significantly change the mine.

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Anticipating more than 100 permits, regulators are writing a 2000-page Environmental Impact Statement about Donlin Gold’s plans to mine a million ounces of gold per year from an open pit mine. But they’re not just looking at the company’s ideas.

Taylor Brelsford is a senior scientist for URS, an international engineering and environmental company doing the heavy technical work for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The law requires that we kind of step away form the Donlin proposal and think a little more broadly about potential alternative technologies or processes and at least fully analyze those,” said Brelsford.

The team is looking at about eight major alternatives, some of which have been considered by Donlin in the past. Donlin’s proposed a hugely expensive natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet to Southwest Alaska, plus barging diesel up the Kuskokwim. Don Kuhle is the project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“A lot of we looked at were ways to reduce the amount of diesel to be barged on the Kuskokwim,” said Kuhle.

A diesel pipeline would eliminate about 40 million gallons of fuel a year going to the Junjuk port site. Brelsford says each alternative has unique challenges.

“A diesel pipeline is more difficult to build, it’s a bigger risk if there’s ever a spill, compared to LNG, so that shows the tradeoffs involved in one alternative versus another,” said Brelsford.

Another option involves having large trucks at the mine run on LNG instead of diesel. They will also study having the port site nearly 70 miles further downriver at Birch Tree Crossing.

The team of more than 50 specialists will also study changes to the mine site, such as changing the tailings dam to dry storage instead of the dammed area with water, and looking at allowing discharge of some treated waste water, rather than keeping it all on site. Another option involves running the gas pipeline through Dalzell Gorge near Rainy pass as was considered before by Donlin.

The draft EIS is not due for another year. People will then see the details of the eight alternatives. In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers does not plan to release much new information but says some details will be a newsletter this month.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska LNG Project community meeting provides questions and hope

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

The Alaska LNG Project hosted a community meeting in Anchorage on Tuesday night. About 90 people listened to an explanation of the newest version of a plan to get natural gas from the North Slope to market.

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Project manager Steve Butt explained this project is different from previous failed attempts to build a gas pipeline.

“An LNG project is when resource owners work together to create an infrastructure to connect that resource to a market,” Butt said. “It’s regulated differently, it has different business risks, and it’s a different business model. A pipeline is an important part of our project, but what we’re really trying to do is deliver gas to global markets, not to just any one market.”

Butt said that Alaska has some advantages over other natural gas producers. Unlike for oil, the cold weather helps when transporting gas because it keeps the gas condensed. It only takes two weeks to ship LNG to Asia from here. And the project can use some of the oil-drilling infrastructure that’s already in place.

But the hour and a half long presentation still left some community members with questions, especially about the economics of the project and the viability of the long-term LNG market. Butt says he can’t talk specifics, however they are researching markets during this preliminary design phase.

“We don’t ever really talk about but what marketers do is they work with buyers to understand their interest and appetite for the gas and they come up with structures that work for their buyers over very long time frames and prices that work. And they build in mechanisms that create different flexibilities to recognize different risks.”

Wasilla resident Carol Shay said she questions how to predict the future markets – what if China decides to use renewables instead?

“Boy, it’s a risky thing. It’s amazing,” she said. “But we might benefit tremendously, so…”

Community member Ross Bieling agreed, “It’s very important. Not just for jobs. It’s important to improve the living standards for those who haven’t enjoyed them previously.”

Bieling referenced the five potential outtakes from the line that would provide natural gas to Alaskans. At the moment, only two are set – one for Fairbanks and one for Anchorage.

At this point, the LNG project is still in the preliminary design phase. Butt said it could take up to six years to obtain the hundreds of necessary permits, secure the market, and finalize the design. Then it would take another six years and anywhere from $45 to 65 billion to build.

Categories: Alaska News

Fall Chum Season Opens on the Yukon

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:30

The fall chum salmon season on the Yukon begins Wednesday.

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Fishermen along the river are saying the fall run comes not a moment too soon. During a weekly teleconference of fishermen and fisheries managers organized by the nonprofit Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, subsistence users spanning the length of the river were vocal in their anticipation of the fall chums.

Chum Salmon. (Photo: NOAA)

“The water is high but dropping,” one fisherman near Fort Yukon said. “We’re just waiting for the fall chum, that’s going to be really important for us this year.”


“Too much humpy,” in the waters near Holy Cross, one angler said. “I think they’re going try and go for the fall chums.”


“There’s very few people fishing mainly due to the closure and lack of gear,” another added from upriver. “There’s no fish camps, no fires or smoke houses, and everybody’s just waiting for chums.”


One fishermen from the Lower Yukon merely sighed when asked about fishing in his community. “They’re just waiting on the fall chums right now.”


Fish and Game managers said the wait will mean a lot of fishing, with a strong run of 850,000 fish expected, likely more. Even with fishermen relying on chums in the face of unprecedented restrictions on fishing for king salmon, Fish and Game biologist Jeff Estensen said the fall chum run should be enough to fill out fish racks up and down the river.


“We don’t anticipate, because of our run size this year, that there will be any restrictions to the subsistence fishery,” he said. “Everybody should be able to get their subsistence needs.”


The strong fall chum run will mean commercial openings in the Lower Yukon as well. But while subsistence salmon fishing on the lower river through Galena has been open for some time, fishermen on the Upper Yukon near Stevens Village and Fort Yukon still can’t fish at all, out of concern for Chinook still making their way to spawning grounds in Canada. When it comes to those imperiled kings, Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt said the numbers are looking better than the dire predictions from earlier this year, but they’re still far from good.


“The Chinook salmon run is nearly over in the lower Yukon, and the cumulative passage at the sonar project near Pilot Station is approximately 130,000 Chinook,” she announced. Though a full week earlier than historical runs, Schmidt said the final king salmon passage—estimated to be anywhere from 47,000 thousand to 63,000 fish—is now passing the final observation point in Alaska near the community of Eagle. While the overall run may be low, Schmidt said escapement targets could still be reached, and she credited successful management and restraint from users along the river as key to reaching those targets.


“This year we’ve taken more unprecedented management actions and have not been fishing on those lower river stocks, as we have in past years,” she told the teleconference. “So that’s a good sign that the management actions we’ve taken have been able to get fish on the spawning grounds.”


As for the fishermen on the upper river still waiting for salmon, Estensen said the openings will come soon—as early as this upcoming weekend—and he said the Department of Fish and Game is prepared to halt the commercial harvest downriver if subsistence users aren’t catching what they need.


“If we get to points like we did last year where we kind of have doldrums, or kind of a lull as we like to call it, we may find ourselves pulling back a little bit on the commercial fishery to let some fish by, so we have some going up river for subsistence,” he said.


“Then, once we’re back to where we feel like we need to be, then we resume commercial fishing.”


full list of fall chum openings on the Yukon River can be found among the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases for 2014.


Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Climate Researchers Zoom in on Plankton

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:29

Researchers collect water samples in the Chukchi Sea. (Courtesy of Amanda Kowalski/

They’re not recognizable like polar bears or whales. But phytoplankton are a key part of life in the Arctic – and now, they’re at the center of a new research effort to predict how the region will respond to climate change.

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Almost every animal in the Arctic eats — or eats something that consumes — phytoplankton. They’re tiny specks of algae that usually blossom into big clouds out in the ocean in the springtime.

But that’s not what Kevin Arrigo saw a few years back. He was in the Chukchi Sea for a research cruise funded by NASA.

Arrigo: “The deeper we went into the ice, the more phytoplankton there were. They reached amazing concentrations, to the point where it was the largest bloom anybody had ever seen anywhere in the world’s oceans. And it was under three feet of ice.”

Phytoplankton need two things to grow — nutrients and light.

In the past, scientists have assumed that sun can’t get through thick Arctic sea ice. But as the earth warms up, the ice is thinning out. And it’s definitely easier for light to get through.

Arrigo: “The thing we didn’t know was what the nutrient distributions look like — particularly before the bloom starts, early in the spring. Because nobody’s ever been in the Chukchi Sea, sampling the entire ocean from top to bottom at that time of year.”

That’s what Arrigo set out to do this spring, with a team of about 40 other scientists. They examined the base of Arctic food web in the Chukchi Sea, with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

That paid for a trip aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Arrigo says it was an ideal vessel, but there were some roadblocks it couldn’t plow through.

Arrigo: “We were really unlucky in that everything happened late this year. The melt ponds never formed while we were out there. The phytoplankton under the ice never developed because there was never enough ice. But we were really happy with the results because we know now that the whole region — the entire Chukchi Sea — is really prime habitat for these things to develop.”

Bob Pickart is the lead physical oceanographer for this project. He says he’s coming away with hundreds of water samples from up and down the Chukchi Sea — all loaded down with nutrients.

Pickart: “These nutrients –- they spur the growth of the phytoplankton. And then from there on, it just spirals right up the food chain. So it’s like the base of the ecosystem. This is what it’s all about.”

Pickart says there’s a lot of work ahead to analyze the samples. His findings will be shared with other scientists on the team.

Pickart: “They have to know, why are the nutrients in the water in the first place. How did they get there? Where does the water go? What’s the timing of the water? So they have to know all about the physics of the circulation on the Chukchi Shelf in order to then understand the biology.”

Arrigo is a biologist, and he has his own questions — about the timing of the phytoplankton bloom.

Arrigo: ”Productivity has been shifting earlier and earlier, because the ice is melting earlier and earlier. But now the bloom — the productivity — is not even waiting for the ice to melt.”

If it’s coming earlier than animals are used to:

Arrigo: “What’s going to happen? Are they going to produce their offspring at a point when the bloom’s already happened, it’s too late, there’s no food in the water?”

Arrigo says the best chance of predicting that is to understand how the phytoplankton are interacting with their environment right now.

That’s why the researchers are hoping to return to the Chukchi Sea next year to gather more water samples, and a better look at the bottom of the Arctic food web.

Categories: Alaska News

Scientists Find Climate Cooling Effect in Ancient Thermokarst Lakes

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:28

Scientists have long believed melting permafrost emits large amounts of carbon-rich greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere resulting in a warming climate. But a new study published online by the journal Nature today indicates ancient lakes that formed after permafrost in the Arctic first melted roughly ten thousand years ago may in fact have a net climate cooling effect over long time scales. The study also increases the total amount of carbon estimated in the frozen soils of the Far North by more than 50 percent.

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Katey Walter Anthony is an Associate Professor at  the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering  She studies methane emissions from Arctic thermokarst lakes.

“Until now, we have understood these thermokarst lakes, or lakes where permafrost thaws, to be a really important source of methane, a greenhouse gas that causes the climate to warm,” she says.

A few years ago, Anthony was in a boat on a river in Siberia, when she noticed something in the sediments along the riverbank.

“We could see where ancient lakes had been eroded by the river, so we could see the lakes in cross section,” she says.  ”It looked like we were looking at a layered cake.  Those layers were the layers of sediment in the lake and we saw really thick beds of moss.”

Some time after the last glacial maximum – roughly ten thousand years ago – permafrost began to thaw.  Depressions formed, filled with water and eventually millions of small lakes started to dot the Arctic landscape. They were all emitting methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases that warm the climate. Anthony says that process probably lasted for about a thousand years.

“But those waterbodies sit around as lakes for several thousand years,” she explains, “and at some point, they burn up all of the permafrost carbon and so their methane emissions decline and as they slow down in their emissions, they speed up in their ability to soak up carbon out of the atmosphere.”

Over time, Anthony believes thick, carbon rich beds of peat moss grew as microbial decomposition declined.  She and colleagues studied more than 50 ancient lakes in parts of Siberia and Alaska.  In some places, she says they found beds of peat moss up to four meters, or 12 fee, thick.

“We would walk up to these permafrost exposures and we could pull on those mosses and it was like pulling long tendrils of spaghetti,” she laughs. “They were very well preserved and poorly decomposed, and the reason is that when the mosses grow and then senesce in these lakes, they have anaerobic bottoms.  there’s no oxygen down there and so site mosses don’t decompose and eventually, lakes drain and the sediments really quickly refreeze.  it’s like flash freezing of those mosses.”

Anthony believes lakes across the landscape have accumulated 1.6 times the amount of carbon they emitted before the lakes refroze. She says that increases the total estimated amount of carbon scientists believe is currently stored in the circumpolar permafrost region by 50 percent.  The results also show these ancient lakes actually have a net cooling effect on climate over thousands of years.

“It’s cooling the climate,” she says.  ”It’s soaking up more climate than its emitting.  It’s is offsetting human emissions.  It’s not a  avery large offset to human emissions and I think there bigger concern is that all of this very large reservoir of lake moss peat, this lake carbon, is stored in permafrost since the sediments refreeze when they drain.”

Anthony doesn’t believe this net cooling effect till offset current predications for a warmer climate in the future. “So, in the future, the projected warming of permafrost across the Arctic, will thaw all of that carbon again and make it vulnerable to decomposition by microbes and return that carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and methane.”

The study is published in the most recent issue of Nature.  Funding comes from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the US Geological Survey.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 16, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:14

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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Tuck Fined $14,000 For Campaign Finance Violations

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

The minority leader of the State House has agreed to pay a major fine for mismanaging campaign funds. Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, acknowledged that he mixed up his campaign contributions with his personal savings and failed to make accurate and timely disclosures.

Kerry Names Ex-Coast Guard Boss Special Rep to Arctic

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday named former Coast Guard commandant Robert Papp as special representative to the Arctic. Kerry created the new position to elevate Arctic issues in America’s foreign policy and national security strategy as the U.S. prepares to assume the chair of the Arctic Council.

Murkowski Joins Democrats on Vote for Birth Control Coverage

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A U.S. Senate bill requiring companies to cover birth control in employee healthcare plans failed a procedural vote Wednesday. Both Alaska senators voted for the bill, aimed at undoing the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of only three Republicans to vote for the measure, dubbed the “Not My Boss’s Business Act.” It fell four votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

Judge Blocks Law Limiting Medicaid Payments For Abortion

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

A superior court judge in Anchorage has blocked a law restricting Medicaid payments for abortion from going into effect.

Authorities Investigate Explosion in Petersburg

Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg

Details are emerging about an explosion that injured a Petersburg person over the weekend and has brought federal explosives agents there to investigate.

Permitting Officials Explore Alternatives For Donlin Gold Mine

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Donlin Gold is in a multiyear permitting process for the proposed gold mine located north of Crooked Creek about 120 miles upriver from Bethel. Scientists and engineers are now studying not just Donlin’s proposed plan, but several variations that would significantly change the mine.

Alaska LNG Project Community Meeting Provides Questions and Hope

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The Alaska LNG Project hosted a community meeting in Anchorage on Tuesday night. About 90 people listened to an explanation of the newest version of a plan to get natural gas from the North Slope to market.

Fall Chum Season Opens on the Yukon

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

The fall chum salmon season on the Yukon begins Wednesday.

Arctic Climate Researchers Zoom in on Plankton

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

They’re not recognizable like polar bears or whales. But phytoplankton are a key part of life in the Arctic – and now, they’re at the center of a new research effort to predict how the region will respond to climate change.

Scientists Find Climate Cooling Effect in Ancient Thermokarst Lakes

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Scientists have long believed melting permafrost emits large amounts of carbon-rich greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere resulting in a warming climate.  But a new study published online by the journal Nature today indicates ancient lakes that formed after permafrost in the Arctic first melted roughly ten thousand years ago may in fact have a net climate cooling effect over long time scales.  The study also increases the total amount of carbon estimated in the frozen soils of the Far North by more than 50 percent.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Blocks Law Limiting Medicaid Payments For Abortion

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 18:58

A superior court judge has blocked a law restricting Medicaid payments for abortion from going into effect.

In an injunction issued on Tuesday, Judge John Suddock wrote that there are “serious questions of constitutional validity” of a new state law that puts limits on what qualifies as a “medically necessary” abortion. The state was supposed to start enforcing the law on Wednesday.

The law passed after similar regulations were put on hold by the same judge. The legislation was advanced by mostly Republicans, and went farther than the Department of Health and Social Services regulations by defining the term “medically necessary” to include only physical conditions.

Both the law and the regulations are the subject of a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.

Categories: Alaska News

Questions Remain About Alaska’s Prison Deaths

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:34

A number of inmate deaths in Alaska prisons over the past few months have prompted state legislators to seek answers. But at a hearing hosted by Senator Hollis French (D – Anchorage) on Tuesday in Anchorage, few questions were resolved.

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In a hushed room, Constance Anderson held a photo of her daughter, Kirsten Simon aloft for all to see.

“So I have a lot of questinos, i want to know if the guards are trained, to know if someone is real sick and if it is the policy of the prison to send in a medic, who was five feet away from her cell… there was a medic five feet away from her cell, five feet, from what I understand as what I have been told. Do you know how painful that is? I love my daughter, she was an overcomer. She worked with people with disabilities and had a disability herself.”

Simon, age 33, was found dead in a holding cell in the Anchorage Correctional Center on June 6 of this year.

Anderson relayed Simon’s medical history, her troubled past, her drug addiction.. but she said she is not buying the explanation the Simon may have died from heart failure. Simon’s death was the fourth of an inmate this year, but not the last, and Anderson is not the only family member of an inmate who died in prison. [In a packed hearing room at Anchorage’s temporary Legislative Information Office, people sat on the floor, stood in the hallways, and listened to Vernisia Gordon, fiancee of 20 year old Devon Mosely, who died in an Anchorage jail in April of this year. Gordon read from a prepared statement, tracing the timeline of Mosely’s incarceration and sudden death. He died almost a week after his case had been dismissed.

“Six days after dismissal, still no phone contact from Devon, I’m asked to visit and stll told ‘No.” Four/four, (April 4, 2014) one week after dismissal, still no phone call from Devon. Devon dies at 1:44 pm. I go to the jail at 2:15, and I’m told to come back at 5:30.”

In both cases, officials say no foul play is suspected. But family members who testified said the bodies were covered with bruises. Gordon had the photos to prove that.

Senator French, along with fellow Democrats Senator Berta Gardner and Representatives Andy Josephson and Geran Tarr, heard testimony from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt and from Brad Wilson, who heads the Alaska Corrections Officers Association. Schmidt and Wilson are at odds, specifically over the issue of staffing in Alaska’s prisons. Commissioner Joe Schmidt

“One to five is the ratio. It stacks up well, nationally. If there was a certain number.. we do staffing analysis, we analyze post orders, we look at the work load, we look at the schedule and the hours we have to cover and we make decisions. No one has ever said what that magic number is, how many state employees we have to hire to guarantee nobody’s going to get hurt. There isn’t one. When the prisoners came home from Colorado, our prisoner population went up 27 and a half percent, staffing went up 28% in that same time period. What is significant here is that correctional officers went up 33%.”

Commissioner Schmidt says about a dozen inmates in the state’s prison system die every year.. well below the national average.

But Wilson says DOC’s staffing numbers are off.

“Yes, this is five to one, but four shifts. Three of them are on, but using his math, that means it’s twenty to one. Twenty to one. Three fourths of them aren’t even there. They’re off.”

Wilson says there needs to be an independent review of  the deaths.

Perhaps the most telling information to come out of the hearing dealt with the mental health of inmates on intake.  DOC’s Laura Brooks,

“We have a new report out from the Mental Health Trust Authority that says about 65 percent of our population are mental health trust beneficiaries. About 22 percent of those are what we would call the severely and persistently mentally ill. So those, that 22 percent, include those people with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.”

Jeff Jesse, director of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, confirmed that 65 percent of inmates are mental health beneficiaries.

Jesse told the panel, that under the Murkowski administration, prison mental health programs were discontinued, but in recent years, the Trust has worked with DOC on improving programs for inmates who are mental health beneficiaries.  Wilson says corrections officers do not have the training to deal with mentally ill inmates.

“Unfortunately, the Alaska institutions are the largest mental health providers in the state of Alaska. And their main contact there is corrections officers. We need more training for corrections officers, they are not trained psychologists, but they are the ones that end up having to counsel these individuals, who work with these individuals.”

Perhaps the most notorious prison death in Alaska happened last year, when serial killer Israel Keyes took his own life while incarcerated. The corrections officer on duty at the time, Loren Jacobsen, was fired by the state but ACOA has defended the guard and said the state made him a scapegoat. An arbitor has said the firing was not justified.  




Categories: Alaska News

Residents protest home demolition, Knik Arm Bridge

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:33

Residents protest in front of a home slated for removal for the proposed Knik Arm Bridge. Hillman/KSKA

More than 50 people gathered in the Government Hill neighborhood this afternoon to protest the demolition of two homes. The state is clearing the land to make way for the proposed but not yet funded Knik Arm Bridge.

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“Stop the demolition now! Stop the demolition now!” chanted a group of Anchorage residents from across the city standing in front of a blue house in Government Hill. They waved signs reading “Haste Makes Waste” and “Save our Homes.” Anne Reddig was with them.

“This is my neighborhood,” she said. “I live three houses this way. I don’t want a big gaping hole waiting for something that’s not funded. They’re taking away my neighborhood. They’re ruining where I live.”

Two houses and the old Sourdough Lodge are being demolished in preparation for the proposed $1.6 billion dollar Knik Arm Bridge. So far the state has only secured about $150 million for the project. The protesters say the state is moving too hastily — why should the state remove homes when it’s unclear if the project will actually happen? Most of the federal funding the state is trying to secure has historically gone toward projects in much larger, congested urban areas.

96-year-old Margery Ellis built her home in Government Hill in 1950. It’s set to be demolished during another phase of the project. ”We don’t need terrorists when we have KABATA,” she said, referring to the project’s previous name. “Everything they’ve done is to destroy Government Hill, which is the oldest community in Anchorage.”

Before the protesters gathered, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jill Reese and the property manager led a tour of the buildings.

“You probably just want to just wait,” the crowd of reporters at the bottom of the wooden stairs was told. “Have three people come up at a time. Because these are not very sturdy.”

The upstairs portion of the blue house was filled with sun from the skylights and soaring windows. But the musty ground floor had ripped up carpet and asbestos ceiling tiles. DOT’s Reese pointed out damage.

“Practically everything in the whole house would need to be redone. And as you’ll see there’s broken bathroom fixtures and those sorts of things.”

Reese said all three buildings are in the way of the bridge project. She explained the state moved quickly to purchase the buildings and relocate the tenants because that process can take a lot of time.

“You can’t wait until you’re ready with the financing to start building the bridge. You might be three or four years down the line just to get properties purchased. Also, especially in the Anchorage Bowl, prices aren’t going down.”

Reese said the state will pay for the removal of the buildings, which could cost between $500,000 to $1 million. Then they’ll be reimbursed if they get the federal grant. And the houses don’t have to be destroyed. Reese said they can also be moved to other parts of town. That’s what happened to some condos when Dowling Road was built.

Jill Reese talks about the project inside one of the homes slated for removal. Hillman/KSKA

“What we say is the market will speak. If there’s a dollar to be made on these properties in their whole form then I’m sure that is the route that will be taken. And if not then they will be demolished.”

All of the contractors who were walking through the properties during the protest declined to comment. They were examining the project before submitting bids by the 25th.

Some of the protesters said that it doesn’t matter if they tear down or relocate the buildings — it still leaves a hole in the neighborhood. And Lance Powell from Mid-Hillside said not only people in Government Hill should be concerned.

“Well if it can happen here, it can happen in any neighborhood in Anchorage.”

Powell says empty lots deter businesses and new residents from coming into the area. Others say large roads divide communities and cause deterioration, and that’s not what they want.

“What do we want?” cried a man over a bull horn.

“Homes!” responded the crowd.

“What do we need?” “Homes!” “What will we save?” “Homes!”

DOT has scheduled for the properties to be cleared by November and planted over with grass. They do not have a set schedule for when the bridge would be funded or built.

Categories: Alaska News

House Considers Bill To Provide Advance Funding To IHS

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:32

The CEO of Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association on Tuesday urged a U.S. House subcommittee to pass a bill that would provide advance funding for the Indian Health Service.

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Tim Schuerch says the uncertainty and delays in federal funding makes it hard to run a hospital and hire health care professionals. He spoke in favor of legislation that would have Congress appropriate money a year in advance for the IHS, as it does now for the Veterans Health Administration.

“If I don’t know where the money is gonna coming from in October, November, December, how can I make those commitments to those health professionals, to hire them?” Schuerch said. “Our doctors have to know that they’re gonna get a paycheck.”

One way or another, the bills must be paid. And if the federal funds aren’t there yet, Schuerch says he must pursue other options…like asking a bank for a line of credit or a bridge loan.

“Inevitably, what’s gonna happen in that discussion is the bank is gonna ask me, “So, what is your plan to pay the money back? When are you gonna get the money and what is your plan to pay back the amount borrowed with interest?’” Schuerch said. “And the answer is generally, ‘I don’t know. It’s up to Congress.’”

Without concrete answers, Schuerch says borrowing is difficult, and advanced federal appropriations would help alleviate many of the current problems.

The Maniilaq Association provides health, tribal and social services to 12 federally recognized tribes and 8,000 people in Northwest Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Reports Almost $1.2M In Donations In 2nd Quarter

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

In the U.S. Senate race, it appears Republican candidate Dan Sullivan is sustaining his fundraising momentum.

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He reports nearly $1.2 million in donations for the second quarter of the year. That makes three straight quarters for him where contributions exceeded $1 million.

Incumbent Senator Mark Begich reports raising only slightly more for the quarter. Sullivan’s contributions come primarily from out-of-state, but his campaign says he raised almost $200,000 of his money in-state during the previous three months.

Tuesday is the federal deadline for campaign finance reports covering April through June. Republican challengers Joe Miller and Mead Treadwell have not yet announced their totals.

Categories: Alaska News

World Eskimo Indian Olympics Start Wednesday

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:30

The Nulukataq event at WEIO in Fairbanks. Photo: Ronn Murray Photography, WEIO.

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics start Wednesday in Fairbanks, with qualifiers for events like one-armed reach and the Race of the Torch ahead of opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. inside the Carlson Center.

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WEIO started in 1961 as a way to bring athletes and dancers from across Alaska together for competitions and celebration. Since then it has grown into a days-long event, comprised of tournament-style athletic competition, as well as pageantry showcasing skills like skin-sewing, and recognizing ongoing achievement in cultural practices.

WEIO has also served as an organizational body for establishing uniform standards for native games from around diverse parts of the state. It is one of the reigning authorities in the world on records for events played across the circumpolar North, like one-foot high kick, knuckle hop, and ear-pull–games rooted in testing and strengthening abilities necessary for subsistence.

This year’s WEIO tournament through Saturday, with the full schedule of events available here.

Categories: Alaska News

In Fight Over Marijuana, Alcohol Becomes Taboo

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:29

While alcohol is usually a fixture of most political fundraisers, there will be no wine or cocktails at events focused on the marijuana initiative.

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The opposition group Big Marijuana Big Mistake is hosting its first fundraiser Tuesday, and the only beverages available will be “delicious lemonade, sparkling waters, all kinds of fun pop and soda,” says Deborah Williams.

Williams is the former Democratic Party Chair, and she’s co-hosting the event alongside former Govs. Frank Murkowski and Bill Sheffield. Because the ballot initiative they’re fighting would allow the sale of marijuana, organizers decided weeks ago that they should make the event substance free.

“Former Rep. Alyce Hanley recommended that we make this event alcohol-free, and we all enthusiastically agreed,” says Williams.

But the group didn’t originally make it clear that their event was going to be dry. On Tuesday morning, sponsors of the marijuana initiative sent out a press release advising people who attend the fundraiser to “exercise caution” if offered alcohol because it is “more harmful” than marijuana. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol also pointed out that Murkowski received nearly $20,000 in political contributions from the beverage industry during his last decade in the U.S. Senate.

Williams believes the attack was uncalled for, and described implication of hypocrisy and the comments on Murkowski as “nasty.”

But Chris Rempert, who is the political director for the pro-marijuana campaign, still believes the criticism of his opponents is merited, even if they’re not serving hard drinks at their event.

“Alcohol is frequently a major part of political events, and since their invitation was touting refreshments and since the event was being hosted by an alcohol friendly governor like Murkowski, we felt it was important to convey the message,” says Rempert.

For their part, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol does not plan on serving alcohol at any future events they host.

Categories: Alaska News

Hazardous Material Containers Cleaned Up In Galena

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:28

A state report on the response to the 2013 flooding in Galena says more than 5,000 containers of hazardous material scattered throughout the area during the disaster were collected.

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The containers ranged from aerosol cans to 55-gallon drums, with the hazardous debris strewn within a 15-mile radius of the Yukon River village.

An environmental program specialist with the agency estimated the cleanup cost at well over $1 million, costs that will be included as the state seeks reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Categories: Alaska News

Sunken Barge Irks Kuskokwim Residents

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-15 17:27

The barge, Shanks Ark, sitting in Steamboat Slough.

Residents of fish camps along ‘Steamboat Slough’ near Bethel are calling for an abandoned barge to be removed. The barge has been sitting half submerged in the middle of the slough for more than a year.

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Barbara Anvil is furious the barge has been left in the slough, which serves as a highway for boats in summer and for snow machines and four wheelers in winter. She says the barge is right in the middle of that highway and it’s a safety hazard.

“This winter somebody got hurt with a four wheeler … In fact, my brother’s the one who came across his four wheeler over there by the barge. There was lots of blood and stuff around it,” said Anvil.

That blood was, then 28-year-old, Jason Fisher’s. He says he was driving his 4-wheeler around 10 o’clock on December 16th on his way home from Bethel to Kwethluk, when he hit the barge. He doesn’t remember much because the impact knocked him out. He had a head injury and was in the hospital for about a month. He had to have surgery to amputate nine and half of his fingers. Bethel Police and Search and Rescue officials confirm Fisher’s story.

The barge, named ‘Shanks Ark’, sunk in 2012 or 2013. Officials with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources say the barge is owned by Bethel-based Kuskokwim Lighterage and Trucking and was being leased and operated by Faulkner Walsh Constructors, also of Bethel.

Ana Hoffman is CEO of Bethel Native Corporation. She also has a family fish camp on the slough. She wrote to the Coast Guard, which she says identified the barge as a navigational hazard that requires no action on their part.

“I was pretty alarmed that the barge really is left there sunken in the middle of the slough. It seems to be a real hazard,” said Hoffman.

She called on Alaska’s Senators for help. Senator Lisa Murkowski met with residents about the problem. Murkowski’s office says they’ve been monitoring the situation and in touch with state officials about the barge. Still, nothing has been done.

Harry Faulkner, an owner of Faulkner Walsh Constructors says State Department of Environmental Conservation and the DNR have their facts wrong. He says he was done leasing the ‘Shanks Ark’ barge, which he was using to haul fish, by the time it was moored in Steamboat Slough.

“We put it away for the year and it decided to float itself out in the Spring of the following year. (Daysha Eaton: They said it happened while it was moored and you were still leasing it.) Faulkner: That is not correct. We had it leased for the year and we were done with it. (Daysha Eaton: Okay, can you send me the documents that show the time period for which you were leasing it?) Faulkner: No. (Daysha Eaton: Why not?) Because it was a verbal agreement between the fish manager and Dave Ausdahl, the owner of the barge,” said Faulkner.

Dave Ausdahl refutes Faulkers claim and says Faulkner Walsh failed to secure the vessel when they put it away after fishing season.

“I provided the barge to Faulkner Walsh for their fishery operations in exchange for them fetching and returning to storage each year and keeping it floating. So it was under their care, custody and control through the 2012 season when they were to put it away properly,” said Ausdahl.

But they didn’t put it away properly, claims Ausdahl, which caused it to float out into the middle of the Slough and get stuck. Neither Faulkner nor Ausdahl said they’d heard about Fisher’s terrible crash last winter.

Anvil says she’s not sure who is responsible for removing the barge, but she hopes it happens before someone else gets hurt.

“It’s gonna start getting dark pretty soon and at nighttime you can’t see that there’s a barge there … so I’m sure somebody’s gonna get hurt,” said Anvil

‘Shanks Ark’ is one of several rusting vessels that make the slough look like a graveyard for river going barges. At last count, state officials say there were 22 abandoned vessels in the Bethel area, 13 of them in Steamboat slough.

DNR officials say the company operating the barge when it broke loose is responsibility for removing it.

Faulkner Walsh has submitted a plan to remove their sunken barge near Kwethluk, and two vessels in Steamboat Slough, but never removed any of them. They have not submitted a plan to remove ‘Shanks Ark’ which remains in the middle of the channel.

Categories: Alaska News

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