Alaska News

“Honor Flag” Comes to Anchorage for 4th of July

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:29

Shortly after September 11th, 2001, Chris Heisler traveled from Texas to New York to hang an American flag where the World Trade Center once stood. That flag has since been dubbed the “honor flag,” and Heisler says it has traveled more than seven million miles to pay tribute to those that have died serving the United States.

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“This flag represents everything that’s true and great about this nation and the emotions this flag brings out in people,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

This 4th of July weekend, Heisler brought the flag to Anchorage, and for the first time ever people will be allowed to handle it. “We have brand new custom gloves used to handle the U.S. honor flag and we’re going to allow the general public to take pictures with and handle the flag. This is a unique opportunity that has never been afforded to anyone in the nation.”

The flag will be part of the fourth of July parade, and will be on display at the Hilton Hotel Thursday night. In Anchorage, I’m Joaquin Palomino.

Categories: Alaska News

B.C. Pipeline Plans Could Mean More Bering Sea Traffic

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:28

Last month, the Canadian government gave conditional approval to the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia. If it’s built, it’ll bring hundreds more oil tankers through the Bering Sea. That’s putting pressure on the Aleutian Islands to get ready for an increase in vessel traffic.

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Canada’s government set out more than 200 conditions for the tar sands pipeline to meet before it moves forward. Many relate to spill prevention – but they don’t extend as far as the Bering Sea.

Leslie Pearson is project manager for the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment. She estimates the pipeline would bring about 200 more tankers a year through already crowded Unimak Pass.

As development spurs traffic across the Aleutians, Pearson’s group is preparing to release its report on how to keep the region safe.

“We’ll have a draft report from the Risk Assessment that identifies recommendations for building an optimum response system, and that includes towing, offshore distances, response, salvage, marine firefighting capabilities for the Aleutian region.”

The report is more than five years in the making. Among other things, it’ll propose that trans-Pacific tankers stay 50 miles from shore throughout the Aleutian Islands. Pearson says that would give rescue tugs more time to reach a disabled tanker before it ran aground.

“Right now, some vessels are transiting a lot closer to the island chain, which – time is of the essence, and there’s a great distance out there, so the intent is to push them further offshore, provide more time and hopefully prevent any accidents from occurring.”

The Risk Assessment will also recommend stationing rescue tugs in Unalaska, Adak or both. And it asks for more cleanup and salvage tools on those islands – including a large tank barge to off-load fuel from other vessels.

Ships traveling to and from Northern Gateway would do so in innocent passage – if they’re not stopping at an American port, they’re not really subject to American rules for spill prevention. But Pearson says more monitoring would help keep them in check.

Tankers stopping at ports in Alaska have to join the state Maritime Prevention Network’s satellite tracking program. Starting this year, Pearson says large container ships do, too.

“They’ve been able to contact vessels when they decide that they’re going to slow down and do donuts out in the Pacific or in some sort of close proximity just to bide time. The eye in the sky, I think, has been really pivotal.”

That program’s still voluntary for foreign vessels not stopping en route across the Pacific. But Pearson hopes tankers like those that would travel to Northern Gateway would buy in.

The Risk Assessment report won’t have much else to say about cost. Pearson says it shows the economic benefit in protecting the region’s fisheries from harm, but it doesn’t address the price of new equipment. She says they’ll use the recommendations to ask federal and private sources for help. The report is due out August 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Air Force Delays Scrapping Research Facility; UAF Seeks Takeover Deal

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:27

The Air Force has agreed to delay its plans to demolish a $300 million research facility near Glennallen to allow more time to work out a deal to transfer ownership to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

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The 30-acre HAARP facility is located near Gakona, about 20 miles northeast of Glennallen. Credit vlf.stanford.edu

Air Force Secretary Deborah James told Sen. Lisa Murkowski Wednesday that the service will halt dismantling the so-called HAARP facility until May 2015. HAARP stands for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. It’s used to conduct experiments on the Earth’s ionosphere.

The delay is good news for Bob McCoy. He’s the director of UAF’s Geophysical Institute, and he and officials with other universities and science agencies have been negotiating with the Pentagon for more than a year now to hand over the HAARP.

“We’ve been reaching out across the country,” McCoy said, “trying to represent the scientific community, to say to the U.S. government, ‘Hey, this is important. This is the most exquisite facility of its kind. Please don’t destroy it.’”

UAF already owns a share of the HAARP facility, along with the Air Force, Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The 30-acre facility includes an array of 180 high-power-transmitting antennas that alter the Earth’s ionosphere to effect auroral displays and test communications and surveillance technologies, among other things.

McCoy says university officials and others in the scientific community decided to seek full ownership of the HAARP facility after the Air Force announced last year that it no longer needs the facility and would scrap it.

David Walker is the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering. He told Murkowski during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing in May that the service intended to dismantle the HAARP facility this summer to avoid winterization costs.

“We would like to get the critical equipment out of the site before the winter,” Walker said. “The harsh winter in Alaska does lead to a very costly winterization to maintain the site. We’d like to avoid that if we can.”

McCoy says he’s hopeful the UAF consortium can work out a deal. He said his immediate concern is to halt the dismantling and removal of diagnostic equipment that monitors the effects of the high-power transmitting antennas.

“You need diagnostic instruments – optical, radars – to see what’s been happening, to do the science,” he said.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the Air Force has or will halt the dismantling of that part of the facility.

Walker told Murkowski in the May hearing that the Air Force would consider handing over the facility. But not if it was required to continue funding its operation and maintenance.

“We have gotten interest from the university in Fairbanks,” Walker said. “However, the interest that we have (heard expressed) is that they will run it if we fund it. Which is unfortunately in this fiscal environment that we’re in right now, this is not an area that we have any need for in the future and don’t see it would be a good use of Air Force S&T (science and technology) funds in the future.”

McCoy says he and the other researchers know they’ll have to operate the HAARP facility on a tight budget.

He says UAF and its partners are developing a business plan that would cut the estimated $5 million annual operation and maintenance costs, much of which went to paying for the facility’s diesel-fired generators.

“Five million dollars was a figure that we came up with, based on information we had from the past, and information we got from the Air Force,” he said. “What we’ve been looking at lately (is) the last campaign that was run by DARPA a few weeks ago. (It) was run on a shoestring. So we think that number we may be able to run it for much less, much more economically.”

McCoy says the business plan would be modeled on many of the same practices that UAF employs in the operation of the NASA-owned Poker Flat Rocket Range.

Categories: Alaska News

Bear Urine Tested as Musk Ox Repellent in Nome

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:26

A unique smell has been wafting through parts of Nome this past week, but it’s not your typical summer fragrance. It’s the smell of bear urine, and it’s part of a new plan being tested to keep musk oxen herds out of town. Tony Gorn is a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Nome.

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“We routinely—almost daily, now—move musk ox. But then they come back. So, this is an attempt to maybe put out some type of deterrent to prevent them from coming in so close to town,” Gorn says.

He says the agency has tried it all—rubber bullets, firecrackers, even aircraft. Now, with tension in Nome mounting … as herds of the animals are continuing to congregate and threatening dogs and property—Gorn is trying a more natural incentive to coax them to leave.

“Some of the groups, at least, of musk ox are moving close to town because they’re trying to find a bear-free zone. So really the idea is to make it appear like there may be bears in the local area and maybe they would move back out. It’s absolutely not tested yet, but it’s worth a try.”

Gorn says the urine has been applied to two sites where people have had run-ins with the herds. However, Nome’s windy, wet climate is proving a challenge for implementation. Gorn is not yet sure how well the scent is carrying.

But where do you buy—or harvest—bear urine?

“Well, you can buy—you can buy it commercially. The Internet’s a wonderful thing,” Gorn says.

Gorn has been in contact with other biologists that deal with musk oxen, but says Nome’s situation on the Seward Peninsula is unique. And it’s a polarizing issue for residents—some people are frustrated by the threat of herds in their backyard, while others like the experience of living close to wildlife.

The musk oxen population on the Seward Peninsula has been declining by about 13 percent each year.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Utility Sold For $170 Million to Outside Company

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:24

Southeast Alaska’s largest electric utility has merged with a Washington-based energy company. Alaska Electric Light and Power in Juneau is now a subsidiary of Avista Corporation, headquartered in Spokane. The deal closed on Tuesday.

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Alaska Electric Light and Power Company headquarters on Tonsgard Court in Juneau. (Photo by Rosemarie Alexander/KTOO)

Juneau’s Alaska Electric Light and Power has merged with Spokane-based Avista Corp.

The sale was announced in November and the $170 million purchase closed on Tuesday.

At closing, Avista Corp. issued about 4.5 million shares of common stock to Alaska Energy and Resources Company shareholders at just under $32.46 a share. AERC is AELP’s parent company.

Avista is a mid-size utility that sells electricity and natural gas to nearly 700,000 customers in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and parts of Oregon. With the purchase of AELP, Avista Utilities acquires an additional 16,000 electric customers.

AELP Consumer Affairs Director Debbie Driscoll says they will not see any changes in day-to-day operations in the short term.

“Part of the contractual agreement was that when the deal closes everything remains as is or better for the next two years,” Driscoll says.

That includes retaining AELP’s Juneau headquarters and its more than 70 employees.

Avista Communications Manager Jessie Wuerst says Juneau may not be the company’s only entry into Southeast Alaska.

“We’re an investor-owned utility, so we’re always looking for opportunities to bring value to our shareholders and Southeast Alaska is certainly an area that has opportunities in it,” Wuerst says. “So we’re looking.”

She says 51 percent of Avista power generation comes from renewable sources, including hydroelectric, wind and biomass. Avista also owns part of a coal-based generation plant in Montana.

Avista started as Washington Water Power on the banks of the Spokane River in 1889.

AELP was founded in 1894. The Corbus family bought into the utility in 1896 and has been majority owner since.

When former president Bill Corbus announced the Avista agreement in November, he said the company provided the best cultural fit.

Driscoll describes her fellow employees as excited about the merger, especially for the financial resources the bigger company brings.

“We’ve just expanded our resources significantly. There are changes in the industry, innovative improvements in the industry, smart grids, things that we can possibly now afford and maybe before it would have been too much of an impact to our customers from a rate standpoint,” she says.

AELP operates Snettisham and Lake Dorothy hydroelectric facilities as well as several smaller hydro projects and back-up diesel generation.

Note: Story updated at 9:40 a.m. to clarify that the no-change clause in the Avista agreement applies to daily operations.

 

Categories: Alaska News

After Floods, Huslia Earmarked $356,000 In Federal Funds

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 17:23

More than $270,000 in federal funds will help relocate five homes in Huslia following flooding and erosion on the Koyukuk River last month.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized the money under its “imminent threat” funds. It supplements another $85,000 in funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the full $356,000 cost.

The Athabascan village of 320 people is located about 250 miles west of Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Yellow Pages seek new life

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 16:43

New phone books are arriving at homes around Anchorage this month. So what do you do with your old ones? Give them a new purpose by recycling them.

http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/03-phone-books.mp3

I opened a mysterious square door in my closet ceiling recently and thousands of bits of shredded phone book tumbled out onto my head. Some phone book publishers, like the Berry Company, collect out-dated versions of the massive tomes to shred and re-purpose as home insulation and garden mulch. They have collection points around Anchorage until the end of July

Berry Company Alaska branch manager Chris Vaughn says their “Think Yellow, Go Green” campaign aims to keep phone books out of landfills. Last year, they collected 38 tons of them.

You can recycle your new Yellow Pages too, but Vaughn says most people still use them. “There are less people using the phone directory. But when they say it’s dead, it’s not.”

Vaughn says their research shows 75% of consumers used the print yellow pages in the past year. Fifty percent in the past month. He says it’s another tool in comparison shopping that’s especially useful for small and medium sized businesses.

The Berry Company is collecting old phone books at Fred Meyer stores around Anchorage, the UAA Arts Building, and other locations until the end of the month. They can also be recycled along with your mixed paper at recycling facilities across the city.

You can opt out of receiving the phone books by going to www.yellowpagesoptout.com.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Enstar bill increase looks big but is temporary

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-03 16:23

Enstar customers will pay more for their natural gas this summer, but Enstar’s spokesperson says, it’s not quite the dramatic change that it seems.

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Getting an Enstar notice saying gas prices are doubling is shocking. But flip out; it’s not a permanent increase. John Sims is the director of business development for Enstar Natural Gas. He says that natural gas bills always change throughout the year.

Here’s what happens: Enstar has contracts with different gas producers in Cook Inlet. They set prices for how much Enstar is going to pay. Then Enstar estimates how much they think they will buy each quarter.

“First, we are tasked with the challenge of trying to forecast what the weather is going to be like for the next three months. And then we have to try to forecast what 137,000 customers are actually going to consume over that three month time frame.”

Sims says they forecasted this year that they would buy lots of gas during the winter at high prices. So customers paid high prices. When April hit, Enstar saw customers paid too much, so they decreased the prices. But then it warmed up. And people used less gas. And Enstar realized that they under collected for the second quarter. To make up for it, they are increasing the prices again.

“This over collection, under collection happens pretty much all the time,” he explains. “In every filing that we do on a quarterly basis. It’s just a little more extreme compared to prior years.”

Sims says that the 48% increase is misleading. It’s because people buy so little gas in the summer. The percentage would be much lower if the cost was spread out over more units of natural gas.

“If you look at your total cost for the entire year, you’ll find it’s pretty consistent to years in the past.”

Sims says Enstar won’t make any money from this quarter’s increase, just like they didn’t lose any money when they decreased costs in the spring. It’s just paying for the actual cost of the gas. Enstar makes its money from delivery fees.

Sims says the company is anticipating a slight decrease for rates in the fourth quarter. He says overall, this year’s natural gas prices will be fairly consistent with last year’s. Yearly natural gas prices are influenced by the producers in Cook Inlet.

Categories: Alaska News
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