Alaska News

Alaska Shield Exercise Testing Military’s Emergency Readiness

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:30

The SSGT Robert T. Kuroda is docked at the Port of Anchorage. It’s the largest boat in the Army and sailed from Hawaii to be part of simulation exercises meant to test the readiness of the military to respond to a disaster situation where the port is rendered inoperable.  (Jolene Almendarez/APRN)

More than 550 military personnel from around the country are gathered at the Port of Anchorage this week for an Alaska Shield exercise, meant to test the readiness of the military to provide emergency support to areas impacted by natural or human-caused disasters.

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Categories: Alaska News

Senate Ratifies Treaties to Stop Fish Piracy

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:29

The U.S. Senate yesterday ratified two international treaties that Alaska’s senators say will help crack down on illegal international fishing. One is an agreement to restrict ships from using ports if they engage in what’s known as IUU fishing. Sen. Mark Begich says the practice robs legitimate fishermen of some $23 billion a year.

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“I know lots of times we talk about illegal, unreported, unregulated,” Begich said on the Senate floor yesterday. ” I like to simply call it pirate fishing. These are people who steal our fish out of our waters and then try to sell it back to us.”

He and other advocates of the treaty say it will also help deter human trafficking. The Port State Measures treaty takes effect after 25 countries ratify it. That’s how many initially signed the treaty, but only the U.S., the European Union and nine smaller countries that have gone all the way to ratification or full approval. Russia has signed and not ratified. China is on neither list.

A second treaty would create an international organization to regulate fishing in international waters of the North Pacific to protect fish habitat. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it’s “critically important” to the sustainability and management of the resource.

“We’re trying to play be the rules,” she said. “We expect others to be doing the same.”

The treaties were approved by voice vote. Murkowski says they’re the first treaties ratified by the Senate since 2010

Categories: Alaska News

State, Feds Wrestle Over Navigable Water Control

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:28

The State of Alaska is continuing to fight the federal government over control of navigable waters in two cases involving Interior rivers.

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The Alaska Department of Law has filed a friend of the court briefing in support of Central resident Jim Wilde’s latest appeal.

Wilde is contesting the National Park Service’s authority to enforce regulations on the state owned Yukon River, inside the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.

State Senior Assistant Attorney General Anne Nelson says the state has tracked the case from its start in 2010.

“The state’s position is that the Park Service doesn’t have the authority to regulate navigable waters within National Parks as if they were a part of the National Park,” Nelson said. “And so we’ve filed these amicus briefs to keep that issue in front of the court.”

In December a federal judge upheld Jim Wilde’s conviction of misdemeanor offences for resisting National Park Service rangers, who pulled him over for a boat safety inspection in September 2010. Wilde’s appeal is one of two challenging the federal agency, that the state of Alaska is involved in.

Federal judges have repeatedly rejected the state’s arguments in both cases, and this week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Alaska’s appeal concerning similar issues in the Katie John subsistence case. The state’s Nelson says the case frames the Wilde and Sturgeon appeals under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“What it means is that we are continuing to work with the status quo, which is the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that certain navigable waters are considered public lands under ANILCA because the federal government has a reserved water right in them for purposes of administering ANILCA’s rural subsistence priority,” Nelson said.

She says the state’s focus in the Wilde and Sturgeon cases is on challenging the extent of Park Service authority over navigable waters inside parks. The state just filed its brief in the Wilde case. Briefs are due in the Sturgeon case by the end of the month.

Both appeals are before the federal 9th circuit court.

Categories: Alaska News

Food Tastes Better When It’s Shared

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:27

Chuck Miller(R) and son Jay harvest roe-on-hemlock. (KCAW photo/by Emily Forman).

It’s crisp, crunchy, and salty – and you’ll never find it in a bag in the grocery store. Dipped in seal oil or eulachon oil (hooligan), it is a traditional Southeast Alaskan delicacy that signals spring as surely as a warm, sunny day. But, gathering herring eggs-on-hemlock branches is about a lot more than food.

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ANB Harbor. Stall 10. Small boat on the left. That’s Chuck Miller’s response to anyone looking for herring eggs. Miller has the means to harvest this traditional food in the traditional way. So, sharing the resource is a no brainer. “Food tastes better when you share with people and that’s the way our Native people are,” says Miller.

Like many subsistence fisherman, Miller practices the roe-on-hemlock harvesting method. He invited me to join him and his son, Jay, on a recent harvesting trip.

Miller: We are ready to get some fuel.
EF: With the fuel and everything how much does a trip like this cost you?
Miller: Over 200 dollars easy but it’s worth it.

That includes engine repairs and two trips out to Middle Island. Miller says it’s worth it because he’ll end up feeding at least a dozen people. But within minutes, I learn that he has deeper reasons for the practice. Jay explains.

Jay: The first time I went out I was 6 years old.
EF: Do you remember what that was like?
Jay: Yeah, I went with my uncle Eli my Dad’s brother.

Miller: The yellow buoy that’s on there is my brother’s buoy and my brother’s been passed away now for ten years. He was 5 years older than me. We used to do this together. This is the last of the gear that he had that he used.

As we pull into a cove on the backside of Middle Island the water abruptly changes from deep blue to a milky aqua. That’s what happens when you add a whole lot of fish sperm — or milt — into the mix.

Jay Miller helps his dad harvest herring roe. (KCAW photo/ by Emily Forman)

Miller: So it is still spawning in here.

Plastic bottles and milk jugs speckle the shallow water – all tied to submerged hemlock branches. A handful of those have “Miller” written on them in bold black sharpie ink.

He says people have stolen his sets in the past – which isn’t unusual when branches are left unsupervised overnight to gather eggs. As a result he’s mildly apprehensive around other fisherman.

Miller: He’s probably just staring me down because he doesn’t know who I am. But I’m gonna let him get a good look at me because I lived here my whole life.

Miller has a way of diffusing the tension.

Miller: Hey are you taking my sets? Haha! You guys look like you got a good set in!
Miller: K it’s coming up on your side. Right there, right there, right there!

Jay grabs the milk jug attached to his Uncle Eli’s yellow buoy. He clutches the trailing thick rope. Using all of his body weight he wrestles the egg-laden branch to the surface.

Miller: Get it to where you got some leverage. is it moving? It’s probably super heavy?

When its ready to harvest, a branch can weigh well over 400 pounds.

Miller: What we do is clip off pieces of it to get it in the boat. Holy smokes! That’s a good one right there!

Miller hoists the dripping branch into the boat. It’s coated with eggs and looks like it was dipped in a vat of rubber cement.

Miller: See this is the thickness you want, some people get them a little thicker, but not much more than that.

It’s a bountiful harvest, which according to Miller is thanks to his brother’s buoy.

Miller: It’s my good luck buoy and usual that’s the one every year that produces quite a bit it’s like my brother is looking out for us.

He tosses the leftover branch overboard.

Miller:Gunalcheesh! Thank you! We used the tree to help us.

Take away the power boat, and plastic milk jug buoys, and it isn’t difficult to picture this practice taking place long before Western and Native cultures met.

Miller: If i don’t start sharing what I know right away… I might not be here tomorrow.

When we return to ANB harbor, and pull into Stall 10. I realize that gathering herring eggs on hemlock branches is an expression of gratitude. Gratitude for the the teachings of his ancestors, gratitude for food, and the chance to pass on this way of life.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Moose Creek

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:26

This week, we’re heading to Moose Creek, a village of about 600 people in central Alaska. Jeff Jacobson is the chief of staff for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

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Categories: Alaska News

AK: Book Club

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:25

Community outreach librarian Andrea Hirsh points something out to club member Mike Ricker. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Several people at Juneau’s downtown shelter and soup kitchen The Glory Hole are part of a new club. Every Tuesday, they come together on the second floor of the facility to discuss a different topic. The club is helping to build a different kind of community within the homeless shelter, a community not based on need, but on the exchange of ideas.

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Topics for The Glory Hole Book Club change every week. This session, the club discussed the space program. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

It’s called The Glory Hole Book Club, but it’s really more of a discussion group. Instead of everyone reading the same book, community outreach librarian Andrea Hirsh says there’s a theme that everyone comes prepared to talk about each week.

“The first day, everybody who was here wrote down five ideas of stuff that they thought would be so neat to talk about and we threw them in a hat, and then we pulled it out. And it works really well because it makes it open for anybody who wants to come,” Hirsh says.

Topics range from philosophy to fantasy. Hirsh says book club members can relate the topic to an article they may have read or a movie they watched. Oftentimes, group discussions stem from personal experience.

“We pulled, like, agriculture once and I thought, ‘That one is going to be terrible.’ But we talked a lot about animal husbandry and, like, growing crops, and most of the people here have worked in agricultural fields. It was a great topic,” Hirsh says.

Sheila Higgins (left) has been to every session of The Glory Hole Book Club, which started in January. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Six people, who have come to this club session, sit in a circle of chairs. All eyes are on Hirsh as she holds up the book “Packing for Mars.”

She talks about a test performed on want-to-be astronauts:

“They have, like, eight candidates and they keep them all in one room and they’re monitored 24/7. They have no privacy and they can’t leave each other because they’re simulating, like, what’s going on in the international space station.”

The Glory Hole Book Club was a test as well when the shelter paired up with Juneau Public Libraries to try something new.

Steve Albright is a member of The Glory Hole Book Club. (Photo by Lisa Phu/TKOO)

“I did not think that The Glory Hole Book Club would be a very successful activity but I think it’s really wonderful for people to have an opportunity to not think about the fact that they’re homeless and that they’re struggling and they need to get out of the situation,” says shelter director Mariya Lovishchuk

Club member Sheila Higgins was a psychic for 25 years out of Fairbanks and Anchorage. She also spent some time working on the North Slope. When she moved to Juneau in 2012 for a different job, things didn’t work out. She’s lived at the Glory Hole for about a year.

Since the club started in January, Higgins has gone to every session. She says those that attend have become closer.

“I think we get to know each other on a different level. We don’t see ourselves as homeless people here. We just see each other as brother and sister.”

At the end of every club session, a member pulls out the topic for next week. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The book club also adds another dimension to The Gory Hole. Most of the action takes place in the day room on the first floor, where all the meals are served.

“That’s kind of their forum down there, the people who run the place. Up here it’s ours, OK? It’s ours. This is our club,” Higgins says.

Club members freely share their opinions and listen. After several weeks of this, Higgins says they’re grown to respect and support one another.

“Nobody’s here because they want to be, you know. We’d all rather be in our own homes living different lives, but as long as we’re here, we’re going do the best we can for each other,” she says.

For Kidd Perez, the book club is also just fun.

“It’s spontaneous for sure and it’s just a tight knit group. We all are acquainted well enough here to just let it go, let it ride. You can comment and say pretty much what you think. It gets kind of crazy sometimes, but that’s part of the fun,” Perez says.

Perez is an auto mechanic. He says he goes where the money is. With summer approaching, he has hopes of moving out of the shelter.

“Could be sometime this month, because the season’s coming around and that means more work for a lot of people this time of year, so we’ll see what happens,” Perez says.

But as long as Perez is at The Glory Hole though, he’ll continue going to the club.

As the session on the space program wraps up, Hirsh holds out “The Book Club Hat.”

“Why don’t you pick out our topic for next week,” she says to club member Mark Trammell.

“Oh wow, psychology,” Trammell announces to the group.

Chatter and laughter break out among club members as they get up to leave, their minds already on next week’s club theme.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 4, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 17:12

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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Parents Rally For Education Funding

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska State House has delayed its vote on an omnibus education bill to Monday, giving lawmakers more time to wrestle with questions over teacher retirement policy and treatment of rural schools. But even though debate on the bill was delayed, that did not stop a crowd of parents from gathering on the Capitol steps to rally for more education funding.

Minimum Wage Bill Introduced Amid Sponsor Outcry

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A bill that could supplant the minimum wage initiative has popped up in the Legislature. The House Rules Committee introduced the bill on Friday, and it’s modeled after a citizens’ initiative that’s slated to appear on the August primary ballot. It would raise the minimum wage up from $7.75 to $9.75 over the course of two years, and it would peg the minimum wage to inflation.

Lawmakers Shelve Controversial Permitting Bill

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A controversial permitting bill has been sentenced to die in committee. Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel sent out a press release yesterday announcing the resources committee will not hold any more hearings on HB77.

Deal Reached For Susitna-Watana Dam Land Access

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A land access dispute that threatened to delay progress on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project has been resolved, though the agreement has come later than expected.

Alaska Shield Exercise Testing Military’s Emergency Readiness

Jolene Almendarez, APRN – Anchorage

More than 550 military personnel from around the country are gathered at the Port of Anchorage this week for an Alaska Shield exercise, meant to test the readiness of the military to provide emergency support to areas impacted by natural or human-caused disasters.

Senate Ratifies Treaties to Stop Fish Piracy

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. Senate yesterday ratified two international treaties that Alaska’s senators say will help crack down on illegal international fishing. One is an agreement to restrict ships from using ports if they engage in what’s known as IUU fishing.

State, Feds Wrestle Over Navigable Water Control

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The State of Alaska is continuing to fight the federal government over control of navigable waters in two cases involving Interior rivers. The Alaska Department of Law has filed a friend of the court briefing in support of Central resident Jim Wilde’s latest appeal. Wilde is contesting the National Park Service’s authority to enforce regulations on the state owned Yukon River, inside the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Food Tastes Better When It’s Shared

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

It’s crisp, crunchy, and salty – and you’ll never find it in a bag in the grocery store. Dipped in seal oil or eulachon oil (hooligan), it is a traditional Southeast Alaskan delicacy that signals spring as surely as a warm, sunny day. But, gathering herring eggs-on-hemlock branches is about a lot more than food.

AK: Book Club

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Several people at Juneau’s downtown shelter and soup kitchen The Glory Hole are part of a new club. Every Tuesday, they come together on the second floor of the facility to discuss a different topic. The club is helping to build a community within the homeless shelter, one not based on need, but on the exchange of ideas.

300 Villages: Moose Creek

This week, we’re heading to Moose Creek, a village of about 600 people in central Alaska. Jeff Jacobson is the chief of staff for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Categories: Alaska News

The Business of Clean Energy

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 12:00

Alaska is becoming known as a testing ground for renewable energy. As more and more clean energy technology comes on the market, Alaska’s high fuel costs can make investments in things that reduce those costs pay off quickly – in fact it’s already happening.

HOST: Steve HeimelAlaska Public Radio Network


  • Gershon Cohen, We the People Alaska
  • John Havelock, former Alaska Attorney General
  • Callers Statewide


  • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
  • Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.


Categories: Alaska News

Sealaska Dividends Include No Corporate Earnings

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 10:28

The spring dividend for most Sealaska shareholders will be $721, but some will receive less than a tenth of that amount.

Sealaska Plaza, the corporation’s headquarters.

The total distribution to the regional Native corporation’s 21,600 shareholders is $11.8 million. Payments will be mailed out April 8 and direct-deposited April 11.

Most stockholders own 100 shares. The amount of dividends differ due to status of the corporation’s Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian members.

Those enrolled in Sealaska plus an urban Native corporation, such as Sitka’s Shee Atiká, receive the full $721. So do at-large shareholders, who are only enrolled in Sealaska.

Those holding stock in a village corporation, such as Saxman’s Cape Fox, get $57.

The difference is a payout from a pool of regional Native corporations’ natural-resource earnings. Sealaska pays resource earnings directly to urban shareholders, as part of their dividends. But it pays the resource revenues to village corporations, which decide whether to pass them on to shareholders.

Descendents of original shareholders also get $57 per 100 shares.  Elders in any category receive an extra $57. Those funds come from Sealaska’s permanent fund.

None of the money is coming from Sealaska’s business operations. CEO Chris McNeil says the corporation is in the second year of restructuring its operations.  That includes last summer’s sale of its share of plastics factories in Alabama, Iowa and Guadalajara, Mexico.

More details on Sealaska’s business operations will be in its annual report, to be released in May.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature OKs $5.8 Million In Capitol Repairs

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 10:23

A ridge of crumbling masonry near the top of Alaska’s Capitol, April 3, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

The legislature has approved $5.8 million in additional repairs and renovations to the Capitol building.

“Go forth, fix the Capitol,”said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage. He chairs the Legislative Council, which authorized a contract with Dawson Construction on Thursday. The council manages the legislature’s in-house administration.

This is the second phase of the project. The need for major repairs of the facade and earthquake retrofits has been well documented, punctuated by occasional chunk of falling masonry. Building manager Jeff Goodell recently took some time to preempt a potential drizzle of stonework on 60 of the building’s most important tenants; legislators lined up out front for a group photo Wednesday.

Detail of brick façade exposed during renovation of Alaska’s Capitol, April 3, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

“Our building manager spent the weekend taking loose chunks of concrete off the parapets that were so loose, that they had a very real chance of falling and hitting someone while we were taking that picture,” Hawker said.

Outside the Capitol, Goodell points out where he’d worked along a lip of crumbling brick near the roof. He says masons recently told him the pace of deterioration is shifting.

“You know, this golden girl is 83 years old. It took a long time to get to this point, but now, things really get accelerated,” Goodell says.

In the Capitol’s maintenance section, Goodell pulls out a 5-gallon bucket and cardboard box filled with crumbly bits and chunks of masonry.

“There are big parts down in here. Of course, this is just little stuff you’re seeing at the top. But there’s big stuff in there,” Goodell says.

He’s keeping it “as evidence.”

“This is for people to see, to know that we’re not monkeying around,” Goodell says.

Workers completed the first phase of Capitol repairs and renovations last fall. That phase included repairing the granite front steps, reinforcing the marble columns, replacing the plumbing and draining systems and cleaning up the crawlspace beneath the building.

With the contract approval, work will resume this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska House Names April as ‘Child Abuse Prevention Month’

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-04 10:07

The Alaska House of Representatives voted unanimously Thursday to name April “Child Abuse Prevention Month” in Alaska.

House Concurrent Resolution 21 was sponsored by Representative Geran Tarr from Anchorage. The resolution heads to the Senate for consideration.

In 2013 there were over 40,000 allegation of child maltreatment in Alaska.

Just last month Alaska Governor Sean Parnell issued an Executive Proclamation naming April as “Child Abuse Prevention Month.”

Nationally, April has been “Child Abuse Prevention Month” since the first Executive Declaration in 1983.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Shelve Controversial Permitting Bill

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 21:42

A controversial permitting bill has been sentenced to die in committee.

Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel sent out a press release on Thursday evening announcing that the resources committee will not hold any more hearings on HB77.

Committee member Peter Micciche says that with the end of session looming, the bill was simply too complex and too polarizing to advance.

“Some people will be very happy. Some people won’t be as happy. But I think that everyone can agree that we can, in the future, do a better job working together on releasing things that people see as having an effect on their everyday lives, their rights as Alaskans, their right to be heard.”

The Parnell administration introduced HB77 last year. The bill was pitched as a way to make the permitting process more efficient, and it initially zipped through the Legislature. But fishing groups, tribal organizations, and environmental outfits came out strong against the bill, arguing that it gave too much power to the natural resources commissioner and limited the public’s role in permitting decisions.

After the bill failed to secure the necessary votes last year, the Department of Natural Resources held meetings with opposition groups and revised the bill in consultation with Micciche. While some of the more contentious provisions were altered, the rewrite still attracted a heated public response when it was unveiled last month.

Micciche believes some components of the new draft have merit and could have been enacted into law had they not been wrapped in such an expansive piece of legislation. He says those parts will likely need to be revisited in the future and parceled out into a series of less ambitious bills.

But this year, the Legislature is done with permitting policy.

“I don’t know go where bills go in the after life, but I do — I do — honestly wish House Bill 77 a very happy eternity as it rests in peace.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources wrote in an e-mail that the agency is a “disappointed in this outcome,” but understands the decision.

Categories: Alaska News

Homer Man Shoots, Kills Self With Trooper’s Pistol

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:52

Alaska State Troopers say a Homer man fatally shot himself after he grabbed a trooper’s gun during a struggle following a domestic violence call.

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Twenty-four-year-old Aaron Michael Rael-Catholic is dead following the incident Wednesday night.

According to a Trooper report, an unidentified Trooper attempted to apprehend Rael-Catholic following a report of a domestic violence assault shortly after 8 p.m. at a residence about four miles out East End Road.

The female victim who made the report was able to escape the assault by her ex-boyfriend – Rael-Catholic. She left the residence in a vehicle just as the Trooper arrived on the scene. Rael-Catholic then used another vehicle to ram into the victim’s car.

According to the report, the suspect then got out of the car and a struggle ensued with the Trooper. In an attempt to apprehend Rael-Catholic, the Trooper used pepper spray and then his Taser but to no avail. The Trooper and the suspect ended up wrestling on the ground. During this struggle, Rael-Catholic got a hold of the Trooper’s pistol and fatally shot himself.

Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters said Troopers could not release any further information about the incident until completion of an investigation by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Peters did confirm that the Trooper was the only law enforcement officer who responded to the call. She did not know if he called for backup during the incident. After the shooting, several local agencies – including the Homer Police Department and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department – responded to the scene. The female victim was taken to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer but her condition was unknown.

The Trooper was not injured in the incident. Peters said his identity will not be released for 72 hours.

According to court records, Rael-Catholic was arrested for Fourth Degree Assault in December. In that incident, he was allegedly intoxicated and had assaulted a member of his family.

Peters said an autopsy on Rael-Catholic by the State Medical Examiner’s Office is expected to be performed later this week. She could not estimate how long the investigation might take.

Peters said it is extremely rare for a suspect to get a hold of an officer’s service weapon. The last time it happened on the Kenai Peninsula was in 2003, when 33-year-old David Forster took a pistol from Kenai Police officer John Watson and used it to kill him. Forster was sentenced to 101 years in prison for the murder.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard Finds Violations in Kulluk Grounding

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:49

The Coast Guard has released the results of an investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drill rig at the end of their troubled Arctic drilling season. The agency documented multiple safety violations. It also found a desire to avoid a state tax contributed to the decision to move the rig in poor conditions.

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The agency found that Royal Dutch Shell and its subcontractor, Edison Chouest, severely underestimated the risk of towing an unpropelled oil rig through the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm in December 2012.

The Kulluk remains grounded and upright with no evidence of sheen in the vicinity
on Friday, Jan. 4. The rig grounded in high seas and strong winds Dec. 31, 2012, and a full-scale response and recovery involving the U. S. Coast Guard, Shell, the State of Alaska, local governments and private contractors has been underway since then. Photo by Judy Patrick

The Kulluk had been moored at a custom-built dock in Dutch Harbor. According to the Coast Guard, Shell executives believed they could dodge a multimillion-dollar state tax bill if they moved the rig out of Alaska before the start of the new year.

Some mariners knew it would be a rough journey: In an email early in the trip, the master of the Aiviq tow vessel said a winter tow “guarantees an ass kicking.”

As predicted, the fleet encountered rough seas. The tow line between the Kulluk and the vessels that were pulling it snapped repeatedly — in part, due to inadequate equipment. After multiple attempts to recover the rig, the Kulluk crashed into a remote island on New Year’s Eve 2012. It took days to recover the vessel.

The accident reportedly cost Shell more than $90 million. And it gave critics of Arctic oil exploration plenty of ammunition.

Michael LeVine is the Pacific senior counsel for Oceana.

“We need to fundamentally rethink the way we’re balancing costs and benefits and the standards to which we’re holding companies like Shell,” LeVine says.

The Coast Guard uncovered multiple legal violations, including failures to report marine casualties and safety issues. The agency also discovered inadequate watch-keeping in the bridge and engine rooms of Shell’s fleet.

LeVine says the federal government bears some blame, since they approved Shell’s Arctic exploration plans.

“It is not sufficient simply for a company to say that they’re prepared to operate in Alaska,” LeVine says. “We all deserve to have these companies come here and show us that they actually appreciate the difficult and remoteness of operating in Alaska water, and the importance of those resources to all of us.”

The Coast Guard is recommending measures to improve tow plans and correct engineering deficiencies on the Aiviq tug.

In a statement, Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino said the company is taking the Coast Guard’s findings seriously.

“Already, we have implemented lessons learned from our internal review of our 2012 operations,” Baldino said. “Those improvements will be measured against the findings in the USCG report as well asrecommendations from the US Department of Interior.”

Categories: Alaska News

Young Lights into Interior Secretary Over King Cove

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:48

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell already rejected a plan to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. These days, all three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation are trying to get her to change her mind. Today was Congressman Don Young’s turn to press the case.

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As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Young was allotted five minutes to question Jewell on the president’s $12 billion budget for Interior. Young asked only about King Cove. And Young wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. In fact, at times during the fiery exchange, he wasn’t taking any answers.

Young said the birds of the Izembek Refuge could adjust to traffic, like the birds on the George Washington Parkway, along the Potomac. Jewell told him the Izembek is a wetland of global significance.

–The birds that are in that area (Izembek) are different than the birds in the Potomac River.

–They are no different. There the same type of bird. The same species, as far as genetically goes, and you and I know that!

–No, sir, the Pacific black brant is …

–There is exactly the same attitude. They get used to it!

When bad weather prevents normal air travel in King Cove, critically ill and injured people have to wait for a Coast Guard helicopter. Such rescues generally happen four or five times a year, although there have been five just since December. They are said to cost more than $200,000 apiece. Young threatened Jewell with an unpleasant choice: Which of her divisions should Congress deduct that cost from?

–Which one of those departments do you think we take it out of?

–Congressman, I will continue …

–Which one of the departments should we take it out of?

–Congressman I do not believe money for a medical …

–You don’t think it’ll happen, do you?

–Can I finish? Would you like me to answer the question?

–No, I’m going to ask you which department. You answer.

Jewell also had to defend her King Cove decision last week at a Senate hearing, though Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich were less forceful in style.

Watch the exchange:

Categories: Alaska News

NMFS Clears Commercial Fishing In Sea Lion Habitat

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:47

After a research review, the National Marine Fisheries Service is prepared to loosen controversial limits on fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.

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NMFS closed fishing grounds three years ago to protect an endangered population of Steller sea lions. That triggered several rounds of litigation and a new evaluation of the science behind fishing bans.

Brandee Gerke is a NMFS resource management specialist. She helped the agency write its new biological opinion on whether increased fishing would harm sea lions.

“We don’t have any direct scientific evidence that fisheries are causing nutritional stress in Steller sea lions,” Gerke says.

That has cleared NMFS to open more fishing grounds in the western Aleutians, according to a plan that was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Gerke says that biologists still have lingering concerns about how to harvest fish safely in critical habitat areas without disturbing Steller sea lions.

“NMFS is still recommending that the fishery be dispersed over a greater amount of time,” Gerke says. “So not going in and catching fish in a very concentrated fashion.”

Those recommendations will be included in a proposed rule from NMFS. They’ll take public comments on the regulations. But if they’re finalized, fishermen will have access to previously forbidden stocks of Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and pollock as early as next year.

Michael LeVine says that’s pretty sudden. LeVine is a lawyer for Oceana — an environmental group that’s been fighting for years to uphold fishing bans in the western Aleutians.

“The controversy is about whether removing 60% of the fish that used to be there is contributing to the continuing decline of the species and its overall failure to recover,” LeVine says. “Historically, the agency has said that is has. This new analysis, we think, reflects a step back from that very well scientifically-justified position.”

LeVine wouldn’t comment on whether Oceana might sue to keep fishing grounds closed.

At least one group applauded the decision to loosen restrictions. The Aleut Corporation holds a small amount of pollock quota in the western Aleutian Islands. It’s supposed to bring business to Adak, but the share is an area that was closed — until now.

In a statement, the Aleut Corporation said it’s grateful for any new fishing opportunities that will come as a result of the federal study — for Adak, and for other communities throughout the Aleutian Chain.

Categories: Alaska News

As Education Bill Nears Vote, Lawmakers Brace For Funding Fight

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:46

On Friday, state representatives will vote on a sprawling education bill that deals with everything from school budges to teacher tenure to the establishment of charter schools. Some lawmakers, like Anchorage Democrat Chris Tuck, are already preparing for a marathon session.

TUCK: It’s going to be a long one. I think it’s probably going to be one of the longest bills that we probably take up on the floor this year.

APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that some of the biggest fights are expected to center around the education funding formula.

On Wednesday, it took the House Finance Committee about six hours to work through more than 20 amendments that members wanted to make to the legislation. There were split votes, a good bit of sniping, and multiple apologies before the group finally moved the bill out of committee that evening.

The process is not expected to be any easier once the bill hits the floor.

At a press conference on Thursday, the Democratic Minority explained that their major concern is that an increase to the base student allocation — the amount of money a school gets per student enrolled — does not go far enough.

“We’ve faced three years of cuts in the past, this extends three more years of cuts — cuts this coming year, and then bigger cuts the following two years when the base student allocation gets smaller,” said Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage.

The House Finance version of the bill spends an extra $225 million on per-pupil funding over the course of three years, but some of that could cancel out because of a loss of $25 million in one-time funds. Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal adds just over $100 million to that pot of money over the same period of time.

Rep. David Guttenberg, of Fairbanks, said neither of those figures are enough to prevent layoffs in the state’s biggest school districts.

“I think if you ask them if they’d take a poke in the eye or a kick in the backside, they’ll take whatever they can get over nothing,” said Guttenberg.

The Democrats’ proposal costs about $450 million over three years.

But Republicans in the majority are concerned that a bigger increase than what they are offering could put serious pressure on future budgets.

Rep. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters on Thursday that education is being treated as an exception as other state agencies are being told to keep their budgets flat.

“We are still prioritizing education while the rest of state government we are cutting,” said Costello. “We’ve been cutting operating budget of state government so that we can continue to fund education increases.”

Costello also argued that their proposal also gives an extra boost to urban schools, where 80 percent of Alaska’s students are enrolled. The House Finance Committee did this by adjusting the education funding formula to weigh the state’s larger schools more generously. The existing funding formula gives rural schools extra funds because costs in remote areas are higher, and rural legislators have expressed concern that changing it could result in a disparity between small and large schools.

The House is expected to debate the education bill at the same time a citizens group made up of parents will be rallying on the capitol steps for more education funding.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Parnell Calls Proposal To Deal With Teacher Retirement System ‘Immoral’

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:45

How to address the teacher retirement debt is another friction point for lawmakers.

Governor Sean Parnell says a House Finance Committee proposal to deal with the teachers’ retirement system is “immoral” and shifts the debt obligation to future generations.

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Parnell wants the plan pulled from his education bill.

The committee added the retirement plan to its rewrite of the bill, HB278. But Parnell says they’re two, very separate issues.

The bill is scheduled for the House floor Friday.

Parnell has proposed putting $1.1 billion into the system and making annual payments of about $340 million over 20 years. Trust fund earnings would eventually be used to pay benefits.

The committee plan proposes a $1.4 billion cash infusion and would start with smaller annual payments, and payments stretched over a longer period.

Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal says the approaches are just philosophically different.

Categories: Alaska News

KABATA Legislation Passes Senate Finance Committee

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:44

The plan to construct a toll bridge across Knik Arm advanced yesterday, when the Senate Finance committee voted in favor of sending it to the floor for consideration.

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Categories: Alaska News

Fish & Game Cancelling Staffed Program At Bristol Bay Walrus Islands Sanctuary

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:43

Round Island walrus haulout. (Photo by USFWS)

Back in 1960, seven uninhabited Bristol Bay islands south of Togiak were incorporated into the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. As the name suggests, the sanctuary protects one of the largest terrestrial haulout sites of Pacific walruses in North America.

The Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division decided last week that it will terminate its Round Island Program, which staffs the sanctuary to monitor the marine mammals and host visitors.

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Categories: Alaska News

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