APRN Alaska News
Today we’re innovating. If you head up to the fourth floor of the Loussac Library on just about any given day, you’ll find a number of different groups working in the innovation lab.
“Groups and what they talk about include everything from overseas consulates, federal organizations, crafters, hobbyists,” Darla Hane, the coordinator of the innovation lab, said. “They really run the gamut.”
She says to think of the lab as part brainstorm, part real-world application. For example, let’s say you’re a band that’s looking for a place to practice.
“We want to help that group not only create music but also have an understanding of band contracts, band writers and copyright laws and how it applies to them,” Hane said. “If they want help with their websites we can connect them with programmers or web designers.”
“It’s a very holistic approach to it.”
The group that’s meeting tonight is fairly new; only their second week. They’re called the social entrepreneurs.
“Social entrepreneurs approach entrepreneurship in a way that a regular entrepreneur would, but they also approach it with the thought that the outcome of their business model should have a direct impact on the social good of their community,” she said.
Hane says the group, much like the lab itself, is diverse. There’s the Dean of APU, a graduate student, a small business owner, and a song writer to name a few. Tonight’s discussion is about how to offer free cash checking and bill paying to Anchorage residents.
“The gist of it is there are 13.5 million people in the US that have a job, but don’t have a bank account,” Thomas Gokey, who is part of a group called Strike Debt, said. “I don’t know specific numbers for Anchorage.”
He describes it as an Occupy Wall Street offshoot focused on reducing debt in the US. He says free check cashing is just one way to do that.
“On average it costs you 10 percent of your income just to access and spend your money if you don’t have a bank account,” Gokey said.
Gokey says that’s because banks charge to cash and write checks if you’re not a member. Also, there are penalties for certain purchases if you don’t have a bank account. Purchases like a car. Gokey is hoping his fellow social entrepreneurs can help create a business that could bypass the bank.
“The service provided is super simple,” Gokey said. “You just need someone to turn a check into cash, and write a check to pay bills.”
“What is the chance that a bank would say ‘we can do that in our bank.’ I mean I can see why they’d say no, but I can also think of benefits to the bank. Because when this person does finally decide they want a bank account, where are they likely to bank?”
Oddly enough, director Darla Hane says she knows a few bankers that frequent the innovation lab. She’s going to invite them to the group’s next meeting.
“Let’s talk to some bankers. Yay! It’ll be great,” Hane said.
I asked Darla how often something works out that perfect at the lab. She tells me it happens all the time.
“Collaboration is a big part of the innovation lab,” Hane said. “Just tonight one of the guys here was talking about his patent, and so he used some of the other lab guests to apply for his patent.”
The patent wasn’t finalized, so Hane wasn’t able to give me any details. Not unless I show up next week of course.
Every legislative session, different interest groups will hire lobbyists to influence legislation that affects them. But what happens if you’re already on the wrong side of the law? APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that a sex worker group is raising money to send one of their own to Juneau.
Smart watches, movies, even potato salad — all these things have found success with crowdfunding. Now Terra Burns wants to see if Internet users will pay for her to travel to Juneau and advocate on behalf of sex workers.
“It’s really been really hard for people in Alaska’s sex industry to have any voice at all because of stigma and criminalization,” says Burns.
Burns is 33 years old. She’s a graduate student who studies the sex industry, and she’s worked in it in the past. She’s also affiliated with a sex worker group called Community United for Safety and Protection, which opposes human trafficking laws that were put on the books in 2012.
The laws upped the penalties for coercing people into the sex industry, and they changed the statutes so victims would not be referred to as prostitutes. But Burns thinks they have not worked as promised — of the sex trafficking cases that have been opened since the the laws were put on the books, she says half were prostitutes themselves.
“Most of the people that they have been charging have been women who have been working together in the industry,” says Burns.
Burns thinks the law should be amended so those who work in the sex industry of their own volition are not treated as traffickers and are not entrapped by police officers.
Burns launched a “Tilt” crowdfunding campaign three weeks ago. It’s like Kickstarter, but for causes. The goal is to raise $1,500 to pay for Burns to live out of a camper in Juneau for a month. So far, the crowdfunding campaign is only at the halfway mark, with just $800 raised.
Burns says there weren’t too many other funding options. She notes sex workers can’t act like a union, where they collect dues to pay for lobbying on issues that affect them.
“I would love to be able to have that discussion, but it would be considered under the law sex trafficking in Alaska,” says Burns.
And she’s volunteering, because the group can’t afford a professional lobbyist.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” says Burns.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission does not have much experience with advocates supported by crowdfunding, but they think Burns will have to register with them as a representational lobbyist, since only her expenses are being covered.
Even if the campaign stalls and those expenses are not fully covered, Burns has decided to come to the capital. So far, only one bill dealing with sex trafficking has been introduced, and it would allow victims of sex trafficking to use that as a defense if they are charged with prostitution crimes. Burns is opposing it because she thinks it splits members of the sex industry into victims and traffickers while leaving voluntary participants in a difficult position.
But bill sponsor Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat and the Senate’s Minority Leader, does not see the conflict.
“My bill does not affect sex workers — it affects victims of sex trafficking,” says Gardner. “It doesn’t touch sex workers who are voluntary sex workers in any way, shape, or form.”
Gardner introduced the bill last year, and it passed the Senate unanimously before stalling in the House. Because the bill has not been controversial, Gardner is not sure that Burns’ lobbying effort will be productive.
“She’s well intentioned, and might very well be right about some of the things she’s saying,” says Gardner. “But we deal with the reality here of what it takes to pass legislation, and you can have a great big earth-shaking, proposal, or you can bite off one little piece that won’t draw opposition from any quarter, and try to get that through.”
Gardner says she does sympathize with the difficulty that people affected by sex trafficking legislation have in being heard by the Legislature.
“We got calls from people, but by and large they were too frightened to speak on the record,” says Gardner.
Burns plans to testify on the bill, should it get a hearing.
The Anchorage School Board is debating what to do about next year’s school budget in light of the governor’s proposed funding cuts. Wrapped into the discussion is the future of the middle schools and literacy programs.
ASD’s administration is proposing a $784 million budget that includes 43 new full time positions with teachers for both charter and neighborhood schools.
But if Governor Bill Walker’s proposed budget cuts pass the legislature, ASD will be short about $12 million for next year. That means losing staff, not adding.
Superintendent Ed Graff says they could cut their pilot programs, like literacy coaches, pre-K, and professional development. That includes 36 positions. Or they could cut 120 full-time positions from the district overall.
“You know close to 90% of what we do in our budget is related to people and personnel,” he told the School Board on Monday evening. “And you can talk about a lot of things but it’s still going to come down to FTE [full-time equivalent], or people.”
School Board President Eric Croft says even if they cut the pilot programs, they’ll still have to cut other staff. It could add one more student to each classroom next year. Parents and teachers have told the district they want to keep class sizes down.
Graff says he wants to keep funding the middle school model and core teacher team planning with general fund money because the district is evaluating the effectiveness of the model.
But Board Member Natasha Von Imhof questions prioritizing middle schools when the district’s budget is decreasing.
“I also just want to point out that Anchorage School District is the last district in Alaska to still hold on to the middle school model. Fairbanks has eliminated it. Mat-Su has eliminated it. When oil is at 50 bucks a barrel, I think we have to start making choices.”
Von Imhof says some of those choices could include putting aside some of this year’s $17 million fund balance for the 2016-2017 school year instead of using it all next year. She says she’d rather slide the district’s budget down a slope rather than have it fall off of a cliff.
The board decided to advance the budget to the next reading on Thursday, February 19. They are accepting input from the community.
Legislature Plans For Gasline Special Session
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
Republican leaders expect that the Legislature will go ahead with a special session in October to consider a natural gas policy.
Sex Workers Want Lobbyist in Juneau
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN-Juneau
Every legislative session, different interest groups will hire lobbyists to influence legislation that affects them. But what happens if you’re already on the wrong side of the law? A sex worker group is trying to raise money to send one of their own to Juneau.
Arctic Standards Won’t Be Ready For Shell’s Return
Liz Ruskin, APRN-Washington, DC
After Shell’s troubled 2012 drilling season in the far north, the Interior Department began working on Arctic-specific standards for offshore drilling. But those new standards aren’t done yet.
String Of Earthquakes Shakes Up Pribilof Islands
Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB-Unalaska
The Pribilof Islands aren’t usually prone to shaking. But more than a dozen earthquakes have been recorded in between St. Paul and St. George in the last few days.
Child Center Leaving UAA, Frustrating Parents
Josh Edge, KSKA-Anchorage
Tanaina Child Development Center at the University of Alaska last week received notice from the University that the center will need to find a new location. The decision has left many parents frustrated, but the two sides are still in discussions to see if a new agreement can be reached.
Alaska Regional Hospital To Open Mountain View Clinic
Annie Feidt, APRN-Anchorage
Alaska Regional Hospital is planning to open a healthcare clinic in Mountain View by the end of year. There aren’t any primary care services in the neighborhood currently.
Alaska Legislature Takes Second Look at Erin’s Law
Daysha Eaton, KYUK-Bethel
Erin’s Law is back in the legislature. If passed, the bill would require school districts, statewide, to provide age-appropriate K-12 sexual abuse education.
Poor Design Led to BC Tailings Pond Failure
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska-Juneau
Poor design led to last summer’s catastrophic failure of a British Columbia mine tailings pond. That’s the conclusion of an investigation ordered by provincial officials and released last Friday.
Vets Check Yukon Quests Dogs
Emily Schwing, KUAC-Fairbanks
Over the weekend, veterinarians looked over the sled dogs that will run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in both Fairbanks and Whitehorse. The vets wanted to make sure the dogs were healthy, well-fed and ready to race on the 1,000-mile trail.
Republican leaders expect that the Legislature will go ahead with a special session in October focused on natural gas policy.
Senate Rules Chair Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican, says the Legislature needs to take up tax legislation in order to keep up with scheduled development of a North Slope gasline.
“We know that the governor has said that he wants to maintain or accelerate that timeline,” says Huggins. “We agree on that, and hence we have targeted October as a date for a special session to address any issues that might be involved.”
House leadership is committed to keeping with the timeline as well.
The project includes a liquefaction plant and a pipeline that would extend from the North Slope to Nikiski, to transport the gas reserves to market. Estimates put the cost between $45 and $65 billion.
Tanaina Child Development Center at the University of Alaska last week received notice from the university that the center will need to find a new location. The decision has left many parents frustrated, but the two sides are still in discussions to see if a new agreement can be reached.
Though Tanaina has been housed on the university campus for decades, it operates as an independent non-profit organization. Scott Hamel is an assistant professor at the university and the president of the Tanaina board of directors. He says the university sent Tanaina a letter last week notifying them that their long-standing agreement would be terminated.
“It’s from 1989, and that agreement basically states that Tanaina will provide services and preference to students and faculty and staff in return for the space that it now occupies – and utilities,” he said.
In the letter, Hamel says the university cited space constraints and liability issues as reasons for the decision.
The program can accommodate around 60 children between 18-months and 5-years-old. Hamel says about 90 percent of those enrolled are the children of university students, staff and faculty – many of whom were wait-listed for 1 to 2 years.
Mark Shulman’s oldest son is in 1st grade, but was enrolled in Tanaina when he was younger. And Shulman says the benefits of the program have been easy to see.
“He actually had some issues with speech and it helped him get early notice so we could him extra support when he was two or three in speaking,” Shulman said. ”And now, getting that help and continuing that help with the state and with them, it just, it helped him to progress into…he’s reading now and he’s doing a lot better with speech, but that extra help really..they need that development.”
Shulman has another son who is currently enrolled in Tanaina and hopes his youngest can begin attending this summer.
Discussions are still ongoing between Tanaina and the university, but Hamel says the center is looking for a new location if a new agreement doesn’t come to fruition. But, finding a new facility to suit Tanaina’s needs could be problematic.
It costs approximately $900 per month for a child to attend Tanaina.
This is a developing story.
Alaska Regional Hospital is planning to open a healthcare clinic in Mountain View by the end of year. There aren’t any primary care services in the neighborhood currently. That’s forcing residents to use Alaska Regional’s emergency room for routine care, according to Medicaid data from the state Department of Health and Social Services. That costs the hospital in uncompensated care and it costs the state in unnecessary Medicaid payments.
When Julie Taylor became CEO of Alaska Regional a year ago, the board was already talking about opening a Mountain View clinic. Taylor says it was immediately obvious to her that there was a need.
“If we’re looking at how we’re going to be using healthcare dollars effectively finding ways to reach populations to treat them closer to home at the right level of care is a better use of those funds,” Taylor said.
Neighborhood residents have been asking for better access to primary care for years. In 2002, the Anchorage Community Land Trust hosted a summit where the need for local health services was a clear priority.
Kirk Rose is executive director of the land trust. He says Alaska Regional has responded in a big way and residents are thrilled.
“We’ve been working on it for it, patience is a virtue- good things come to those who wait, but we’ve been very tough and staunch about fighting for a health presence in the neighborhood so we’re hoping this is a really nice win in that in enhances quality of life for the people that live here,” Rose said.
Taylor says the clinic will be large enough to offer about 3,000 patient visits a year.
Erin’s Law is back in the legislature. If passed, the bill would require school districts, statewide, to provide age-appropriate K-12 sexual abuse education. Last session Representative Geran Tarr, a Democrat from Anchorage, introduced Erin’s Law which died in the House Finance Committee.
This time around Tarr filed the same version she introduced last year before the session even started, but for the same reasons.
“The idea here is by having this education students know how to speak up if they have experienced sexual assault or sexual violence if someone has, you know, done something to them that shouldn’t have been done. It’s about giving students that voice and giving them the language to speak up so they are empowered and can be a part of stopping this from happening in Alaska,” said Tarr.
Alaska has some of the highest rates of child sex abuse in the country. There were nearly 2,700 sexual abuse cases involving children reported to the state Office of Children’s Services in 2014. The law is named after 29-year-old Erin Merryn from Illinois, who was sexually abused as a child and has made it her goal to pass the law in all 50 states. Last year she testified before the legislature about the law which, Tarr says, had broad bi-partisan support.
“I’m looking forward to that same level of support this year. There were several different suggestions as to what happened. It got lost at the end of session, maybe there was some partisan decision-making involved, I was a freshman member of the Democratic minority, maybe we ran out of time,” said Tarr.
Last year, Republican Senator Lesil McGuirecarried the bill in the Senate, but it went nowhere when the Legislature got caught up in a standoff over a minimum wage bill. This year, Republican Representative and Majority Leader, Charisse Millett has introduced another version. She says she wants to hear from local Alaskans throughout the process.
“I would like to have a face, folks talking about this bill that are from Alaska that have the Alaskan story that they can tell. Because I think it’s important for folks in Alaska to hear from Alaskans. It’s important that Alaskans take ownership that there is a problem, and then an ownership that they want to solve the problem,” said Millet.
Bethel Democratic Representative Bob Herronsupports the bill. He says all too often he sees problems with how sexual abuse is handled in schools, especially in his district.
“They just call OCS and then someone else comes in. And that OCS person, though they are hard-working people, they’re not around the children as much as a teacher is. And so, I think it’s important that teachers, school administrators are taught the warning signs and then maybe we can collectively, society, can get involved earlier when a child is being harmed,” said Herron.
“Or, prevent it altogether,” adds Herron. He points out there was recently a large out-of-court settlement in Yukon Kuskokwim Delta’s Yupiit School District over a teacher accused of molesting girls in Tuluksak.
“Of course it’s well-chronicled that recently in one the schools in one of the villages in the Delta we had a school employee that was involved in abusing these young people, so we’ve got to talk about it. Communication is better,” said Herron.
The bill does not have a fiscal note attached, however legislators say it could cost districts to train staff. Members of the House majority say bills that cost money will get extra scrutiny this session, as the state faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit due to falling oil prices. Last year Tarr said the Alaska Children’s Trust, theRasmuson Foundationand the Mat-Su Health Foundation had all expressed support for the bill.
Poor design led to last summer’s catastrophic failure of a British Columbia mine tailings pond. That’s the conclusion of an investigation ordered by provincial officials and released Friday.
Mine critics in Southeast Alaska says the report illustrates their concerns about Canadian mines in watersheds that drain into or near the Inside Passage.
A small part of the dam collapsed and millions of gallons of silty water poured through, widened the gap and sending a huge amount of water into nearby creeks and lakes.
The report says the breach was caused by failure of the dam’s foundation. It says too much weight was put on an underground layer of glacial sand and gravel that developers and inspectors didn’t know about.
It says the dam’s face was too steep. It also says the pond behind the dam was very full and the weight triggered the collapse.
Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell is among those saying the report gives credence to concerns voiced by Southeast Alaska leaders.
“We need to protect our waters. And what they do upstream does affect us. It could have a huge impact if there were another spill. And the United States has to have a say on what happens in Canada on this particular issue,” she says.
The report recommends more stringent standards for tailings-pond design, as well as better government inspections. Both could affect other mines in the province, including projects under development near waterways that flow through Alaska.
Karina Briño is president of the Mining Association of British Columbia. She says the report could speed, rather than slow, permits needed for new development.
“Decisions have been put on hold because we were waiting for this report. That clarity from government and the regulators will be helpful for the industry,” she says.
She says mining companies are going through the report. And they’re committed to build safe mines.
“A very significant part of the process is understanding what the root cause of the breach was and what are some of the measures they are recommending,” Briño says.
“In my mind and in the minds of many other Alaskans it’s whether business as usual will be changed fast enough,” says Juneau’s Heather Hardcastle, a gillnetter and co-owner of Taku River Reds, which catches and markets salmon.
She doubts serious changes will happen, because of the report, since the provincial government is doing all it can to support mine development. B.C. Premier Christy Clark this month announced her government would increase the Ministry of Mines by nearly $10 million.
“It certainly is a concern about the speed at which projects in B.C. for the last five to eight years have been evaluated, permitted, developed and constructed. And Mount Polley does raised red flags about the quality and frequency of inspections,” she says.
Mount Polley does not drain into any Alaska watersheds.
But its owner, Imperial Metals, is about to open the Red Chris Mine near the Stikine River, which enters the ocean near Wrangell and Petersburg.
Another mine under exploration is the KSM, which will operate near two watersheds that drain into the Pacific within 50 miles of Ketchikan.
And, there’s an attempt to reopen the Tulsequah Chief, a mine on a tributary of the Taku River, near Juneau.
“There’s nothing that the Canadian government or their environmental people can say to us that would make us feel better,” says Ketchikan’s Rob Sanderson Jr., who co-chairs the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group.
He’s concerned about impacts on subsistence and commercial fishing.
“I think they’re again going back to that Band-Aid approach. I don’t think that’s going to hold,” he says.
Mine critics are lobbying the U.S. State Department to put transboundary mines before a panel that resolves cross-border conflicts. So far, there’s been no action.
Over the weekend, veterinarians looked over the sled dogs that will run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in both Fairbanks and Whitehorse. They wanted to make sure the dogs were healthy, well-fed and ready to race on the 1000 mile trail.
Inside a large warehouse, veterinarian Nina Hansen checks the paws and teeth and listens to the heart beats of sled dogs.
“I look at their eyes make sure their eyes are bright and clear,” she explained. “I look at their mucus membranes you can get a good idea of how well hydrated a dog is by looking at their mucus membranes,” Hansen said. “I look at their teeth. They should have clean teeth that are in good shape. If there’s a lot of dental disease, just like in people that can lead to problems in the rest of the body and then I will assesse body condition after that and I just run my hands along their spine, feel their ribs, feel their muscles in general,” she said.
A small reddish-brown dog stood nearby. This dog didn’t have a radio frequency microchip, so Hansen reached for a needle and inserted one in the skin just behind the dog’s ear.
“So, it’s about the size of a grain of rice,” she said. “It’s a passive identification when you run this scanner over it, it will come up with a unique number that only this dog has so we use this to identify them.”
This is Hansen’s first year as the Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian, but she’s worked on the race for the last six years. For the most part, these dogs are calm, alert and many of them wag their tails. Hansen isn’t surprised.
“When I was in small animal practice, which I did for three years, there was not a day that went by that a dog did not bite me,” she laughed, “but I have been working with sled dogs for seven years now and I have been bit one time by a sled dog and I have looked at thousands of sled dogs,” she said. “Sled dogs are very well socialized, they’re great to work with they’re great with people they’re used to being handled, they’re used to being around people,” Hansen said.
A group of black and orange dogs surround us. They belong to four-time Yukon Quest Champion Lance Mackey.
“Mine are very personable, very opinionated, they always have something to say it seems like,” he said of his dogs.
Mackey last ran the race in 2013, but he did not finish that year. He says this year, only one of his dogs is returning as a veteran. The others are young two-year olds he hopes to develop over the coming years.
“I want to race them like they are five-year olds, because I feel I have something to prove because of my race season in the last few years,” he said.
The fiercely competitive Mackey is one of four returning champions. As well, he’ll face off against a few big names who’ve never raced the Quest – that includes Ray Redington, Junior.
“Don’t count me out. I want my two minutes,” Redington said.
Redington may be a rookie to the Quest, but he’s run 13 Iditarods, finishing in top ten four times. He decided to sign up after the race committee decreased the mandatory layover at the midway point in Dawson City from 36 to 24 hours this year. “I like the 24 versus the 36, I think the race is going to be definitely ran faster if we have good trail conditions because of that,” he said.
This year, mushers are also required to take two additional six-hour layovers at a checkpoint of their choosing in the first and last thirds of the race. Like most of the sled dogs signed up , Redington’s team checked out well. He says they’ve been in good shape all season. “Everyday after runs, they’re stretched out. When you’re taking their booties off, we’re going through their feet to make sure everything is good and if they have any problems then you work on it,” he said.
… And most of the musher’s set to race are confident their teams will hold up on the 1000 mile trail from Whitehorse.
Alaska Regional Hospital is planning to open a healthcare clinic in Mountain View by the end of year. There aren’t any primary care services in the Anchorage neighborhood currently. That’s forcing residents to use Alaska Regional’s emergency room for routine care, according to Medicaid data from the state Department of Health and Social Services. That is costing the hospital in uncompensated care and it’s costing the state in unnecessary Medicaid payments.
When Julie Taylor became CEO of Alaska Regional a year ago, the board was already talking about opening a Mountain View clinic. Taylor says it was immediately obvious to her that there was a need.
“If we’re looking at how we’re going to be using healthcare dollars effectively, finding ways to reach populations to treat them closer to home at the right level of care is a better use of those funds.”
Neighborhood residents have been asking for better access to primary care for years. In 2002, the Anchorage Community Land Trust hosted a summit where the need for local health services was a clear priority.
Kirk Rose is executive director of the land trust. He says Alaska Regional has responded in a big way and residents are thrilled:
“We’ve been very tough and staunch about fighting for a health presence in the neighborhood so we’re hoping this is a really nice win in that it enhances the quality of life for the people that live here.”
Taylor says the clinic will be large enough to offer about 3000 patient visits a year.
Alaska Regional is expanding in other ways. The hospital is planning to open two new freestanding emergency rooms, one in South Anchorage and one in Eagle River.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
After Shell’s troubled 2012 drilling season in the far north, the Interior Department began working on Arctic-specific standards for offshore drilling. But those new standards aren’t done yet. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says they won’t be in place to guide Shell’s planned return to the Chukchi Sea this year.
“As Shell indicated just recently that they were going to go forward with their exploration plan this summer, we’ll be holding them to the standards that we’ve held them to before, with upgrades and proof that they can do what they say they do before they’re allowed to go up there,” Jewell told reporters in a press call today, primarily talking about the president’s budget for her department.
Jewell didn’t say when the Arctic standards would be released for public review but indicated it would not be in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been working closely with industry and learning from the lessons Shell experienced in 2012 in formulating those,” she said.
The standards are expected to require things like well containment systems and rigs on hand to drill relief wells and also limit the season.
The five-year budget President Obama sent to Congress today has nothing to bolster long-held Alaskan hopes of winning a share of federal revenues from offshore oil and gas. In fact, Jewell says the administration is trying to undo offshore revenue sharing with Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
“The outer continental shelf is owned by all Americans,” Jewell said. “There is a small portion of the Gulf (of Mexico) where there is revenue sharing proposed for certain Gulf states. We believe that needs to be re-examined to look at what is a fair return to the taxpayers across the whole United States.”
The Interior Department budget includes full support costs for Alaska Native health care contracts. It also has more than a million dollars for 3-d mapping of Alaska and nearly $3 million to clean up the Red Devil mine on the Kuskokwim River, in southwest Alaska.
The president’s budget, though, is essentially just a request, because spending decisions are up to Congress.
The Pribilof Islands aren’t usually prone to shaking. But more than a dozen earthquakes have been recorded in between St. Paul and St. George since Friday afternoon.
Michael West, the director of the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, describes the activity as a “swarm.”
“That is, a cluster of earthquakes that are responding to some stress in the earth that appears to be releasing itself kind of incrementally,” West says.
Most of the earthquakes have been around magnitude 4.0, although five of them exceeded 5.0M.
Residents in St. Paul and St. George have been feeling the effects. But as of Sunday afternoon, there were no reports of damage in either community. And there were no tsunami warnings, either.
The National Tsunami Warning Center will only issue an alert for Unalaska and Sand Point if the earthquakes grow stronger – above a magnitude 7.0.
“This is a special region in Alaska,” says science officer Paul Huang. “It’s unlike the front part of the Aleutians. The water [around the Pribilofs] is shallower, so we have a different criteria.”
It’s been over 20 years since the Pribilof Islands saw a significant earthquake. A magnitude 6.7 quake struck north of St. George in 1991, sending a small tsunami across the Bering Sea.
But other than that, the Pribilofs have been pretty quiet. They’re not affected by subduction along the Aleutian Chain, which causes a lot of seismic activity in the region.
West says the recent outbreak appears to be coming from a different source — tension that’s built up in the Earth’s crust.
“Most of what we know about whatever fault it is that’s active is coming from the earthquakes that we’ve actually seen in the past couple of days,” West says. “They are sort of enigmatic.”
The Eyak is back in Sitka.
Ten days after the 80-foot tender and mail boat ran aground and sank just north of the Goddard hot springs, it’s back afloat — after a virtual alphabet soup of state and federal agencies and local companies worked together to salvage it.
At about 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon (1-30-15), the tugboat Marauder chugged into Sitka Channel with the Eyak in tow. Those watching as the vessel was tied up at Sitka Sound Seafoods said the plan for now is to take the Eyak to Wrangell for repairs.
Michael Wortman, the head of the Coast Guard marine safety detachment in Sitka, said that in total, the Eyak spilled about twenty gallons of fuel — a fraction of the 800 to 1,000 gallons the boat was believed to have on board.
“We, honestly, got really lucky,” Wortman said. “Since the vessel inverted, all the oil was trapped inside, and SEAPRO and SEAL did a great job preventing a lot more from being discharged into the water.”
The vessel was upside down in forty feet of water, Wortman said, which counter-intuitively limited leaking.
And Wortman said most of what was spilled was soaked up with absorbent material by the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization, or SEAPRO, the agency tasked with responding to local spills.
The Eyak is a crucial lifeline for the small communities of southern Baranof Island.
Mayor Debra Gifford, of Port Alexander, said the Eyak’s owner and captain, David Castle, has been supplying the town for more than two decades. Finding someone to fill the gap will be hard, Gifford said.
“It’s going to be kind of difficult because the Eyak was a multi-service operation,” she said. “Because they did all those things — the mail, the freight, buying fish — he was able to make a living doing those. But to do any single one of those is not super cost-effective, so we probably are going to have to think about the future here, to consolidate things and only get stuff in once a month or every few months. I’m just not really sure how that is going to play out yet.”
But for now, the town’s 45 year-round residents are in good shape, Gifford said. Castle owns a second, smaller boat, the Silver Arrow, which is taking mail and groceries down to Port Alexander while the Eyak is out of commission. Fuel comes in on a separate barge.
So while there’s no way to get, say, a couch or a new washing machine, or lumber for a building project, nobody is in dire straits.
“Everyone’s got food to eat and that kind of thing,” Gifford said. “I think mostly people, off the bat, are pretty heartbroken for Dave Castle. The loss of the Eyak is more than just him bringing us stuff, it’s his home, and it’s a lifestyle for him to come out here and, you know, be a part of the infrastructure of our community. He’s a good friend to all of us out here.”
The Coast Guard’s Wortman said Castle had insurance, which is paying for the salvage operation. Friends also set up a fundraising campaign for Castle. So far, it has raised over $25,000.
Petersburg police and the Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs task force arrested a Petersburg man this week in an investigation into two packages of methamphetamine mailed to town.
In a press release, police say they arrested 51-year-old Sam Nelson Wednesday afternoon for alleged crimes involving meth possession and distribution. The local police were assisted in their investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Postal Service.
Nelson is facing two counts of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the third degree, one count of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fourth degree and a charge of evidence tampering.
A court filing by police alleges Nelson had two packages, both containing over 28 grams of meth, mailed to his post office box in Petersburg. Police say Nelson picked up one of the packages this week and was arrested outside of his home. The combined street value of the two packages is up to 28-thousand dollars according to police.
Nelson had a court appearance Thursday afternoon and was appointed a public defender. His bail was reduced to 20-thousand dollars and he has a preliminary hearing scheduled in February.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission Friday voted to recommend a 1.7-million pound increase in the coast-wide catch of halibut.
The joint U.S. and Canadian body oversees management of the highly prized bottom fish from California to Alaska. The commission held its annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia this week.
The IPHC voted for a coast-wide catch for combined for commercial and charter fisheries of 29.223 million pounds, up from last year’s 27.515 million pounds.
Commissioner Jim Balsiger of Alaska noted wider participation at this year’s meeting. “I found it refreshing is the right word, but it’s certainly a change in direction that we had other sectors than the directed halibut users in the room,” Balsiger said. “I think it’s the only way we can make progress on what has been the major issue, major point of contention between Canada and the U.S. up here, is the other users of halibut that have not been in the room before. They were here full force. I think that’s a great step forward.”
The commission heard presentations on the issue of halibut bycatch, or fish caught in other fisheries by boats targeting other species. That included input from Bering Sea trawl fleet representatives and others on efforts to reduce bycatch. The additional halibut removal increased coast-wide last year, to over nine million pounds, with over six million pounds of that coming from western Alaska and the Bering Sea. Halibut are caught in trawl nets by boats fishing for sole and hook and line boats fishing for Pacific cod.
Commissioner David Boyes of Canada said the bycatch issue was important for the entire coast. “Juveniles from the Bering Sea migrate very extensively. They populate all areas of the coast right down to the southern most part of the range of this species. And so everybody has a vital interest in getting bycatch down to the lowest level that’s practicable, as it says in the Magnuson Stevens Act.”
The Commission plans to meet with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on the issue February 5th. That council is scheduled to take action on recommendations for bycatch limit reduction measures this June. Those measures could be in place for 2016.
National Marine Fisheries Service assistant administrator for fisheries Eileen Sobeck wrote to the commission seeking a higher catch limit for the longline fleet in the Bering Sea. She highlighted the importance of the directed fishery to residents and businesses, along with efforts to reduce bycatch by other fishing fleets. The commission voted to recommend the same level for area 4, the Bering Sea and Aleutian islands, as last year.
For Southeast area 2C, the commission approved a combined commercial and charter catch of 4.65 million pounds. That’s an increase from last year’s limit of almost half a million pounds.
For the central Gulf, area 3A, the commission recommended a combined commercial and charter limit of 10.1 pounds. That’s also an increase from last year, of over 600-thousand pounds.
The Commission also adopted catch-share plans for Southeast Alaska and the central Gulf that impact the number and size of halibut that charter anglers can keep.
Area 2B, British Columbia, was approved for just over seven million pounds, also an increase from last year’s catch.
Commissioners approved a season start date of March 14th and end date of November 7th. Balsiger of Alaska was appointed chair for the next two years. The commission’s next annual meeting is in Juneau a year from now.
At a press conference in downtown Anchorage, Governor Bill Walker introduced the new Adjutant General for the Alaska National Guard. Retired Colonel Laurie Hummel served in Army intelligence for 30 years after graduating from West Point, and is the first woman to lead the Guard.
In her time with the Armed Forces, Hummel said, she has seen “walls come down” as equality and opportunity extend further into the military’s diverse ranks. She plans to ensure the Guard follows the same course.
“We need to make sure that we have a moral and ethical climate that is worthy of our membership,” Hummel told the room. “we need to make sure that we build a mutual culture of trust. There will be no old boys network, there will be no old girls network.”
Hummel’s hire comes after accusations of misconduct within the Alaska Army National Guard led to dismissals and investigations under Governor Sean Parnell’s administration. Hummel and her staff will begin reviewing Guard policies and procedures to prevent sexual assault, harassment, favoritism, and other improprieties documented in a report by the Office of Complex Investigations.
A group of bills filed this session by Democratic legislators aim to modify protocols for reporting offenses within the guard and update the uniform code of military justice. Governor Walker’s office will help that effort as a special investigator continues looking into years of allegations.
“Those wrong-doers will be brought to justice,” Walker said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Hummel also assumes the role as Commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Her deputy will be retired Air Force Colonel Bob Doehl, who left the Air National Guard in 2012, and earlier worked as an attorney within the Department of Law.
In November Hummel ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Northeast Anchorage seat in the state house.
Anchorage Middle School teachers are upset about pay and workload inequities between elective teachers and core subject teachers and the divisions it’s causing in the schools. They have brought the issue to the School Board.
Some middle school English, science, math, and social studies teachers are being asked to teach six periods per day instead of five to reduce class sizes. They’ll give up one period of planning time. In return, they’ll receive an extra 20 percent of their salary and will be expected to do their planning outside of school hours. But elective teachers already teach six periods instead of five without being paid any additional money.
A group of teachers packed the room at Monday night’s school board meeting to speak about the issue. Hanshew Middle School social studies teacher Nancy Neil says it’s unfair to pay core teachers more for teaching the same number of classes as elective teachers.
“As a core teacher, I have seen a division between core team members and elective teachers. This is not right. I’m a true believer in equity.”
According to the traditional middle school model, core subject teachers work as a team and all have the same group of students. They are given daily team planning time so that they can collaborate. That’s on top of their personal planning time. Middle School teachers are the only ones in the district that have two planning periods instead of one. Last spring, the School Board voted to take the team planning period away from elective teachers, who teach students from every team, but keep the extra planning period for the core teachers.
Some elective teachers, like Nadine Price from Wendler Middle School, say teaching six periods makes it hard to connect with students and share information with other teachers and staff.
“The Anchorage School District on one hand promotes social and emotional learning, yet in the specific classes where this is most apt to occur — electives — the educators are not being given the time or the resources to support their students. These teachers are caught not knowing what’s going on with their students lives and educational plans.”
ASD Chief Academic Officer Mike Graham says the district recognizes that some teachers are upset and does not want divisions in the schools. He says middle school principals plan to meet on Monday to discuss the issue and the value of team planning time.
“What needs to happen is real communication within the school internally as well as without –what’s really happening with that team planning time? Is it worth it? Is it equitable? Is the amount of work that’s going into that making a difference? If it’s not, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Graham says principals are supposed to be monitoring how core teachers are using their team planning period and holding them accountable. He says it is also up to the principals to help the elective teachers get information about the students from the core teachers.
Middle school team planning time is currently part of next year’s school budget, but only for core teachers. The budget will be discussed during Monday night’s school board meeting.
Governor Bill Walker’s latest move to advance the state backed Interior Energy Project with the purchase of a private natural gas utility is expected to expand availability and lower the price of gas in Fairbanks.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has signed a letter of intent to purchase Fairbanks Natural Gas parent company Pentex. AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik says the state corporation would pay $52.5 million for Pentex company assets currently used to supply about a thousand Fairbanks area customers with Cook Inlet gas.
“The LNG plant at Point MacKenzie; it includes the trucking components, the storage components, the entire set of assets,” Rodvik said.
The deal also includes a distribution system in the core area of Fairbanks, a piping network FNG is already in the process of expanding. Pentex and FNG President Dan Britton says AIDEA’s access to low cost capital would help the company pay for infrastructure needed to meet new gas demand.
“Our current gas supply is maxed out, out of the Cook Inlet. In order to expand, it requires for additional liquefaction capacity in some form,” Britton said.
FNG isn’t the only Fairbanks area utility looking for more natural gas. Golden Valley Electric would wants to transition some generators from oil to gas, and the borough run Interior Gas Utility or IGU is laying distribution pipe to serve customers outside FNG’s downtown service area. AIDEA’s Rodvik says state ownership of the company will facilitate cooperation with the other entities.
“Promote an integrated gas distribution system that can be built and operated in a much more efficient manner for the benefit of Interior residents,” Rodvik said.
The deal opens up the potential of FNG and the IGU merging, but even if they don’t, IGU Board Chair Bob Shefchik says having both entities operating on a cost based, instead of profit based, business model, should be a plus to consumers.
“The idea that there’ll be a single postage stamp rate for all residential gas customers in the Interior is a likely outcome whether there’s a merger or not,” he said.
Shefchick calls the state plan bold and decisive, and believes the $52 million price is fair.
“And one could not replace what they have for that $52 million,” Shefchik said.
As evidence of the value Shefchick sites Hilcorp’s recent attempt to buy FNG’s gas processing plant, a deal blocked by the state. AIDEA’s Rodvik says the state corporation plans to pay for the Pentex purchase with money from a revolving fund.
AIDEA’s board of directors must approve the deal.
The Fairbanks Natural Gas acquisition will also come under scrutiny from the Legislature. Key Republicans, like Anchorage Representative Mike Hawker, are skeptical of the utility’s purchase.
“We have a long history of failed dreams when it comes to these equity investments by AIDEA,” he said.
Hawker says the deal is akin to the state investing in grain terminals and fish farms. He’s also critical of how the deal has been brokered, even likening it to “insider trading.” Pentex, the parent company of Fairbanks Natural Gas, was positioned to sell assets to Hilcorp, before the state intervened in December.
“I am very concerned about state government getting in the way of the private sector with regards to the Fairbanks utility purchase,” Hawker said.
Gov. Bill Walker has pushed back against the criticism. At a press conference on Friday, he called the letter of intent a “first step,” and said he was committed to a transparent process.
“We don’t believe we’re in any sort of overreach situation,” Walker said. “It’s time that somebody reaches out to Fairbanks, and that’s what we’re doing. So, any reaching we’re doing is reaching out to Interior Alaska energy consumers to bring some relief to them.”
While money for a Fairbanks energy project has been appropriated, there are conditions on the funding that could require statutory changes from the Legislature before the $52.5 million can be spent on the utility purchase.
Cook Inlet Region Incorporated has put the second phase of its Fire Island wind farm on hold because of a lack of customers.
A plan that once envisioned 33 turbines on the island west of Anchorage has stalled at 11.
CIRI’s only customer is the Chugach Electric Association. Chugach says it’s taking all the wind power it can under present conditions.
The other utilities have turned CIRI down. The Municipal Light and Power company says it’s not interested; the Matanuska Electric Association says it doesn’t pencil out for them, and the Golden Valley Electric Association is so far away that the cost of power balloons by the time it gets there.
So Suzanne Gibson, vice president of Fire Island Wind, says that for now, phase two of the wind farm is off. She says the state lacks the regulatory framework to deal with the situation.
“In the Lower 48, there’s no question that we would be construction the second phase of Fire Island next year – or actually this year, it’s 2015 already,” Gibson said. “But, unfortunately there’s just not the right regulatory and legislative framework here in Alaska to allow us to do it.”
The Regulatory Commission of Alaska is beginning to look at how utilities should deal with independent power producers, and Gibson welcomes that development because, unlike Lower 48 power companies, Alaska utilities are not federally regulated. One issue is what are known as “wheeling charges” – the money that utilities charge to move power through their grids. Gibson says that’s why a tentative deal for CIRI to sell wind farm power to Golden Valley has apparently collapsed.
“We were working with them and we thought that we were going to get an agreement with them. And what we offered them 6.3 cents a kilowatt hour to a utility that generates half of its power at 13.6 cents – so this is like less than half of the cost to generate their own power,” Gibson said. “But, they couldn’t see their way through it by the time they transport the power across another utility system to get it up to Fairbanks, they turned it into something they estimated was 20 cents a kilowatt. They didn’t see the benefit for it.”
The Regulatory Commission has set a date of February 11th to take up the issue of independent power producers.