APRN Alaska News
The newest processing plant in Bristol Bay is about to go online this month. Trident Seafood’s multi-million dollar fishmeal plant should get a test run with Togiak herring. Trident agreed to build the plant as part of a 2011 settlement over alleged EPA Clean Water Act violations, and now the company, and residents, should get to see (and smell) it if works as intended.
Construction workers hammer and weld to the twang of country music as they wrap up construction on fishmeal plant in Naknek. The walls are still unfinished drywall and wooden stairs stand in for a future elevator.
Project Manager Bob Bates stood in front of the largest piece of machinery in the plant, a 50 foot long and 60,000 pound dryer.
“We actually set this unit here when this was still all mud and dirt. We build this building around this dryer,” said Bates.
The dryer looked like a giant rolling pin as it spun in the center of the warehouse.
“The inside of this thing looks like something out of a sci-fi movie with all the teeth and the blades and everything in it to mix it, and turn it, and churn it through,” added Bates.
About a quarter mile of tubing move all the leftover parts after a fish is filleted or canned – that’s the head, guts, fins, and bones – they’ll come from Trident’s processing plant to the new 15 million dollar plus fishmeal plant.
After being ground up and dried, the byproduct of salmon can become animal feed and even those fish oil pills you can buy at Costco. Trident also owns separate business that produces fishmeal products. Along with helping their business model, Trident agreed to build this plant as part of a 2011 settlement with the EPA, which had tallied a number alleged Clean Water Act violations against the company’s Alaska operations.
Officials at Trident said they weren’t required to build a fishmeal plant in Naknek, but they think this is where the Bristol Bay fishing industry is probably heading anyway. The EPA and Alaska’s DEC are tightening down on how processors handle the millions of pounds of fish waste that is traditionally ground up and put back in the water, hopefully washed out with the tides.
But some Naknek residents were, and still are, leery about having a fishmeal plant in town. They have a reputation of being …smelly.
Jay King runs an aviation service in Naknek and is among those still not convinced that plant won’t stink up the town. King’s not opposed to the plant so much as he’s opposed to its location.
“Being next to the Post Office, the school, the clinic, my brother’s apartment building. “I just didn’t think it was such a good idea to have a potential odor issue with all of these entities,” said King.
Others say with or without the new fishmeal plant, summertime odor is a common issue and comes with the territory. Russell Phelps is a commercial fisherman and said Naknek is a fishing town. He thinks taking waste out of the water might actually help the smell.
“So the beaches in late July and August stink considerable already, so if we could avoid that I’d be very happy,” said Phelps, who is also a member of the Borough Assembly.
Before the Borough gave its consent to Trident to build, a few members traveled to Newport, Oregon to tour a 20-year-old fishmeal plant that has been upgraded with modern technology similar to what’s being used in Naknek. They came back less skeptical. The Assembly heard from plenty of concerned residents, but in the end voted to approve the fishmeal plant. Some supporters think fishmeal may be the future of the fishery, and others appreciate what will be added tax revenue to the Borough. Phelps was among the yes votes.
“We shouldn’t stop a project just because we think it’s going to stink,” argued Phelps.
Trident has a favorable reputation in the town, and the seafood giant says it puts near a million dollars in taxes annually to the Borough, and tens of thousands more in charitable donations. Project Manager Bob Bates says Trident will do it what it takes to stay good neighbors with the community.
“From day one, the goal was to keep the odor down, clean up the river, and basically produce some meal,” said Bates.
And at the heart of its effort to keep the odor down is a new air filtration system.
Standing at the base of a three story metal tube with ducting that snakes around the entire warehouse, Bates describes how it will keep the smell of drying fish waste out of the breezy bayside town of Naknek.
“So basically what we are doing is we’re drawing fresh air down below and we are sucking everything up to insure that we capture all the odors and everything that comes through this facility and gets pushed through these scrubbers,” explained Bates.
Inside are thousands of scrubbing balls that look like whiffle balls, water is sprayed down as the air raises. The odor molecules stick to the water.
“By the time the air come back out of here, we’ve pulled the majority of all the odor out with this system,” added Bates.
Some residents like Jay King say they’ll just have to wait and see, or rather smell, what happens.
“Well, it’s here. I am just honestly hoping it is as advertised by Trident,” said King.
They’re going to get their chance soon. Trident plans to run final tests of the system with water in a few days, but as far as a true test with fish heads and guts. Bob Bates said he can build factories but he can’t control fish. They’ll test it for real when the Togiak herring arrive, probably before the month is out.
A British Columbia mine upriver from Wrangell and Petersburg is one step closer to full production after reaching a benefits agreement with a First Nation group.
Red Chris is a copper and gold mine in the Stikine River watershed on the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation. Tahltan Central Council members overwhelmingly voted to enter an agreement with Red Chris. It gives them environmental oversight rights, jobs and a share of mine revenue.
The Red Chris Mine is owned by Imperial Metals, which also runs the B.C. mine that spilled millions of gallons of waste into Canadian waterways last summer. The Mount Polley dam spill spurred Tahltan members to request a third-party environmental review of the Red Chris tailings dam.
Tahltan Central Council President Chad Day said the 22 recommendations made by the third-party review are either in place or being completed. Tahltan and B.C. officials have said the mine won’t be granted a permit for full production until the Tahltan members are satisfied that environmental concerns have been addressed.
Day said the benefits agreement does not amount to giving approval for the mine’s final permits. He said the TCC’s team of engineers and environment experts will have input on all significant environmental permits for Red Chris.
The mine has been operating with a temporary permit it received in February, shortly after an investigation found the Mount Polley dam breach was caused by design flaws. Red Chris has been increasing production since then, and it made its first copper shipment from the port of Stewart earlier this month.
According to a TCC release, the mine is expected to reach production capacity this summer.
Alaskans worry a breach at the Red Chris tailings dam could destroy salmon populations that spawn in the Stikine River and its tributaries, and provide jobs and food for Southeast Alaskans. A group of Tahltan members set up roadblocks at the mine to protest construction last year, and Imperial Metals was granted an injunction to stop the protests.
After a week of lots of gridlock and little accomplished, the Alaska State Legislature lurched into some fits of action on the budget this weekend. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Here’s what lawmakers did over the past two days: They passed a bill advancing an interior energy project, and another dealing with worker’s comp. They also held a late-night meeting that appeared to move the Republican majorities in the House and Senate closer to a budget deal.
Here’s what they did not do: Gavel out.
SEN. KEVIN MEYER:Mr. Majority Leader?
SEN. JOHN COGHILL: Mr. President, I move that the Senate adjourn until Monday the 27th at 10am.
Despite speculation that the Legislature could wrap up this weekend, the hopes of many Capitol workers were dashed on Sunday afternoon when Senate President Kevin Meyer told his side to be back to work the next day — the 98th day of the 90 day legislative session.
A sense of anticipation had set in, after a conference committee had met at 9pm on Saturday night to resolve the points of disagreement between the House and Senate budgets.
Their agreement uses various pots of money to cover the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit, instead of tapping the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve. Legislators need a three-quarter vote to access that $10 billion rainy day account, and the House’s Democratic Minority has made their support conditional on increased education funding and Medicaid expansion.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, said at the meeting that the House and Senate majorities were now seriously considering moving ahead without attempting to access the budget reserve.
“We’re waiting to hear from the administration on what happens if there’s no three-quarter vote,” said MacKinnon. “So, as I understand it, the majority has made an attempt to get a three-quarter vote and not been successful to date. And so, we’ve left it to the administration to define to the Legislature, specifically Senate Finance’s request to understand how they will access those funds in what manner, and in what order.”
Their budget plugs the revenue shortfall by stopping the forward funding of education, a one-time fix that frees up more than $1 billion for the next fiscal year.
Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, suggested that forward-funding process could come back for schools if House Democrats reconsidered their position on the budget reserve vote.
“One of the reasons we couldn’t get the money is because we don’t have a three-quarter vote,” said Kelly. “That might be something on the list of the three-quarter vote to the minority so that we could forward fund education.”
Their plan also claws back $157 million that had been designated for work on a natural gas megaproject — money that would otherwise be available to the governor for his studies of an alternative gasline.
Some of the conference committee changes made on Saturday night were in line with House Democrats’ requests — some funding for public broadcasting was restored, and a nearly $50 million cut to classroom formula funding made by the Senate was shrunk down to a third of that number.
But Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said the education cuts were still too much.
“This $16.4 million reduction on top of the $32 million that’s already been reduced is over a $48 million reduction in funding for our public schools,” said Gara. “I think that’s a devastating amount of funding cuts. And I totally understand that we’re in a fiscal crisis, but there are smarter ways to get around it.”
Gara also said he opposed language in the budget meant to prevent Gov. Bill Walker from unilaterally accepting Medicaid expansion.
The governor has said he plans to call lawmakers into a special session if they fail to expand Medicaid, and his office has expressed support for passing a fully funded budget.
A growing national movement to opt-out of standardized testing has hit the Haines School District hard. In the past six years, only one student has refrained from taking annual tests. But this year, families of 12 students refused the test.
District administrators say that puts Haines well below the federally-mandated 95 percent participation rate. That could mean more scrutiny and work for the district. It could also put thousands of dollars in grant funding at risk.
“This is catching me completely by surprise,” said Haines Superintendent Ginger Jewell.
School districts around the U.S. are required by federal law to assess student progress with testing each year. In Alaska, students in grades 3-10 are tested in English Language Arts and Math. Grades 4, 8 and 10 are tested in science.
“The reason why we have that in place is because it’s an accountability measure to make sure students are receiving education as defined by the state,” said Elizabeth Davis, administrator for student assessments with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (EED).
The AMP (Alaska Measures of Progress) tests are new this year. They replaces SBAs (Standards Based Assessments.) AMP tests are aligned with new state education standards adopted in 2012.
They’re conducted online, instead of with a pencil and paper. Davis says the new education standards are more rigorous and emphasize critical thinking.
Most states around the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards in their curriculum and tests. Alaska is not one of them. The new standards here are called the Alaska English Language Arts and Mathematics Standards. Davis says they include Alaska-specific material.
But some parents and even legislators see a difference between Common Core and Alaska Standards only in name, not in substance. That is a central reason for the increasing number of refusals.
“So there’s a group of people who feel like their students shouldn’t take this test because it’s a Common Core test,” Davis said. “Which would be an inaccurate statement.”
A group called Alaskans Against the Common Core did not return requests for comment. But one Haines parent did explain his reasons for opting his students out of the AMP test this year. He asked not to be identified to protect his children’s privacy.
He says his main concern about testing also has to do with privacy. He says AMP is aligned with Common Core, and his understanding of Common Core’s purpose is to track students through their schooling and into their career, and then that data is available to be sold to companies that are recruiting.
“Absolutely not. We do not sell student data, period,” said Brian Laurent, the data supervisor for EED.
He says the data from AMP tests resides on the servers of the test vendor, which is the University of Kansas Achievement and Assessment Institute. They’re the ones who ‘crunch the numbers’ and then report them to Alaska’s education department.
“Any transfer of student information from our test vendor in Kansas to staff here in the department is done in a secure, encrypted manner. Student data are not at risk of being released or shared,” Laurent said.
Haines is not the only school district in Alaska dealing with a huge increase in test refusals.
“At this point in time we have a total of 32 parent or student refusals out of 283 testers,” said Robyn Taylor, assistant superintendent and testing coordinator for the Sitka School District.
When Taylor spoke to KHNS on Friday, two out of five schools had finished testing. Both schools fell well below 95 percent participation. In Haines, the district participation rate was about 93 percent.
That’s a problem because No Child Left Behind requires schools to have a 95 percent participation in assessments.
“The lower the participation rate, the less valid the results are in telling us how the school does,” said EED Deputy Commissioner Les Morse.
In normal circumstances, low participation could drop the school’s Alaska School Performance Index rating, which is on a scale of one to five stars. Right now, Haines homeschool, elementary and high school all have four or five-star ratings.
“When your star rating drops to three or below, then you become under heavy, heavy scrutiny by both the state and possibly the federal government for much more paperwork, much more oversight,” said Superintendent Jewell.
But since this is the first year for the AMP test, EED is requesting federal approval to freeze schools’ star ratings. So, at least this year, Haines schools’ star ratings might not change.
However, with a participation rate below the federal requirement, state officials say the district will still have to develop a plan to bring participation next year back up.
There is also a whole range of federal funding that is contingent on student assessments. If a state is out of compliance, the US Department of Education could withhold funding. If school districts fail to comply with testing requirements, the state could withhold funding from them. Davis says the state has not discussed that option.
“Alaska doesn’t withhold funding when schools are making their best effort,” she said.
So schools are stuck in the middle of two things they cannot do very much about: federal requirements on test participation and parents’ freedom of choice to refuse testing.
Districts like Haines and Sitka have tried to put out information to combat worries about AMP testing. Jewell says she’s concerned the ‘genie is out of the bottle,’ and that what she calls ‘misinformation’ will not go away.
A mysterious virus that’s been wiping out sea stars on the West Coast since 2013 has spread all the way to Southeast Alaska — but it hasn’t made it to Southwest. That’s what a group of researchers found last month in Unalaska and Kodiak.
Now, they hope the islands’ healthy sea stars will give them new clues about how the virus works.
It’s low tide on a sandy beach outside Unalaska’s Captain’s Bay, and local scuba diver Josh Good is wading around in a rocky tide pool. It’s full of urchins, kelp and sponges. But Good is looking for something a little higher up the food chain.
Good: “This is a solaster. Solaster stimpsoni. And they’re predatory. They’re pretty awesome.”
He’s holding a 10-legged sea star, about a foot wide. It’s bright orange with purple stripes. The solaster eats sea cucumbers — but it can be food itself for bigger sea stars.
Good: “He was just in these rocks upside down. Probably trying to get back in the water.”
Further out, Good finds more stars of all different shapes and sizes. But there’s one thing they have in common — they’re healthy. And that’s big news, when stars up and down the West Coast and into Alaska have been dying off from sea star wasting disease.
Ian Hewson is a researcher at Cornell University. He visited Unalaska and Kodiak about a month ago, working with divers like Good to check if local sea stars were infected.
“We actually looked at about six different species of sea stars, and we collected samples from four of those and took them back to the lab,” Hewson says. “We can confirm that we didn’t detect the virus, which is normally associated with this disease further south.”
It’s been seen in Homer, Seward, Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. Huge numbers of stars develop lesions, lose limbs and finally disintegrate into mush.
Now, Hewson wants to know why that’s not happening in Southwest, and he’ll study samples from the healthy stars to find out. One theory, he says, is distance.
“There’s a big break in what’s known as biogeography of sea stars between Kodiak and, essentially, the Kenai Peninsula,” Hewson says. “It’s just a pretty deep stretch of water that not a lot of material goes between.”
That break could protect Unalaska and Kodiak, if the virus spreads how Hewson thinks it does — on juvenile sea stars. They’re spawned in the water, then float away from their parents and usually settle among new populations.
“So it’s almost as though, you know, you’ve got the daycare center, if you will,” Hewson says. “They’ve obviously got some pathogen out in the environment, and they’re bringing it home and infecting the adults.”
But the virus might not be all that’s causing the disease. In the Southwest samples, Hewson says he’ll be on the lookout for outside influences that could differ from infected areas.
“What we’re not terribly sure of is whether adverse environmental conditions makes it more susceptible to this virus, or whether, perhaps, it makes the symptoms more obvious to us,” he says. “So these are the types of questions that we are trying to work on.”
And it’s just the beginning of what they hope to do. If National Science Foundation funding comes through this summer, Hewson’s team will be back to the Southwest to collect entire stars.
They’ll quarantine them and infect them with the virus down South, Hewson says, “and then perform some very crucial experiments in our work related to understanding how this disease progresses from a completely healthy to a wasted-away sea star.”
Understanding that process could be the key to a mystery that’s having a major impact on the ocean. Wasting disease affects almost all species of stars — but especially bigger ones. Hewson gives the 3 foot-wide sunflower star as an example.
“That becomes a really dominant, keystone carnivore in the ecosystem,” he says. “It’s like your great white shark for an invertebrate.”
It’s so high up on the food chain that it has a bigger effect on the ecosystem when it dies off.
“Things that they normally eat have become really, really abundant. And those things include things like urchins, for example,” Hewson says. “Urchins play this pretty big role in controlling the amount of algae on rocky substrates, but because they’re herbivores, they actually consume kelps and things. And so when you get these big booms of urchins, basically the kelps disappear.”
Back on the beach in Unalaska, Josh Good is looking at a healthy ecosystem — where sea stars are keeping the whole food chain in balance.
Good: “The Aleutians are teeming with life. There’s so much life here. And everybody goes to warm places to dive, and really there’s way more life and biodiversity here.”
Good was happy to hear that Unalaska’s sea stars are safe from wasting disease for now, but he and other locals are still keep an eye out for signs of change. Good does it every week, underwater and in his kayak. In fact, he was setting out for a paddle as soon as he put his sea stars back where he found them.
The Sitka Sentinel celebrated its 75th anniversary last year without much fanfare. As many newspapers in big cities have folded or turned into online only operations, the Sentinel steadily churns out five issues a week.
The paper is owned and edited by Thad and Sandy Poulson, reporters who arrived in 1969 and are determined to keep the press running.
“Come on back, there’s something kind of interesting,” Thad Poulson said, winding his way through the print shop.
On our right is a giant orange machine – a printing press that was state of the art when Poulson arrived in 1969 – and continues to churn out every issue of the paper to this day. But that’s not what Poulson is excited about. He motions to the back room, his fingers covered with ink.
“Things are kind of inky back here, so be careful not to touch things,” Thad said.
Before us is their brand new CTP machine, which stands for computer-to-plate. The plate works like a rubber stamp—getting covered with ink and smooshed by the press onto large banks of paper. But instead of rubber, it’s a giant square of aluminum.
“So it’s going to emerge fully developed within three minutes,” Thad said, feeding the plate into the machine. “There it goes!”
Lasers will etch the words and images of the front page onto the plate’s surface. There’s a story about a Coast Guard rescue and Medicaid reform. The lead photo is of a little boy getting his head shaved for St. Baldrick’s, a cancer fundraising event. Transferring his face onto the front page would have been a three step process before, involving cutting and pasting and a lot of manual labor. With the CTP machine, that imaging process is entirely digital.
“This thing takes an hour at least an hour of the production process,” Thad said.
The Sentinel’s first editor was Harold Veatch in 1939. Alaska wasn’t yet a state. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. And the reason the paper’s still around – surviving the digital revolution and the folding of papers around the country – is through the steady devotion of one newspaper couple, Thad and Sandy Poulson. They have been working at the paper since 1969.
“It’s all we know how to do. We talk about that sometimes. What if we weren’t here? What if we had something? Well, what else can we do?” Thad said. “This is the path we’ve charted for ourselves, so here we are.”
And the Sentinel really is a family production. Thad and Sandy co-edit. They met while working at papers in Oklahoma City. He’s 79 and she’s 75. Their son James Poulson takes all the pictures. There are two general assignment reporters and a handful of additional staff members. In addition to copy editing all the content, Thad runs the press in the basement, just as he did when he was 36.
As issues arrive hot off the press, he flicks them to check for ink spots and clear jams.
As for Thad’s wife Sandy?
“She’s the quarterback of the team,” Thad said. “She decides what’s going to be on the front page and chooses the write stories and writes the headlines.”
Nowadays, Sandy culls national stories from the Associated Press with a few clicks of the mouse. But in the beginning, she was tethered to news of the world through a single wire service that typed at 60 words a minute.
“DEDDEDEDDDEDE – except five times louder,” James Poulson said. He was four years old when his parents took over the paper, called growing up in a 1970s newsroom “tumultuous.”
“When there’s an important breaking story, a bell would go off and I just remember when I was a kid, the bell would go off quite a bit because it was during Watergate,” James said. “Lots of breaking news.”
James says his parents have tried their best to keep up with technology over the years.
“Dad is kind of an early adopter,” James said. “He was sending out e-mails back when it was like sending out Morse code.”
But that doesn’t mean that it’s been easy to adapt. The CTP machine cost $50,000, which is why it took the Sentinel so long to incorporate it. But the paper is profitable. That’s partly because the operation is mostly a family affair.
“I wouldn’t recommend it for a business model and I’ll tell you why,” Thad said. “What if we want to move on? Do something else? Transfer ownership? The salaries we’ve been paying ourselves on the books won’t cover half of what you have to pay the people who will do it in real life.”
Thad and Sandy met working for city papers in Oklahoma, but had to change their approach to reporting in Sitka. This is especially true with the obituaries, which Sandy takes particular pains to write. She invites the family to weigh in in their own words.
“With age I realize more and more the importance of having some sort of legacy or having your life on record somewhere,” Sandy said.
It’s the kind of personal touch that only newspaper in a town of 9,000 can bring.
“We are a daily paper in a weekly sized town. It works very well for us, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.”
Within 20 minutes, the print is done. And 2,500 issues are stacked and ready for distribution. Thad looks over me a triumphant grin.
“Another day, another dollar!” he said.
Thad Poulson says circulation is double what it was in the 1970s and that as long as Sitkans still want a daily paper, he intends for the Sentinel to be around.
After a five-month hiatus on document production, the Walker administration has released a batch of records related to the Alaska National Guard scandal.
The 4142-page file was sent to news organizations at 3p.m. on Friday afternoon. Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News requested the materials nearly a year ago, during the Parnell administration, but were denied access until a superior court judge ruled for their release in October.
Because what then-Gov. Sean Parnell knew about the Alaska National Guard’s problem was a major subject of the gubernatorial campaign, Judge Gregory Miller ordered a rush release of records the week before the election. Production stopped after Election Day, and the Walker administration has since conducted their own review of the documents to see where redactions should be made and pages held because of executive privilege.
Last summer, a federal investigation found that the National Guard had issues with fraud, embezzlement, and sexual assault reporting. Parnell removed a number of key leaders in response, and Gov. Bill Walker has ordered a special investigation of the force. The results of that investigation are slated for a public release in May.
This week, we’re hearing from Tom Irons, who is retired and lives in Homer.
Republican Lawmakers Looking To Avoid Constitutional Budget Reserve Vote
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are now considering ways to avoid a vote on the constitutional budget reserve.
More National Guard Records Released
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
After a five-month hiatus on document production, the Walker administration has released a batch of records related to the Alaska National Guard scandal.
The Blind Spot: Beyond No-Man’s Land
Zachariah Hughes & Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Though substance abuse among young people in Anchorage and statewide is troublingly high, some officials see reasons for optimism. All this week, as part of our series “The Blind Spot,” Alaska Public Media is exploring holes in the safety net for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol. And, as KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes reports, policy solutions are starting to address the problem.
Testing Refusals Hit Haines, Put Star Rating And Funding At Risk
Emily Files, KHNS – Haines
A growing national movement to opt-out of standardized testing has hit the Haines School District. That put the district well below the federal mandate of 95 percent participation which could put thousands of dollars in grant funding at risk.
Southwest’s Healthy Sea Stars Could Shed Light on Wasting Disease
Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska
A mysterious virus that’s been wiping out sea stars on the West Coast since 2013 has spread all the way to Southeast Alaska — but not to Southwest. A group of researchers found that last month in Unalaska and Kodiak. They hope the islands’ healthy sea stars will give new clues about how the virus works.
AK: Small Town Newspaper
Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka
The Sitka Sentinel celebrated its 75th anniversary last year without much fanfare. As many newspapers in big cities have folded or turned into online only operations, the Sentinel steadily churns out five issues a week. The paper is owned and edited by Thad and Sandy Poulson, reporters who arrived in Sitka in 1969 and are determined to keep the press running.
49 Voices: Tom Irons of Homer
This week, we’re hearing from Tom Irons, who is retired and lives in Homer.
The Legislature has now gone five days past its statutory deadline, and still an agreement on the budget has not been reached.
Negotiations on whether lawmakers will tap the constitutional budget reserve — a $10 billion rainy day fund — have gone slowly. A three-quarter vote is needed to access the fund, and the House’s Democratic minority has made their support conditional on a few priorities, like increased education funding and Medicaid expansion.
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate are now considering ways to avoid that vote. House Speaker Mike Chenault says that the Legislature may be able to pay for government through October using revenue anticipation bonds or existing pots of money, like the power cost equalization fund. The Nikiski Republican adds that Gov. Bill Walker is supportive of that plan.
“That’s not an option the governor really wants to see is us leave without a CBR vote,” says Chenault. “If he would like to help and from his position to get a CBR vote, we would probably accept that.”
As of Friday afternoon, a deal was still out of reach. Gov. Walker, the House Speaker, the Senate President, and the House Minority Leader were all planning to meet in the same room for the first time since negotiations began. Even if they come to an agreement, Chenault cautions that an adjournment today is unlikely.
“You know, can we get that done in a day? Yeah, if everything went good,” says Chenault, noting that logistical delays could occurs.
The biggest hold up is a $47 million cut to school funding, made by the Senate. The Senate stands by that cut, while House Democrats would like to reverse it. House Speaker Mike Chenault says his caucus also believes that it goes too deep.
“So, if we have to be hung up on an issue down here, I think education is a worthwhile issue,” says Chenault.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are not on board with the plan to gavel out and circumvent a vote on the constitutional budget reserve.
“I don’t think we should take a vacation. I think we should have gotten this done in 90 days,” says Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat. “But since we couldn’t get it done in 90 days, we need to still try and work together to protect public education, to pass things that would save the state huge amounts of money, like the $600 million we would save with Medicaid expansion.”
If the vote to access the CBR does not happen, the legislature may have to hold a special session later in the fall to avoid a government shutdown when funds run out.
Juvenile crime in Anchorage is down, but crimes involving drugs and alcohol is not. Many who work in the juvenile justice system say we’re not catching young people who are getting into trouble soon enough. A new series examines what services are available, how youth are getting help and how they’re helping themselves.
HOST: Lori Townsend
- Anne Hillman, reporter, KSKA 91.1FM
- Zachariah Hughes, reporter, KSKA 91.1FM
- 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 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
In spite of the alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among teens in Anchorage, many officials say there reasons for optimism.
All this week, as part of our series “The Blind Spot,” we’ve been exploring holes in the safety net for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol. Now, we look towards solutions.
State officials and non-profit workers told us policy measures are dove-tailing with new evidence that perceptions about drinking are starkly different from realities on the ground.
Under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services, the state is currently trying to shift the paradigm on community health in Alaska, developing new tools to measure what’s working.
“Just doing a walk-around, and looking at your community,” explained Diane Casto, is a new way the Division of Behavior Health, which she heads, makes assessments
The division’s focus has zoomed out, examining health at the social rather than individual level. “What’s the density of alcohol outlets in your community?” Casto asks, “What are the policies and procedures and practices in your community related to alcohol and drug issues?”
Casto has been doing prevention-related work in Alaska since 1978, and has seen a full gamut of approaches. The trend is away from reactive intervention, and towards prevention.
“The more we work on the front-end, and prevent these issues from becoming catastrophic, the better we will be,” Casto said. A part of the Division’s interest is simple economics: when it comes to substance abuse, preventative measures are significantly less expensive than providing treatment, residential care, and continuing assistance. It is a “reap what you sow” approach.
It costs Casto’s Division about $9 per person to put on a promotional event like a health fair. That is a bargain compared to the $49,502 it costs to provide long-term care to an individual working through acute psychiatric care and recovery. That doesn’t mean every person who stops by a health fair will “just say no” for their whole life. Nor are the expenditures perfect analogues: DBH measures prevention measures as points of contact, where as hospitalization could be days or weeks of intensive management. But on balance, Casto sees prevention as sounder policy.
The Alaska Wellness Coalition has a similar aim. The group is trying to prevent underage drinking by changing community-wide perceptions. The Center for Disease Control’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey says that three-quarters of youth reported not drinking in the past month. Coalition is using that data to show teens that drinking is actually not the norm.
“What this campaign intends to do is start the conversation,” said campaign coordinator Hope Finkelstein. “Even if people don’t believe that 78%of the kids don’t drink, that’s fine. That is okay, because people will start questioning.”
The Coalition finds youth around the state want to talk about alcohol but haven’t been able to. A similar campaign was launched in Homer a few years ago, when data showed that people there didn’t drink nearly as much as was commonly thought. When the data were released people didn’t believe it. However, it got them talking about it.
There is also an effort to get kids in trouble better. Or, at the very least, to develop an improved system from the Minor Consuming Alcohol charges currently on the books. At the state level, Senate Bill 99 this session attempts to amend Title 4, the state’s alcohol code. The legislation did not advance far, but supporters like Cynthia Franklin, Director of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board, believe its introduction sets the wheels in motion for meaningful reforms next session.
Professor Marny Rivera at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center works on the issue, and wants the MCA citation to be replaced with a ticket–like the kinds issued for speeding or parking. Rivera has spent the last few years examining state statutes on alcohol, talking with experts, as well as prosecutors and employees within the Division of Juvenile Justice.
“What we realized is that MCA’s are almost like a gap, or a no-man’s land,” Rivera explained in her office, “DJJ doesn’t deal with these youth until they’ve already come to the attention of the criminal justice system three times.”
Though it may sound counter-intuitive, Rivera wants to help at-risk kids by increasing the number of times they get in trouble, and to ensure the sanctions are meaningful rather than arbitrary.
Police and lawyers know what a long, drawn-out process it can be to see an MCA go through the courts, Rivera said. And they have hearts: they know an MCA makes your name pop up in CourtView, which can jeopardize a young person’s future. Prosecutors across the state regularly decline trying MCA cases, explained the ABC Board’s Franklin, herself a former prosecutor. As a result, kids get slapped on the wrist without an official citation ever being issued. And that is exactly the kind of space where addictive behaviors have room to intensify.
“There’re very few cases where you actually see a habitual status offender or a third time Minor Consuming,” Rivera said. She believes that if underage drinking is a simpler offense it will become easier for officers to write those tickets. And the kids getting ticketed all the time will bring them to the attention of the justice system, and potentially be screened for treatment that could have significant impact.
But as the many experts told us, there is no silver bullet. Even if the MCA system is improved, some kids will still end up back where this series started: At the McLaughlin Youth Center.
Ross Blocker stands inside one of the aging treatment cottages on the McLaughlin campus, his fingers interwoven like a nest. Originally from southern Georgia, he’s been in charge of McLaughlin’s Transitional Services Unit for a decade. His goal is making sure kids leave the youth center with the skills they need to survive in the chaotic world.
“You just can’t do all that work then pat ‘em on the back, put ‘em out the door, and say ‘have a nice day,’” Blocker said. He and his team take the initial treatment plan developed for a new resident at McLaughlin, and draft yet another blue-print to address that kid’s risks and goals. Then, they figure out how to support those elements once the youth has left McLaughlin for the outside.
“Medical needs, mental health, counseling needs, substance abuse needs,” Blocker rattles off, “if they’ve gone through intensive substance abuse here, it just makes sense that they need some kind of support system there.”
Blocker’s treatment unit works with partners in Anchorage like the school district and the Mental Health Trust, and tries to check in on everyone who went through treatment so that they don’t leave 24-hour-a-day structure and enter a total vacuum. They try to give the youth the support they need to keep them out of the statistics.
Today we’ll be talking to some Alaskans who make the business world their beat and we’ll find out how minorities can get some assistance in starting and maintaining a business.
HOST: Ellen Lockyer
- Shauna Hegna, Chief Administrative Officer, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium
- Sam Dickey, director, Small Business Administration Alaska
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, April 24 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 25 at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 25 at 4:30 p.m.
The United States will take over Friday as chair of the Arctic Council, the international body of representatives from eight nations with territory in the region. U.S. delegates they’ll focus on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and its peoples. And despite divisions between some members, observers say they don’t believe council’s work will be disrupted.
Fran Ulmer can speak from experience about the importance of the Arctic Council and its work on finding solutions to problems in the region.
“It’s been hugely helpful in getting the Arctic nations to work together on things like the two agreements that were just adopted over the past two years: the search-and-rescue agreement, and the responding-to-oil-spills agreement,” she said.
Ulmer served as lieutenant governor and later as chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage before appointed in 2010 to the national Commission on the BP Horizon Oil Spill and then in 2011 as chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
She says it’s important to understand the significance of the United States assuming the Arctic Council chairmanship, because of the organization’s research on climate change and its impact on this region. And the growing importance of that work as Arctic nations ramp up development of oil and other resources here.
“To the extent that people are thinking long-term about where’s energy going to come from,” she said, “the Arctic is one of the places where it is highly likely that it will be a supply source – whether it’s from Russian waters or Canadian waters or U.S. waters or Norwegian waters.
The opportunity to exploit those resources is due in part to melting Arctic sea ice.
“Last week, we had the lowest winter sea-ice extent ever recorded in the Arctic,” Ulmer said.
And that in turn has opened up previously inaccessible offshore areas to oil and gas exploration and development.
“Thirty percent of the undiscovered gas in the world is in the Arctic region,” she said. “Thirteen percent of the undiscovered oil is projected to be in the Arctic region.”
Ulmer says Arctic Council member nations have worked together to develop plans and policies to deal with the tricky business of developing Arctic oil resources, while at the same time researching the impacts of burning those fossil fuels on the region’s climate and peoples. She says the council cooperates, because its members understand that they’re all in it together.
“If there’s a spill someplace in the Arctic, because of Arctic Ocean currents,” she said, “it’s going to affect wildlife, it’s going to affect fish, it’s going to affect shorelines – not just in one country, but in other countries.”
But some observers believe international tensions are now creating divisions among Arctic Council members.
They note that Secretary of State John Kerry will lead the U.S. delegation at the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting that convenes Friday morning in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. But his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, won’tbe there, reportedly as a tit-for-tat response to snubs by the Canadians, who didn’t attend an Arctic Council meeting last year in Moscow to protest Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea.
“There’s no way to de-link completely the Arctic from geopolitics in the world,” said Lawson Brigham, a UAF distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy and a retired strategic planner for the Coast Guard.
Brigham says he doesn’t think the dispute will disrupt this weekend’s meeting. He says the Arctic Council specifically prohibited itself from involvement in military matters when it was formed in 1996. And he thinks it’s unlikely that Russian saber-rattling in the Arctic will lead to hostilities, because that would be bad for business.
“The notion that we’re headed to some kind of regional conflict in the Arctic – I don’t buy it,” Brigham said. “Because all of the countries, including our Russian friends, want to sell natural resources to the planet.”
But Matt Felling, an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, says Russia’s military buildup in the region isn’t going unnoticed.
“We’ve seen them moving military aircraft. We’ve seen them boosting military muscle in the Arctic, …” he said.
Felling says Murkowski believes that shouldn’t deter the Arctic Council from its work. He says Russia’s involvement with the council is essential, because it’s the biggest Arctic nation with the biggest stake in developing the region’s resources.
The U.S. Senate today voted to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general.
Both Alaska senators voted against her, saying she has not shown she has the independence to stand up to the Obama White House.
As Sen. Lisa Murkowski put it, the A.G. should serve as a “firewall against executive overreach, not an apologist for the President’s prerogatives.”
Lynch was confirmed by a vote of 56 to 43.
Alaska mining advocates are taking issue with something Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week, while defending federal resource management in Alaska.
Here’s what Jewell said: “We are in no way preventing development of Alaska’s resources on public lands. We’re facilitating development in a number of areas. Much of the mining in Alaska is on public lands.”
The Alaska Miners Association has written a letter to Jewell disputing that “much” of Alaska’s mining is on federal lands. Alaska has six big mines. Two, Kensington and Greens Creek in Southeast, are on federal land. The others are on state and Native land. Deantha Crockett, executive director of the mining group, says Alaska has more than 400 placer mines, but only about 80 are on federal land.
“I think our concern is when you say “much” you’re talking about 18 percent of placer mines, and two out of six large-scale mines,” Crockett said. “I guess I don’t consider that to be ‘much.'”
Crockett says the lack of mining activity on federal land didn’t happen by accident. More than 60 percent of the state is federal land, but Crockett says too much is closed to mining.
“And the then the acreage that is administered by the federal government that isn’t closed to mineral entry, frankly, there are tremendous permitting delays and a whole bunch of bureaucracy that’s affecting these operation from moving forward,” Crockett said.
Crockett says the BLM is hampered by staff turn-over and budget constraints. She says the Alaska Miners Association is offering to help the Interior Department simplify the permitting process to speed it along.
An Interior Department official, counting both pending and active mining plans and notices, says there are 176 mining sites on federal land in Alaska.
A jury has convicted a 59-year-old Tanana man on evidence tampering charges after two Alaska State Troopers were shot to death.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports Arvin Kangas began to cry after the verdict was read Thursday. The jury was to resume deliberations on whether aggravating circumstances could increase the sentence.
Prosecutors claimed Kangas moved handguns belonging to the two troopers after his son allegedly shot and killed them last year.
The jury heard about one hour of combined audio and video footage taken before, during and after the shooting.
The footage comes from audio recorders worn by the officers and nearly 30 minutes of video taken by a neighbor.
Arvin Kangas’ son, Nathanial Kangas, faces trial in November for the deaths of Sgt. Scott Johnson and trooper Gabe Rich..
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a list of academic program cuts and changes in response to reduced state funding. The cost saving measures are the first of numerous expected as UAF tries to cover a more than $20 million budget hole.
A privately-owned Cessna 185 airplane made an emergency landing at Nome’s City Field airport on Thursday afternoon.
Update Thursday, 3:45 pm: The Nome Police Department received a distress call regarding a small aircraft “that possibly would not make the city landing strip” just before 1 o’clock on Thursday. The Nome Volunteer Ambulance and Fire Departments were dispatched along with law enforcement officers.
Nome Fire Chief Jim West, Jr. says the single-engine Cessna 185 departed Nome earlier on Thursday, and was on its way to White Mountain when the pilot noticed the plane’s landing gear was out of alignment on one side.
The pilot returned to Nome, and performed an emergency landing at City Field that further damaged the plane’s landing gear — but resulted in no injuries, according to emergency personnel.
Nome Police confirm that the pilot was the only individual on board, and was not injured.
Despite the risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning — or PSP — Southeast Alaska has a robust dive fishery that includes geoduck clams. The entire industry hinges on weekly testing results from the Department of Environmental Conservation laboratory in Anchorage.
This scenario could change in the not-too-distant future. In part 1 of our 2-part series, KCAW’s Emily Kwong reported on efforts by Sitka Tribe of Alaska to monitor the waters of Southeast for PSP. In part 2 today, she tracks their plans to launch a commercial testing lab.
If you’ve ever seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you may remember that scene with the golden eggs.
Willy Wonka: These are the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Veruca Salt: Are they chocolate eggs?
Willy Wonka: Golden chocolate eggs.
The green haired Oompa Loompas weigh the eggs on a scale to decide if they’re good or bad.
Wonka: If it’s a good egg, it’s shined up and shipped out over the world. But if it’s a bad egg, down the chute.
The same could be said for geoducks. These giant bivalves, with lolling necks like space worms, have a high market value, where they’re called xiàngbábàng (象拔蚌) or elephant trunk clams in China. Because these clams run the risk of carrying PSP toxins, divers cannot harvest an area before a few of it’s clams have been sent to the DEC and cleared for consumption.
“If you’re lucky you get the sample on a plane that day and it gets up to the lab in Anchorage,” said Larry Trani, a diver and member of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, or SARDFA. Harvest has to happen within a week, which means that by the time divers get a test result, they tend to do all their actual harvest in just one day. And that’s not a lot of time.
“Time is off the essence on this,” said Trani, “As far as making all the connections from Southeast Alaska to Hong Kong, or wherever they’re going.”
Divers like Trani go down to the bottom of the ocean floor, breathing surface supplied air through a diving hookah, and walk the bottom, blasting the sand with a water gun and prying gooey ducks from their beds. It’s dangerous work, which Trani believes could benefit from the kind of lab Sitka Tribe wants to open.
“I can see that that would save time on the sampling and give us more days in which to conduct our diving,” said Trani. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”
That’s the appeal of a lab in Southeast, one Sitka Tribe hopes will persuade divers like Trani, shellfish growers, and harvesters to relocate some of their testing work to Sitka.
“It was two offices so we removed a wall and made this one large space…”
The man with the plan is shellfish biologist Chris Whitehead, who pitched the idea for a biotoxin lab to Sitka Tribe two years ago.
“I got really busy at writing grants and somehow they all got funded, said Whitehead. “Now it’s a matter of doing the work.”
That includes over half a million dollars from the Administration for Native Americans’ (ANA) Environmental Regulatory Enhancement Program to build the lab from scratch.
Jessica Gill is the tribe’s fish biologist and said, “When we get our first order, it’s going to be like Christmas!”
The most eagerly anticipated order is for the receptor binding assay, or RBA machine. The machine isn’t authorized to test gooey ducks for PSP yet, just mussels and soft shell clams, but Chris Whitehead believes that will change soon. And the exciting thing about the machine is that it eliminates the traditional testing method, practiced by labs throughout the country.
Whitehead explained, “They run whats called a mouse bioassay. So they inject this slurry of shellfish into a mouse…”
And time how long it takes for the mouse to die. Based on that number, the lab can calculate the relative toxicity of the gooey duck for humans. With the RBA method, no mice need be harmed.
Jessica Gill, for her part, is relieved. She said, “I don’t think I could take the lab manager job thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to kill a bunch of rats today.’”
With staff to be trained and testing to launch, STA has secured 1.3 million dollars in grant money for the PSP project for the next three years. That includes $210,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indian General Assistance Program(IGAP) for fiscal year 2015, with plans to continue through 2017, $48,000 from theBureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), $527,000 from ANA to the build the new lab, and an additional $150,000 to support SEATT to conduct cellular toxin analysis, as detailed in Part 1 of our series.
Jeff Feldpausch, the Resource Protection Director, recognizes it’s a luxury that won’t last.
“We couldn’t keep this lab open on grants forever,” Feldpausch said. “It was going to have to be something that could stand on it’s own.”
And that means attracting commercial business. The goal is for the lab to become a source of unrestricted funds for the tribe.
But among SARDFA and other potential customers KCAW spoke with, the big question on their minds was this: Would the state of Alaska by okay with handing PSP testing over to a commercial entity?
Elaine Busse Floyd, the Environmental Health Director of the DEC, said, “Well I think that if they achieved FDA certification, that would be a terrific benefit to the Southeast Alaska community.”
Busse Floyd said that while it would nice to have a lab servicing Southeast, it’s never been done before and for good reason. The state does PSP testing for free.
“So it’s possible that the big influx of customers that you might think you were going to get because of being closer, you might not get because you’d be charging and we wouldn’t be,” Bussy Floyd said.
But the state may not always be there. Funding for PSP testing is safe this fiscal year, but that may change with future budget cuts.
The lab in Sitka would also have to earn certification from an alphabet soup of agencies, such as the FDA and the International Shellfish Sanitation Commission. Easier said than done, but STA’s Chris Whitehead has determination in spades.
“For a long time, there’s probably been a need to do something like this,” said Whitehead.
“I don’t know if I lucked out and just came in the right time to start it, but doors are opening for us to do this.”
Whithead hopes to win FDA certification by 2017 and to first test shellfish collected through subsistence, through the Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins Group, or SEATT. It’s an ambitious plan trying to address a basic problem.
“It all started out I just wanted to go dig clams and I had no one to call to see if it was safe or not.’
And Whitehead hopes this little-lab-that-could can answer that call.