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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 28 min 52 sec ago

Cantwell Urges White House To Stop Alaska Pebble Mine Project, Protect Fishermen

Fri, 2014-01-24 14:09

People pray at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle, before the start of a rally opposing a mining project in western Alaska. Fishermen in Washington say the project threatens salmon in Bristol Bay, where about 1,000 Washingtonians have permits to fish. Photo by Ed Ronco, KPLU – Seattle.

A U.S. senator from the Lower 48 is asking the White House to stop the Pebble Mine. Democrat Maria Cantwell, of Washington, says the proposed mine in Western Alaska threatens fishing jobs in her state.

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Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle feels less like a slice of this big city and more like a coastal community in Alaska. Fishing boats are moored to floating docks. They ask what you’re up to in the nearby restaurants – and actually wait for you to answer. And around here, you’re more likely to see someone in Grundens than Gucci. But the connections between Washington and the 49th state run much deeper.

“Well, I’ve been fishing in Bristol Bay for the last few years,” Billie Delaney, from Port Townsend, north of Seattle, said.

And she’s among some 1,000 Washington residents who earn at least part of their living in Bristol Bay. Today, she’s part of a rally at Fishermen’s Terminal. A couple hundred people have turned out to oppose the Pebble Mine – a proposed project that would sit not far from the bay and its productive salmon habitat.

“The commercial fishery there is a renewable resource we’ll have forever if we manage it correctly,” Delaney said. “The mine would last about 80 years and completely destroy the culture and economy of that area.”

Senator Maria Cantwell agrees. On a stage in front of the crowd, the Washington Democrat calls the Pebble Mine a, quote, “giant cauldron of toxic waste.”

“I say that because the science shows this material would take hundreds of thousands of years to get rid of if it reached the watershed,” Cantwell said. “One mistake and that cauldron starts to seep into our water, into the fish, killing these important jobs.”

An EPA assessment says the mine would pose a danger to salmon and destroy miles of spawning grounds. Cantwell sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to follow up on that EPA report, and use his authority to stop the project.

“Senator Cantwell’s request is unprecedented in the history of the EPA for a major resource project before it’s even had an opportunity to file for permits,” Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, which wants to build the mine, said.

He says the project isn’t being given due process, and that it hasn’t even filed for permits yet. As for that damning EPA report?

“The EPA’s document is not conclusive science, but rather a political report intended to harm our project’s ability to apply for permits and frankly receive an objective review under the laws of our country,” he said.

Heatwole says the permitting process will be rigorous, and that the mine will have to comply with thick volumes of regulation to operate. He also says Pebble would be an important economic booster in a part of Alaska where the work is sorely needed. He says the fishing industry isn’t enough.

“Not to cast aspersion to the industry – it is an important economic engine – but if it was a healthy economic engine it would provide greater economic opportunities,” Heatwole said. “Our premise is that we want to have a project that co-exists with that fishery so that we can provide year-round job opportunities where right now there are simply none.”

Robert Masonis, the vice president for western conservation at Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit that opposes the mine, disagrees.

“That’s a very limited view of the economic benefits of the Bristol Bay fishery,” he said.

Masonis says year-round jobs are supported by the fishery, both in commercial fishing and sport fishing. He looks around at the 200 or so people who have gathered at the rally.

“It makes me hopeful,” Masonis said. “I think a lot of people are realizing just how special this place is, and how fragile it is. I think what we’re seeing is an outpouring of public support for the Obama administration to do the right thing and protect this area.”

Cantwell says the EPA’s report is new enough that it’s not surprising the Obama administration hasn’t acted. She’s hoping the people at this rally, and the letters she and others will send, change that.

Categories: Alaska News

Are Alaska’s Legislative Districts Getting Too Big?

Fri, 2014-01-24 13:30

The final 2010 redistricting map for Southeast Alaska.

The chairman of the Alaska Redistricting Board says state residents need to have a conversation about the growing number of people who live in each legislative district.

In 2010, when the current Redistricting Board started working on new political boundaries, Alaska’s population was about 714,000. Divided by 40 House districts, that’s nearly 18,000 people for each member of the Alaska House of Representatives and about 35,500 for each member of the Senate.

Board Chair John Torgerson says the state’s population is expected to grow to at least 820,000 within the decade – even more if some industry or project, such as a major natural gas pipeline, brings people to the state.

“The districts are going to go from over 17,000 to over 20,000 in 2020,” said Torgerson.

His estimate is backed by the Alaska Department of Labor, which projects the state population could be nearly a million people by 2030.

In 2010, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have added six seats to the Alaska Legislature – four new House members and two new Senators – reducing the size of legislative districts.

“The question is certainly not mine to answer as to whether or not we should add more folks to the legislature, look at a unicameral legislature, make everybody Senators,” Torgerson said. “So you’d have 60 people, you would take that mass, divide it by 60, whatever it is. But we need to have that conversation.”

Last month, a Fairbanks Superior Court judge approved the Redistricting Board’s final plan, which was developed over three years and numerous court challenges. The only thing left to determine is whether the board or the plaintiffs in the case are the prevailing party for purposes of winning legal fees.

“The good news is it’s done,” said Torgerson.

Petersburg challenged the temporary redistricting plan used in 2012, which put the community with downtown Juneau and Douglas Island. Mayor Mark Jensen says the borough is satisfied with the final map, which pairs it with Sitka, Prince of Wales Island, and other smaller Southeast communities. He says those are a better socio-economic fit than the Capital City.

“We’re a little different, I think. We’re totally a fishing community with some government here too, state and federal,” said Jensen. “But a little bit different than Juneau being mainly a government type town.”

The final map, which takes effect for this year’s elections, puts downtown Juneau and Douglas in a district with Haines, Skagway, Tenakee Springs, and Gustavus.

Torgerson blamed the court system for delaying the plan by taking too long to issue opinions. He said the next redistricting process in 2020 should go more smoothly, after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a section of the federal Voting Rights Act that determined whether or not Alaska needed to get preclearance for Native voting districts.

“I personally think it will be substantially easier, just using the Alaska Constitution as the only guideline, and not having a lot of overlapping federal laws there,” Torgerson said.

He spoke Thursday to a lunch gathering of lawmakers and business leaders during the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative fly-in. The event was co-sponsored by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Thomas Considers Kerttula’s House Seat

Fri, 2014-01-24 13:27

Former Haines Representative Bill Thomas is considering a run for the House seat being vacated by Juneau’s Beth Kerttula. But he’s more likely to take on Juneau Senator Dennis Egan.

Republican Thomas served eight years in the House. He lost a close 2012 race to Sitka’s Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins after new boundaries put that city inside his district.

Rep. Bill Thomas answers a question as Rep. Beth Kerttula listens during a 2011 form at Juneau’s Centennial Hall. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

He hoped for a rematch, but an updated redistricting plan put Haines in with Juneau and a few smaller communities, not Sitka.

Thomas says he’s considering a run for Kerttula’s seat, which has been held by a Democrat for at least two decades. But he probably won’t do it.

“I think it would be an uphill battle, from what I’ve seen through the years, depending on who they put in there,” Thomas says.

District Democrats will nominate up to three replacements, with the governor making the choice. Thomas can’t apply for that, since he’s a Republican — and living outside the current district.

He can run for the seat later this year, when election boundaries change.

He says he’ll decide once he knows whether the new representative is a place-holder, or someone who would run as an incumbent.

“I’d rather right now wait to see what happens this next week or so with the appointment,” Thomas says.

Kerttula has held the seat for 15 years.

She says she hopes Thomas won’t run – because he’d lose.

“Bill Thomas is a friend, so I’m hoping he’ll think twice before he gets himself into this any further. But, the math alone means this will stay a Democratic seat – and a strong one,” Kerttula says.

Thomas says he’s more inclined to run against Juneau Democratic Senator Dennis Egan, who’s up for re-election this year.

“I’ll be the first one to admit, my chances of beating Dennis Egan straight up are nil,” Thomas says.

Egan was appointed to the post in 2009 when Senator Kim Elton resigned for an Obama administration job. The Juneau Democrat was unopposed in his 2010 reelection bid.

Thomas points to Egan’s recent hospitalization and wonders whether the Juneau Democrat will be able to complete another four-year term.

“I just want to have a debate with him saying are you going to spend your four years? And if not, will you step down within a year or six months after the election?” Thomas asked.

“There’s no way in heck I would quit serving in another term,” Egan says.

He says he’s fully recovered from what he calls routine heart surgery about three years ago. He also says leg surgery last year was successful.

He says he’s also getting back to full speed after an infection he caught in the hospital attacked his foot.

“I’ve filed a letter of intent and I have money and I plan on running,” Egan says.

Kerttula, who’s been House Minority leader, is leaving for a one-year fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions.

She could return and run again for her House seat, or Egan’s. But she’s not making any plans.

“We’ll just see what the future brings. But I can’t really see that far ahead right now. But I know somebody’s going to be in this seat for a long, long time,” Kerttula says.

Kerttula and Egan’s current districts include Petersburg, Skagway, Gustavus and Tenakee.

For the next election, they’ll drop Petersburg and add Haines.

Juneau’s other representative is Republican Cathy Munoz. Her district is – and will be – all within the capital city’s boundaries.

Categories: Alaska News

Radiation from Fukushima

Fri, 2014-01-24 13:00

They’re having trouble sealing up the leaking nuclear power plants in Japan and they’re also having trouble disclosing what is going on there. Is this a reason to distrust Alaska seafood?

HOST: Steve HeimelAlaska Public Radio Network

GUESTS:

  • Professor Doug Dasher, Environmental Oceanographer, University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Science
  • Dr. John Kelley, Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks, former Director, Naval Arctic Research Laboratory
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LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

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Categories: Alaska News

ASD Budget Cutting Process Begins as Legislature Mulls Increasing Education Funding

Fri, 2014-01-24 12:49

(From left) Allison Haynes, Margaret Clark, and Laura Gordon, all West High School Students, testified before the Anchorage School Board on Thursday night about the proposed 2014-15 budget. All opposed the cuts. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

Anchorage School District officials presented the 2014-15 budget to the Anchorage School Board Thursday evening.

The district faces cutting $23 million this year unless the legislature increases the per student funding.

Public testimony was passionate and officials discussed calculations for how much legislators would have to increase funding to stop cuts.

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Tina Bernoski, an English Language Learner Counselor at Bartlett High School said she couldn’t believe that the Board was considering cutting school counselors again. She says she worries about what will happen if some of the most vulnerable students in the district lose support and warned school board members that things could get bad.

“Many of my students do not speak English, do not have a parent that speaks English,” Bernoski said. “We are the case managers, the refugee liaisons, the immigration collectors and the parent to communicate with. I will tell you that dropout rates will increase and graduation rates will dramatically reduce.”

ASD officials rolled out the proposed 2014-2015 budget Tuesday. Under the plan, the district will cut more than 200 positions, more than half of them teaching positions. Administration and support positions will also be eliminated. In addition, high school schedules will now have seven periods, instead of six to save money.

Allison Haynes, a sophomore at West High School, says she’s concerned that the change will compromise her education.

“A seven-period day will not allow for the kind of time that is needed for intense, higher-level classes, or any class for that matter, to be taught effectively,” Haynes said. “I am currently in calculus, AP U.S. History and HG English. I see no way that my wonderful, dedicated teachers could possibly deliver the same quality of instruction in a 42 minute period.”

Officials say cost drivers include: group medical coverage, the Affordable Care Act, new state technology requirements for online testing and teacher evaluations, liability and self-insurance and natural gas prices.

Governor Sean Parnell is recommending a base student allocation increase of $200 over three years, an increase of about one percent per year. School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler says that’s not enough.

“We’ve been asked, what would we need in order to stop our budget gap this year, in terms of dollar increase to the base student allocation and that is estimated at about $250 increase. To catch up with inflation for the last three years and this year, it’s about $400.”

Agosti-Gisler says a long-term solution is needed in the form of an inflation-proof formula for funding Schools.

The next opportunity for the public to testify on the ASD budget will be Feb. 3. They’ll be one more chance on Feb. 20, when the board will take their final vote.

Categories: Alaska News

Warm Temperatures Causing Issues Around State

Fri, 2014-01-24 12:46

The big thaw that has hit much of the state continues to make life complicated.

The Northern Lights 300 Sled Dog Race from Big Lake to Finger Lake has been cancelled, and the north part of Denali National Park has been put off limits for snowmachines due to wet conditions and lack of snow. Skiing has been off and on at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Temperatures are well above freezing deep into the Interior past Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislative Session Gavels In; And Rep. Kerttula Resigns

Fri, 2014-01-24 09:26

The Legislature opens the 2014 session and Gov. Parnell gives his State of the State address. Layoffs are coming to the Anchorage School District. Sen. Mark Begich opposes the proposed Pebble Mine. Analysts lay out the impact of budget shortfalls to the Legislature. Buccaneer his rough spots in preparing to drill in Cook Inlet. Shell’s earnings off 48 percent. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals says the federal government failed to evaluate the potential consequences of the 2008 off-shore lease sale. The Anchorage labor law referendum seems head to the November ballot. Rep, Beth Kerttula steps down as House Minority Leader.

HOST: Michael Carey

GUESTS:

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, January 24 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, January 25 at 6:00 p.m.

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Categories: Alaska News

Court Says Chukchi Lease Sale Environmental Assessment Faulty

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:41

A federal appeals court has ruled that the environmental assessment behind a massive oil lease sale in the Chukchi Sea in 2008 was faulty.

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Categories: Alaska News

Document Highlights Rural Housing Shortage

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:40

Affordable housing is getting harder to find in Nome and surrounding villages. The regional non-profit corporation – Kawerak – is drafting a document to present to the state legislature identifying housing as one of the major issues facing the communities in the area.

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Categories: Alaska News

Final Fine Particulate Public Hearing Draws Large Crowd

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:40

A final public hearing on proposed Department of Environmental Conservation fine particulate pollution regulations drew a large turn out earlier this week in Fairbanks. The regulations aimed at bringing wintertime air in Fairbanks in line with federal standards, continue to be controversial.

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Categories: Alaska News

New Science Released On How Human-Made Sounds Impact Marine Mammals

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:40

Humpback Whale: Endangered (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is asking for public comment on guidelines updating the effects of human-made sounds on marine mammals.

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Marine mammals rely on their sense of sound for survival. “They use it for feeding, locating mates, and just generally understanding what’s going on in the world around them,” says NOAA fisheries biologist Amy Scholik-Schlomer, who is also an acoustic specialist.

She says the guidelines update the levels at which human-made sounds affect marine mammals temporarily and permanently. NOAA calls these threshold shifts. A marine mammal experiencing a temporary threshold shift is like going to a rock concert. “Your hearing is temporarily affected but it fully recovers, while permanent threshold shift would be something that your hearing is affected but it doesn’t fully recover. You have some permanent loss. It doesn’t mean you’re deaf and it doesn’t mean that it affects your entire hearing range; it just means that you can’t hear quite as well as you could before,” Scholik-Schlomer explains.

Brad Smith is a marine mammal biologist with NOAA in Anchorage. He says acoustic impacts on marine mammals are pertinent to Alaska, especially to the oil and gas industry, “We have seismic geophysical surveys which introduce very, very loud sounds into the water in areas where we have endangered and threatened species and marine mammals in general, notably the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and, more recently, in Cook Inlet.”

The construction industry also needs to be aware of the sounds it creates.

“The Port of Anchorage, certainly the KABATA crossing, the bridge if its built, all those construction activities that involve pile driving or placing sheet pile, possibly others such as dredging, anything that creates in-water noise in areas where marine mammals exist may potentially generate enough noise to cause an animal to be harassed,” Smith says.
Activities involving operating a vessel, like running a loud outboard motor, don’t reach the same levels of in-water noise, he says.

Scholik-Schlomer says the new guidelines address the fact that different marine mammals hear noise differently. For example, humpback whales are considered low frequency cetaceans. Many human-made sounds heard underwater that come from construction activities or seismic surveys are also low frequency. “Humpback whales hear and use low frequency sounds so they would be more impacted by something like seismic, opposed to killer whales who actually hear better at higher frequencies where there isn’t as much anthropogenic sounds,” she says.

How sounds affect marine marines is still an emerging science and Scholik-Schlomer says there are gaps in research:

“All the large whale species, we actually have no direct information on how they hear because it’s difficult to do those types of studies, so we have to use the best available information we have and extrapolate from data from bottlenose dolphins or even sometimes from terrestrial species, like mice and rats, where we don’t have any other data.”
The public comment period on the updated acoustic guidelines ends Jan. 27. Due to requests from members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, the oil industry, and various conservation organizations, NOAA is considering an extension to the public comment period.

Categories: Alaska News

Residents Anxious as City Mulls Condemning Motel

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:15

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

About two-dozen residents of a motel that was seized by the Municipality of Anchorage recently, may soon be looking for a new place to live. They have not been evicted yet, but the city says that will likely happen because of unsanitary conditions.

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Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

When Sonya Savok got back to her apartment in room 305 of the Big Timber Motel after having a baby earlier this month she heard that city officials had paid a visit.

“Municipality first came when I was actually in the hospital giving birth to my 19-day-old,” Savok said. “And when they gave the notices for inspection I was at the hospital with my daughter’s two-week appointment.”

The visit worried her. She pays $800 a month for a one bedroom apartment that she shares with her brother and her three young girls, 4-year-old Ruby, 2-year-old Neveah and newborn Emerald. Savok has lived in the apartment since September. The officials returned this week, posted notices on doors and did an inspection. She says the apartment was the best she could find.

“There’s not heat or hot water. I’ve still been having to pay $800 a month,” Savok said. “You know I live here because there isn’t much people that’s willing to work with limited income so I settled for this place.”

Down a dank hallway covered in scraps of old carpet, 68-year-old Shirley Bates thought she’d finally found a place she could call home when she moved into room 707 at the back of the motel about nine months ago. But when inspectors with the city showed up and posted a notice on her door recently they crushed her hope.

“Two people knocked on the door and said that the Municipality of Anchorage had just taken over and that we had three or four days to move out,” Bates said. “Pounded on the doors, two gentlemen. And I said well I just paid rent. I don’t have any place to move. And they said, well that’s not our problem.”

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

Bates has two artificial hips and uses a walker. She pays $675 a month for her small room. If the building is condemned, she’s worried she won’t find another place she can afford.

“The rents are like up to 11 and 12-hundred dollars at other hotels,” Bates said. “I can’t afford that. There’s no way.”

Beside its dingy appearance, building inspectors describe Dickonsonian conditions at the motel near strip clubs across from Merrill Field. Lindsey Whitt, a spokesperson for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s office says inspectors looked at the building Tuesday and posted a list of violations:

“The lack of heat and hot water in the building; the concern that the fire sprinkler system pipes may freeze,” Whitt said. “The electric space heaters that they’re using to heat the area and the stoves that they’re boiling water with are primary heat sources for the units, that’s very dangerous; and then we found bedbugs in every single room and mice and vole infestation.”

A task force met Wednesday to discuss the property. Whitt says officials are reviewing whether to condemn the building. The owner of the Big Timber Motel, Terry Stahlman, owes about $34,000 in back taxes, Whitt says.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

Officials say that there were no smoke detectors in the building, so the Municipality purchased and installed smoke detectors. No other upgrades are being made at this time. Whitt says the municipality is trying to figure out what’s next.

“We are working with social services and trying to make arrangements, calling around to see their availability and how we move people from this building if it gets much colder,” Whitt said.

As of Thursday afternoon, neither Bates nor Savok had heard from anyone with social services about other possible living options. Savok says she’s worried.

“I’m kinda worried, but you know I pray every day,” Savok said. “The Lord always have our side, our back. I believe everything will come through.”

Officials say they will make a decision on whether to condemn the building and evict residents in the coming weeks. There are 24 known tenants at the Big Timber Motel, nine of them children.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 23, 2014

Thu, 2014-01-23 18:09

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

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Parnell Offers ‘Choice’-Friendly School Reform Package

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

For most of Sean Parnell’s administration, oil taxes have gotten top billing in the Capitol. But with that legislative fight behind him, the Republican governor is changing his focus.

Legislators Not Sold On Governor’s Education Package

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Democrats may have clapped during Gov. Sean Parnell’s State of the State address when he suggested increasing the base student allocation but they weren’t happy with his larger education package.

Court Says Chukchi Lease Sale Environmental Assessment Faulty

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

A federal appeals court has ruled that the environmental assessment behind a massive oil lease sale in the Chukchi Sea in 2008 was faulty.

Residents Anxious as City Mulls Condemning Motel

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

About two-dozen residents of a motel that was seized by the Municipality of Anchorage recently, may soon be looking for a new place to live. They have not been evicted yet, but the city says that will likely happen because of unsanitary conditions.

Document Highlights Rural Housing Shortage

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

Affordable housing is getting harder to find in Nome and surrounding villages. The regional non-profit corporation – Kawerak – is drafting a document to present to the state legislature identifying housing as one of the major issues facing the communities in the area.

Final Fine Particulate Public Hearing Draws Large Crowd

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A final public hearing on proposed Department of Environmental Conservation fine particulate pollution regulations drew a large turn out earlier this week in Fairbanks. The regulations aimed at bringing wintertime air in Fairbanks in line with federal standards, continue to be controversial.

New Science Released On How Human-Made Sounds Impact Marine Mammals

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is asking for public comment on guidelines updating the effects of human-made sounds on marine mammals.

Categories: Alaska News

President Declares Federal Disaster For November Storm Victims In Alaska

Thu, 2014-01-23 15:26

President Barack Obama declared a federal Disaster for Alaska Thursday, making federal dollars available for victims of storms that occurred back in November.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says federal money is available to supplement state, tribal, and local recovery efforts in areas affected by severe storms, straight-line winds, and flooding in the Bering Strait Region as well as the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Lower Kuskokwim and Lower Yukon regional areas.

Along with the declaration Dolph A. Diemont  has been named the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected areas. According to a press release, additional designations could be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further damage assessments.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Offers “Choice”-Friendly School Reform Package

Thu, 2014-01-23 13:00

(Skip Gray/Gavel to Gavel)

For most of Sean Parnell’s administration, oil taxes have gotten top billing in the Capitol. But with that legislative fight behind him, the Republican governor is changing his focus.

PARNELL: 2014 will be the Education Session.

During the State of the State address on Wednesday night, Parnell laid out an agenda that was friendly to the school choice movement. And he made a commitment to increase school funding if it passes. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The deal he presented to state lawmakers is basically this: You give parents more options beyond traditional public schools, and I’ll give those public schools more money for the next three years.

“If we are successful at real reform and more new funding, our children will benefit,” said Parnell.

Parnell didn’t specify how much funding, but he did say it would come through the “base student allocation” — that’s the dollar amount a school gets for each child enrolled. That number has sat at around $5700 for the past four years, and school districts have been clamoring for an increase in the face of budget shortfalls.

Now for the strings attached. One:

PARNELL: I urge the House and Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 9 and move it to the people for a vote.

That item would amend the Alaska Constitution so that the state could fund private institutions, including religious ones. The resolution doesn’t set up a school voucher system, but it would allow lawmakers to set one up if they wanted. For it to pass, it needs support from 2/3rds of the Legislature and then a majority vote of the people.

Number two:

PARNELL: I propose all local, state, and federal funding — except some capped district administrative expenses — travel with a student to a charter school.

Parnell also described this as “expanding choice.” He said too many students are being put on wait lists for the state’s public charter schools because of “restrictive” state laws. Parnell also encouraged the legislature to pass a law giving parents the right to appeal if a school board denies their application to start a charter school.

Condition three:

PARNELL: I propose repealing and replacing the obsolete High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

The governor explained that the test became obsolete when the state implemented new education standards. In its place, Parnell would require students to take a nationally recognized college entrance exam or a job skills test within two years of graduating — specifically, the SAT, the ACT, or WorkKeys. He would also have the state foot the bill for the first test.

Bills that would get rid of the high school exit exam have already been introduced in both chambers of the Legislature, with Republicans and Democrats signing on as sponsors.

Number four:

PARNELL: We must continue to expand the number and type of regional residential schools.

Like Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. This was a nod to the state’s rural areas, where charter schools and private schools are in short supply and the only alternatives kids have to their local public school is home-schooling or boarding school.

And five:

PARNELL: We must recognize our students need 21st century classrooms to compete in a 21st century economy.

Parnell called for continued support of the Alaska Digital Teaching Initiative, which lets student take classes at other schools through a video link.

During his address, Parnell also spoke favorably of expanding vocational education, letting kids test out of classes for credit, and allowing for dual-credit options that could count toward high school graduation and career certification.

In all, Parnell spent nearly half of his annual speech on education. It got more time than his recommendations on fiscal policy, the proposed gasline, and the state’s pension liabilities combined. No mention was made of the state’s budget shortfall, which is expected to approach $2 billion this year.

*****

Democrats may have clapped during Gov. Sean Parnell’s State of the State address when he suggested increasing the base student allocation, but they weren’t happy with his larger education package.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck argued that after four years of keeping the per-student funding amount flat, there shouldn’t be conditions on an increase.

“What have we been doing? Short changing education and crippling it. And once crippled – no more funding until there is reform.”

His Senate counterpart Hollis French said he was disappointed that the governor supported a constitutional amendment that would allow state funds to be used at private schools, and he expressed concern that it could lead to vouchers.

“Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job,” said French.

French suggested that Parnell could achieve better student outcomes by focusing on early education, which did not get a mention in the governor’s speech.

The Democrats also expressed some skepticism over the governor’s recent gasline deal, saying they didn’t trust the governor to negotiate with North Slope producers because of the controversial oil tax law he signed.

Meanwhile, Republicans expressed support for Parnell’s State of State speech. Lesil McGuire, a senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, called it “right on point” in a written statement, while House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt tweeted that it was “strong.”

Categories: Alaska News

Palmer Hearing Pinpoints Divisive Legislation

Thu, 2014-01-23 12:48

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

 The Matanuska Valley’s Chickaloon Tribe invited state Department of Natural Resources leaders to speak at an information session in Palmer on Tuesday evening. Three DNR officials who responded fielded questions and heard comments about aspects of an unpopular piece of legislation now before the state legislature.  None of those who spoke were in favor of HB 77.

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Liz Robinson is the executive director of the citizens group, Envision Mat Su

“As we continue to grow, our progress should reflect a state that serves the public, not one that ignores it. As an organization, or mission is to actively engage Mat Su residents and other Alaskans in the conservation, restoration, stewardship and enhancement of our region’s most valuable resources,” Robinson said. ”House Bill 77 is at odds with such a mission. This piece of legislation effectively trades the voice of the people in favor of faster permitting for natural resource projects. This bill would limit our ability as citizens to become informed about and appeal natural resource project decisions, and would disproportionately concentrate decision-making power within the hands of the DNR Commissioner.”

Liz Robinson, the executive director of “Envision Mat-Su.” Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

About 60 people turned out for the session, which was not an official state public hearing.  Former school teacher and retired principal Stephen O’Brien, who spent 3 decades in Bethel, says the designers of the state’s constitution were careful to include Alaskans in the decision making process.

“And Alaska became unique among the fifty states, as an owner state, where the resources of Alaska belonged to the people of Alaska,” O’Brien said. ”That’s what really concerns me about this bill. The founding fathers of our statehood saw the wisdom of including individual people with the rights to stand up. Is it worth it to undermine these long-established principals that make us, as Alaskans, the owners of our resources? I think not. “

 DNR’s Wynn Menafee , a deputy director of DNR’s division of mining, land and water, helped explain that the state wants the bill to streamline the process by which the public is involved in decision making on resource development projects. But he said he was hearing otherwise from the people who spoke out at the meeting.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with HB 77 that was expressed tonight,” Menafee said. ”And I think it ranged from issues with the general permits, appeals, water, but it also just basically, in general concept, there was a lot of consideration that they thought the bill was over-riding the public process, and public participation. “

Menafee  says it’s up to the legislature to make the call on whether or not the bill fufills constitutional mandates.

But the Chickaloon Tribe’s health director, Lisa Wade, said the bill is actually helping to unite people

“Pretty much, people are really concerned with this bill. And one thing that you can say about it is, is it is uniting us. It’s uniting Alaskans. It’s bringing us together and calling us to speak out to protect our rights and our future rights from top-down government legislation. You may not streamline and modernize your work load at the expense of the safety of our families and our natural resources. ”

 Menafee said that DNR is currently considering making changes to the bill, but he was not at liberty to discuss what those changes might be.

Categories: Alaska News

YKHC President Retires Amid Controversy With The Board

Wed, 2014-01-22 18:29

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation employs more than 1,600 people. It’s the largest employer in Bethel and has been led by Gene Peltola Sr. for 24 years. However, the CEO spent this past weekend clearing out his office amid controversy with the board of directors.

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Gene Peltola Sr.

Peltola announced his expected retirement Jan. 10. He said he’d work through April. Yet just days later, YKHC’s board of directors told him to leave immediately.

The board is not speaking publically about the issue. Their decision came in a closed executive session. In a release, the board said they bought out the remainder of Peltola’s contract and his early retirement was effective immediately.

They wouldn’t comment to KYUK but referred to a statement where Board Chair Ray Alstrom thanked Peltola “for his years of service”.

A few days before the board meeting, none of the controversy was apparent in a lengthy interview with Peltola when he called the board “excellent”.

Peltola, who is Yup’ik, sat in his office overlooking the Kuskowim River. He reminisced about how YKHC has changed since he took it over in 1990. Back then, the corporation was going through tough times. Three dozen staff had been laid off and most of the director positions were vacant.

“And immediately, I was able to fill those positions with quality people and competent people and that was the crux of the turn around for the corporation,” Peltola said.

YKHC’s annual budget was between $10 and 11 million then. Now it’s $175 million. Peltola said he got marching orders from the board for three things: to pursue sub-regional clinics in the villages, move the hospital from the Indian Health Service to tribal management and to consolidate offices into one main building in Bethel.

Peltola accomplished all three. Through Denali Commission funds he brought 37 new health clinics to the villages.

He said he’s liked the job because he sees results.

“You can see that it’s improving the health of the people we serve and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people we serve,” Peltola said, “and that to me is the most rewarding.”

Before YKHC, Peltola was a business man. He was a private contractor and was involved in construction, the airline industry and retail sales. He brought those skills to YKHC where he bought a medevac company, Life Med. Prior to that, YKHC used commercial airlines.

“We bought three rows of seats on a 737 with Alaska Airlines or a 727 with Reeve then and then strapped in a gurney with a patient and had the attendant sitting there,” Peltola said.

But in 1997, commercial airlines could no longer carry oxygen tanks for safety reasons and Life Med was the solution. The medevac company not only services the Y-K Delta but leases aircraft in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla, and Soldotna.

“The bottom line is, last year Life Med nearly broke even, we had a small loss but we got $3.8 million dollars of free medivacs,” Peltola said.

Peltola has seen the corporation through two major lawsuits with the federal government fighting for shortfalls in BIA-IHS funding. In 2007, they won $42 million, which was put into a permanent fund. Another settlement last month is bringing in $40 million in back pay. Peltola says tribal organizations have been shortchanged for a while.

“If we were Halliburton or GE or a Lockheed or a Bowing or any other federal contractor, they would be fully funded,” Peltola said.

He says funding has been the biggest challenge of the job. It’s hard when money comes from people who don’t understand just how expensive remote services are.

“I’ve been asked by IHS employees new to Alaska, meeting with them in Anchorage, which way do I drive to get to Bethel from Anchorage,” Peltola said, “and you kind of laugh and chuckle and then tell them there’s no way you can drive there.”

Recently, the health corporation spent $18 million developing a system for electronic health records. Peltola says these successes happen because smart people are working at the corporation. He says it’s important for a CEO to have good people under them.

“He or she can’t do the job by themselves and they’ve got to put together their team and give the members of that team the authority to fulfill their duties and responsibilities,” Peltola said.

YKHC’s board has hired its Chief Legal Counsel Dan Winkelman to replace Peltola, someone Peltola had been grooming for the job.

In a release, Peltola said: “It’s going to be a difficult time but we need to ask and encourage our employees and our community members to come together to support Dan in this transition.”

Categories: Alaska News

GovTrack Completes 2013 Report Card On Congress

Wed, 2014-01-22 18:28

GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that collects data on proposed federal legislation, has completed its 2013 report card on members of Congress. It found Alaska’s Mark Begich co-sponsored more bills than any other senator, while Congressman Don Young introduced more bills than any other House Republican. But the report card was especially interesting for what it said about U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.

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Categories: Alaska News

Admiral Ostebo Outlines USCG’s Plans For Western Alaska

Wed, 2014-01-22 18:27

Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Nome last week to outline summer plans for Western Alaska. The plans are part of the Coast Guard’s Alaska operation for the year, officially titled Arctic Shield 2014.

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Nome should expect a regular stream of Coast Guard ships pulling in for supplies, fuel, and crew changes.

Expected vessels include buoy tenders and cutters, particularly the Alex Haley.

In Barrow the Coast Guard will station a buoy tender and a national security cutter offshore. Also, they will open an emergency response helicopter facility to aid industries and communities in the North Slope.

If Shell Oil Company receives its drilling permits for the Chuckchi Sea, a Coast Guard ship will remain on the drill site at all times.

In Kotzebue the Coast Guard will use the air facility on an as-needed basis for deployment and crew swaps. In Point Clarence, the Coast Guard will port a patrol boat to monitor the Bering waters, respond to offshore incidents, and aid local vessel boardings.

In addition, the Coast Guard will conduct disaster and oil spill response training in communities along the Western coast.

“So you can expect to see a lot of Coast Guard folks again,” Ostebo said. “Hopefully that’s a good thing.”

While in past years, the Coast Guard focused either on the Arctic or on Alaska’s western coast, Ostebo says, this summer the Coast Guard will be patrolling both areas.

“Next summer we’re going to have to try to keep our foot in both places, because the threat remains in both places,” Ostebo said.

That threat stems from potential accidents like vessel collisions, oil spills, and situations requiring search and rescue. Ostebo’s top concern is the unregulated increase of vessels through the Bering Strait. This traffic overshadows even the risks associated with oil and gas extraction. Last year, Ostebo says, the Bering Strait saw the highest number of ship and cargo passage in the strait’s history, and the Coast Guard expects an even higher rate this year.

“When we have as much of the increase in traffic as we’re seeing take place in the Bering Strait, two ships colliding with each other, a ship running aground on Little Diamede, a ship losing power or having a fire, or those kinds of things are really the biggest concerns that I have as I look to the threats in this area and the CG needs to be here to support that,” Ostebo said.

Ostebo says the Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart are drafting voluntary regulations for vessel routing and reporting through the strait.

Categories: Alaska News

Court Says Inadequate Studies Conducted Before 2008 Lease Sale

Wed, 2014-01-22 18:26

A federal appeals court has ruled that federal regulators conducted inadequate environmental studies before selling $2.7 billion in petroleum leases off Alaska’s northwest coast.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

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