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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: 4 min 22 sec ago

State Releases Plan To Improve Fairbanks Air Quality

Tue, 2014-11-18 17:07

The state has released a long in the works plan for improving Fairbanks air quality. The community regularly falls short of federal fine particulate pollution standards in the winter, but many residents rely on wood burning for heat. There’s opposition to any sort of burn ban, and that’s not part of the plan.

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Categories: Alaska News

Employee Complaints, Tests Flag Air Quality In State-Leased Office Building

Tue, 2014-11-18 17:06

The Bill Ray Center houses up to 160 state employees from the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections.

Air quality test results show high levels of carbon dioxide and dust in Juneau’s Bill Ray Center, an office building the state is leasing for about 160 employees.

For more than a month, the state has fielded complaints from employees about headaches and diesel fumes.

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Julie Bednarski’s desk is at the Bill Ray Center, but she hasn’t been there for more than a week. Her supervisor gave her permission to work from home due to the air quality at the office.

Bednarski is a research biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. In mid-October, she says she started smelling diesel exhaust fumes in the office.

“One day it was pretty heavy and I was starting to feel sick,” Bednarski says.

First National Bank Alaska bought the Bill Ray Center from University of Alaska Southeast in September 2013. Since March, the state has been leasing it for $49,500 a month while the Douglas Island state office building is being renovated. Employees of Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections started moving into the Bill Ray Center last April.

Sunny Haight, administrative director of Fish and Game, started hearing about air quality issues in September.

“Our employees were complaining for quite a while about headaches and other physical symptoms and difficulty in their work environment,” Haight says.

Complaints varied.

“Sometimes they’d say it was fumes and sometimes it smelled like there was something burnt. Sometimes they’d say it was a chemical smell,” Haight says.

She reached out to the State Department of Administration, which handles leasing and facilities. The state first contacted First National Bank Sept. 15 about potential problems with the Bill Ray Center’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. It asked the bank to conduct an air quality test, which the bank didn’t do.

Cheri Gillian, the bank’s communications senior vice president, says the bank has responded in good faith.

“When we started getting the complaints, we engaged with various contractors to ensure that all the equipment in the building was operating at peak efficiency to ensure that all equipment was working and those contractors reported they did not recognize any smells inside the building. Conducting an air quality survey was not off the table; we just hadn’t arrived at that point,” Gillian says.

The state hired environmental engineering firm NORTECH to perform an air quality test in the building in mid-October. Haight says it cost around $8,000. Results came back Nov. 5.

The NORTECH report shows higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide associated with “headaches, sleepiness and stagnant, stale, stuffy air.” Those levels could also lead to increased heart rate, slight nausea, poor concentration and loss of attention. But, they fall below what islegally acceptable.

“What has people concerned is the level that it’s at is very close to unacceptable,” Haight says.

Results also show elevated levels of dust in a part of the Bill Ray Center. First National Bank is constructing a new branch in an adjacent lot. Forklifts, cranes and other heavy machinery have been operating near the building’s fresh air intake.

The NORTECH report indicates inadequate ventilation for the 160 employees. It recommends improving the old HVAC system.

Department of Administration spokesman Andy Mills says the air quality test was done as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately that was delayed by the owner of the building not acting faster, but the state does not want employees working in areas where they don’t feel that they’re most productive or that there may be any associated health concerns on the employees’ part,” Mills says.

He adds, to speed things up, the state requested NORTECH skip its normal routine of interviewing employees in the building.

On Nov. 10, the state sent a letter to First National Bank stating it was out of compliance with the lease. The state requested a written plan of action by Nov. 14. The bank’s reply reached the state on the 17th.

Gillian says the bank has hired its own consultant, Modern Mechanical, to evaluate the Bill Ray Center this week and doesn’t plan to act until reviewing the consultant’s work.

In the meantime, the state has offered space at the downtown State Office Building to Bill Ray Center employees affected by the air quality.

The state plans to move employees back into the Douglas Island Building this summer.

Full disclosure: The reporter’s husband works in the Bill Ray Center.

Categories: Alaska News

Mine Critics Target Investors, Government Officials

Tue, 2014-11-18 17:05

The KSM project’s mine site layout during the operation phase, from its environmental assessment certificate application. (Image courtesy Seabridge Gold)

Transboundary mine opponents are trying a new tactic in their opposition to a project northeastof Ketchikan. They’re telling investors, and anyone else who will listen, that the KSM mine is a bad place to put their money.

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The group Salmon Beyond Borders just released a study detailing its opposition to the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, or KSM, mine.

It’s a copper, gold and a silver deposit upstream of two rivers that enter the ocean within about 50 miles of Ketchikan.

The report claims the mine is too remote, too expensive and too dangerous to the environment.

“We’re trying to make sure people understand the risks and uncertainty of KSM,” says Chris Zimmer, who works with Salmon Beyond Borders, a coalition of environmental, tribal and fisheries organizations.

“The company’s put out a very rosy prospectus and environmental assessment and is probably going to be starting looking for major investors and development money … And part of our task here is to make sure that observers and folks interested in the KSM project understand the risk,” he says.

That’s not how mine developers see it.

“We’re confident that the risks are actually decreasing, not increasing,” says Brent Murphy, vice president for environmental affairs for Seabridge Gold, the KSM’s parent corporation.

He says Seabridge won’t build or operate the proposed $5.3 billion mine on its own. And it’s already talking to investors, which he wouldn’t name.

“We have confidentiality agreements with major mining companies and discussions are ongoing. We have people who are going through our files,” he says.

The Salmon Beyond Borders report mostly repeats earlier statements made by mine opponents. But it cites more sources and includes more details. And its impact could be different because the press release about the report was distributed on MarketWired, a business-oriented public relations website.

Zimmer says it targets government officials and the general public. But he hopes it will also be read by potential investors.

“People need to take a second look at this thing and hopefully look at information not just from the company,” he says.

Among his group’s claims: KSM is not economically feasible.

“Several analysts have looked at this and said, ‘Boy, the price of gold needs to be quite a bit higher to make a project like this economical,’ given the low grade of the ore and the overall expense here,” he says.

KSM’s Murphy says that’s not the case. The numbers are getting better and continued drilling has found more and better deposits at two of its four proposed mining sites.

“We’ve extended the Deep Kerr to both the north and south. And we’ve also identified a higher-grade core at depths associated with the Iron Cap,” he says.

KSM’s ore will be extracted from one valley, then transported through tunnels to another, about 15 miles away. That’s where it will be processed and leftover rock stored.

Salmon Beyond Borders’ report points to others with competing claims in the tunnel area.

“These companies, American Creek and Teuton Resources, have said very clearly and very publicly that Seabridge does not yet have the rights to be granted access to claims. And therefore (it) doesn’t have the right to begin to construct that tunnel,” he says.

Murphy says British Columbia officials issued a permit in October allowing a transportation corridor through the tunnel area.

“The province, when they granted that, was well aware of the fact that there were other land tenure-holders and they have rights to the minerals. And it doesn’t prevent access by other parties to their properties,” he says.

The world economy could have more impact on mine investments than the critics’ PR effort.

British Columbia Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett says that includes the value of minerals.

“I think commodity prices are dampening the spirits of investors. Companies that would typically invest in mining projects are investing in other things. And I don’t think it’s just B.C. I think it’s everywhere,” he says.

Bennett says the provincial government hopes mine owners find investors. But they face many other hurdles.

“We support mining in the province. It brings good jobs to the people in B.C. But they have a lot of government process to go through yet before they’ll ever be digging a hole in the ground,” he says.

The British Columbia government OK’d KSM’s environmental-protection plan last summer. The next major step is similar approval from Canada’s federal government.

Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim 300 to Run as 12-Dog Race

Tue, 2014-11-18 17:04

The Kuskowkim 300 Sled Dog race is now a 12-dog event. The race committee decided this fall to lower the dog limit from 14 to 12.

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Zach Fansler, the K300 Race Manager says a driving idea behind the change was to encourage more local mushing teams to run the full 300.

“Some of our teams with mid-size kennels, that have maybe participated in the K300 in the past, or have looked to do those kinds of things, don’t always have 14 dogs ready to go. Or they might have 11 so, and might feel discouraged and not participate in the 300,” said Fansler.

2014 K300 champion Rohn Buser congratulates his lead dogs after his 2nd Kuskokwim 300 win.

Many large teams, however, use the K300 to test out dogs in a race scenario prior to the Iditarod in March.

“It does kind of give them two less dogs to look at, and that was something I think weighed very heavily on the minds of the board as they were making that decision. And I think the push behind it is that it came up at last year’s musher’s meeting,” said Fansler.

The YK Delta’s muddy trails may not be race ready now, but with a higher purse and no entry fees, Fansler says he’s seeing a lot of interest from big time mushers like DeeDee Jonrowe, the Busers, and Joar Ulsom.

“We’ve heard from Brent Sass and Hugh Neff, we’ve heard from Lance Mackey. And right now we feel like we could have a field larger than we’ve had since the early ‘90s, late ‘80s,” said Fansler.

Fansler expects local mushers to be at the starting line, but says he doesn’t have the official word yet from 9-time champion Jeff King. The race keeps the rest of the rules from 2014, which allow for 6 hours of flexible rest time. Kwethluk will be the first official checkpoint, although mushers are not required to sign in or out.

The YK racing season kicks off December 20th with the Holiday Classic, a 40-mile race out of Bethel. The season continues with the 100 Mile Challenge a week later. The 2015 Kuskokwim 300 is scheduled for January 16th.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Museum Trying New Ways To Recruit New Museum Buffs

Tue, 2014-11-18 17:03

As cultural institutions across the country struggle to stay relevant in a changing financial landscape, many are testing new ways to raise funds and expand membership. The Anchorage museum is trying to recruit the next wave of museum buffs in some unconventional ways.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: November 17, 2014

Mon, 2014-11-17 17:47

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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Begich Concedes Senate Race to Sullivan

The Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has conceded the Alaska Senate race to Republican Dan Sullivan.  Begich called Sullivan to congratulate him Monday. He said he urged Sullivan “to adopt a bipartisan resolve in the Senate.”

After Parnell Concession, Walker Transition Formally Begins

Alexandra Guiterrez, APRN – Juneau

With the governor’s race called in favor of unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker and conceded over the weekend, the transition process is formally underway.

Marijuana Entrepreneurs Face Special Business Burdens

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washingon, DC

Alaskans who hope to operate marijuana businesses will have to defy U.S. drug law, of course. But they’ll also face other federal rules they’re likely to find severely inconvenient and perhaps crippling to their enterprise.

Lights Back on in Tuluksak

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

After a week without power, the lights in Tuluksak came back on Friday evening. Some families lost hundreds of pounds of meat and fish due to the extended outage during unseasonably warm weather.  The community of more than 400 located upriver from Bethel lost power earlier this month.

Scientists Report Steep Decline in Number of Polar Bears

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey are reporting a steep decline in the number of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea. In a study published Monday, they show the population dropped 40 percent in the first ten years of this century. Between 2004 and 2007 – out of 80 cubs the researchers observed – researchers only know of two that survived.

Virus Could be Killing Pacific Starfish

Monica Gokey, KSKA-Anchorage

A mysterious illness causing mass die-offs of Pacific starfish has baffled scientists since the epidemic first started in the summer of 2013. But scientists now think they may be one step closer to an answer. A new study points to a virus as the likely cause of dwindling sea star numbers from Mexico to Alaska.

Military Training Becoming More Difficult in Alaska

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Army’s highest-ranking soldier in Alaska says the military trains here so it can operate in the Arctic, which he calls one of the world’s most difficult environments. Major General Mike Shields says it’s becoming more complex with climate change.

Feds Upholding Decision to Renew Permits for Usibelli Coal

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The federal Office of Surface Mining is criticizing a state agency’s handling of permit extensions and renewals for the Wishbone Hill coal project near Palmer. The office is upholding a decision by the Department of Natural Resources to renew project permits for the operator, Usibelli Coal. But the federal agency says the state erred in never officially terminating the permits due to inaction by an earlier owner.








Categories: Alaska News

After Parnell Concession, Walker Transition Formally Begins

Mon, 2014-11-17 17:08

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With the governor’s race called in favor of unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker and conceded over the weekend, the transition process is formally underway.

The concession came without ceremony. There was no press conference from the defeated Republican incumbent, Sean Parnell. There also wasn’t a victory event from Walker, who is currently on a brief vacation in Hawaii.

Instead, Parnell sent out an e-mail to his supporters titled “Honor of a lifetime” on Saturday evening. With nearly a 5,000-vote gap between him and Walker and just 10,000 absentee votes left to count, Parnell stated that his reelection was “numerically possible” but “highly improbable.”

The transition for a Walker administration began the same day. Walker’s team now has access to state office space in Juneau and Anchorage, and is beginning to form policy working groups on over a dozen issues. Those working groups won’t be in charge of personnel decisions.

The logistical aspects of the transition are being handled by small circle of advisors, which includes at least one member of Walker’s incoming staff.

“That effort is largely being led by Jim Whitaker, who is the designated incoming chief of staff,” says campaign advisor Bruce Botelho.

Whitaker, a moderate Republican, served as mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough for six years. He also served four years in the Legislature.

When asked about the Whitaker hire, a Walker spokesperson said the campaign is reserving comment on appointments until later this week.

The inauguration is scheduled for December 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Scientists Report Steep Decline in Number of Polar Bears

Mon, 2014-11-17 17:04
Download Audio Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey are reporting a steep decline in the number of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea. In a study published on Monday, they show the population dropped 40 percent in the first 10 years of this century. Between 2004 and 2007- out of 80 cubs the researchers observed, they only know of two that survived. Jeff Bromaghin is a USGS researcher and lead author of the study. He says more cubs from that group may have survived, but the scientists didn’t see them.
Categories: Alaska News

Military Training Becoming More Difficult in Alaska

Mon, 2014-11-17 17:02

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The Army’s highest-ranking soldier in Alaska says the military trains here so it can operate in the Arctic, which he calls one of the world’s most difficult environments. Major General Mike Shields says it’s becoming more complex with climate change.


Categories: Alaska News

East Anchorage Drug Bust Part of State-Wide Rise in Heroin, Cocaine, Meth

Mon, 2014-11-17 16:23

The operation was led by the Special Assignment Unit, which focuses on supply-level drug interdiction.

Anchorage police seized a large supply of illegal drugs at an East Anchorage residence over the weekend. 

Officers with the police department’s Special Assignment Unit received information that drugs were coming in and out of a house on Rocky Mountain Court near Russian Jack Park. Department spokesperson Jennifer Castro said the tip allowed officers to obtain search warrants that led to the cache of drugs–estimated by APD to be worth $111,000 at the street level. Intercepting drugs before they get that far is exactly where the Special Assignment Unit focuses its efforts.

“You kind of have to think of it as a large retail store,” Castro explained. “You’re shutting down the retail store and so therefore they’re not able to supply those goods and services that the dealers are trying to provide to their clientele. So, when we’re able to make busts at this level we know that it’s going to have an impact all the way down to the street level.”

Castro says a seizure the size of last Friday night’s is a big deal for the department’s drug interdiction efforts. Besides the value, the department believes they halted the supply of drugs to more than a hundred dealers and users.

But more unusual was the discovery of three different hard drugs all in significant quantity: 24 grams of heroin, 101 grams of cocaine, and 683 grams of methamphetamine. All three drugs are on the rise in Alaska, according to the Department of Public Safety.

“Across the state we’re seeing an increase from all law enforcement of seizures of heroin, cocaine and meth, as well,” said Castro. “So when we look at those trends we are seeing increases in those. Especially a dramatic increase in seizures of heroin.”

Both suspects were charged with two felony counts for misconduct involving a controlled substance, one connected to the sale of methamphetamines, and the other related to intent to distribute near a recreation area.



Categories: Alaska News

Begich Concedes Senate Race to Sullivan

Mon, 2014-11-17 15:59

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has conceded the Alaska Senate race to Republican Dan Sullivan.

Begich called Sullivan to congratulate him Monday. He said he urged Sullivan “to adopt a bipartisan resolve in the Senate.”

Sullivan led the one-term incumbent Begich by about 8,100 votes on election night Nov. 4, and maintained an edge as ballot counting continued.

In a statement, Begich said he was proud of the work he accomplished, in areas including energy development, veterans’ health care and protecting postal service in Alaska.

He said the state deserves a bright future with expanded economic opportunity and a strong, prosperous rural Alaska. He also said he supports equality for all Alaskans and the results of an election have never diminished his desire to achieve those goals.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Tribe Drops Funding for City Transit

Mon, 2014-11-17 15:29

Bethel’s tribe, ONC announced Monday that they will no longer provide funding for the city’s transit system. The announcement came at a joint meeting of the tribe and the city council at ONC’s offices. Gloria Simeon, President of the ONC Council, says uncertainty of federal funding is a big reason they’re pulling the money.

“The sequestration and what’s happening on the national level leaves us in a quandary because we don’t know what the funding is going to be in the next few years,” Simeon said.

“We have a new administration coming so we need to kind of close in our funding until we know what’s happening and being basically two years paid in advance in our agreement with the city, we cannot advance any more money in in-kind contributions.”

The city has been managing the transit system with contributions from ONC and matching state and federal grants since 2008. Simeon says ONC has contributed about three quarters of a million dollars to date and the council voted unanimously at their regular meeting last week to stop funding it. She says ONC needs to devote more resources to their low-income housing project.

The city council in their Tuesday regular meeting showed strong, but cautious interest in stepping in to fund the system. They would have to commit nearly $100,000 from their 2016 budget, which won’t be done until June.

John Sargent who manages the city’s grants said Monday ONC cut comes as the city is poised to secure significant transit funding.

“We have four buses right now,” he said. “We just got a brand new bus for $63,000 on last year’s grant and we have a bus in the current budget for next year. That would be another $63,000 bus, which we could get delivered and we were hoping to apply for a third bus. So within two years we would have had three new buses.”

Shannon Sumner says her decision to move to Bethel from Seattle to work for the Kuskokwim Campus of UAF was partially due to the city’s transit system. She says she rides the bus to work every day and her budget will feel a pinch if it goes away.

“I buy a bus pass. It pretty much costs me $3 a day to get to and from work,” Sumner said. “If I take a cab it’s going to cost me $12 a day to get to and from work, and that is a big huge budget difference.”

Bethel will have to find another source of funding quickly as a grant requiring matching funds is due in December. If they don’t, Bethel’s bus service could end June 30th.


Categories: Alaska News

Marijuana Entrepreneurs Face Special Business Burdens

Mon, 2014-11-17 15:06

With the passage of Prop. 2 this month, Alaska joins Colorado, Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana. While the state figures out how to regulate marijuana commerce, several federal laws sit as roadblocks to the business of cannabis.

Alaskans who hope to operate marijuana businesses will have to defy U.S. drug law, of course. But they’ll also face other federal rules they’re likely to find severely inconvenient and perhaps crippling to their enterprise.

One problem is a bit of tax code called 280E. This provision, enacted in the 1980s, prevents narco-traffickers from deducting business expenses, and the IRS enforces it against state-licensed pot businesses, too. Taylor West, deputy director of the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association, says it means marijuana businesses can’t deduct costs like rent and payroll when they file their tax returns.

“What that results in is businesses paying an effective tax rate or somewhere around 70-75 even 80 percent on their net profit,” she said.

It’s crushing to small businesses, West says, even though a few legitimate deductions remain.

“So oddly enough,” she said, “one of the things that a cannabis dispensary, for instance, can deduct is the cost of buying the marijuana.”

Another big impediment for pot entrepreneurs is the banking rules.  Banks typically refuse to allow marijuana businesses to open accounts, out of fear that they’ll be implicated in money laundering or other federal crimes. West says some members of her industry trade association have found ways around it.

“But the majority at this point are still having to operate entirely in cash, without the benefit of any sort of safety or accounting ease that comes from having a checking account,”she said.

Earl Blumenauer, a congressman from Oregon says, regardless of how you feel about legalizing marijuana, it’s not a good idea to force these businesses out of the banking system.

“Restricting them from having bank accounts, is absolutely insane, unfair and unwise if you care about money laundering, tax evasion or just theft,” he said at a press conference last week at the Capitol.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., one of the most outspoken Republicans for federal marijuana reform.

Blumenauer, who represents part of Portland and its eastern suburbs, is pressing for a raft of bills that would ease federal restrictions on marijuana, but the most pressing are the tax code and the banking rules.

“We need congress to act on two serious problems, not just for those states that have legalized adult use but for 23 states and counting that have legalized medical marijuana,” he said.

Blumenauer says a coalition of about 180 House Democrats and 50 Republicans supports liberalizing federal marijuana law. One of the visible Republicans is Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California.

“My message to my fellow Republicans is ‘Wake up and see where the American people are,’” Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher, from conservative Orange County, says Republicans should join him to support principles like personal liberty and limited government, or just raw politics.

Alaska Congressman Don Young is already on board. He co-sponsored a Rohrabacher bill to block federal prosecution of people who buy or sell marijuana in compliance with state laws. Spokesman Matt Shuckerow says Young supports a state’s right to determine the nature of criminal activity within its borders. But one of the biggest impediments to marijuana commerce may be congressional indifference. The leaders of both parties, in the House and the Senate, haven’t made federal marijuana reform a big priority.

Categories: Alaska News

Virus Implicated in Sea Star Wasting Disease Epidemic

Mon, 2014-11-17 11:00

A mysterious illness causing mass die-offs of Pacific starfish has baffled scientists since the epidemic first started in the summer of 2013. But scientists think they may now have an answer. A new study points to a virus as the likely cause of dwindling sea star numbers from Mexico to Alaska.

Sea star wasting disease is affecting starfish populations throughout the Pacific, from Baja California to Mexico. Photo credit: Kit Harma, pacificrockyintertidal.org.

If you’re a starfish in the Pacific, sea star wasting disease is pretty much your zombie apocalypse. Marine microbiologist Dr. Ian Hewson has witnessed the gruesome effects of wasting disease first-hand.

The first symptom is arm curling.

“The ends of their arms start to flex upwards and they start to detach from the rock’s surface,” Hewson says.

Then they undergo a process called pretzeling.

“So they basically fold themselves into a pretzel, their arms cross over each other, they’re almost as though they’re tying themselves into a knot.”’

Next the starfish lose some of their internal pressure and deflate. And then lesions start to form.

Tube feet and underside of a giant star (Pisaster giganteus) collected from Monterey Bay, Calif. The mouth of the animal is located at the center of the arms. A lesion between the top arms is characteristic of early sea star wasting disease. Photo courtesy Cornell University.

“Once the lesions appear the animal almost certainly starts to die.”

The sea star’s arms begin to fall off.

“And then they undergo this process of melting. It’s often reported that they just start to dissolve.”

Up until recently, scientists didn’t know what was causing mass sea star die-offs in the Pacific.

Hewson is the lead author on a new study that identifies a particular virus as the cause of the current wasting disease outbreak.

After observing how it spread in aquariums, Hewson and his team isolated the common thread: a virus they’re calling sea star associated densovirus.

Sea star wasting disease epidemics are nothing new. But past incidences have been directly related to El Nino events — warmer seawater. The current outbreak in the Pacific is different. It’s startling for both its severity and its range — from Baja California all the way up to Alaska.

Hewson guesses it’s the largest marine epidemic biologists have ever seen. And it’s still spreading; farther south into Mexico — and farther north.

“The sea stars in Alaska have started to become really affected by this disease,” Hewson says.

Earlier this year there were just a handful of isolated reports of sea star wasting disease around Juneau and Sitka. Since then it’s been observed in Glacier Bay and as far north as Homer.

“It is, you know, spreading. It seems not to be affected too much by the waters getting cooler,” Hewson says. “I have every expectation it will move into sea star populations further along the Alaska coast — probably out into the Aleutians.”

Apart from its geographical breadth, what’s also unique about this outbreak is how many different species of starfish are affected — at least 20, possibly more.

“Indeed it is very peculiar to find a virus that is capable of infecting across such large numbers of species.”

Most viruses are host-specific — meaning they can only survive and proliferate in one kind of animal. But the virus Hewson identified, sea star associated densovirus — or SSaDV — is a remarkable generalist; it’s even found across different groups of echinoderms, like urchins and brittle sea stars.

And the story gets even weirder.

Size matters. Smaller, juvenile sea stars, for example, can tolerate high viral loads without showing symptoms of wasting disease.

“Whereas the adult sea stars, when they don’t have the virus present they’re perfectly fine and healthy, but when the larger sea stars have a much smaller number of viruses than the juveniles, but when they have the virus present, they die.”

Hewson says they have no idea why smaller sea stars seem to be immune, or protected, from the virus.

So what’s the prognosis?

“You know, it’s probably going to continue until it reaches a point where it can no longer move around.”

Hewson says viruses play an important ecological role in marine environments. The current epidemic of wasting disease is severe, true, but Hewson says this kind of die-off is cyclical.

“No virus wipes out its host population entirely. There’s never been an extinction as a result of a virus.”

It’s too early to tell how Pacific marine environments will change as a result of the outbreak, Hewson says. Sea stars are major predators, and in places where they’ve been wiped out scientists are already seeing changes, notably in prey abundance, which has a ripple effect. What those changes will look like long-term is unclear.

In the meantime, scientists like Hewson will rely on public sightings of sea star wasting disease to track how far the epidemic is spreading and which species of starfish are affected.

If you live in a coastal area and have seen wasting disease, scientists ask that you log your findings at pacificrockyintertidal.org.

Categories: Alaska News

Healthcare.gov Has Smooth Launch in Alaska

Sun, 2014-11-16 14:51

Healthcare.gov was working smoothly in Alaska this weekend for the start of open enrollment. Enroll Alaska reported Friday that the site was miscalculating the subsidy amounts for Alaskans looking for health insurance in “window shopping” mode. But the company said it had signed up 40 people on Saturday- the first day the site was live- with no apparent problems.

The open enrollment period lasts three months until February 15th.
Categories: Alaska News

Parnell concedes gubernatorial race to Walker

Sat, 2014-11-15 20:30

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has conceded in the state’s gubernatorial race, issuing a statement a day after independent candidate Bill Walker was declared the winner.

Parnell wrote on Facebook Saturday that he met with Walker Saturday morning, offering him office space to help with the transition.

Walker grabbed a slim lead on election night, but the race was too close to call while absentee and questioned voters were counted this week. Walker won Friday when it became evident that Parnell could not overcome Walker’s lead.

Parnell has served as governor since July 2009, when Sarah Palin resigned. He won election in his own right in 2010.

Walker, an attorney and former mayor of Valdez, is the first candidate unaffiliated with a party to be elected governor since statehood. He is scheduled to be sworn in on Dec. 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Increases Lead, Begich Closes Gap Slightly

Fri, 2014-11-14 16:48

Unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker has increased his lead in the governor’s race.

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The Division of Elections tallied nearly 20,000 ballots this morning, with still more to be counted later this evening. An afternoon update by the Division showed Walker with nearly a two percent lead over Republican incumbent Sean Parnell — about 4,500 votes.

Meanwhile, the gap in the Senate race shrunk slightly. Democratic incumbent Mark Begich began the day 8,000 votes behind Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. Begich made up some ground mid-day when rural absentee votes were counted, but then lost it with the most recent update.

Neither Parnell nor Begich have conceded their races, though the Associated Press called the Senate race in Sullivan’s favor on Wednesday after concluding the difference between the candidates was insurmountable. Both candidates are outside the half-point margin required for an automatic recount.

The Division of Elections will stop today’s count in the early evening, and then resume tallying the estimated 14,000 remaining ballots Monday.

Categories: Alaska News

With No Power, Tuluksak Residents Scramble to Save Meat

Fri, 2014-11-14 16:45

After a week without power, a backup generator is scheduled to arrive in Tuluksak Friday. But families have already lost hundreds of pounds of moose, fish, birds, and berries.

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Fred Napoka met the airplane Thursday morning to pick up a new generator. As a smaller unit buzzed in the background, Napoka and a few helpers got to work setting it up. Napoka’s new 4000-watt gas generator came at just the right time.

“With this warm weather, it won’t take too long to have the freezers thaw out,” said Napoka.

Families are takings shifts with generators and running cords to their neighbors in attempts to save food. It’s not uncommon for people in the village more than 50 miles upriver from Bethel to have multiple freezers where they store subsistence food, which makes up the majority of their diet.

The more than 400 residents have been without power for a week. The Tuluksak Traditional Power Company has been unable to repair their generator following a blown piston. The state is sending an emergency generator on a DC-6. It’s large enough to power the entire community, but it’s too late for some. Veronica Andrew lists her losses.

“80 pounds of meat, 70 pounds of bird, about 100 pounds of fish,” said Andrew.

Roy Nicholai’s more than 150 pounds of moose was no good.

“I have to give it to the dogs I guess, because I can’t cook it and eat it, because I know what will happen to me if I do that,” said Nicholai.

A long list of regional and statewide organizations are keeping close communication with Tuluksak. Community members filled out surveys Thursday listing how much food was inedible. The state wants to be ready to ask its food charities for help, if it becomes necessary.

The local store manager, Andrew B. Alexie, still had food on the shelves, but said customers were out in force.

“It’s a hectic week,” said Alexie.

Crews continued to work on the power plant Thursday and clear space for the temporary unit. The state says Tuluksak can use it as long as they need, as they come up with a longer-term solution.

Peter Andrew Senior, the President of the Traditional Council, which runs the utility through the tribe, says the generator has had a hard life.

“It’s very old and very outdated. I don’t know how old it is. The mechanic said it’s an outdated generator and it’s very hard to find parts for it,” said Andrew.

People have been depending on wood stoves for heat, and camp stoves for cooking. Marie Andrew was dealing with limited access to the washateria by bringing out the old washboard.

“Since the lights are off, I’m washing clothes by hand,” said Andrew.

When asked their plans for restocking freezers after the unplanned November thaw, many hoped state and federal managers could open up additional hunting for moose and caribou. Andrew had another simple solution.

“Go ice fishing,” said Andrew.

In an unseasonably warm November, many residents’ calendars have been tossed aside. As freezers go warm, some even moved up Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks, to save the turkey from going spoiled.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: November 14, 2014

Fri, 2014-11-14 16:45

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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Walker Increases Lead, Begich Closes Gap Slightly

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

Unaffiliated candidate Bill Walker has increased his lead in the governor’s race. Meanwhile, the gap in the Senate race shrunk slightly.

Murkowski Questions Differing National Guard Investigation Results

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Two different Pentagon agencies investigated the Alaska National Guard for allegedly mishandling sexual assault complaints. They came to opposite conclusions, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants to know why.

Healthcare.gov Miscalculates Subsidies in Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

November 15th marks the start of the second open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, when individuals can sign up for health insurance on healthcare.gov.  But even before it opens for business, there are signs the website isn’t working correctly for Alaskans.

With No Power, Tuluksak Residents Scramble to Save Meat

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

After a week without power, a backup generator is scheduled to arrive in the Southwest Alaska village of Tuluksak Friday.  But families have already lost hundreds of pounds of moose, fish, birds, and berries.

Students Call For Action, Public Comment On U-Med Access Road

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Students at the University of Alaska – Anchorage are trying to motivate their classmates and the community to get informed about a controversial infrastructure project – the U-Med District Northern Access Road. They say the public still has a chance to shape the project’s future.

Candlelight Vigil Raises Awareness About Homeless Students

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Dozens of people gathered at Farnsworth Park in Soldotna for a candlelight vigil last night. It’s a joint effort of the Kenai Peninsula School District and community groups to raise awareness about homeless youth and families in the area.

State Celebrates First Dr. Walter Soboleff Day

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Today is the first annual Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska, and dozens of the late Tlingit leader’s friends and relatives marked the occasion with a parade through downtown Juneau.

AK: Tlingit Dance

Anne Brice, APRN Contributor

Dancing can be a celebration, an expression of joy or sorrow, or a way to tell a story. For one man in Sitka, it’s a way to teach people about his Native culture and values, and to carry on his tradition. With elders in the community growing older or already gone, he says it’s his responsibility to learn and pass along the teachings to the younger generation so they can grow up proud to be Tlingit.

300 Villages: The Stampede

This time we’re heading to an unofficial community near Denali National Park boundary called The Stampede. Molly McKinley lives in The Stampede.

Categories: Alaska News

Candlelight Vigil Raises Awareness About Homeless Students

Fri, 2014-11-14 16:43

The sign that marks the entrance to Farnsworth Park reads “Dedicated to the children of Soldotna.” During the day, kids can often be seen playing on the equipment or in the grass.

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But the nighttime vigil held at the park was for kids who often go unseen.

“They don’t want to be known because they don’t want to be known as one of those kids that doesn’t have the family support and is struggling,” says Krista Schooley.

She knows because she’s been one of them. She was born and raised in Soldotna. She’s 40 years old now and a proud parent and grandmother. But, she says, a long time ago, her life was very different. A series of very bad events led to her becoming homeless.

“A lot of just trauma in my life. I was raped when I was 14 and it just made me go downhill. I ended up being a mom of two by the time I was 17. From the age of 17 to 19, I was a couchsurfer; I went from couch to couch,” says Schooley.

As a homeless teenager, she struggled to find safe places to sleep at night, food, but most of all, support.

“There wasn’t really anything out in the community to help me get on my feet,” says Schooley.

Kelly King coordinates the Students in Transition program for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Each year her program identifies between 200 and 300 homeless students in the district. And the number is rising.

“Going about trying to find what resources are available, it’s very difficult when you’re on your own,” says King. “It’s hard for me to imagine being 16 years old and trying to channel public assistance for food stamps and trying to figure out how I’m getting to and from school.”

Then there’s finding shelter, running water, heat and much more. Her program helps youth navigate the specifics of getting the help they need so they can stay in school.

But the reason she and others have organized the vigil for the last five years is to shed some light on this incredibly important issue that she says, isn’t talked about enough.

“Well, I think in society in general, there’s a really negative stigma attached to the word homeless,” says King.

She says she hopes events like this will motivate people to really think about the issue without stigmatizing it.

17-year old Soldotna High School student Lana Chesley is doing just that. She’s seen how being in that position goes beyond personal life. She’s had homeless classmates and friends it takes its toll on school life and social life as well.

“I knew it was really hard because most kids grow up with all sorts of electronics and gizmos and money and stuff,” says Chesley. “And the people who I knew did struggle because they couldn’t connect with their friends like that. So I think it’s a struggle for them as an identity thing because they can’t relate to their peers as anyone else did.”

She’s glad this vigil is specifically for kids and their families. It’s hard enough to just be a teenager much less one without a stable place to call home.

“When I put myself in their place and try to feel what they’re feeling, I can’t really imagine it,” says Chesley. “So I guess there is a semblance of sadness in my heart because I really don’t know how they feel and it hurts me that they’re hurting because I know they are.”

Schooley says it is hard, but it’s also possible to turn things around.

“I got my life together, healed through all the pain and trauma and found out what was happening here and it’s just unacceptable,” says Schooley.

She went from being homeless herself to now working with kids in the same position. But despite having that experience, she was still surprised to find out how big the problem is on the peninsula.

“These are families and students and individuals who are really that invisible population amongst the crowd but they are very much here and very much present,” says King, who hopes that making the unseen seen, even just for one night, could spark the change that is sorely needed.

Categories: Alaska News