APRN Alaska News
The Walker-Mallott administration will include transboundary mine critics’ concerns in its negotiations with British Columbia.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott made that announcement after returning from a week of meetings with government, industry and aboriginal leaders in the nearby province.
Southeast environmental, fishing and tribal groups say they’ve been left out of opportunities to question the safety of B.C. mines near Alaska’s border.
Mallott said that will change.
“I would hope we have the most open and transparent processes and involvements with the public possible,” he said, in a teleconferenced press conference.
He said his trip opened doors and increased opportunities to learn about the mines.
At least a half-dozen are planned in watersheds that feed salmon-producing rivers important to Southeast fishermen.
“It’s important for us not just to understand how the government does its business over there, but the involvement and interests and the concerns of stakeholders in British Columbia and the mining industry itself,” Mallott said.
The lieutenant governor met last week with provincial agencies overseeing mining and the environment.
Afterward, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said he wanted to open more of B.C.’s permitting process to Alaska officials. The state can already comment on environmental certificates and Bennett said that could be expanded.
“We would propose to have Alaska also have access into the second part of a development of a mine, which involves my ministry and the Mines Act here in British Columbia and the permitting for the actual construction of the mine and how water treatment is built,” he said after the meeting.
Mallott said the talks were cordial and officials seemed sincere. But he let them know Alaska is serious about protecting water quality.
“Large mine development along those transboundary watersheds cannot be taken casually by the state of Alaska. And any engagement we have with British Columbia cannot be out of courtesy on their part,” he said.
Gov. Bill Walker earlier this year asked Mallott to lead an internal transboundary waters working group.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is among organizations critical of B.C.’s mine plans and the state’s response. Communications Director Daven Hafey said Mallott’s trip is a sign of progress.
“It’s movement. It’s movement in the right direction. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that what’s happening in B.C. respects Alaska waters and Alaska fish and that there’s very close participation between Alaska and B.C. on any development that occurs in the headwaters of our major salmon rivers,” he said.
During his visit, Mallott invited British Columbia officials to visit Southeast Alaska. Mines Minister Bennett accepted, though details are yet to be worked out.
He made a similar promise earlier this year, but never made the trip.
In the next few weeks, thousands of seafood processors will return to Unalaska for pollock B season. They’ll be earning more money, thanks to the state’s minimum wage hike — but they’ll also be paying more to live.
Added room & board costs are just one way processing plants are hoping to offset the wage increase.
Alyeska and Westward Seafoods have never charged for room & board. But on June 1, president Mark Johanson says that’ll change.
“This has been a very, very hard, soul-searching decision for us,” he says. “We’ve been trying to buck the trend, and make it a reasonable and a good place for people to work. The work is hard and challenging, and we understand that … but because of global competition and pressures, we have had to unfortunately make that decision.”
They’re implementing the state’s maximum room & board charge of $15 a day at their shoreside plants in Unalaska. Johanson says it comes out to about a dollar of every hour’s wages, including overtime. Since the minimum wage also went up a dollar this year, he says the changes are a wash, for now.
“And then, of course, as of Jan. 1, , the minimum wage will increase again by a dollar,” he says “So there is no remedy on room & board — we’ll just need to either eat that cost or find other ways to become more efficient in our operation.”
Johanson’s also worried about the $1 to $4 million cost of adding employee health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. So in the long term, he’s hoping to pare down, and automate more of their processing lines.
That’s going to happen at UniSea, too. Unalaska’s biggest seafood processor has plans to shrink its pollock operations back into one factory in the next few years.
They’re also upping their room & board charge. It’s started at $10 a day for the past couple of years, decreasing the more a processor works. But this spring, facing a $3 million cost bump from minimum wage, president Tom Enlow says they’ve gone to the upper limit, too.
“We’re not really in a position to just take that cost — any cost increase, for that matter — and pass it onto our customers,” he says.
That’s because they’re working with set market prices for seafood, where costs are shared between the harvesters and the processors. Since the wage hike impacts the processors, Enlow says they may want to renegotiate those price formulas down the line.
But for now, room & board is their first line of defense, along with some cuts to staffing. That’s come through the natural attrition Enlow says they see at the start of every season.
“There’s always going to be a certain amount of workers that come up and say ‘Oh, I had no idea I was going to have to work all day,’ and they end up leaving,” he says.
This year, UniSea wanted to see how low they could go. They didn’t rehire for those empty jobs, and went through A season about 80 people short.
“Our crab and cod throughput always suffers when our headcount is down below a certain number, and we certainly saw that take place this year,” he says. “But it’s just all in an effort to try to hold those costs down.”
In pollock B season — which covers 60 percent of the year’s huge quota — they’ll move staff around and focus on producing surimi. Right now, there’s a better market for the imitation crab product than there is for fillets.
Over at Alyeska and Westward, president Mark Johanson says they’re keeping their headcount the same for now. In fact, they’ve had to work harder than normal to recruit to fill those jobs.
With higher wages up against room & board costs, and an improving job market down south, Johanson says it’s not as easy as it once was lure new processors up to Alaska.
Two big hospitals in Anchorage have competing visions for how to expand access to emergency care. Alaska Regional wants to build two freestanding emergency departments on opposite ends of the city, while Providence is hoping to add rooms to specialize in pediatric emergencies on its campus. The decision will ultimately be made by the state health commissioner but the public can weigh in now.
On a busy day, the emergency department at Providence Hospital admits more than 200 patients. There aren’t enough rooms, so some patients are on beds in hallways, with curtains for privacy.
Dr. Daniel Safranek, the department’s medical director, says it’s not ideal.
“It makes the department feel crowded and a little bit chaotic,” Safranek said.
Providence is asking the state to approve 14 more emergency room beds. 10 will be focused on pediatric emergency patients, freeing up other beds for adults. Because of crowding in it’s current ER, Providence says most of those new rooms could be filled as soon as they’re built.
But in Alaska, hospitals need approval from the state to build big new projects. The idea is to prevent hospitals from building too many facilities and then passing the cost onto consumers. The state has decided Anchorage can support 13 new emergency room beds between now and 2022. And Alaska Regional Hospital has it’s own vision of how to best use those beds. CEO Julie Taylor wants to build the first freestanding emergency departments in Alaska, one in South Anchorage and another in Eagle River.
“It’s a model that’s proven in other markets to be more efficient and more effective and also can save lives,” Taylor said.
Freestanding emergency departments offer a higher level of care than urgent care clinics. They operate 24 hours a day, are staffed with emergency medicine physicians and are equipped with cat scans and x-ray machines. Taylor says residents who live in the outlying areas of Anchorage deserve quicker access to emergency care.
“We are at a disadvantage because all of the hospitals are located in a two mile radius of each other,” Taylor said. “So what if we had an earthquake? All the sudden the roads were cut off, everything is in one central area.”
Because freestanding ER’s aren’t attached to a hospital though, they don’t allow access to specialists or surgery or blood transfusions. In the Lower 48, they have been criticized for increasing inappropriate emergency room use and driving up the cost of care. Taylor says that is not Alaska Regional’s intention.
But Dr. Safranek, at Providence hospital, is skeptical of the concept. He says many patients who visit freestanding ER’s would be better served in an urgent care clinic. And he says in a true emergency a patient is going to need to be transferred to a hospital.
“And more than likely when you’re transferred, you’re going to end up in the emergency department of that hospital, because that’s where you can get services quickly,” Safranek said. “So you end up delaying care for the sickest patients.”
Dr. Safranek doesn’t think freestanding ER’s deserve to be measured against traditional ER beds as Commissioner Valerie Davidson weighs her decision.
The state disagrees. And it will be up to the Office of Rate Review in the Division of Health and Social Services to make a recommendation to the commissioner, says Executive Director Jared Kosin.
“We’ll look at what the trend patterns are for access,” Kosin said. “And we’ll do our analysis and ultimately it will be up to the commissioner to listen to the public, look at the proposals and make a decision.”
Kosin says he expects Commissioner Davidson to issue a decision by the end of July. She could decide to split the ER beds between the two hospitals. A public hearing on the issue will be held next Monday May 18th from 4-7 pm at the Loussac Library.
This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling plans for the Arctic have hit a snag in Seattle. Shell is planning to dock oil rigs at the Port of Seattle before they head north to drill in the Chukchi Sea.
The city council and mayor have come out against that deal. And that got the attention of a group of Alaskans, who showed up to tell Seattle’s leaders to get out of the way.
The resolution the council passed doesn’t really have any teeth, but it was enough of a statement that several Alaska Native leaders traveled for days from remote areas in the Arctic to oppose it.
They say they desperately need the jobs and revenue that drilling will bring to their communities.
“We left our homes at a critical time. We have come off the ice from whaling to speak to you,”
John Hobson Jr. came from Wainright AK, about 70 miles east of where the Arctic offshore drilling will take place, said.
He said the journey at this time was “a huge imposition.”
“But we felt it is important to our long-term livelihood that you understand that there are people involved who want the same things you have: flush toilets, good health care, quality schools for our children,” Hobson said.
Shell has just received conditional approval from the U.S. interior Department, getting them one step closer to a sure bet that their Arctic drilling plan can go ahead off the Alaskan coast this summer.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital could lose its accreditation after being flagged for inadequately documenting some of its sterilization procedures.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that an independent commission says it found three instances since January in which surgical implements like screws or plates may have come in contact with an unsterilized surface.
The equipment was then quickly “flash” sterilized.
But there’s no record of required follow-up tests. The commission says that poses an “immediate risk to life and safety.”
The hospital must pass follow-up reviews, including a surprise inspection. If it fails, it will lose its accreditation.
Hospital Foundation President Jeff Cook says new procedures went into place Friday to prevent future problems.
Hospital leaders say they have been trying to minimize the use of the quick sterilization technique.
Anchorage has cleared the way for Alaska’s first large-scale marijuana convention this weekend. But not without a few strings attached. While the city’s Assembly voted to allow marijuana on site, it cannot be consumed there.
The vote to allow vendors to display marijuana at this weekend’s NW Cannabis Classic expo in the Dena’ina Center passed unanimously.
Organizers told the Assembly that having actual plants and product on-hand is important for educating attendees.
“We’ve got trimming and manicuring workshops,” said Corey Wray of Pacific Sun West, the promotion company promoting the event. “It’s hard to sit there and trim and manicure a bud with no bud. You’re effectively cutting space.”
Wray said the plants are also to help patrons learn about clones, demonstrate how to properly harvest, and use tertiary products like fertilizer.
It’s the biggest event for the burgeoning marijuana industry held in a public building, and raised new questions and concerns for the Municipality. Wray and his business partner testified to the Assembly they have bought an insurance policy that can cover multiple layers of liability, since it was unclear until Tuesday night’s decision what degree marijuana would be present–if at all.
Assembly Member Patrick Flynn pushed for a designated smoking area on the building’s patio.
“It’s a little naive,” Flynn said, “that we can’t provide any venue whatsoever for consumption. And I’m trying to create a very narrowly crafted, personal use facility on the grounds that is private, out of sight of minors, and therefore appropriate.”
But the rest of the Assembly didn’t agree. In part because of concerns raised that vague statutes on consumption could open the city up to legal liability if something goes wrong, as has happened with a pending case involving the Dena’ina Center.
“I would remind the body that a gentleman fell to his death from the escalator,” said Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler, “and one of the allegations is that he was over-served, i.e. he over consumed.” Wheeler’s opinion is that it is still too early in the state and municipality’s process of developing rules regulating marijuana for the city to take on the risk.
A similar event scheduled for April in the Egan Center was canceled after the Mayor’s Office banned displays of marijuana in buildings owned by the city.
The NW Cannabis Classic is slated to bring more than $100,000 into Anchorage during the three day convention. according to Wray.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday morning the FCC is ready to investigate how a company partly owned by Fairbanks-based Doyon won licenses to use the wireless spectrum while claiming it was entitled to billions of dollars in discounts. Critics say Doyon’s big corporate partner, Dish Network, is taking advantage of a program meant to help small businesses. Doyon says the program worked exactly as intended.
When the FCC wants to sell licenses to use the public airwaves it holds a spectrum auction. Spectrum is the real estate the wireless industry is built on. Dish Network, a big satellite TV company, did well at a spectrum auction that concluded early this year. Dish holds an 85 percent stake in two companies that placed the winning bids on many of the licenses sold at that auction.
Combined, the Dish-owned companies bid more than $13 billion. But the companies say they only have to pay $10 billion, because they qualify as small enterprises – or “designated entities” as they’re called in FCC rules — and thus entitled to a 25 percent discount.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai told a Senate panel it’s outrageous.
“What was once a well-intentioned program designed to help small businesses has become a playpen for corporate giants,” he said at a Senate Appropriation Subcommittee Hearing. “The FCC’s recent … spectrum auction is a shocking case in point.”
Commissioner Pai says the FCC should reform its “designated entity” program so this never happen again. And he says, the Commission should reject the discounts if it finds Dish didn’t comply with the rules.
“To be frank, I’m appalled that a corporate giant has attempted to use small business discounts to rip off American taxpayers to the tune of $3.3 billion,” he said.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told senators he agrees with Pai on this. Before the next auction he said he hopes to update the discount program.
“I was around when it was created in 1993,” Wheeler told the senators. “It has the right kind of philosophy, and it’s a mandate from the Congress that we need to make sure that there are opportunities created for small businesses. And the problem is that the world has changed a lot since then and our rules haven’t.”
Monday was the deadline for filing petitions objecting to the last auction. Seven objections are now pending against the two Dish-owned companies, SNR and Northstar Wireless. Now that the deadline has passed, the case is finally in the FCC’s hands, Wheeler said.
Northstar is 15 percent owned by Doyon Limited, the Alaska Native Corporation for the Interior region, and Doyon says it controls Northstar. Allen Todd, Doyon’s general counsel, says Northstar followed the rules. Todd also says the ownership percentage of Northstar is similar to that of past FCC bidders that received the “designated entity” discount.
“In Washington, occasionally success gets punished as much as doing something wrong and I suspect that the success in this case is what’s attracted a lot of attention,” he said.
Todd says there was no ripoff of the taxpayer at the auction. One of the goals of the designated entity program is to increase competition. Analysts had predicted the auction would attract no more than $20 billion in bids. Instead, it drew double that. The Doyon attorney says the “designated entities” helped bring in more bidders and more money.
“So we can certainly focus on $3.3 billion in bidding credits that were awarded,” Todd said in a telephone interview, “or we can focus on the U.S. Treasury, net of bidding credits, receiving an additional $23 billion in proceeds.”
The Senate Commerce Committee is also investigating the bid discounts.
With No Budget Deal In Sight, Lawmakers Hold Brief Technical Session
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
When the Alaska State Legislature voted to take a recess, they set May 12 as the date they would reconvene in Juneau. But with no deal on a budget or Medicaid expansion, most lawmakers remained in Anchorage or in their home districts Tuesday.
Walker Administration Says Medicaid System Is On The Mend
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
The state’s troubled Medicaid payment system has seen improvements in recent months, according to Walker administration officials.
FCC Investigates Bid Discounts for Doyon-Owned Firm
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday morning the FCC is ready to investigate how a company partly owned by Fairbanks-based Doyon won licenses to use the wireless spectrum, while claiming it was entitled to billions of dollars in discounts. Critics say Doyon’s big corporate partner, Dish Network, is taking advantage of a program meant to help small businesses.
Climbers Heli-Rescued After Slide in the Alaska Range
Philip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
The National Park Service reports that two Idaho climbers have been rescued after an avalanche on Mt. Dickey in the Alaska Range.
Coalition Uses A Data-Driven Approach To Find Behavioral Health Solutions
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage high school students who feel like their teachers really care about them are 50 percent less likely to drink. Young women in Alaska attempt suicide at twice the rate of young men. Those are just a few statistics being used to develop behavioral health solutions for Anchorage’s youth.
Sitka Gets Creative To Pay For Its Dam
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
State and local officials — including Gov. Bill Walker — gathered in Sitka on Friday to formally dedicate the Blue Lake dam. The largest public works project in Sitka history, it’s projected to meet the city’s electricity needs for the next thirty years.
Treat Your Soil With A Little TLC, Reap The Benefits During Harvest
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Alaska’s farm produce vendors prepping for the busy summer season. Some use the organic label, others don’t, but what exactly is it that makes a vegetable organic?
‘TV Doesn’t Do It Justice': First Cruise Ship Visitors Arrive in Skagway
Emily Files, KHNS – Haines
Skagway’s modern gold rush – the cruise ship season – has begun. The town of around 1,000 people expects almost 800,000 cruise ship passengers this summer. And the first 2,000 of those passengers had the chance to explore town on Tuesday. The Celebrity Solstice sailed north from Vancouver, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.
The state’s troubled Medicaid payment system has seen improvements in recent months, according to Walker administration officials.
Healthcare Services Director Margaret Brodie briefed legislators on the state’s progress with the system at House Finance committee hearings today and yesterday. The update comes as Gov. Bill Walker has asked lawmakers to accept federal dollars to expand the state’s Medicaid program.
Out of the 500 defects found in the Xerox-built system, fewer than 100 remain. Brodie also said claims were being processed with greater than 90 percent accuracy. She said the system is not perfect, but it is improving dramatically and can handle more claims.
“The amount of work that remains is still significant, yet from October 2014 to the present, we have made significant progress.”
The problems with the payment system have caused Republican lawmakers to describe Medicaid as “broken,” and a number have said they do not support expansion of the program until the system is reformed.
Brodie’s presentation did not convince some Republican members of the House Finance committee that the system had been sufficiently repaired. Rep. Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, said he does not feel the improvements go far enough.
“We seem to be a little bit more comfortable that the same thing, at that point in time, we had an issue with.”
The committee will continue to hold hearings on Medicaid throughout the week.
When the Alaska State Legislature voted to take a recess, they set May 12 as the date they would reconvene in Juneau. But with no deal on a budget or Medicaid expansion, most lawmakers remained in Anchorage or in their home districts on Tuesday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports from a sleepy Capitol, as the threat of government shutdown looms.
With just a handful of legislators in the chambers, the House floor session lasted about ten minutes. The Senate lasted just five. Skipping right over the usual prayer and pledge of allegiance, leadership breezed through the agenda of what is known as a technical session — a meeting where a few lawmakers gavel in simply to keep the clock going.
The only real action was a series of floor speeches offered by the minority members in attendance. Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins bemoaned the gridlock and the risk of a government shutdown if a deal is not reached.
“I don’t think the Washington-D.C.-ification of our politics is a healthy trend,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “It’s really distressing for me to hear the words ‘government shutdown’ in association with our state government. Normally, that’s something we hear about with the the federal government.”
Meanwhile, Juneau Democrat Sam Kito chided the Legislature for relocating to Anchorage, as the sound of drills working on Capitol renovations interrupted him.
Nobody mentioned anything about progress. The Legislature was supposed to gavel out of its regular session on April 19, but lawmakers have been at an impasse over the budget. With the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, lawmakers need a supermajority to balance it with funds from the rainy day account. But House Democrats have said they will not support that without Medicaid expansion and more money for education.
After the session, House Speaker Mike Chenault told reporters that negotiations are ongoing. He said no bargaining points have been settled, and a divide still exists between the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
“Just trying to find out what the minority needs to get out of here, and unfortunately that’s the exact opposite of what the Senate would like to see and what a number of House members would like to see,” said Chenault, a Nikiski Republican. “They don’t want to see the budget increase. And so, it’s a matter of trying to figure out a way to not increase the budget but still get us the three-quarter vote that we need.”
In the meantime, no votes have been taken on any of the three special session agenda items: the budget, Medicaid expansion, and a sexual abuse prevention bill known as Erin’s Law. While the House already passed Erin’s Law in the regular session and continues to hold daily finance hearings, the Senate has held just two meetings since the governor called them into special session.
At an afternoon press conference, Gov. Bill Walker said he was frustrated by the lack of progress made during the special session.
“What I’m saying to the Legislature today is: Please do your job. Do it now,” said Walker. “Give us a budget that’s funded, accept Medicaid expansion, and pass Erin’s Law. Three things. You know, we can’t spend the entire summer working on these and we shouldn’t.”
The next floor sessions are scheduled for Friday and Saturday this week, and are expected to be technical sessions barring any deal between lawmakers.
If a compromise on the budget cannot be brokered, the state government is at risk of shutting down as soon as this summer.
Anchorage high school students who feel like their teachers really care about them are 50% less likely to drink. Young women in Alaska attempt suicide at twice the rate of young men. Those are just a few statistics being used to develop behavioral health solutions for Anchorage’s youth.
The data is captured by tools like the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Now, a coalition of youth-focused organizations in Anchorage is using that data to create behavioral health solutions. First, they are presenting some of the 67 pages of data to the community and getting their feedback on what they value the most.
“We really want to make sure that our efforts are focused on issues that the community cares about and that it will make a difference,” says Deborah Williams with the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition.
During a series of presentations, community members and youth have highlighted items like raising awareness of mental health issues for younger kids and helping young people deal with feelings like loneliness.
Spirit of Youth executive director Karen Zeman says they want to find out the reasons for the numbers — why do young women tend to feel more sadness, hopelessness and stress than young men? Why is online bullying more likely to lead kids to drink than in-school bullying?
“There have been a lot of wonderful programs in Anchorage for youth, but they haven’t necessarily been evidenced-based,” she says. “So what we’re trying to do is take a step back, figure out what the top priorities are, and then figure out what really will work to move the needle.”
The data already confirm that some things have positive impacts, like young people who feel like they matter to others in their community are nearly 60 percent less likely to consider suicide.
The coalition also includes Healthy Voices, Healthy Choices and is running the project development with funds from the state’s Division of Behavioral Health. They hope to have new programs focused on youth behavioral health by 2016.
Skagway’s modern gold rush – the cruise ship season – has begun. The town of around 1,000 people expects almost 800,000 cruise ship passengers this summer. And the first 2,000 of those passengers had a chance to explore town Tuesday. The Celebrity Solstice sailed north from Vancouver, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.
Southeast Alaska residents are reveling in the warm, sunny May weather. But some cruise ship passengers are confused.
“I was gonna say I was expecting more snow, not realizing how temperate it really was,” one passenger said.
“There’s no snow on the ground,” said another. “We expected at least two foot of snow.”
But the snow-less sidewalks aren’t a big deal for Floridian Martin Levenson. Alaska? He says, there’s nothing like it on earth.
“I visited all the other 49 other states and this is the last one,” Levenson said. “Save the best for last.”
This is Levenson’s 19th cruise, but he’s never been to Skagway before. David Freeman and Denise Gunn from Victoria, BC are repeat visitors to Skagway.
“We’ll probably go to the Purple Onion, is it? The Red Onion.”
This is their sixth time here.
“Skagway’s just beautiful, I really enjoy it,” Freeman said. “If Skagway wasn’t on the itinerary I probably wouldn’t do it.”
Freeman and Gunn head to the Red Onion on Broadway, and Eric Hauck from Alberta heads to the…
“Train ride, choo choo,” he says. “Be a kid again.”
“It’s quite an interesting operation to see, moving so many people around,” said Tyler Rose, HR Director at the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. “We haul over 400,000 passengers a year.”
The railroad takes passengers on scenic rides to destinations like Carcross and Fraser. It’s also the biggest summer employer in Skagway, with 175 people working the train, the gift shop, the ticket booth.
“It’s unreal, it really is,” Rose said. “All the people coming in, it’s almost like a homecoming. Employees and friends you get to see, the shops open up. The ships start coming in. I know for the businesses the cash registers start to ring.”
One of those businesses is the BBQ Shack, owned by Bob Gibson.
“We do caribou burgers, and elk and buffalo burgers,” he says. “And my baby back ribs, the meat’ll just fall right off the bone.”
Gibson just sold a couple burgers to Laura Everitt and her husband. They’re from England, and it’s their first time in Alaska.
“We’ve traveled and we’ve done Juneau and Ketchikan. And Skagway is so beautiful. It’s so pretty. The buildings are stunning.”
Laura says they wanted to come to Alaska because they watch TV shows that take place here. Like the Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.
“We’ve seen it television, but it just does not do it justice,” she says. “It really doesn’t. It’s beautiful.”
Laura says they’re also enjoying learning about the history of Skagway, the gold rush days.
Those days are re-enacted in the Days of ’98 show. Allison Graham, who plays Belle Davenport, recites some lines:
“A man named JD Stuart strolled into town with 28 hundred dollars worth of gold dust in his poke. Jeff’s men were still riled up from the fourth. I guess they must’ve felt untouchable because they lured poor JD into Jeff’s parlor and right into a trap.”
Graham says it’s a mostly true story.
“It’s a vaudeville-style show all about Soapy Smith and the events the led to his tragic demise at a shoot out down on the pier on July 8th, 1898.”
Down the block from the Days of ’98 show, is a much different business, but one that’s commonly found in cruise ship ports: a jewelry store.
“This is amethyst,” Jennifer Ozuzun says as she takes a sparkly necklace out of a display case “You can see it’s still in rock form, so it hasn’t been cut and polished.”
Ozuzun and her jeweler husband, Murat, own The Local Jeweler shop. Is she excited about the start of the season?
“Uh, can you tell?” she laughs. “I’m really excited, I waited seven months for this. And having your own [store], it’s our baby so it’s a big deal.”
Ozuzun says she’s been back and forth between Skagway for 8 years. Her friend Letishia Moore, who works at the Milano jewelry store, says she feels drawn to Skagway.
And apparently, so do the cruise ships. According to the Skagway Visitors’ Bureau, there will be 402 port calls this summer.
After a month of discussion, the Sitka Assembly on Monday night settled on a modest electric rate increase. Residential rates will go up by about 6 percent in the coming year, to pay for debt service on the Blue Lake dam.
And when it comes to figuring out how a town of 9,000 pays off a $150-million hydroelectric dam, city staff are getting creative.
First, some quick history.
In an effort to find a sustainable source of electricity, Sitka decided to raise its Blue Lake dam by 83 feet. The goal was to power the island’s homes and businesses using Southeast Alaska’s most reliable and renewable resource – namely, the rain.
The catch? Those 83 feet cost roughly $150-million. Originally, the state was supposed to kick in about half of that. Long story short, it didn’t. So in the end, this city of 9,000 people borrowed about $100-million to finish the project.
And now, we have to pay back those bonds.
These bonds, by the way, are called revenue bonds. That’s because they’re backed by the revenue stream coming into the Electric Fund. Specifically, the loan agreement states that the fund must maintain a cash flow that’s 125-percent of the cost of debt service.
But Sitka had a mild winter, and oil prices are down. People used less electricity and more oil heat. The result? The Electric Department ended up with about $2.5-million less revenue than expected.
So now the city has to make up that gap.
Assembly members had two possible paths. Door number one: get that revenue through a rate increase. That would have meant raising electric rates by about 23-percent. For a household using, say, 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each month, that would have been a $28 hike on their monthly utility bill.
The assembly didn’t go for that choice.
Instead, they chose door number two. This option was a little more complicated. Essentially, the city is tapping the Southeast Alaska Economic Development Fund to shore up the Electric Fund.
That transfer counts as revenue, so it satisfies the bond requirements. And the city plans to use the money to install more efficient electric heating systems in several city-owned buildings currently heated with oil. That will have the dual impact of cutting the city’s fuel costs while generating more revenue for the Electric Fund. The old oil heating systems will stay in place, to create flexibility if the city ever needs that electric capacity in the future.
The end result of all those maneuvers is a smaller rate hike. For that same household using about 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month, the increase will be about 6-percent, or $8 a month.
That’s the choice the assembly went for, by a vote of 4-3. Mayor Mim McConnell voted in favor, joined by assembly members Michelle Putz, Ben Miyasato and Tristan Guevin.
Guevin said he’d like to take it one year at a time.
“Let’s use that money to cushion the blow for individuals and families,” he said. “And then if next year and the following years we get to the point where we need to raise rates to meet our bond covenant, than I think as a body we need to do that. As a community we need to understand that that’s what we’re committed to.”
But Aaron Swanson and Matt Hunter voted against that option, saying they’d prefer to raise rates all at once. Swanson said that he expects the smaller rate increase will result in more, and more frequent increases, going forward. Hunter said it’s just putting off the inevitable.
“It’s using our savings, our economic development savings, to artificially delay our rate increase to what it needs to be to truly make the fund sustainable,” Hunter said. “I see forty dollars, or thirty dollars a month, I understand that’s tough for people. But it’s what it costs to live here.”
Meanwhile, Steven Eisenbeisz voted no as a protest against any rate increases. He opposed both rate hikes – the large and the small.
“If this is going to be crippling, that would have been devastating,” he said, adding that he feels the city may be leaving better options on the table.”
“I fully understand that something does have to happen in order to pay for the dam. Are we necessarily getting there in the correct route? That’s the debatable question.”
What would Eisenbeisz like to see Sitka do instead?
“As I said, I don’t think every option has been explored, and I don’t have anything off the top of my head that I would say will be the magic bullet for this one.”
And in the absence of that magic bullet, the assembly says this will have to do.
One of the focal points in Anchorage’s recent mayoral election was crime, and wrangling with questions over whether or not it is on the rise in the municipality as a result of policy decisions.
Outgoing Mayor Dan Sullivan held a press conference Tuesday at City Hall to explain that statistics for the last year tell a more optimistic story than the one on the campaign trail.
Standing with Police Chief Mark Mew, Sullivan said that major crimes are down overall. Based on the Uniform Crime Reporting standards set by the FBI, incidents went from 14,476 to 14,136, a decline of about 2 percent.
But the numbers come with caveats.
Though serious crimes like homicide, sexual assaults, and theft nudged slightly down from 2013 to 2014, it was not in every category. For example, aggravated assaults were up by 14 percent, vehicle theft by 8 percent. What’s more, many of the categories hit lows relatively recently in 2010 and 2011, but have been persistently rising since.
Sullivan, however, prefers looking at the data in a 5-year averages, which puts the frequency of violent crime below that of the previous mayor’s administration.
But critics believe it was investments in the police department during the Begich administration which caused the biggest declines, and that short staffing in the department has led to less follow up on low-priority complaints. And hence, less data points.
For his part, Sullivan has said the city could not afford a force that size, and that he does not believe there is a correlation between spending on APD and incidents of crime. Quality decisions on where to put officers makes a bigger difference than mere quantity, he told reporters.
Incoming mayor Ethan Berkowitz campaigned on expanding the size of the police force to stem what many perceive as a rise in crime across the city. Though firm plans on financing that proposal have not yet been released, police chief Mew says new officers coming out of the academies will be deployed according to recommendations made in the 2010 PERF report .
This is the last year that Alaska Department of Fish and Game will manage a brood stock king salmon run in Pullen Creek near Skagway. The state made that announcement earlier this year. Since then, the city has formed a committee that hopes to continue the program on its own.
Fish and Game cited a lack of funding and irregular broodstock as the reason for ending the 10-year Pullen Creek program.
For example, last year only six females returned to Pullen Creek. But in 2013 the pond was chock full of salmon. That year was an anomaly. In the last eight years the return of kings to Pullen Creek has averaged 137 fish.
The Pullen Project was started in the late 1990s with king salmon brood stock from the Tahini River. It’s run in conjunction with Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery. Eggs from returning females are harvested each year and reared in pens in Pullen Creek. They are released into the wild and return to fresh water in usually three years.
Fish and game will now quit harvesting eggs and pull the pens from Pullen. But Skagway is hoping to keep the program running.
“There is definitely an interest from many sources here in Skagway to continue enhancing the fisheries here,” says city manager Scott Hahn. He’s been working with a newly formed ad hoc committee to research options for continuing the program. Hahn describes one possibility:
“This ad hoc committee would try to form a nonprofit and move into a much more practice role to build a hatchery or find the resources to do the things we can’t contract out. We don’t know what those are. We are at the start of this process. But this nonprofit/ad hoc committee is going to have to answer those questions.”
The goal of the fish and game program was to establish a sport fishery in Taiya Inlet. That’s the main reason Hahn says the community wants to continue the program. But it’s also a good resource for the town’s primary industry – tourism.
“I think (visitors) like to see the entire salmon process because that’s the revered and often sold component of Alaska tourism. So it would be a definite benefit to that as well. People are going to want to see the fish reared and see the fish returned.”
Hahn says the city will have to eventually decide how much it wants to invest and spend each year maintaining the program.
If the program ends, kings will continue to return to Pullen Creek on their own for the next few year. But without fish and game biologists there to meet them at Pullen Pond and harvest the roe, the run will eventually peter out.
Two climbers were rescued off of Mt. Dickey, southeast of Denali, Monday night.
The National Park Service reports that two Idaho climbers have been rescued after an avalanche on Mt. Dickey in the Alaska Range. According to a statement from Denali National Park, 27-year-old Saxon Spellman and 24-year-old Michael Wachs, were on the mountain when the avalanche occurred, but neither was caught in the slide. The pair attempted to climb down after the avalanche, but could not find a safe route.
Maureen Gualtieri, spokeswoman for Denali National Park, says the climbers signaled a local air taxi pilot by stomping an ‘SOS’ into the snow and waving their arms. They also activated a GPS locator. After mountaineering rangers spotted Spellman and Wachs from the air, a search and rescue helicopter was dispatched. The rescue helicopter, piloted by veteran rescue pilot Andy Hermansky, was able to land on the mountain and pick up the two stranded climbers.
Photos taken by a ranger show that where Wachs and Spellman were was one of few safe places on the face of Mt. Dickey.
Park Service staff have reported an increase in avalanche activity following several feet of fresh snow and windy conditions. Thus far, no major accidents have been reported in the Alaska Range for the 2015 climbing season.
Many of Alaska’s farm produce vendors are going strong, drawing customers even in mid winter. Some use the organic label, others don’t, but what exactly is it that makes a vegetable organic? There is a difference between no-till farming, organic farming and just plain farming.
In a book that changed how many view standard agricultural practices, Japanese famer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, said that accepted farming methods upset the natural symbiosis of living environments. Fukuoka and his 1975 book, “The One Straw Revolution,” is credited with leading today’s sustainable agriculture movement.
Speaking at a forum in India, in 1997, Fukouka warned that deserts were being created at an alarming rate, due to over tilling, over production and over grazing. He proposed no-till, no- herbicide farming, saying that all that farmers need to do is broadcast seed on the ground, letting nature take it’s course. But would Fukouka’s methods work in Alaska?
On a busy Saturday at the Sears Mall in Anchorage, Butte organic farmer Mark Rempel is doing a brisk business. Customers line up for potatoes, cabbages and bright golden squash. I asked him, would do – nothing farming work in Alaska?
“I think there is an opportunity for that, but economically, I wouldn’t dare try that. What I produce on small acreage is amazing. If you came and saw what we crank out of our little piece of ground is amazing. We only farm 14(acres), and if you watch what happens in South Anchorage on a Saturday, how much produce goes flying out of our stand, you realize there is a lot of production happening.”
First of all, Rempel says, organic farming and no-till farming are two very different things. He says just by taking his produce to market, he’s depleting the soil. That’s because the vegetables themselves have taken nutrients out of the ground just by growing. And those nutrients must be put back in, or the soil suffers.
“We have a wonderful opportunity in Alaska with the fish industry. Because they have a lot of byproduct. And so what a lot of ships do, is they will dry out their waste, run it across a screen, and the fish meal falls through the screen. And that’s high protien, high nitrogen. It’s used as dog food and fertilizer. And then there’s the bones and other things that come out of that. And that’s what I use. That comes to Palmer and there is a guy with a hammer millwho grinds it up to sawdust and that’s what i put on my field. Every micronutrient that is soluble in the sea is in that.”
He says he’s putting stuff back into the soil that was not there in the first place.
Rempel is the only certified organic producer left in Southcentral Alaska. He tills the soil, but his organic certification limits the types of soil enhancements that he can use. He broadcasts the fish bone meal, and mixes in calcium and other minerals which feeds the microbes in the soil, rather than the plant.
“I feed them, so they work symbiotically with the plant. Because the plant exudes sugars, and the microbes come to that. But they bring nutrients to the plant in a way that the plant can use it better than straight fertilizer. So I feed the soil to feed the plant to feed us.”
Down the mall corridor, Alex Davis sells produce and pork harvested on his Palmer acreage.
“I am no longer a certified organic producer. I don’t file with the federal government, but I didn’t change my farming practices, so I do all organic practices, not the verification paperwork and not the fees.”
Davis says do-nothing farming is a bad idea.
“We are taking out thousands of pounds of carrots a year off of two acres. I have to have inputs into that to be able to take that back out. You just can’t take out and expect it to not collapse. “
Davis says he fertilizes using fish bone meal, too.
“We also use lime very heavily, which is high in calcium, which is a great thing to put in, and that has made our vegetables sweeter over the years. Sometime we use some soft rock phosphates. A little bit, every now and then I use some cow manure or pig manure if it is available.”
He says he farms organically, but is no longer certified organic. What’s the difference?
“The amount of headache I have to do in paperwork” he laughs.
So it’s the paperwork that makes it organic? Rempel says, there’s more to it than that. It’s consumer confidence, too. Rempel gets his soil tested by an independent lab for recommendations as to what nutrients are needed. He says balancing out the proper mix of nutrients is the trick to healthy soil. And soil is the very foundation of agriculture.
While studying Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea, researchers have found themselves in the wake of an unlikely killer.
Andrew Seitz is a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who has spent the past several years studying Chinook salmon. He said the first sign of foul play came from satellite tags used in his research this winter. The tags gather behavior and migration data for the salmon, taking temperature and depth readings every two minutes — then relaying them to researchers by satellite later on.
Seitz said those temperature readings were what alerted him to the fact that something was, well, fishy.
“[The] temperature went from between 45 to 55 F, and it jumped up to 65 to 80 degrees in a matter of a couple minutes. And there’s no water temperature that warm in the Bering Sea,” he said.
Seitz suspected immediately what had happened — his tags, and the salmon they accompanied, were in the belly of a warm-blooded predator.
But, he explained, the mystery didn’t end there. Marine mammals, much like humans, have a body temperature between 98 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit — meaning the salmon weren’t the victims of an arctic seal or sea lion.
“Which leaves just one suspect,” said Seitz.”The salmon shark.”
Salmon sharks, which are closely related to mako and great white sharks, are one of the few fish able to keep their body temperature warmer than their surroundings — allowing them to pursue their favorite prey into even the icy waters of the Bering Sea.
Still, Seitz said he was surprised to find the sharks in Northern waters during the winter, adding that the predators could be a factor in Alaska’s low king salmon returns.
“It’s too early to even speculate on whether salmon sharks are actually having population level effects. But its certainly worth considering and the impact of salmon shark predation should certainly enter the conversation about what is controlling or influencing abundance of Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea,” he said.
Seitz plans to further investigate the impacts of predation on king salmon by deploying more satellite tags from a Japanese research vessel this summer.
A judge has dismissed the harassment conviction of a man who was roughly arrested by a former Bethel police officer in the AC parking lot. Judge Bruce Ward approved the application Monday for post conviction relief filed by Wassillie Gregory’s attorney after video surfaced last month. From a distance it shows the arrest by officer Andrew Reid, in which the intoxicated Gregory is slammed to the ground several times.
Attorney Sean Brown’s motion on behalf of Gregory cited the new video evidence that contradicted the officer’s report of the arrest. The district attorney did not oppose the motion and the judge approved it.
Gregory pleaded guilty last year to the harassment charge without the assistance of an attorney. He originally faced charges for harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. The latter charges were dismissed with the guilty plea.
The Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly is working on next year’s Borough budget, and on Monday night, the panel made some amendments to the spending plan. The Mat Su Borough’s proposed $400.7 spending package is undergoing modifications by the Borough Assembly, particularly in the areas of education and emergency services funding. At Tuesday night’s special meeting in Palmer, nine amendments were approved, amendments which increased grant funding for the Borough’s three main cities, benefited fire service areas by providing extra money to fund positions, and increased Borough support for Youth Court and the Borough Sexual Assault Response Team program. However, the main discussion of the meeting focused on Borough School District funding. A one point five million dollar increase in education funding proposed by Assemblyman Matthew Beck was reduced by 150 thousand dollars in the final round of voting. Assemblyman Matthew Beck:
” Our mil rate, I think, right now, with the amendments that we’ve done, I think it is 9.8. So it’s up slightly, it is still under ten. I think our goal is to keep it under ten, I think that that’s our goal. I think we’ll be able to accomplish it and still be able to provide services. I think that when the school ends up getting to keep its fund balance, that’s going to offset the shortfall. “
Beck says he’ll submit another amendment on Wednesday allowing the School District to keep it’s fund balance.
But Assemblyman Jim Sykes had a warning for the body:
“I just want us to think about where we are going real seriously. Because what we did with the schools is deficit spending. We’re gonna start with a one point four million dollar hole next year, and we will be asked to fully fund education. And I really think this was a prime opportunity that we really should hve gone probably to the taxpayers and said, ‘this is our priority and we have to raise your taxes.'”
Discussions on funding increases for Borough Emergency Services to provide a boost to wages and benefits, and to allow for two new positions were inconclusive, and postponed until Wednesday night’s special Borough Assembly meeting. Tuesday’s [May 12] special Assembly meeting on budget deliberations has been canceled.