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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 28 min 22 sec ago

Floatplane capsizes in Ketchikan; all evacuated safely

Wed, 2015-05-06 09:28

A commercial floatplane with a pilot and four passengers capsized in Ketchikan but all escaped without harm.

The Ketchikan Daily News reports the Alaska Seaplane Tours floatplane was returning from a tour late Monday morning and struck something as it landed in Tongass Narrows.

The Coast Guard says one float was punctured and it took on water.

Ketchikan Police Department Sgt. Andy Berntson says the float was sinking as the plane tried to taxi to a dock.

A skiff helped the floatplane to reach the dock. Officials were not sure if passengers climbed into the skiff or directly onto the dock.

Berntson says the airplane started to sink from the back end and capsized.

Categories: Alaska News

Teen pleads guilty to local cyclist’s hit-and-run death

Wed, 2015-05-06 09:24

An Anchorage teen is facing a three-year sentence instead of the decade possible in exchange for pleading guilty to driving under the influence last summer and killing popular local cyclist Jeff Dusenbury.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports the defense and prosecutors said in court that they agreed to a possible three-year sentence for 17-year-old Alexandra Ellis, with two years suspended.

The court will sentence Ellis in August for backing over Dusenbury, a husband and father of one, on July 19. Officers found Ellis at her home less than half a mile away with blood alcohol content above the legal limit.

Prosecutors dropped the charge of leaving the scene of an accident in exchange for Ellis’s plea.

Dusenbury’s family and friends were in court Monday, and are planning a memorial ride for this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Crews Continue Working on Nikolaevsk Fire, Now Contained

Wed, 2015-05-06 09:23

The fire started just before 4 p.m. Monday in the Jim Howard Road area near Nikolaevsk. Anchor Point Assistant Fire Chief Doug Loshbough says the wildfire grew to about five acres before it was contained.

“It started in high grass, it appeared, and quickly ran into the woods,” says Loshbough. “And as it was going through the woods, it burned a lot of the brush on the ground and occasionally torched a tree. It was an area where it was mixed high grass and spruce trees, so there was a lot of fire going through the grass and a little bit going through the understory of the forest and occasional trees torching.”

Crews, tankers, and support vehicles responded from nearby stations in Nikolaevsk and Anchor Point. They were aided by Kachemak Emergency Services and the Division of Forestry, which brought in an air tanker, helicopter, and spotter plane.

“And because there are houses in the area, it was a pretty significant fire,” says Loshbough. “We were worried about containing it before it was able to reach a house.”

There have been no reports of structural damage or injuries. But the fire was substantial enough to warrant support from the Mat-Su.

Division of Forestry spokesperson Tim Mowry says the Gannett Glacier Type 11 Initial Attack Crew from Palmer came to provide relief and help clear hotspots.

“They’ve gone through a thousand gallons of water I think on one pile that was specifically sort of a problem area,” says Mowry. “They’re just starting the gridding process now, which is where they’re going to walk the entire fire, feeling and checking for hotspots, with their bare hands, making sure there are no hotspots left that are going to reignite.”

Mowry says the dry, warm conditions on the Kenai this winter and spring have allowed a lot of dead brush to build up, which is easy fuel for a hot and quickly-spreading fire.

“That fire spread into some hardwood, spruce and birch that were starting to burn, and when hardwoods are burning, that’s a sign that it’s really dry,” says Mowry.

This week has seen overcast skies with light rain on the southern peninsula. Loshbough says the conditions helped keep the fire from getting too big too fast. He says this time, crews got lucky.

“People should be aware that tall grass right now, if the sun comes out for a few hours, it can dry out really quickly and it’s pretty easy to get a spark in there and set it going and fire moves pretty quickly through tall grass. Once it’s off and running, it’s hard to slow down,” says Loshbough.

The fire is currently under investigation. The Division of Forestry says an unattended burn pile was responsible. A fire prevention officer is on scene and will be contacting the residence to find out more information.

They remind all residents to practice fire safety, clear dry brush around houses and on private property, and always take precautions before burning.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Aerial Media flies state’s first commercial drones

Wed, 2015-05-06 09:17

Drones are flying commercially for the first time in Alaska after with the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent approval.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports Alaska Aerial Media is joining about 150 other companies to gain FAA approval in April.

Commercial drones were prohibited under federal law until reforms were passed in 2012.

Founder Ryan Marlow says drones can make an impact on education, public safety and recreation.

Categories: Alaska News

Berkowitz wins Anchorage Mayoral Race

Tue, 2015-05-05 22:44

Former state legislator Ethan Berkowitz won the Anchorage mayoral runoff with 59 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. Assembly member Amy Demboski officially conceded the race around 10 pm.

Check back soon for more updates.

Categories: Alaska News

Berkowitz Holds Early Lead in Mayor’s Race

Tue, 2015-05-05 21:19

With Election Central in downtown Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center beginning to fill with members of the media and local politicos, early results show a sizable lead for mayoral candidate Ethan Berkowitz over rival Amy Demboski.

With 48.4% of precinct’s reporting so far, Berkowitz has about 63% to Demboski’s 37%.

The runoff election is the result of no one candidate reaching the 45% of votes necessary to win outright in the April election.

Early voting reached record numbers ahead of polls opening today, though officials caution that is not necessarily an indicator of higher overall turnout. April’s election saw the lowest returns of any recent mayor’s race at just under 28%.

Check back for results throughout the night.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tue, 2015-05-05 18:11

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.

Download Audio:

Ice Retreat Linked to Low Pollock Numbers

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

The mass of pollock in the Bering Sea plunged from 2002 through 2005, and NOAA fisheries scientist Ed Farley has research suggesting a reason for the drop.

Return of the Blob

Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau

Climate researchers say a giant mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean may be responsible for unusual sightings of marine life in the North Pacific while also influencing North American weather patterns.

Budget Cuts Means Less Lawyers, Trying Fewer Cases

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Cuts to positions within the Department of Law could change the type of cases the state chooses to pursue in rural districts.

B.C. Promises Alaska A Larger Voice in Mine Permitting

Ed Schoenfeld – CoastAlaska

British Columbia’s top mining official says Alaska will soon have more input into the transboundary mine permitting process. That news came Tuesday after a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott.

Grizzly License Plates Ready For Issue

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Starting on Thursday, Alaskans will be able to get license plates with bears on them.

Kick the Bucket: The Future of Rural Sanitation in Alaska

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Over the past four days, we have brought you stories that go out into the field for an in-depth look at Alaska’s rural sanitation situation – a series we call “Kick the Bucket.”  We have seen how the lack of modern sanitation is linked to disease as people strain the limits of their clean water supply. And we have looked at the implications of decreasing funding and looming maintenance expenses in villages with a limited cash economy. Today we’ll wrap up the series by trying to look into the future.

Body Recovered Believed to be Akiak Woman

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Troopers say the body thought to be an Akiak woman who died last year when a four-wheeler went into an open hole on the Kuskokwim River near Kwethluk has been recovered.

Record Cruise Ship Season Forecast for Unalaska

Annie Ropiek, KUCB – Unalaska

Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Budget Cuts Mean Less Lawyers, Trying Fewer Cases

Tue, 2015-05-05 17:28

In a May 4th email, Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny told staff reductions will be in place by May 29th.

The Department of Law is cutting positions that will change the type of cases the state pursues in rural districts.

Department employees were told in a May 4th email that 15 positions will be eliminated as part of an effort to close a 6% budget gap. The cuts take effect on May 29th.

Last year the Department cut four positions from larger offices, and taken together Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said the cuts are spread equitably across the state. The effects, however, are more evident in rural hub communities.

“In Dillingham, in Kotzebue, in Barrow,” Svobodny said, “we will have gone from four people in the offices to two in the offices.”

Other communities losing either attorneys, para-legals, or support positions are Bethel, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Sitka, as well as the Office of Special Prosecutions in Anchorage.

94% of the Department’s budget is for fixed costs like personnel and leases, with the rest going to discretionary necessities like travel related to cases. With less staff, prosecutors will have to be even more selective on what kinds of cases they pursue.

“We are not going have as much time to spend on each case,” Svobodny said. “Some of the less serious, non-personal crimes are going to get less attention than they did in the past.”

The Department’s budget was built on state revenues forecasting oil at more than $100 a barrel, according to Svobodny, who anticipates more cost reductions in the years ahead.

Critics of the state and federal government’s role in rural Alaska say there is already a “law gap,” with too few law enforcement officials based in hubs tasked with responding to incidents in smaller communities.

The reductions will ensure the Department is only pursuing serious charges, and cutting out cases where there are civil alternatives to criminal proceedings. They are also examining sharing space with sister agencies like the State Troopers in the future.

Six of the eliminated positions will come through attrition.

Categories: Alaska News

Grizzly License Plates Ready For Issue

Tue, 2015-05-05 16:26

(Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles)

Starting Thursday, Alaskans will be able to get license plates with bears on them.

The Division of Motor Vehicles has brought back a 1976 license plate that was originally issued for the United States’ bicentennial. The updated plate features a grizzly reared up against a sunset backdrop.

Right now, the standard license plate in Alaska is solid yellow, with an Alaska flag in the center and the words “The Last Frontier” below. DMV Director Amy Erickson expects the bear plates to be a popular alternative.

“We’re anticipating that most people are going to select the bear over the ‘Last Frontier’ now,” says Erickson.

Erickson says she plans to keep her Last Frontier license plate. But retired legislator Peggy Wilson, who sponsored the bear plate bill last year, says she plans to change hers immediately. The Wrangell Republican says the grizzly design is a conversation starter, particularly for Alaskans roadtripping outside the state.

“When you are from Alaska, people just want to talk about Sarah Palin,” says Wilson. “And now, this is something else — the license plate, it gives them another conversation starter.”

Wilson says the original idea for the bear plate legislation came from a constituent, who once had the original version on his car. That constituent will be the first person to be issued the new plates.

Drivers seeking to swap their Last Frontier plates for the grizzly design can do so for $5.

Categories: Alaska News

B.C. Promises Alaska A Larger Voice in Mine Permitting

Tue, 2015-05-05 15:38

British Columbia Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett proposes opening more of its permitting process to Alaska officials.

State government already has a chance to comment on environmental certificates needed for mines to open. Bennett says he’s willing to expand that opportunity.

“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 says.

The mines minister made that announcement after meeting with Alaska’s lieutenant governor.

Byron Mallott is in charge of a state working group looking into potential damage to Unuk, Stikine and Taku river fisheries if B.C. mines release toxic materials. Those rivers begin in the Canadian province and flow through Southeast Alaska before entering the Pacific Ocean.

Mallott says the state wants a larger voice in resource development and other projects along those rivers.

“Certainly, mines have the greatest chance of impacting water quality and the environment. But from Alaska’s public policy and sovereignty perspective it’s about what the water quality is that reaches our shores.”

Mallott says he’s encouraged with British Columbia’s commitment to including Alaska in a wider range of decisions.

Bennett planned to hold meetings in Southeast Alaska this spring to address environmental concerns. He never came and says he pushed those back until his agency had a chance to hear from Mallott.

He says those discussions addressed what he acknowledged to be “legitimate concerns.”

“I think we have the beginnings now, a good foundation if you will, to proceed with a discussion with Alaska on a memorandum of understand that will capture the obligations that B.C. is prepared and is committed to taking on, to meet the expectations of the Alaska government in terms of them understanding what is being proposed in B.C.”

And Alaska also having a hand in the assessment of these projects.

Bennett says his province has a similar arrangement with Montana. It covers the Flathead River, with headwaters in southeastern British Columbia.

“We have a memorandum of understanding that guides the relationship and there’s water testing done at the border as it crosses into Montana. We would visualize a similar process with Alaska,” Bennett says.

Mallott’s trip to the province includes meetings with mining industry and tribal representatives, including the B.C. Assembly of First Nations

He’ll also meet up with a delegation of Southeast Alaska fishing, tribal and environmental groups to tour the area around August’s Mount Polley Mine dam breach.

Critics of Canadian miners and government regulators say not enough is being done to keep such a disaster from happening again.

Jill Weitz, of the Juneau-based Salmon Beyond Borders campaign, is part of that group. She met with the Canadian consulate in Seattle before heading to B.C. She says she’s optimistic.

“They were interested in hearing what we’ve done as a campaign in bringing together different sectors of Southeast Alaska. And really wanting to engage with us and understand what we see as a solution,” Weitz says.

Like most other mine critics, Salmon Beyond Borders wants transboundary mining to go before a U.S.-Canada panel that addresses cross-border water conflicts.

Categories: Alaska News

Ice Retreat Linked to Low Pollock Numbers

Tue, 2015-05-05 15:01

The years 2002 through 2005 were bad for Bering Sea pollock. The biomass plunged during those years. In a presentation in Washington, D.C., a NOAA fisheries biologist said today ongoing research points to two suspects: ice and fat, in league with each other.

Ron Mitchell drops nets onto the deck of the F/V Seadawn during pollock season. (Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

NOAA biologist Ed Farley of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center says the low pollock years were warm, resulting little Bering Sea ice by May. The ice rebounded in 2007-2012, and so did the pollock.

“If we focus on that downward trend, that tended to occur during that early ice retreat period. That drop amounted to a 40 percent drop in available pollock catch, so that was a big issue. No one really understood why the pollock biomass was declining but it was impacting the fishery.”

Farley told reporters in Washington on Tuesday, that the key Arctic ingredient is fat. And it starts low on the food chain. Farley says when the ice retreats early in the spring, it benefits small zooplankton that are low in fat. The pollock have to eat a lot of them to become fat themselves. But late ice retreat favors big, fatty zooplankton that Farley says make for bigger, fatter pollock.

“If you’re a fish or a marine mammal you’re going to want to store as much fat as possible before winter so you have a better chance to survive,” Farley says.

If further research bears this out, it’s bad news, of course, for the $500 million pollock fishery in the Bering Sea. Not only is the climate warming over the long haul, but we may be in the midst of a short-term warming trend, too. Farley says this is an early ice retreat year that looks a lot like the bad pollock years of 2002 to 2005.

“It’s extremely warm in the sub-Arctic, southeastern Bering Sea. It was warm last year, so we’re seeing back to back years where it’s warm again. And last year we started to see a shift back to smaller zooplankton.”

There’s a lag in the effect on pollock. Last fall NOAA announced trawl survey results showed a big increase in pollock biomass.  Farley says it would take at least three successive warm years before he’d expect to see a decline in stock assessments.

Further north, in the Chukchi Sea, Farley says they’re finding a similar effect on two abundant fish in the food chain. Warm water turns out to be bad for Arctic cod but saffron cod thrive in it. Trouble is, the warm-loving cod have far less fat, so Farley says warm water means trouble for marine mammals.

“If you’re an ice seal, you’re going to have to eat 2.7 times more saffron cod to get the same amount of fat as you get out of one Arctic cod.”

By the end of the century, Farley says, the water temperatures are projected to be outside the Arctic cod’s comfort zone.

“It’s going to warm up to be about 10 to 13 degrees Celsius and that is a potential to be too warm for the Arctic cod, so they’re going be moving out of this region, or not make it.”

That would be bad for the ice seals, he says, and for the polar bears that hunt them.

Categories: Alaska News

Tidal Echoes: Capturing Southeast culture in print

Tue, 2015-05-05 14:45

The latest edition of the University of Alaska Southeast literary journal Tidal Echoes was recently released. It takes a year to curate all of the work that goes into the book, which showcases poets, fiction writers, and artists. There’s only one requirement for submission: you have to be a full-time resident of Southeast.

Emily Wall flips through 114 matte pages of the freshly published journal.

“That’s a photograph, that’s 3-D art made out of an egg carton,” she says.

Wall is faculty advisor for Tidal Echoes, now in its eighth year. The journal is edited by UAS students. It accepts work from all over Southeast Alaska, from Lemon Creek Correctional Center to Metlakatla. Wall says there are no themes. It’s more about creating a platform for local artists and writers.

“So I really like that for down south audiences, it’s a way to distinguish us as a region. This is a very particular and different aspect of the state,” Wall says.

There are other literary journals in Alaska. Some accept submissions from out-of-state, but none are regionally specific. In this edition of Tidal Echoes, the featured writer and artist are both from Juneau. The cover has Fumi Matsumoto’s artwork on it, a collection of used tea bags stamped with ravens.

Dancing Ravens by Fumi Matsumoto

“It’s a happy cover. You know what I mean? Someone said that, too. All the ravens look like they’re having a good time,” she says.

Matsumoto is a found artist who’s lived in Alaska for almost 30 years. You might look at an empty milk carton or the dying leaves of a house plant and see trash. Matsumoto thinks of something else.

“The image of a wolf popped out of the pile of leaves. It’s almost like a puzzle. Then looking for the right leaf to make the ear. That’s what I like to do, if I find something and you look at it for a while, a piece of driftwood or whatever, what kind of images come out when you’re staring at it,” Matsumoto says.

There was the time she noticed the glint of a pile of Mountain Dew cans.

“I don’t drink it. I just have the cans and I thought, ‘Wow the colors are really nice.’ You’ve got the greens and reds,” she says.

She realized the colorful aluminum looked like the feathers of her bird, Pogo.

“Very parrot like. So I just made parrots out of those,” she says.

Matsumoto is Japanese-American and uses different Eastern techniques in her art: origami, kirigami or paper-cutting. Also, sumi-e, which is ink brush painting. Some of her work is playful, like the Mountain Dew Parrots. Other pieces tell the story of her family history, like Minidoka Interlude.

“It’s a very subtle photo of a Japanese woman in a kimono and that’s my mom,” she says.

The photograph is encased in a square metal cage.

“There’s a gold button, barbed wire, and a scroll that has the name of some of the Japanese internees there,” Matsumoto says.

Minidoka refers to the Idaho internment camp that Japanese Americans were sent to during World War II. Matsumoto’s father and other relatives were sent to a different camp. At the time, the U.S. government feared another attack like Pearl Harbor. But little evidence was ever uncovered to support theories of espionage.

“It’s just that we looked like the enemy. You know? I don’t know if we hadn’t looked like Japanese people, I doubt we would have been rounded up and stuck in camps,” she says.

Matsumoto says she didn’t learn about her family’s past until she was older.

“That was the thing. Most Japanese Americans were basically wanting to put it behind them. It was very shameful to be accused of being a spy or un-loyal because they weren’t,” Matsumoto says.

Her father later left the internment camp for the U.S. Army and went on to be a highly decorated war hero. Matsumoto says she hopes making artwork like this will help create a dialogue.

“Then perhaps people will become aware and sensitive to what happened and that it won’t happen again,” she says.

You can see Fumi Matsumoto’s work in the latest edition of Tidal Echoes, along with other pieces from Southeast artists and writers.

Copies can be purchased at UAS or Hearthside Books.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker signs SLAM bill for Kashevaroff, Foster

Tue, 2015-05-05 13:53

Gov. Bill Walker signed a bill this morning officially naming the new State Libraries, Archives and Museum Building after Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff. The signing took place in the historical library in Juneau’s State Office Building.

Gov. Bill Walker signs the bill Tuesday morning as Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford, Rep. Sam Kito III and Sen. Dennis Egan look on. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

 

Of Russian and Native heritage, Father Kashevaroff was the first librarian and curator of the Alaska Historical Museum and Library when it relocated to Juneau in 1919.

Bob Banghart is deputy director of the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

“He was charged with the task of getting it on its feet and going forward with it, and if you look at the diagrams of the old facility, it would almost appear to be a cabin of curiosities. He was pulling in material from all over,” Banghart says. “But you read his writings and he was deeply engaged in social issue, the studying of cultures.”

Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff (Photo from the Alaska State Library-Historical Collection)

Kashevaroff acquired thousands of objects for the museum. He held the position for 20 years until his death in 1940. Kashevaroff was also the Russian Orthodox priest of Juneau’s St. Nicholas Church.

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan’s bill naming the SLAM building also honors former Rep. Richard Foster from Nome. A reading room upstairs in the facility will be named after him.

“Richard was in the archives all the time. If he was missing on the House floor, they’d have a page go down to archives and there would be Richard,” Egan says.

The Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives, and Museum Building is being built in downtown Juneau. It’s scheduled to open to the public next May. Kashevaroff’s portrait will be on the Founders Wall located off to the right as you enter the facility.

Categories: Alaska News

April Breaks Rain Record in Petersburg

Tue, 2015-05-05 13:39

The month of May clearly brought more sunshine to the Petersburg area. It is especially noticeable after April, which broke the record for being the rainiest.

A rainy spring made for copious puddles around Petersburg. Photo: KRBD.

The average rainfall for the month of April is about six inches but this year it was double that at 12.31 inches. That was enough rain to break the record from 1952 of just over 11 inches.

Richard Lam is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau. He says this April mimicked a fall month.

“Normally, in April, usually the weather pattern is not like this so this is more like a fall weather pattern,” Lam says. “Twelve inches of rainfall in the fall for you guys is normal but in April that’s atypical.”

So, with April being the rainiest on record will this drier weather continue?

Although the Juneau Weather Service doesn’t forecast beyond seven days the Climate Prediction Center in Washington D.C. does. Lam says that data shows May to be warmer than normal but they still don’t know about the rain.

“They are calling for May to be more likely to be seeing above normal temperatures so a warmer than normal May,” Lam says, “and precipitation they are calling for equal chances. That means there will be equal chance for above normal or below normal precipitation so it can be anything.”

The rainy April follows an exceptionally warm winter season when there was more rain and less snow than normal for Petersburg.

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Assembly Struggles To Hold Mil Rate Steady

Tue, 2015-05-05 12:58

Few people turned out for a Matanuska Susitna Borough public hearing on the FY 2016 budget on Monday evening. But a divide is brewing between those who want to hold the mil rate steady, and those who say more services will require a nudge in property taxes.

The meeting at the Borough’s Emergency Services building in Wasilla could not compete with the sun drenched spring evening. Only six people showed up to speak, and three of them worked for the Borough. Ken Slauson, chair of the Central Fire Service Area board, bemoaned the fact that much needed emergency services and fire protection positions are not included in next year’s spending package.

“We also made a request for an additional driver operator position as a new position, and a reclassification of one of the captains to be reclassified downwards to be a driver operator. I find out last week, through the grapevine, that those positions are not going to be presented to you as the Assembly,” Slauson said.

Two other Borough emergency services workers echoed his comments. But one woman, Patricia Fisher, told the Assembly that because of the Borough’s senior property tax exemption, she’s not paying any taxes at all.

“I am now paying zero taxes. I think there is something wrong with this. I should be paying something. Maybe not the full amount, I don’t know. I would have thought that somewhere the staff would have realized that this was going to hurt you.  Mr. Moosey has said that this is going to contribute to the budget shortfall.”

A senior and disabled property tax exemption passed by the Assembly last year is costing the Borough about ten million dollars in lost revenues this year. But Assembyman Ron Arvin defended the exemption.

“And, although it is rare, individuals have lost their homes because of that. And when we took this question up, there was a detailed discussion about basing it on need. …. And I think it is more important as a society, that we have in place an opportunity for people to own their land, without the risk of the government taking it for taxes.”

Others who spoke suggested a sales tax would help boost Borough revenues. Assemblyman Jim Sykes agreed. Sykes and Assemblyman Matthew Beck had hosted an informal listening session with constituents a week earlier.

“But what people are really wanting, that I think came out of our listening session, that I think is one of the most important things that we heard, was, ‘let’s look at other revenue sources.’  And the sales tax idea seemed to be pretty popular. There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘don’t do this.'”

But the $400,722,754  spending package now on the table is likely to morph into something else before final Assembly approval.

Borough manager John Moosey says the flat mil rate cannot sustain growing expenses.

“I believe that we have worked very hard to charge as little as possible for services, and with our ongoing risks and some loss in revenue, we cannot continue to keep doing that,” Moosey said.

But Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss has other ideas:

“I think the manager’s budget was a good place to start, but I was not implying that that is a good place to start going up.. it could go either way. But when that areawide mil rate gets over ten mils, you can be looking for red ink.”

A second public hearing is set for May 7 in Willow, and a third for Palmer next week.

Categories: Alaska News

Return of The Blob

Tue, 2015-05-05 11:34

Sea surface temperature anomalies (standard deviations from the mean) in NE Pacific Ocean for February 2014 based on the record from 1981–2010. (Graphic courtesy of American Geophysical Union)

Climate researchers say a giant mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean may be responsible for unusual sightings of marine life in the North Pacific while also influencing North American weather patterns.

Nicholas Bond, a climatologist for Washington state and a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean, came up with the 1950s sci-fi movie inspired nickname The Blob for the huge, evolving mass of warm ocean water.

“I started seeing this very unusually warm water in a semicircular patch about a year ago,” Bond says.

He says down to a depth of a hundred meters temperatures have increased more than two degrees Celsius since the fall of 2013.

“It was a big event,” Bond says, adding that it was the biggest anomaly seen in the last 18 years.

In a paper published last month in the Geophysical Research Letters, Bond and his co-authors say it was caused by a lingering high pressure system that normally inhibits cloud formation and precipitation. The high pressure over the eastern North Pacific blocked the usual parade of winter storms, diverted surface winds and prevented the usual ocean cooling.

“Also, the weird direction of the winds meant that in the region of The Blob there’s more warm water coming up from the south than usual to make it warmer there,” Bond says.

The higher temperatures coincide with unusual bird sightings in the Pacific Northwest and catches of tuna, sunfish and athresher shark in Alaska.

The Blob wasn’t the sole cause, but Bond says it could’ve helped divert frigid Arctic air to the Great Lakes Region last winter. It also could have contributed to a dry West Coast and mild winters along the Alaska coast, simultaneously bumming out skiers and snowboarders and pleasing municipal managers overseeing street snow removal budgets.

“It makes more sense that — in the short-term development phase — the atmosphere drives the sea surface temperatures in this part of the world,” says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Thoman says they’re seeing those higher temperatures deeper in the ocean, not just at the surface.

“That means that’s not likely to change in the short term, say a few month change,” Thoman says. “That warm water extends through a depth of the ocean and that will take a while to change.”

Bond calls it thermal inertia, and he warns that we may see the effects of The Blob even through next winter.

“So, it’s not due to climate change. But it’s a taste of what we’re going to be getting more of in future decades,” Bond says. “I look at it as an opportunity to learn about what climate change is liable to bring us.”

Six Alaskans are among the scientists and resource managers meeting at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California this week to discuss The Blob.

Over the last two winters, The Blob has moved and stretched out along the western coast from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California. It’s unclear how it will affect juvenile salmon now heading out to the open ocean and mature salmon returning to Alaska streams this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Byron Mallott: B.C. officials ‘sincere’ about safe mining

Tue, 2015-05-05 11:33

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott says British Columbia officials seem “sincere” about protecting transboundary rivers near provincial mines.

Mallott met today with top officials from B.C.’s mines andenvironment agencies.

Many Alaskans are concerned about potential damage to Unuk, Stikine and Taku river fisheries if the mines release toxic materials. All start in B.C. and enter the ocean along the Southeast coast.

Mallott said the tone turned somber when they discussed the Mount Polley Mine, where a large dam collapsed last August, sending silt and mud into nearby waterways.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, center, holds a press conference Monday with B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett and Environment Minister Mary Polak. (Photo courtesy British Columbia government)

“They were very serious about learning from the incident. They have made at least a ministerial … commitment that that type of accident will never occur again,” he said in a cellphone call from the Victoria, B.C., airport.

Mallott visits the Mount Polley area this week as he meets with government officials, industry representatives and tribal leaders.

He said he talked with the mining and environment ministers about information collected in watersheds before mining starts. That can be compared to later data to measure pollution.

In B.C., that information is often gathered by mining companies.

“We talked a little bit about whether some of that data should be obtained by the respective governments themselves,” he said.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker earlier this year designated Mallott to lead an internal transboundary waters working group. It includes commissioners of the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources.

Mallott also said B.C. Mining Minister Bill Bennett accepted an invitation to visit Southeast Alaska. Bennett promised a visit earlier this year, but it hasn’t happened.

A delegation of Southeast Alaska tribal and environmental activists are also in British Columbia for what’s called Mining Week. Some will cross paths with the lieutenant governor.

Categories: Alaska News

Kick the Bucket: The Future of Rural Sanitation in Alaska

Tue, 2015-05-05 11:29

Water and sewer systems in communities across Alaska are threatened by flooding and erosion due to climate change. Shown here is the village of Kivalina located on a barrier island in Northwest Alaska that’s facing inundation.
Joaqlin Estus KNBA

Over the past four days, we have brought you stories that go out into the field for an in-depth look at Alaska’s rural sanitation situation – a series we call “Kick the Bucket.”  We have seen how the lack of modern sanitation is linked to disease as people strain the limits of their clean water supply. And we have looked at the implications of decreasing funding and looming maintenance expenses in villages with a limited cash economy.   Today we’ll wrap up the series by trying to look into the future.

As he watches his two-year-old Brandon race around, Adolf Lupie, of Tuntutuliak said his grandson is pretty much recovered from pneumonia after being medevacked to Anchorage.

“I’m a grandfather now. He’s my first boy grandchild. So I’m really proud of my little grandchild,” said Lupie.”He gets sick. I know my parents used to tell me that when they’re kids, they’ll get into sickness in their younger days. But when they get older they’re more immune to sickness.”

In communities without running water and flush toilets, 11 times more children develop pneumonia than other Alaskans, and some develop complications that can lead to lifelong respiratory problems. High rates of respiratory and skin infections are due to the shortage of clean water needed for frequent hand-washing.

Federal and state funding isn’t keeping up with the need, and the situation is likely to get worse due to climate change. Colleen Swan, of Kivalina, said villagers had seen the effects on the sea ice that protected the village from fierce fall storms. But they were shocked by the tidal surge and flooding that slammed their small barrier island and carried away acres of land.

“We know there is a huge problem. It’s getting worse,” said Swan. “It’s going faster. It’s like a huge train that is picking up speed. Our train hit in 2004 and we have been dealing with the aftermath of that. So even if people are in denial, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a reality.

Gavin Dixon, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium said melting permafrost is affecting existing systems – with flooding that’s affecting water sources, and high algae growth clogging filters.

“We’re having homes where we have connections to homes with Arctic pipes,” said Dixon. “Homes will settle and the pipes don’t so there’s differential settling and the pipes will break away from the houses.

In Alakanuck the Yukon River is eating away at the shore, leaving residents wondering what will become of their water and sewer system.

Village Safe Water facilities program director Bill Griffith said agencies are working with the communities with the highest public health risks first, such as communities that have already lost critical elements of sanitation systems.

“We’ve got communities that have lost their water sources or lost the water line that used to be on the beach that’s eroded. We’re trying to get after those first, but it’s almost like a triage situation right now,” said Griffith. “We don’t have the funds to be able deal with everything we know is going to be affected over the next 20 years so we’re trying to work with the ones that are affected right now.”

Rural communities are also struggling to cover maintenance and operating costs. Dixon said a big part of those costs is fuel. He said spending some money up front would save more later.

“We estimate it will take $80,000 per community to reduce and save $15,000 each year, for new controls, parts replacement,” said Dixon. “The benefit to communities is pretty real.”

The consortium is working on using new construction methods to save money. Dixon cites a building that was first built, then broken into modules for transport and re-construction in a village.

“This is going to be just over a million dollars for this project here. Traditional methods of constructing entire water treatment plants like we’ve done can be anywhere upwards of three to five million dollars, depending on the size of the community. Akiak’s fairly small so it’s probably on the low end of there,” said Dixon.

“Another advantage of this is that in a community where they may have a water plant that is in danger of eroding or they have to move,” said Dixon. “You can cut the pipes off and move the water plant. You can’t do that with traditional construction methodologies.

In Kotzebue, Maniilaq hospital administrator Paul Hanson said modern sanitation will do a lot to improve public health, but he notes good health is also linked to jobs and to culturally appropriate care. “I think the biggest challenge that we face is really being able to care for ourselves,” said Hanson. “When I say that,” he continued, I mean not only just actually our daily habits and that sort of thing but developing our own work force, and having folks from our region taking care of people from this region” 

Meanwhile, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation president Dan Winkelman hasn’t lost hope that Congress, or the state Legislature will come through.

“That’s why it’s even that much more important right now to get the policy makers out here so they can actually realize that we’re getting so close,” said Winkelman. “We only have 4,500 more homes in the state of Alaska and we’re getting so close to closing that gap that even that much more effort and determination is needed now just to close that last gap.”

Innovation has been slow to come for rural sanitation in Alaska, and just as it has begun to appear, so has a dramatic reduction in state revenues.  Everyone talks about planning for more “resiliency” in the face of climate change, but those who actually work with the problem speak more in terms of “triage.” Whether they will end up gaining ground or losing it remains to be seen.

Categories: Alaska News

Hovercraft To Courier Cruise Visitors to Taku Glacier

Tue, 2015-05-05 09:27

The start of the cruise ship season brings a new excursion from one of the oldest tour outfits in Southeast. Allen Marine Tours is set to run hovercraft trips to the Taku Glacier starting this week.

Allen Marine Tours are running new hovercraft trips to Taku Glacier. (Photo by Dave Bryant/Allen Marine Tours)

 

It’s been about 20 years since Allen Marine last brought visitors to the Taku Glacier, located near Juneau at the head of Taku Inlet. John Dunlap is vice president of Allen Marine Tours. He says the company used to go to the glacier with a large catamaran back in the 1990s.

“We would get as close to the glacier as we could, which at a low tide was several miles away and at a higher tide, we could maybe get within a few miles of the face of the glacier,” Dunlap says. “So it was kind of a pretty variable experience.”

So variable that Allen Marine stopped doing it after a few years.

“But we always thought, ‘Gosh, if we had the right kind of vehicle, we’d like to come back up here and do this better,’” Dunlap says.

Allen Marine bought a hovercraft from a Washington company last year and started experimenting with it.

“It doesn’t matter whether the tide’s out or not. You can travel with equal ease over water or if you’ve got to pass over shallow water and sand bars, that’s fine, too,” Dunlap says.

The hovercraft will soon start carrying paying customers. The 4-hour tour includes more than an hour on the hovercraft. Tourists leave from downtown Juneau on a jet-powered catamaran to lower Taku Inlet, where Allen Marine will have a larger ship staged that serves as the hover base. There, tourists will transfer into an 8-person hovercraft which will take them close to the face of the glacier, where they disembark for 30 minutes.

The whole trip costs more than $300 per adult. Dunlap admits it’s quite a bit more than Allen Marine’s established whale watching tours and Tracy Arm trips.

“For us, it’s a little bit more like having a helicopter tour which tend to be fairly expensive tours because of the equipment involved than what we’ve traditionally done with boat tours that have higher capacity and are a little bit more efficient to run,” says Dunlap.

Hovercrafts travel on a trapped bubble of air. Dunlap describes it as a small barge that sits on an inflated rubber skirt. Allen Marine hopes to have three running this summer. It has one now and has ordered two more. Each one is 22 feet long and about 10 feet wide. Dunlap says they don’t make any more noise than a boat of similar size.

Ron Maas owns 150 acres on the Taku River. He says he bought the property about 20 years ago because of its direct view of the glacier. He’s not excited about the new Allen Marine tours.

“That puts a whole different light on that property of ours. We consider it something very special but, Jesus, if we have to listen to this all the time, it’s not going to be much fun.

There’s so much traffic up there now that it’s a constant thing,” Maas says.

Maas acknowledges his role in the traffic and noise near the glacier. He’s the former owner of the Taku Glacier Lodge. Visitors to Juneau are brought there by float planes.

“I had 14 aircraft when I sold out and, of course, we made eight trips a day with each airplane, so I really can’t complain a lot about noise, but we tried to control the noise the best we could,” Maas says.

He also doesn’t like the idea of seeing people walk near the face of the glacier. Dunlap says Allen Marine has state and federal permits allowing people to walk in that area.
Juneau commercial fisherman Jim Becker is wondering if the hovercraft will affect juvenile salmon coming out of the Taku River. He’s been gillnetting for Taku River salmon for 40 years.

“The concern is we have outmigrating smolt coming out of the river and some fry, and I don’t know what the depth is in front of the glacier and what kind of water depth they’re going to be operating in, so I think that needs to be checked out,” Becker says.

Alaska Fish and Game biologist Leon Shaul doesn’t foresee any issues.

“In that area near Taku Glacier, I wouldn’t think it would have much impact,” Shaul says. “That’s a pretty open area and tidal influenced, so I wouldn’t imagine it’d be a lot different than a boat.”

Dunlap says Allen Marine will not be going up the river.

He says cruise ship passengers have already started signing up for the hovercraft tours. As interest grows, Dunlap expects Allen Marine to operate consistent tours within a few weeks.

Categories: Alaska News

Seattle Mayor: Port Needs New Permit For Arctic Oil Fleet

Tue, 2015-05-05 09:13

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says the Port of Seattle can’t host Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore Arctic oil-drilling fleet unless it gets a new land-use permit.

Shell has been hoping to base its fleet at the port’s Terminal 5. Environmentalists have already sued over the plan, saying the port broke state law in February when it signed a two-year lease with Foss Maritime, which is working with Shell.

At a breakfast for a clean-energy group on Monday, Murray said city planners reviewed the planned use of Terminal 5 as a base for the drilling fleet and found that it would violate the port’s land-use permit, which allows a cargo terminal on the site.

Shell has argued that its planned activities at the terminal – such as docking, equipment loading and crew changes – are no more environmentally risky than loading or unloading shipping containers.

Categories: Alaska News

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