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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: 59 min 5 sec ago

Managers May Close Kuskokwim to King Salmon Fishing Earlier than Planned

Tue, 2014-05-13 12:09

The waters of Kuskokwim River are free of ice and at the moment open to subsistence king salmon fishing, but that could quickly change, depending on how many fisherman are targeting and catching king salmon in a year that managers believe is crucial for viability of the run.

Brian McCaffery, the Acting Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager and the Federal In-Season Manager, says the early season plan had the federal Kuskokwim waters closing to gillnets larger than 4 inches as of a week from Tuesday.

Ice passes by Bethel, AK on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

“Right now the game plan is for the 20th, but if it turns out that a lot of people are out there targeting and successfully harvesting kings, we may need to make that date earlier to protect those fish that are trying to get upriver that are trying to get to the spawning grounds further up,” McCaffery said.

He says that there are concerns that the run might be building earlier as it has in other early break up years, but he doesn’t know with any certainty when the run will come in.

That said, Bethel resident Fritz Charles called into KYUK’s Friday Talk Line show and told listeners that the closures are not yet in place, and that it’s “a free for all.”

McCaffery says words like that are disappointing.

“We were hoping that given the widespread information that’s been disseminated across the year about the threats to the king salmon, that folks would use some individual restraint and not target the king salmon at this time and focus on some of the other fish species,” McCaffery said.

Later Friday, Charles explained that on one side, he is for conservation and making sure his grandchildren enjoy king salmon, but on the hand…

“Of course everyone one wants the fresh taste of fish,” Charles said. “And now is the time to do it, before any regulations or anything sets in place – that’s my personal opinion.”

Charles says he’s not hearing of any kings being caught as of Friday afternoon. This year if McCaffery sees large scale preseason king salmon harvest, he says in addition to closing the gillnet harvest earlier, he may also have to reduce or eliminate what was hoped to be a small cultural and social king salmon harvest of around 1,000 kings. He also may have to change or cancel the 6” gillnet openings penciled in for the last week of June.

2013 brought the lowest Kuskokwim king salmon run on record of around 94,000 kings, with only about 47,000 escaping to spawn, well below the bottom of the escapement goal. All of the weirs saw the lowest passage on record.

Whatever early harvest takes place this year could disproportionally affect the fish that head hundreds of miles upriver, says McCaffery.

“We suspect that many of these salmon that are headed up to the farthest reaches of the headwaters are among those that come in early,” McCaffery said. ”The folks upriver have made it very clear that they want and need those stocks to be protected.”

McCaffery says his crews may be travel this weekend to see how many fishermen are out. Enforcement crews were planning on beginning around May 20th, but they may arrive earlier if necessary.

“We’re really hoping that with some very conservative actions which we realize will take sacrifice and will cause some hardship for people that we that may be able to have a better chance at having healthy populations down the road, not just for this generation but for generations still to come,” McCaffery said.

Click here to view the early season regulation outlook and a letter from McCaffery explaining the consequences of the early season harvest.

Categories: Alaska News

Unalaska Tallies Cost of Blasting Issues at Wastewater Plant, Landfill

Tue, 2014-05-13 12:02

It’s been a year since Unalaska started uncovering big problems with a major construction project in town. Work is moving forward on the city’s new wastewater treatment plant. But, staff are still trying to put a price on the damage done.

Workers at the wastewater treatment plant site are busy pouring concrete for the building’s water tanks and foundations. City Manager Chris Hladick says they’ll be able to start building the actual structure of the plant in the next month.

“You know, they had planned on being further along than they are, but I don’t think it’s going to impact the total schedule,” Hladick said.

The plant has to be online by the end of 2015, as mandated by a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, Hladick says they’re working on another issue — one that was never supposed to be part of the project.

They’re trying to add up the cost of issues with blasting work done at the site last year.

Advanced Blasting was originally hired to carve out a hole for the wastewater treatment plant’s foundations, but the city says they blasted too deep and too wide, and left behind explosive materials, including sticks of dynamite.

Advanced Blasting owner Julia Saunders has said the company won’t comment on the allegations.

But contractors on the project say it’s cost them at least $1.6 million — and counting — to deal with the blasting issues.

In some cases, the city’s agreed to pay what the companies are asking. They granted a $340,000 change order to Alaska Mechanical, the lead contractor, to fill in the over-blasted area.

But Northern Mechanical, the subcontractor at the plant, is asking for a lot more — $1.3 million, to be exact. Hladick says the company did face a lot of extra work. They had to deal with the over-blasting and the abandoned explosives at the site.

“It was completed last July and August, I believe, the work — they’d find a blasting material and they’d stop work and deal with it, and there were a lot of starts and stops,” Hladick said.

Northern Mechanical hasn’t been paid for that extra work yet, because the city wants more details on why it cost so much.

“We’re saying, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money. Okay, show us your back-up. Show us your timecards, show us how many trucks you used…’ all that kind of stuff,” Hladick said. ”And that’s well within our rights to do that.”

Either way, it’s not just financial cost from blasting issues that’s adding up at the wastewater site. It’s costing time, too. Hladick says Alaska Mechanical wants to add extra days on the end of the contract to make up for delays.

He says that shouldn’t be a problem — the city built a buffer into their construction schedule so they could meet the EPA’s deadline even if they ran into problems.

But all those problems have had a ripple effect, and it’s spread to another municipal project: the landfill expansion. Dynamite wrappers turned up in piles of rock there last month, bringing work to a halt.

The contaminated rock had come from the wastewater treatment plant, and Northern Alaska, the contractor that was supposed to use it to expand the landfill, needed to clean it up. Hladick says they asked for $2.3 million extra to do it.

“That was just to go through 40,000 yards of rock, and they were going to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure there wasn’t anything in it,” Hladick said. ”They had, like, $4,000 a day for a powderman to be on site, and they estimated 60 days to go through the pile.”

The city thought the change order was too expensive, so they canceled the contract altogether. The project is set to go back out to bid this week. Whoever picks it up will also have to deal with the contaminated rocks.

That’ll all make up the final price of the blasting issues at the wastewater plant. Once the city approves the contractors’ requests and tallies the total cost, Hladick says they’ll bring it to Advanced Blasting and start looking at getting paid back.

“Yeah, we’re going to sit down with them and talk about it, that’s for sure,” Hladick said.

That conversation won’t involve lawyers — at least not at first. But with projects worth more than $23 million total and several companies’ reputations at stake, Hladick it’s a definite possibility down the road.

Categories: Alaska News

Tongass Fire Warning Rescinded

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:52

The risk of fires in Southeast’s Tongass National Forest has dropped.

A warning was issued last week as warm, sunny weather dried out grass and underbrush.

But Fire Management Officer Seth Ross says that’s changed.

“It seems that the forecast and the current weather indicate that we’re going back to our typical Southeast Alaska pattern, coming out of that warm and dry weather,” Ross says.

“So, we are going to rescind that warning, but still, caution people to always be careful of fire in the woods,” he says.

Ross says the Tongass sees an average of 17 fires each year. Sometimes it’s as high as 40. Most are brush and peat fires.

Categories: Alaska News

Fish and Game Expects Low Yukon Chinook Run

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:51

The run size for Yukon River Chinook, or king salmon, is likely to be lower than last year’s. Fishermen saw the lowest run of kings on record in 2013.

Sport fishing throughout the entire Yukon River drainage area, including the Tanana River is closed this summer. Biologists don’t expect enough fish for a subsistence or commercial harvest this year either.

(Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Anywhere between 64,000 and 121,000 Chinook salmon could swim up the Yukon River this summer. Fish and Game’s Yukon River Research Biologist Stephanie Schmidt expects the run size to be close to the lower end of that range.

“Because the last several years, we’ve seen run sizes that have come in lower or at that low end of our preseason projections,” she said.

If she is right, this summer’s will be the lowest run on record for the Yukon River. Schmidt says there could be several reasons for the decline in king salmon.

“I always like to use the analogy of a a rivet in an airplane,” Schmidt said. “If you take one rivet out the airplane will still fly; If you take two out, it will still fly, but once you start taking three, four, five rivets out it’s going to crash.”

“So it might not be one big thing that’s causing Chinook salmon to decline but several small factors.”

Fish and Game is trying to manage the king salmon population so that up to 55,000 fish make it to Canada. That’s close to 86 percent of the lower end of the projected total run size. Fish and Game’s Yukon Area Summer Season Manager Eric Newland says there hasn’t been a lot of argument against closing sport fishing, subsistence or commercial harvest this summer.

“I think most people on the river really understand this: that it’s a problem, we’re doing a lot to conserve these fish and we’re still not making goals,” he said.

According to Newland, biologists are looking for ways to allow for harvest of other species in place of king salmon.

“Initially, we’ll be trying to provide for sheefish in the lower river, whitefish in other districts as well as summer chum when those fish become available a little later in the season and at that time we’ll be using gear types that allow for the release of King salmon if they are incidentally caught at that time,” he said.

Newland says last year’s commercial harvest of chum salmon, also known as dogs, was one of the largest on record. The subsistence harvest last summer was also up for chums, and Fish and Game expects a strong fall chum run this year as well. In the meantime, several research initiatives to investigate the king salmon decline are underway.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel City Council Fires City Manager Lee Foley

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:44

The Bethel City Council voted unanimously to fire City Manager Lee Foley during a special meeting Monday.

The termination comes after the 3-month-long investigation conducted by a third party attorney into nepotism, contracts, and personnel issues, among other issues. Council member Mark Springer noted that Foley had done a lot of good for the city.

“However it is the council’s prerogative at any time to terminate the city manager and in light of matters that have come to our attention and that have been given very serious consideration by the council…that why I’m making this motion,” Springer said. “And as I’ve said in previous meetings, this is not something we are taking lightly.”

Former Bethel City Manager Lee Foley at City Council meeting, 5/12/14.
(Photo by Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel)

Mayor Joe Klejka says there were at lease three contracts that were not sent out for competitive bidding, including the demolition of the old police station. The mayor would not name the other two, but the investigation included examination of city contracts with former finance director Bobby Sutton.

“We’ve not been following Bethel Municipal Code, and as our administrator for the city, [Foley] is the person most responsible for that to occur,” Klejka said. “It has just not been followed multiple, multiple, multiple times.”

The council confirmed violations within the city related to procurement, nepotism, credit card usage, personnel policies, leave, and travel and training policies. Foley’s son, Bo, works for the city’s IT department, which violates current city code.

In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Foley admitted to using a city credit card for personal business and allowing department heads to do the same before paying back the money.

The termination was effective immediately. Foley has been city manager since July of 2008. Port Director Pete Williams has been the acting city manager since Foley was placed on administrative leave in April.

Foley said in a brief statement to the council that it was an honor serving the city council and that he wishes the best for Bethel.

The council is hoping to hire a human resources director soon, in an effort to ensure personnel policies are followed.

The council passed four motions in the special meeting. One would freeze tuition assistance to city employees until next year. Others would not allow first class travel on city business trips, stop automatic credit card charges, and ensure employees who cash out sick leave and personal time do so according to code.

The city is not releasing the investigation, citing attorney client privilege. KYUK and five other media organizations have submitted a public records request for the investigation.

The council meets in a regular meeting Tuesday at 6:30 at City Hall where they plan to hold a public hearing about proposed increases to water and sewer rates, direct city staff to move ahead with bike path and boardwalk repair and discuss creating a Bing Santamour higher education scholarship.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Air Group To Repurchase Up To $650 Million-Worth Of Stock

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:40

The Alaska Air Group will buy back up to $650 million of stock, in a move approved by the Board of Directors.

The buyback will equal about 10-percent of the company’s current market capitalization and comes on the heels of the current $250-million stock buyback.

In a prepared statement, the Chief Financial Officer stressed that the Alaska Air Group will finance the stock repurchases with cash on hand and cash flow from operations.

Since 2007, the Alaska Air Group has instigated 8 stock repurchase initiatives at a cost of $519-million. The Board of Directors also approved a quarterly cash dividend of 25-cents per share to be paid on June 4.

The Alaska Air Group is the parent company for Alaska Airlines.

Categories: Alaska News

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