Posted Thursday, November 10, 2011 - 9:48 am
An Alaskan storm of "epic proportions" caused more flooding overnight and left communities along the state's western coast bracing for another possible sea surge Thursday.
In Nome, the tide crested 10 feet above normal late Wednesday, causing flooding along the town's main street, where the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race ends.
Strong winds ripped roofs from some buildings in the historic gold mining town, and there was a report that one building lost its front wall, said Julie Malingowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fairbanks.
Farther north, tides were 3 to 5 feet above normal along the Chukchi Sea coastline, causing flooding in the barrier island village of Shishmaref, Malingowski said early Thursday.
Damage from heavy storm surf also was being reported in the villages of Kivalina and Point Hope. "There is a lot of erosion," Malingowski said.
While winds had eased considerably, the threat from the storm surge will remain until sea levels begin to fall later Thursday, she said.
The strongest storm to hit the state in four decades carried with it heavy snow, rain and hurricane-force winds. It has knocked out power in a handful of coastal communities and sent some residents fleeing to higher ground.
"This is a storm of epic proportions," said meteorologist Jeff Osiensky with the National Weather Service. "We're not out of the woods with this."
Water reportedly has reached homes in at least four Native villages, including Tununak and Kipnuk, state emergency managers have said. Nome, Hooper Bay and Tununak reported scattered power outages. During outages, officials were able to maintain contact with communities by satellite phone and VHS radios.
Earlier, the storm produced 85-mph gusts, well above hurricane force. But emergency managers said that the winds had begun to taper off and were clocked with still-potent gusts of 55 mph. The storm had already passed through more southern points of its path.
The last time the communities saw something similar was in November 1974, when a storm created a sea surge that measured more than 13 feet. The surge pushed beach driftwood above the level of the previous storm of its type in 1913.
The weather service said a "potent upper level disturbance" rotating around the Bering Sea storm was expected to bring 3 to 8 inches of snowfall to the Anchorage area by Thursday afternoon. The service issued a winter weather advisory for Anchorage in effect until noon Thursday.
Stephen Kearney, a weather service meteorologist in Fairbanks, said late Wednesday the storm was "barely beginning to wind down" along the coast.
In Nome — the biggest of the coastal communities with about 3,600 residents — wind gusted to 61 mph earlier in the week.
Residents along Front Street, which runs less than 100 feet from the seawall that protects Nome from the Bering Sea, were asked to voluntarily evacuate Tuesday. Some of the buildings on the street, which features bars and gift shops, were already soaked when the tide ushered in more flood waters at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Flooding also was reported in Point Hope, where the water came within 10 feet of the airport runway. But the community still had power Wednesday night, meteorologist Stephen Kearney in Fairbanks told The Anchorage Daily News.
Associated Press writer Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report.
Posted Thursday, November 10, 2011 - 9:46 am
Spending on minerals exploration and mine developed increased substantially in 2010 compared with 2009, driven mainly by high prices for gold and zinc, the state of Alaska said in its annual minerals report. The report is issued yearly in the fall and details spending in the previous calendar year, using information supplied by minerals companies.
The state departments of Natural Resources and Commerce, Community and Economic Development compiled the data and issued the report.
Exploration spending increased 47 percent in 2010, rising from $180 million in 2009 to $264.4 million, the report said. This growth helped make 2010 the sixth consecutive year with exploration spending that exceeded $100 million. Exploration occurred across Alaska, but more than 48 percent of the spending ($127 million) was in southwestern Alaska alone, and 21 percent, or $55 million, was in the Eastern Interior region of the state, according to the report.
Two advanced exploration projects, the Pebble copper/gold and the Donlin Creek gold projects in the western and southwest regions, accounted for more than 43 percent of the exploration spending in 2010, the state report said. Thirty-four projects reported exploration expenditures of $1 million or more, and 47 additional projects reported spending at least $100,000.
Spending on development, or construction, at mines remained at high levels but was down nearly 11 percent in 2010, declining from $330.8 million in 2009 to approximately $293.3 million, the state report said. This was the seventh consecutive year in which development spending exceeded $200 million.
The value of produced minerals also grew substantially in 2010. The estimated gross wholesale (first market) value of mineral production increased more than 27 percent in 2010, rising from nearly $2.5 billion in 2009 to $3.1 billion. Zinc topped all mineral product values, with 42 percent of the total, and the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, operated by Teck, was the largest contributor to total zinc production, the state report said.
Gold remained a strong second, carrying 35.8 percent of the total production value. In descending order, the values of remaining production were lead, 9.1 percent; silver, 9 percent; coal and peat, 2.4 percent; and industrial minerals (rock, sand, gravel, and gemstones), 1.7 percent, according to the state report.
Mineral industry employment rose 18 percent in 2010 to 3,872 full-time-equivalent jobs, an increase of 592 jobs from the 2009 total of 3,280. Full-time-equivalent job numbers are derived from adjusting season job totals to their equals as year-around jobs based on hours worked weekly. The jobs were distributed across Alaska.
Posted Thursday, November 10, 2011 - 9:41 am
WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as a recent good-faith swap of offers showed a narrowing of differences over taxes, a special deficit-cutting "supercommittee" seems to have hit a major snag just two weeks before its deadline.
The two sides can't even agree on who should make the next move after an exchange of plans Monday night in which Democrats scaled back their demands on taxes even as Republicans for the first time offered higher tax revenues as part of a plan to cut deficits by $1.5 trillion over the coming decade.
Democrats' most recent plan calls for $2.3 trillion in deficit cuts, including $1 trillion in new revenue skimmed off the top as Congress overhauls the tax code. Republicans countered with an offer — pilloried by Democrats as a giveaway to the wealthy — for almost $300 billion in tax boosts over the same timeframe.
"They rejected our latest proposal. I think it is incumbent on them to propose something," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., a member of the panel.
The top Republican on the panel says the members are continuing to plug along.
"I have not given up hope and I hope my Democrat colleagues have not given up hope," the panel's co-chairman, Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, told reporters. "The stakes are too high for the economy to hold up my hands and give up. We're not."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel's other co-chair, told reporters Thursday that members are trying to be "as creative as possible to bridge the divides that face our country."
Murray said Democrats are saying that the panel's product must be "balanced and fair and has revenue, real revenue on the table. And the other side knows that and again, every one of us is trying to bridge that gap."
The glass-half-full interpretation of the GOP proposal was that it was a significant advance because even tea party favorites like Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the chief author of the plan, endorsed higher tax revenues.
The No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said he considered this week's GOP offer "an honest effort" and "a breakthrough that can lead to an agreement. That's what we need."
But Democrats on the supercommittee, as well as staff operatives working behind the scenes, mounted a spirited attack on the GOP plan, which was largely depicted in the media as a big shift for Republicans.
Democrats said the latest GOP idea is unfairly skewed in favor of the wealthy because it would require new limits on tax breaks that mostly benefit middle-income taxpayers, such as the child tax credit, personal exemption and deduction for home mortgage interest, while lowering the top rate for top earners from 35 percent to 28 percent.
The Toomey plan would lower other tax brackets proportionately, reducing the 28 percent bracket to 23 percent and the 25 percent bracket to 20 percent.
An analysis by Democratic tax experts says that to lower rates so dramatically would "require eliminating virtually all deductions for the middle class."
The document angered some Republicans, especially after they traced it back to staff aides to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who they had previously viewed as one of the panel members they were working most cooperatively with.
Republicans said the Democratic paper didn't accurately reflect Toomey's proposal, which would claim $250 billion in higher tax revenues by cracking down on deductions claimed by people in the upper two tax brackets.
The most recent Democratic offer scaled back an earlier Democratic demand for $1.3 trillion in higher taxes, a concession to Republicans. At the same time it jettisoned a plan to slow the growth in future cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, a provision that liberal Democrats oppose.
The one-page proposal was handed to Republicans at a meeting Monday night attended by some but not all members of the supercommittee. At the same session, GOP lawmakers in attendance advanced a revised proposal of their own that signaled for the first time they would be willing to accept higher revenues as part of a plan to cut deficits over the next decade.
Given the unusual secrecy of the meeting and the committee's Nov. 23 deadline to produce at least $1.2 trillion in savings, it appeared that the pace of activity on the panel was accelerating. Less clear was whether there was still time to bridge enormous differences on priorities, or whether each side was laying the groundwork for trying to blame the other in case gridlock triumphs.
The committee, comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats, has been working for weeks. Evidence of progress has been scarce, with Republicans demanding large cuts in benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare, while Democrats pressed for additional tax revenue as a condition for agreeing to make deep spending cuts.
As hard feelings intensified among panel members, other lawmakers said both sides had shown flexibility on the issues that long have been at the root of Congress' inability to compromise on sweeping plans to cut deficits.
"Republicans have put revenues on the table. Democrats have put entitlements on the table," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "They both need to put more of each on the table."
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed what Democrats had presented earlier in the week. "Right now, we are waiting for a response to what the second-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate called 'a breakthrough' - and we've seen nothing," said Michael Steel.
The revised Democratic plan totaled $2.3 trillion in savings over the next decade, including projected savings in interest costs the government would realize from lower deficits, higher than the GOP $1.5 trillion blueprint.
Democrats' proposed spending on Medicare would be restrained by $350 billion over a decade, and on Medicaid, by $50 billion.
Another $200 billion would come from defense, and an identical amount from a broad swath of government programs ranging from the parks to transportation.
Democrats also called for an overhaul of the tax code that would result in an individual rate of no higher than 35 percent and a scaling back of itemized deductions.
Broadly speaking, however, the GOP plan would raise new revenues of at least $500 billion, both skimmed off the top as Congress completes an overhaul of the tax code and from proposals such as auctioning broadcast spectrum, raising Medicare premiums and increasing aviation security fees.
The plan also would cut spending by about $700 billion, mixing a less generous cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries with further cuts to agency operating budgets and curbs on the booming growth of Medicare and the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.
Lower interest payments on the national debt would provide the remaining savings.
Posted Thursday, November 03, 2011 - 10:19 am
Gov. Sean Parnell said Wednesday that he met for several hours with the chief executive of BP PLC during the first leg of his European trip, touching on issues ranging from a natural gas pipeline to how Alaskans might benefit if oil taxes are cut.
Parnell said he told Bob Dudley he wants to get Alaska's gas to market as soon as possible. Last week Parnell told an oil and gas group that if the gas market has truly shifted from the Lower 48 to the Pacific Rim, he wanted the major North Slope players — Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP — to get behind a pipeline project that allows for liquefied natural gas exports to the Pacific Rim.
He told The Associated Press that he left the meeting believing the two held a similar view that the region's market is worth investigating.
TransCanada Corp. is working with Exxon Mobil to advance a natural gas pipeline project but it has not announced any agreements with shippers necessary to move the effort along.
On Tuesday, the president and chief executive of TransCanada, Russell K. Girling, told a conference call the continued focus of the project remains the Lower 48. But he said this is a market-driven project, "and we'll move the gas to wherever the market decides it wants to move the gas to."
A BP spokesman in Alaska, Steve Rinehart, said the company has studied and will continue to study the potential for liquefied natural gas. He said the goal is getting North Slope gas to market.
Rinehart couldn't comment on specifics related to Parnell's meeting with Dudley but said "there clearly is much they could discuss and it is good they had that opportunity."
Parnell is in the midst of his first state-sponsored trip overseas, what he's calling an "investment mission." It is the latest in a series of trips that Parnell or other members of his administration have taken in an effort to tout Alaska's development and investment potential. Later this month Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan is expected to be in China, a leading export market for the state, where among other things he plans to talk up Alaska's gas potential.
Parnell still plans to meet with the CEOs of two other energy firms, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Europe's largest oil company, and Eni SpA.
He began his trip in the United Kingdom, where in addition to meeting with Dudley he also promoted one of the state's top exports, seafood.
Parnell said he was "professionally and graciously" received by Dudley, who Parnell said he also pressed to be more specific on what kind of benefits Alaskans could see if oil production taxes were cut. The president of BP Exploration Alaska, John Minge, said earlier this year that he supported the $5 billion investments that a ConocoPhillips executive envisioned if the tax regime were changed, and said he saw that as a start "in terms of what is possible."
Minge's comments came as Parnell's tax cut bill stalled in the Senate, with leading lawmakers saying they didn't have the information they needed to make a sound policy call and some seeking firm commitments from energy companies for what Alaska would see in return if taxes were cut.
"I think that number they put out there, the $5 billion number, of new investment or additional investment, I think that's a bare minimum from one company," Parnell said. While other companies would benefit from tax changes, too, "I'm in this to assure that Alaskans see more investment and see more jobs."
Parnell plans to revive the tax issue when the Legislature convenes in January.
Posted Thursday, November 03, 2011 - 10:18 am
The recent 9th Circuit Board of Appeals decision on the Logjam Timber sale freed up between three million and six million board feet of lumber for bid.
"It’s a drop in the bucket for what we need,” said Alaska Forest Association Board Director George Woodbury. “But every million [the U.S. Forest Service] sells is important to keep things moving.”
Woodbury said the Viking Lumber Company is already near the end of two of the three timber harvests in the Logjam project.
“The timber supply situation is desperate,” Woodbury said.
Tongass timber sales totaled 45.9 million board feet in fiscal year 2010.
To increase the number of timber sale Woodbury said he believes the Forest Service should advertise new timber sales as soon as possible, particularly those with complete Environmental Impact Statements. He also said the Forest Service should also keep a much larger volume of timber in the pipeline for the EIS process and sale at all times.
“The EIS process takes much too long,” Woodbury said, “and needs to be streamlined.”
Larry Edwards, forest campaigner for Greenpeace agrees with Woodbury that the EIS process takes time.
“It isn’t a problem with EIS process,” Edwards said. “It has more to with scheduling.”
With the circuit court decision Greenpeace “pretty much exhausted our options,” Edwards said. Greenpeace joined in the lawsuit with the Tongass Conservation Society and Cascadia Wildlands
Edwards said he believes the lawsuit had a positive influence on subsequent Forest Service timber sales. Though not ruled on by the court, Edwards said the EIS “vastly overestimated” deer habitat — deer are the primary prey of the Archipelago wolf. The
Forest Service rated federal and non-federal lands with the same deer carrying capacity. However, non-federal lands, Edwards said, are more prone to be clear cut and therefore are poorer quality deer habitat. He said he hopes his work helps the Forest Service avoid the error on future sales.
The circuit court decided in favor of the Forest Service, finding that the agency met Environmental Protection Agency guidelines in its Final Environmental Impact Statement.
The statement provided for logging on 3,422 acres of Tongass National Forest and the construction of 22 miles of roads on Prince of Wales Island, according to a Tongass National Forest release.
Posted Thursday, November 03, 2011 - 10:11 am
JUNEAU — A fund established decades ago to share Alaska's oil wealth with future generations lost $3.1 billion during the first quarter of the fiscal year.
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. cites continued slow growth in the U.S. economy and political and economic difficulties abroad for the 8.3 percent decline. The Alaska Permanent Fund ended the quarter with $37 billion.
The corporation has stressed that it takes a long-term approach to investing and isn't reactive. CEO Michael Burns said the board has built a diversified portfolio that has worked the way it's supposed to.
He said stocks were up by 30 percent for the last fiscal year while most other portfolios returned less. He said the situation has reversed, with bond and real return portfolios performing positively or showing much smaller losses.
Posted Thursday, November 03, 2011 - 10:08 am
ANCHORAGE,— U.S. Army officials in Alaska are withholding details behind the arrest of a 22-year-old soldier suspected of espionage, but they stressed Wednesday there is no connection with the case involving an Army analyst suspected of disclosing secret intelligence to WikiLeaks.
Authorities also said Spc. William Colton Millay, of Owensboro, Ky., didn't transmit any information.
Millay was arrested Friday at a barracks room at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. He is expected to be charged through the military justice system later this week.
Millay, a military police officer, was being held without bail at the Anchorage Correctional Facility.
Army Lt. Col. Bill Coppernoll said Millay's arrest stems from an ongoing investigation conducted by the Army and FBI.
Coppernoll said few details were being released and that the case was very early in the legal process. But unlike the WikiLeaks case targeting Army analyst Bradley Manning, allegations against Millay do "not involve the transfer of data on computer networks," Coppernoll said.
"Also important to note is that because of the close coordination between Army Counterintelligence and the FBI, any information that might have been transferred was stopped," he said in an email. "Millay was being observed well before any damage could have occurred."
FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez also declined to provide details.
"It's a joint investigation," he said. "But the Army will actually bring charges and try him the military justice system."
Attempts to reach Millay's attorney were not successful. The name of a private attorney in Anchorage was provided by the Army as Millay's legal representative, but the attorney said any arrangements were not yet official or certain.
Millay is assigned to the 164th Military Police Company. Most members of that company are on a year deployment to Afghanistan that began in March, but Millay was in the company's rear detachment that stayed behind.
Posted Monday, October 31, 2011 - 1:35 pm
Here’s good news for Southcentral Alaska consumers: Enstar Natural Gas Co. will file a gas cost adjustment with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska later this week for the first quarter of 2012 that will be 37 cents per thousand cubic feet, or mcf, lower than the gas cost filed a year ago for first quarter 2011.
Enstar President Colleen Starring made the announcement at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce “Make it Monday” luncheon meeting on Monday.
Because there will be no change to Enstar’s administrative or other expenses, it means heating costs for Enstar’s customers will be lower for the first part of the year than last year.
Despite declining gas reserves in Southcentral Alaska, Enstar’s gas prices have been trending downward slowly, and Starring credited that to new gas producers appearing on the scene, mainly small independents, who are exploring for and finding new gas supplies.
State exploration incentives approved by the Legislature have caused an upsurge in drilling in Southcentral Alaska, Starring said.
The lower price is also an effect of a pricing formula for one of Enstar’s major suppliers, Unocal Corp., that is linked to the Henry Hub gas trading index in Louisiana, where natural gas prices are at very low levels.
Enstar’s average gas cost was $6.75 per mcf in 2011, down from $6.99 per mcf in 2010.
Posted Friday, October 28, 2011 - 2:53 pm
Alaska’s oil and gas industry packs a powerful economic punch in the state. A new study by McDowell Group, a Juneau-based consulting firm, has estimated that the petroleum industry directly creates 4,000 jobs, that industry support and service companies create 7,700 jobs, and that the “indirect” employment effect of those 11,700 industry and contractor jobs creates another 26,000 jobs.
The grand total is 44,800 jobs and $2.65 billion in annual payroll in the state, according to Jim Calvin, McDowell Group’s lead researcher on the project.
The data is from industry activity in 2010.
Calvin said that every one job created by a primary company, such as an oil producing company, creates nine additional jobs in the support sector.
The work was sponsored by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the petroleum industry trade group. McDowell Group presented the findings last Thursday, Oct. 27, at AOGA’s annual luncheon in Anchorage.
In terms of regional employment impact, the industry created 25,400 jobs and $1.56 billion in wages in Anchorage; 4,700 jobs and $320 million in wages in the Kenai Peninsula Borough; 3,000 jobs and $168 million in wages in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; 3,600 jobs and $268 million in wages in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; and 700 jobs and $57 million in wages in Valdez.
Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected]
Posted Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 9:29 am
A couple of proposed Alaska recreation projects — a Kachemak Bay water trail and an all-season trail system within Denali State Park — could get assistance from the federal government.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday that the Alaska projects will be included in a 50-state Interior Department report that sets out to list the country's most promising ways to reconnect Americans to the natural world.
The report is part of President Obama's "America's Great Outdoors" initiative. Salazar said in a news release that Interior officials solicited ideas in every state on how to implement the initiative. Rather than dictating policies or conservation strategies, he said, the initiative supports grass-roots projects.
Dave Brann, an organizer of the proposed Kachemak Bay water trail, said by phone from Homer that it would be a designated water route that identifies areas on shore where users could pull out, camp or find fresh water. It would show private property that could not be used and describe facilities for camping, such as cabins or tent platforms.
The Homer Spit would be one end of the trail. It would run up the north side of Kachemak Bay, across the head of the bay, and then down the south side to Seldovia, covering about 125 miles, Brann said. Sections could be cut by not exploring small bodies of water such as Sadie Cove or Tutka Bay.
Water trails have been set up in other states, Brann said, but are a fairly new concept for Alaska. Organizers anticipate the trail would be used by people in kayaks, sailboats and other small boats. They have scheduled a planning meeting for Wednesday night in Homer.
The 325,000-acre Denali State Park is south of the Alaska Range about 100 miles north of Anchorage. It shares a border with Denali National Park and Preserve. The park offers views of Mount McKinley and wildlife such as moose and bears.
The report will list how Interior Department agencies could support the state projects.
The Interior Department said in its announcement that it could assist the state in developing a trail management plan at Denali State Park or give recommendations for design.
Posted Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 9:26 am
The Fairbanks North Star Borough is seeking to dismiss its lawsuit over Alaska's redistricting plan. The decision comes after the city of Petersburg decided to drop the bulk of its claims, apparently over financial concerns.
The borough filed an agreement with the Alaska Redistricting Board Tuesday that a judge must still sign off on. It calls for each side to bear its own attorneys' fees and costs. The borough would still be allowed to act as a friend of the court.
Assistant Borough Attorney Jill Dolan said the decision came down to a matter of resources and shouldn't be seen as a reflection on the strength of the case. She said the assembly wishes to continue supporting the fight in a non-financial manner.
The three lawsuits initially filed over the plan all claimed that the redrawn political boundaries would dilute the representation of voters in the new districts.
Challenges remain from Fairbanks-area residents, as well as from Petersburg. Trial is set for January.
The redistricting board's executive director, Taylor Bickford, called the recent decisions major developments that along with the recent preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice "speak to the integrity of the plan and the integrity of the process." He said the board has been preparing for trial and will continue in that vein.
This week, state court Judge Michael McConahy granted Petersburg's request to drop all claims except those alleging that its proposed new House district doesn't meet constitutional standards for compactness. Attorney Thomas Klinkner said Tuesday that the city decided it had committed the resources to the case that it could, and going this route would allow for the challenge to continue.
The redistricting board spent months devising a plan, drawing new lines based on results of the 2010 Census. The board has acknowledged its greatest challenge was ensuring that the voice of Alaska Natives was protected in the political process.
Under federal voting rights law, the plan cannot weaken the ability of the Alaska Native community to elect candidates of its choosing. The board needed at least nine districts in which an Alaska Native or a Native-backed candidate was likely to be elected to maintain the seats held by those candidates after the 2000 redistricting.
Along with the preapproval of Justice, the plan must be upheld by the court before it can be implemented.
Posted Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 9:23 am
JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell said Wednesday that he doesn't plan to introduce legislation establishing a coastal management program during the upcoming session.
Three coastal community leaders are seeking to revive the program and take the issue to the people, in the form of a ballot initiative, if the Legislature doesn't act. An initiative application has been filed, and if it's certified, proponents must gather 25,875 signatures.
One of the leaders, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, has said the goal is to have 27,000 signatures collected before the start of the legislative session, Jan. 17.
Parnell said it's premature to say whether the state needs a new program. "But I can tell you, the state has a robust permitting system that communities have input into multiple times for every project, and we're making the current system work for communities and individuals," he said. "So that's why I've chosen not to file legislation and to let the initiative (process) and the voice of the people either way take its course."
Parnell declined to speak to the specifics of the initiative, noting that he can't use his office to advocate for or against an initiative.
An opt-in coastal management program, allowing states to put conditions on certain activities on federal lands and waters, ended June 30 after several failed attempts by lawmakers to save it. The end came as coastal communities sought a greater say in development decisions that could impact their way of life, particularly with the future potential of offshore oil and gas development.
The proposed initiative calls for a coastal policy board that provides local input in evaluating the effectiveness of district coastal management plans.
It also says the board must approve district plans if, among other things, they address a coastal use or resource of concern as demonstrated by local knowledge or supported by scientific evidence. Questions about what role local knowledge and scientific evidence should play were major sticking points during the legislative debate.
The Alaska Federation of Natives last week endorsed the proposal.
Botelho told reporters earlier this month that if a coastal management program "substantially similar" to that outlined by the proposed initiative isn't adopted, the goal would be to get the issue on the November ballot and to let the voters decide.
It's not clear whether there will be a push among lawmakers to revive the issue after how heated things got during the regular legislative session and two special sessions — and where things ended.
Staff to Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, said he's considering all options, including seeing how the initiative effort works. He is expected to make a decision on whether to file legislation as the session nears.
Posted Monday, October 24, 2011 - 3:15 pm
Posted Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 9:59 am
ANCHORAGE — After 16 years of losses, John Baker was solely focused on winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.
When he did that last year in record time — and became the first Alaska Native musher to win in 35 years — he hadn't considered what would come next.
"I hadn't thought past what happens once I crossed the finish line," he said Wednesday in his keynote address at the First Alaskans Institute Youth and Elders Conference in Anchorage.
But once he did start thinking about the next step, he knew he couldn't make the decision alone.
"There's other people involved, other people who worked just as hard for me to win this race, so I needed to get together with my family, friends and sponsors that make up Team Baker and ask them what they think we should do," he said.
"And they didn't hesitate. They said, 'You're going to race,'" Baker said in announcing plans to defend his Iditarod title next March.
Baker, a soft-spoken Inupiat Eskimo, received several standing ovations from the audience packed into a ballroom at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. He later signed autographs.
The Kotzebue musher was the first Alaska Native musher to win the Iditarod since Jerry Riley won in 1976, and he was the first Eskimo to win since the 1,150-mile Anchorage to Nome race began in 1973.
Baker last year shattered the race record, coming in three hours earlier than four-time champion Martin Buser did when he set the previous record in 2002. Baker completed this year's race in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes.
During the address, he stressed the need to have dreams and having a process to achieve them. He pointed to 16 failed attempts to win the Iditarod before last year's win.
"It's about the importance of having dreams, setting goals to pursue the dream and taking actions to make the dream a reality," he said.
Baker said he's learned from his mistakes and moved on. He also won't let anyone else define him by those mistakes.
The issues of drugs and alcohol, abuse and suicide in rural Alaska need to be addressed, but he said that's not the only thing people should be talking about.
"My belief is if we focus only on the negatives, we'll never be strong," he said when encouraging the largely teen audience to work together and support each other.
In lighter moments during a question-and-answer session, Baker was asked which of his 70 or so dogs is his favorite.
Sometimes it's difficult to pick just one, but one of his lead dogs, Velvet, stands out. Velvet and Baker's other lead dog, Snickers, shared the Golden Harness award for last year's Iditarod, as voted on by other mushers.
"She's a dog that nobody else had any success in hooking her up and running. She just doesn't want to do it," he said. "But she does it for me."
He also was asked how a proposed road to Nome might change the sled dog race.
Baker says the proposed road wouldn't go along the trail that much, and he's been told that where the two intersect, the mushers will be allowed to use the road. For him, that's good news.
"I sure could use a few less bumps in the future," he said. "I hope it's paved."
Posted Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 9:54 am
SEATTLE (AP) — Scientists in Washington state are working to improve testing of a deadly, contagious marine virus as a precaution, after the virus was detected in wild salmon for the first time on the West Coast.
Researchers with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and elsewhere announced Monday they had found the influenza-like virus in two juvenile sockeye salmon collected from the province's central coast. The virus, which doesn't affect humans, has caused losses at fish farms in Chile and other areas, and could have devastating impacts on wild salmon in the region and other species that depend on them, the researchers said.
"This is potentially very big. It's of big concern to us," said John Kerwin, who supervises the fish health unit at the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Even though the virus was detected in salmon collected hundreds of miles away, at Rivers Inlet in British Columbia, the virus could pose a threat because "fish don't have any boundaries in the ocean ... and salmon species stray," he said.
The state tested about 56,000 hatchery and wild fish last year and hasn't found signs of the virus — infectious salmon anemia, Kerwin said. But Monday's news sent Kerwin scrambling on Tuesday to work with other agencies to find ways to beef up current testing methods. If the virus is ever detected in Washington, the state would follow containment plans that could include killing fish, he said.
"It's a disease emergency," said James Winton, who directs the fish health section of the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle.
Officials on both side of the border should increase surveillance and research to understand how broadly the virus is distributed, in what species, how fish are infected, among other questions, he said. "We don't have enough information on what this strain will do today and what it will do in the future," he said.
"We're concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon," added Winton, who is not connected to the British Columbia study.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is calling on government scientists to develop a response to a newly discovered virus that could wreck the salmon industry in the Pacific Northwest.
Canadian scientists this week announced that the influenza-like virus was found in two juvenile sockeye salmon collected from British Columbia's central coast. The same virus, called Infectious Salmon Anemia , has caused losses at fish farms in Chile and elsewhere.
Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, introduced the bill with Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.
This measure calls on interagency group of scientists to provide Congress a report in six months that details surveillance, susceptibility of species and populations, potential vectors, gaps in knowledge, and recommendations for management.
Cantwell says the government needs a coordinated game plan "to protect the Pacific Northwest's coastal economy and jobs."
The virus was found in two of 48 juvenile sockeye salmon collected as part of a long-term study of sockeye salmon led by Simon Fraser University professor Rick Routledge. "It is certainly possible that this disease may be benign for Pacific salmon, but I still don't rest easy because it was initially benign for Atlantic salmon and it mutated," he said Tuesday.
Researchers said Fred Kibenge of the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, confirmed the presence of the virus in two fish and noted it was a European strain of the virus.
Routledge and biologist and wild-salmon activist Alexandra Morton suggested Monday that the source of the virus is Atlantic salmon farms in British Columbia, which has imported millions of salmon eggs since 1986.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was informed of the suspect case over the weekend and will run its own tests and analysis at a federal laboratory in New Brunswick, said Dr. Cornelius Kiley, a veterinarian with the agency. It may be weeks before that's complete, he said Tuesday.
"It's very important to ensure that the test was carried out properly and done under the proper condition," Kiley said. "If you can repeat it, then your level of confidence will increase."
Morton on Monday called for the removal of Atlantic salmon from British Columbia salmon farms. And the Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy on Tuesday called for a halt to more net pen salmon aquaculture on the West Coast. It also wanted widespread testing of wild and hatchery salmon and a halt to fish farms in British Columbia until those results are known.
But Kiley said, "We have no indication at this time that there's any involvement with the aquaculture industry."
In Washington state, Kerwin said one company raises Atlantic salmon in western Washington and has not detected the virus.
John Kaufman, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he wasn't as concerned, partly because the virus seems to affect Atlantic salmon the most and Oregon does not raise Atlantic salmon off its coast.
Posted Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 9:51 am
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Federal environmental regulators say they will develop national standards for the disposal of polluted wastewaters generated by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Also known as fracking, the technique uses millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemical additives, to unlock gas in deep shale formations in Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Its use has increased dramatically in recent years, raising concerns about the potential impact on water quality.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will draft standards for fracking wastewater that drillers would have to meet before sending it to treatment plants.
The industry already recycles much of the wastewater or injects it deep underground, but some of it is sent to treatment plants that are often ill-equipped to handle it.
Posted Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 11:31 am
Posted Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 9:16 am
The state folks who usually distribute Alaska Permanent Fund dividends spent much of last week trying to recover 5,500 PFDs they paid in error.
The problem came when the Permanent Fund Dividend Division accidently paid some dividends when some or all of the $1,174 payments should have gone instead to creditors who had won court orders to garnish the dividends.
The recovery effort has involved getting banks to try to take the direct-deposit PFDs from bank accounts and stopping payments on 1,900 paper dividend checks that were sent, said Debbie Bitney, director of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division.
The division is part of the state's Department of Revenue, and is separate from the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, the agency that manages the Alaska Permanent Fund and sends the earnings to the division for distribution.
Bitney said the division's front-line staff, answering phones and at counters in Anchorage in Juneau are attempting to provide answers to the public as best they can.
"They're doing their very best, it is a really difficult place to be right now, they just don't have very much information to be able to share with the public and people are expecting answers," she said.
Some of the problems come from the recovery effort, said Rochelle Harmon of Juneau.
She said she checked her balance online Friday and found both a negative balance -- and an added fee for insufficient funds.
Bitney said the division didn't expect banks to do that.
"I was under the impression that they wouldn't overdraw people's accounts, but I'm hearing that they are," she said.
Harmon said her bank, First National Bank Alaska, later in the day reversed that action and removed the insufficient funds penalty.
Harmon said she and her husband still have to figure out how to deal with the overpayment, but at least now the problem isn't being made worse.
Bitney said the accidental payments came when a computer file that identified garnishments sought by process servers for court judgments wasn't properly linked to the payment file.
It doesn't include government billings, child support payments or other types of garnishments.
In some cases the debts are no longer owed, Bitney said, because the PFD applicant made other payment arrangements. That, and other individual circumstances, are complicating the process of solving the problem, she said.
"Every single one of these is on a case-by-case basis, I don't expect any two of them to be identical," she said.
The stop-payment process doesn't allow partial stop-payments, she said, adding another complication.
Those payments that have been recovered, but where a partial dividend is still owned, won't begin to be paid until Oct. 27, Bitney said.
"That will be the absolute earliest that we will be able to pay anybody, and it won't be everybody," she said.
The Dividend Division has published on its website a list of all the check numbers for which stop-payment orders have been issued, and will work to get answers to frequently asked questions posted to the site as well, Bitney said.
Posted Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 9:11 am
The state Department of Transportation & Public Facilities predicts it will have less money to spend on ferry service in the future, and wants suggestions about where cuts can be made in its new Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.
The Marine Transportation Advisory Board will instead recommend more spending, although some of that spending is intended to help reduce costs in the future.
The Department’s Southeast Region planners are currently holding a series of public meetings to explain the plan around Southeast. Public comments are due by Nov. 4.
The board will send a letter outlining suggestions for the things it considers most important, such as maintaining service to Bellingham and across the Gulf of Alaska and building a new mainliner replacement ferry and one additional Alaska-class ferry.
Some of the bold propositions in the letter, developed by the board last week, include consideration of a new ferry terminal at Berners Bay and a road across Baranof Island to shorten the lengthy ferry run to Sitka.
The MTAB decided road links “should be built where appropriate and possible to shorten ferry runs and create an efficient transportation system,” said Robert Venables, the board’s chairman.
Venables, of Haines, said the board didn’t expect all of its suggestions would be immediately incorporated in the plan or eventually be built.
“Keep in mind this is a 20-year plan, with focus on the next five years until the next update, but the focus is on meeting the needs of population and traffic over the next 20 years,” he said.
Creating a new ferry terminal north of Juneau at Berners Bay would expand options for ferry service in Lynn Canal, he said.
The shorter distance between Berners Bay and Haines and Skagway would possibly allow two daily runs within 12 hours by a single crew, reducing operating costs significantly.
The difficulty, he acknowledged, was the distance from downtown Juneau. The board said its support for the Berners Bay terminal would also have to have an “inherent public transportation component to support walk-on ferry passengers.”
Venables said that would be necessary to make it work.
“You can’t just leave people stranded however many miles away that is — it’s tough enough to getting in from Auke Bay as it is,” he said.
A Berners Bay terminal might have other hurdles besides distance. It was one of the options considered during the state’s decision to build the Juneau Access Project, the road between Auke Bay and a new ferry terminal at the Katzehin River and shuttle ferries to Haines and Skagway.
That Environmental Impact Statement considered a Berners Bay terminal, but noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish & Game and Environmental Protection Agency all had concerns about impacts on herring spawning habitat, along with Steller sea lions and humpback whales.
Another project being looked at is the road from Sitka to a new ferry terminal on Chatham Strait, dramatically shortening ferry runs. That project was most recently estimated to cost $290 million to the Baranof Warm Springs.
The MTAB comment letter doesn’t call for building the new road within the 20 years, but only funding for its design phase.
One project not specifically listed as a priority by MTAB is a road between Kake and Petersburg, which could allow more efficiencies as well.
The state’s most recent cost estimate for that project is $190 million, according to the department.
The board also looked at some shorter-term goals, including inclusion of crucial ferry system investments in the next fiscal year’s budget.
That includes operational funding at current levels, repowering the Columbia, continuing the Alaska-class ferry construction, new engines for the fast ferries and regular appropriations into the vessel replacement fund.
“These specific line items will allow the Alaska Marine Highway System to provide much needed transportation services within the region and the state,” Venables said the board believed.
Posted Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 9:01 am
WASHINGTON (AP) — One of four men charged in what federal prosecutors call one of the largest government contracting frauds in the country's history will remain behind bars, a judge ruled Tuesday, after prosecutors said they had overwhelming evidence of him participating in a kickback scheme.
Harold F. Babb, the former director of contracts for Eyak Technology LLC, and three other men, including two employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were arrested this month and accused in a $20 million bribery and money-laundering scheme. Prosecutors say government work was directed to a favored information technology subcontractor in exchange for kickbacks that paid for real estate, fancy clothes and other luxuries.
The three other men have already been ordered held. They are Kerry F. Khan and Michael A. Alexander, both Army Corps employees, and Lee A. Khan, Kerry's son.
Babb's attorney, Jeffrey Jacobovitz, argued during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington that his client should go free because he had no prior criminal record and was not a threat to the community. He said the transcripts of the audio recordings provided by prosecutors were largely irrelevant, non-incriminating and were merely the government's summaries of his client's conversations.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Atkinson said the recordings between Babb and a government witness show the men discussing "classic kickbacks," bid rigging and the illegal steering of contracts.
Prosecutors say Babb was paid or promised more than $700,000, given first-class air tickets and promised a job in exchange for using his contracting authority at EyakTek to direct government work to a favored subcontractor. They say he's also connected by witness statements and documents to the transfer of $2 million in illicit proceeds to the Bahamas and $218,000 to Panama, and has traveled abroad more than two dozen times in the last three years. Federal agents searching his home this month found more than $10,000 in cash, court papers say.
Eyak Technology is a subsidiary of an Alaska Native Corporation with Virginia operations. It was the prime contractor for a five-year, $1 billion contract administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Prosecutors say Khan and Alexander received kickbacks in exchange for causing the government to award contracts to a Virginia-based subcontractor identified in the indictment only as Company A and as a subcontractor for EyakTek. The company's chief technology officer, described as a co-conspirator, submitted fraudulent and inflated invoices to the Army Corps of Engineers, either directly or through EyakTek, and the work was certified as completed, according to the indictment.
About $20 million in fraudulently inflated invoices were then funneled back to the four defendants, the indictment alleges.
The Eyak Corporation has denied any wrongdoing, and its chief executive officer, Rod Worl, has said Babb's alleged actions "constitute a reprehensible breach of trust."
Several members of Congress have called for either investigations or hearings into the allegations.