Associated Press

Alaska ferry system could face more budget cuts

  KODIAK (AP) — The head of the Alaska Marine Highway System says he expects a $5 million cut to the organization's operating budget next year. The budget will likely drop from $96 million to $91 million for next fiscal year, said Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, at a community meeting in Kodiak Wednesday. Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget, released Wednesday, provides AMHS with about $92.2 million, reported The Kodiak Daily Mirror (http://bit.ly/1NQTVvi ). The ferry system has made an estimated $53.5 million in revenue during fiscal year 2015, an increase from the previous year. Operating costs have gone down by about $5.5 million through cutting bars, gift shops, a marketing contract and discounts. But the ferry system needs to make more cuts as legislative contributions continue to fall. AMHS has struggled with a declining operating budget of $27 million over the last three years. The budget was at $123.7 million in fiscal year 2013. That figure has dropped to $96.6 million in 2016, the current fiscal year. The decreasing budget has resulted in reduced ferry service, including the number of service weeks and port calls. Neussl said the number of service weeks fell from 400 in 2013 to 378 in 2015. This year, it dropped to 354. Public criticism over the ferry system has grown with the reduced service. Neussl said the number of comments he receives when draft schedules for the summer and winter are released has increased significantly. In the past he has only received 25 to 30 comments, but this year's summer schedule brought him 300. "We didn't get comments like 'Gee, can you move it from this day to this day,'" Neussl said. "We got comments like, 'Your schedule is unacceptable. It's not even meeting our basic needs.'"

Mining sector in turmoil as Anglo American sheds jobs

LONDON (AP) — The decision by a London-based mining company to shed 85,000 jobs is the sign of a global industry in crisis, with conglomerates reassessing their huge operations to cope with a drop in demand from Chinese factories for metals and other raw materials. Anglo American said Dec. 8 it will shed some 63 percent of its workforce in a radical restructuring meant to cope with tumbling commodity prices. It will streamline its global business from some 55 mines to around 20. CEO Mark Cutifani said the drop in commodity prices requires “bolder action,” even though the company has delivered on performance and previous business restructuring objectives. He pledged to provide more details later. The dividend was suspended for the second half of 2015 and 2016. Investors reacted with dismay. The company’s share price fell 11 percent to 327.30 pence. Mining companies around the world are facing tough times as economic growth slows in China, whose manufacturers’ need for raw materials has driven a years-long boom in mining in countries like Australia and Brazil. China accounts for as much as 40 percent to 50 percent of global commodity demand, according to consultants PwC. Its economic growth is forecast to drop below 7 percent a year from double digits in recent years — and commodity prices are tracking it lower. “Mining companies are feeling the wrath of the collapse in commodity prices,” said Gianna Bern, who teaches finance at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and expects others across the industry to also either cut or suspend their dividends to cope. “Companies are weathering some very tough economic times.” The price of copper has dropped about 30 percent in the past year; gold 11 percent; iron ore has about halved. Companies have focused on cutting costs and reducing capital spending, but market values have continued to decline among the top 40 companies — losing some $156 billion, or 16 percent, of their combined market value in 2014, PwC said. “With few exceptions, the commodity price outlook remains dim, forcing miners to keep up their guard,” PwC said in its report. “As the old saying goes, survival will be of the fittest, and for miners also the leanest.” Just as first there was a big boom in commodities, now there’s an equally big bust, said Julian Jessop, the chief global economist at Capital Economics. “I think the pendulum has swung too far to pessimism but as long as you have pessimism, you’re going to get these big cuts.” Anglo American is not alone. Shares in Glencore slid about 30 percent in one day in September amid concerns over its ability to service sky-high debts at a time of low market prices. Glencore shares have since stabilized as the company announced the sale of several mines, but they were down another 9 percent on Tuesday. Rival BHP Billiton fell 6 percent and Antofagasta 5 percent. But Anglo American is different from others in that two commodities in its portfolio — diamonds and platinum — are labor intensive to extract, said Kieron Hodgson, a mining analyst at Panmure Gordon & Co. The company said it provides some 40 percent of the world’s newly mined platinum from South Africa and Zimbabwe. De Beers and its partners produce a third of the world’s diamonds by value, employing more than 20,000 people around the world. As Anglo American moves to rationalize its business, it will reduce its assets by 60 percent. It will consolidate from six to three businesses. The company will also move its London office to “co-locate” with DeBeers, its majority-owned diamonds business by 2017. Some $3.7 billion of cost and productivity improvements are underway and set to be completed by 2017. Cutifani also confirmed Anglo will sell the phosphates and niobium businesses during 2016. “We will set out the detail of the future portfolio in February, with the aim of delivering a resilient Anglo American and a step change in the transformation of the company,” he said. Some analysts wonder if it will be enough. “It’s underwhelming as a package,” Hodgson said. “The business needs to reappraise itself in a manner that gives it a future.” Hodgson said that if commodity prices recover, Anglo is likely to achieve its targets. But if commodity prices drop again, the company risks having to raise cash from investors through a share issue, he said.

Energy stocks lead another decline as oil price weakens

NEW YORK (AP) — Global stock markets fell sharply Dec. 8 as oil prices remained near six-and-a-half year lows following last week’s decision by the OPEC oil cartel to leave production unchanged. Most of the biggest decliners in early trading Dec. 8 were oil and gas companies. Devon Energy lost 8 percent, Kinder Morgan fell 7 percent and Southwestern Energy fell 5 percent. U.S. crude dropped another 2 percent to $37 a barrel. Oil is the lowest it’s been since early 2009. Keeping score: In Europe, Germany’s DAX fell 1.2 percent to 10,750 while the CAC-40 in France was 1.2 percent lower at 4,701. The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 0.9 percent at 4,698. U.S. stocks were poised for a lower open with Dow futures and the broader S&P 500 futures both 0.7 percent lower. Oil slump: Last week’s decision by OPEC to maintain production levels has hit oil prices hard over the past two trading sessions. On Dec. 8, oil prices recouped some losses but still remain near their lowest levels since early 2009, when the world economy was in its deepest recession since World War II. Brent crude, the international standard, was up 60 cents at $41.33 per barrel in London after plunging $2.27 on Monday. Benchmark U.S. crude gained 28 cents to trade at $37.93 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.32 on Monday. Oil stocks: Shares in oil companies have suffered as traders price in the prospect of lower future earnings and the impact it will have on production plans — low oil prices make many projects uneconomic. Among the fallers were Britain’s BP, which was down 1.5 percent, and France’s Total, which dropped 1.8 percent. Analyst take: “The renewed decline in the oil price in the aftermath of last Friday’s OPEC meeting is the main focus of financial markets and is weighing on equity prices,” said Neil mackinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital. Anglo American: Shares in the mining firm Anglo American plunged by more than 8 percent after it said it would shed around 85,000 employees — or 63 percent of its workforce — amid a radical restructuring program meant to cope with the tumble in commodities prices. China trade: Customs data showed imports and exports shrank again in November, though there were signs weak domestic demand might be improving. Exports contracted by 6.8 percent, accelerating from October’s 3.6 percent fall. Imports fell 8.7 percent, an improvement over the previous month’s 16 percent decline. Import volumes of some goods such as crude oil, fresh fruit and cooking oil rose. Asia’s day: China’s Shanghai Composite Index fell 1.9 percent to 3,470.07 and Japan’s Nikkei 225 lost 1 percent to 19,492.60. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 retreated 0.9 percent to 5,108.60 and Seoul’s Kospi declined 0.7 percent to 1,949.04. India’s Sensex was off 0.5 percent at 25,401. Taiwan, Singapore, Jakarta and New Zealand also declined. Currencies: The dollar was slightly softer Dec. 8. The euro was up 0.3 percent at $1.0875 while the dollar fell 0.3 percent to 122.98 yen.

House considers requiring search warrant for old emails

WASHINGTON (AP) — Investigators would need a search warrant to get people’s old emails under a bill considered Dec. 1 by a House panel looking to update a nearly 30-year-old federal law to reflect today’s communications. The Email Privacy Act, co-authored by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., has broad bipartisan support and would close a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which passed before online storage became so convenient and inexpensive. The law gave the government access to emails older than 180 days with just a subpoena. The emails were considered abandoned at the time, when there was rarely enough storage space to hold emails longer than six months. Under current law, the government uses subpoenas to Internet service providers like Google or Yahoo to obtain emails older than 180 days; search warrants are already generally required by service providers for more recent email content. The bill taken up by the House Judiciary Committee instead would require agents to get a search warrant, which generally requires probable cause that a crime has occurred. Exceptions in the bill would allow agents to continue obtaining emails in terrorism investigations without any changes. Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he hoped to provide a “fair balance between the privacy expectations of American citizens and the legitimate needs of law enforcement agencies,” so that searches in the virtual world and physical world are treated equally. This is a “modest step for bringing our privacy protections into the 21st century,” said Chris Calabrese, who is vice president for policy for the Center for Democracy & Technology. He added that the bill still provides more leeway for law enforcement than when using a warrant to search a physical place. For example, it allows investigators to wait up to 10 days to provide notice of the email warrant to the subject, as well as a gag order in certain circumstances so that person would not be notified at all. Google’s law enforcement director, Richard Salgado, told lawmakers that provisions under the old law “do not reflect the reasonable expectations of privacy of users.” He also noted that the Justice Department has said there is no reason under privacy law for criminal investigators to treat old emails differently than newer emails. The Supreme Court ruled last year that law enforcement officers generally need a warrant to search the contents of a cellphone. The Securities and Exchange Commission opposes the new measure, saying as a civilian law enforcement agency it can’t obtain a criminal warrant. The SEC’s enforcement director, Andrew Ceresney, said agents can’t reasonably expect the targets of their investigations to turn over emails or other messages that might implicate them in fraud schemes. “Individuals who violate the law are often reluctant to produce to the government evidence of their own misconduct,” he said, adding that individuals would be able to contest a subpoena under revisions proposed by the SEC. Under questioning, Ceresney acknowledged that his agency has not used its subpoena power to access older emails as allowed under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act since an appeals court in 2010 ruled that the provision violates the Fourth Amendment because it doesn’t require a warrant. Some states have worked to address inconsistencies in the law due to technological advances. California passed a law earlier this year requiring the government to obtain a warrant when requesting communications from third parties. The California law also applies to metadata, such as details on who sent or received the information, which previously only required a subpoena. This is the second time Congress has examined email privacy and a change to the 1986 law. A bill in 2013 received broad bipartisan support but failed to proceed beyond initial votes. Since then, disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the scope of government snooping on Americans’ communications led to increased privacy concerns and efforts to limit government access. Earlier this week, after a gag order was lifted on a founder of an Internet service provider, it was revealed that the FBI has used national security letters to demand records from ISPs, phone companies and financial institutions, without a warrant.

Russian oil tanker grounds Nov. 28 in north Pacific

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian emergency services say cleanup operations are underway after an oil tanker was grounded, damaging one of its fuel tanks. The tanker Nadezhda hit a reef during a storm on Nov. 28 near the port city of Nevelsk on Sakhalin Island in Russia’s Far East. It was carrying 786 tons of fuel oil and diesel fuel. The amount of oil spilled and the extent of any environmental damage was not immediately clear. The emergency services said operations were taking place on Nov. 29 to collect spilled oil and also contaminated soil from along the shore, while oil remaining on the vessel was being pumped onto other tankers.

New North Dakota oil tax framework saving state $1M daily

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Action by the North Dakota Legislature earlier this year means a price-triggered exemption for the state’s oil industry did not go into effect Dec. 1. November marked the fifth-straight month that oil prices averaged less than a trigger price of $55.09. Had lawmakers not acted, the tax break for drillers would have gone into effect Dec. 1, costing the state millions in lost revenue. “I’ve said ‘I told you so’ about eight times today,” Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, told The Associated Press. The price for North Dakota sweet crude has averaged nearly $10 less than the trigger price in the past five months. North Dakota oil was fetching about $14 less than the trigger Dec. 1. North Dakota has two primary taxes on oil production — a 5 percent production tax and a 6.5 percent extraction tax, the latter of which was part of an initiated measure voters approved in November 1980. Until Dec. 1, state law had forgiven the extraction tax if the five-month average price slipped less than the trigger prices. The prospect of the big tax cuts due to declining oil prices had North Dakota lawmakers scrambling to approve a new oil tax framework that cuts the overall rate from 11.5 percent to 10 percent, while abolishing the trigger for drillers on Dec. 1. North Dakota’s oil industry enjoyed the triggered tax break for 17 years, until 2004 when oil prices rebounded for five months greater than the trigger, which was just more than $35 a barrel at the time. State Tax commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger said the Legislature’s elimination of the law means the state will save about $1 million daily based on current oil prices and production. The legislation abolishing the breaks was among the most contentious of the session and passed just a few days before lawmakers adjourned. GOP lawmakers said it would provide a predictable tax policy. “I think this will prove in the end that it will create long-term stable situation for us,” Carlson said. Democrats said the lower tax rate will cost the state billions of dollars in tax revenue in the long run. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider said most in his party favored cutting the price-triggered exemptions but did not want to shave the overall tax rate. “There was absolutely no long-term thought given to this,” Schneider said. “It was shoved through the Legislature in the last five days of the session.” North Dakota’s oil industry wanted a flat 9 percent tax rate in exchange for giving up the price triggers. Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the tax emption would have triggered a surge in drilling in the oil patch, were the number of drill rigs has slipped from 187 a year ago to 66 on Dec. 1. “My phone is not ringing with glee from our folks,” Ness said. “It didn’t exactly work out in our favor but we can’t cry over spilled milk.”

Testing finds no nuke-disaster radiation in Alaska seafood

Alaska seafood has not been tainted by the Fukushima nuclear disaster four years ago, according to test results announced Nov. 30 by a state agency. Alaska health authorities working with the federal Food and Drug Administration pronounced Alaska salmon, cod, halibut and other species free from radioactive contamination connected to the power plant damaged in Japan more than four years ago. A 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, generated a 130-foot wave that devastated 217 square miles in Japan. About 16,000 people were confirmed dead and nearly 2,600 were never found. Among the damaged facilities was the nuclear plant complex at Fukushima, and meltdowns created fear that radionuclides, or radioactive isotopes, might drift east. Debris from Japan, including boats and buoys, crossed the Pacific and arrived on Alaska’s shore. The greater concern was the potential effect on the Alaska seafood industry, which in 2011 was valued at $15.7 billion in direct and secondary economic output. The industry employed 63,100 workers in Alaska, making it the state’s largest private sector employer. Sampling has never detected radioactive contamination from Fukushima in Alaska, but that has not stopped the rumors. Misinformation spread online has caused much concern in the last four years, said Marlena Brewer, an environmental protection specialist for the Division of Environmental Health. “I get calls from all across the country,” Brewer said. “I’ve even had international calls with concerns about Alaska seafood.” Ocean modeling of the distribution of contaminants did not indicate a potential risk to Alaska fish, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The department made arrangements with the FDA to sample and directly test fish. Testing this year at the FDA’s Winchester Engineering Analytical Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, as in 2014 found no detectable levies of contamination from Fukushima. Samples in 2014 were collected from four of five Alaska salmon species, including king, chum, sockeye and pink, which spend part of their lives in the western Pacific Ocean. Health officials in 2015 took samples from coho salmon, halibut, pollock, sablefish and Pacific cod but not pink salmon. Test results were in line with water-quality sampling done in 2014 by a nonprofit group, Cook Inletkeeper. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has sampled along the West Coast since 2011 and found no levels of concern, Brewer said. Scientists predicted concentrations of Fukushima radioactive isotopes in North Pacific waters could peak in 2015.

Complaint alleges campaign violations against Walker deputy

JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska Public Offices Commission has filed a complaint alleging campaign disclosure violations by groups once linked to Gov. Bill Walker's deputy chief of staff. Marcia Davis helped form Your Future Alaska and Alaskans First as nonprofit corporations before Walker's election. The complaint alleges late disclosures of the groups' financial activity. It also says Your Future Alaska failed to identify the true source of funds and failed to register before it started spending money. Your Future Alaska contributed to Walker Mallott 1, which supported the election of Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, and Alaskans First, which supported Democratic legislative candidates. The complaint says Walker Mallott 1's treasurer, Vicki Otte, helped form the corporations. An attorney for the corporations said they're working on resolving the matter. The Alaska Republican party called for Davis' resignation. Walker spokeswoman Grace Jang said by email late Tuesday that the complaint isn't connected to Davis' role as Walker's deputy chief of staff.

More, smaller icebergs may show up in Alaska tanker lanes

Icebergs that threaten tankers carrying oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline are likely to be smaller but more numerous over the next two decades, according to a study by a citizens oversight group. Ice that calves off the Columbia Glacier near Valdez has to travel farther to reach shipping lanes because the glacier has receded more than 10 miles since 1980, according to the report prepared for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The longer distance to Prince William Sound means icebergs have more opportunity to shrink from melting and fracturing. Ice remains a serious threat, however. Smaller icebergs can more easily clear an underwater barrier, the glacier’s terminal moraine, which grounds the largest icebergs leaving Columbia Bay. The smaller icebergs that can float over the moraine will continue to be a hazard, said Mark Swanson, director of the council. “It’s going to pose a risk for shipping for the foreseeable future,” until the glacier finally retreats out of the ocean and onto land, he said by phone from Valdez. The citizen’s council was created in the aftermath of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker that struck Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez spilled roughly 11 million gallons of crude oil. It was the nation’s largest oil spill until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew of the Exxon Valdez had received permission to stray from shipping lanes to avoid Columbia Glacier ice. “They just forgot to turn back and then they found a reef,” Swanson said. “They avoided one hazard and found another.” An iceberg figured into a second tanker incident five years later. The 894-foot Overseas Ohio, heading north to pick up oil, struck an iceberg head-on. The collision tore a 17-by-20-foot hole in the vessel’s bulbous bow. Icebergs that ride low in the water, weighed down by rock, are hard to see. “Those are the ones that could really booger up a ship,” said Swanson, a former Coast Guard officer who was captain of the port in Valdez from 2002 to 2005. The trans-Alaska pipeline these days carries an average of 496,571 barrels of Alaska North Slope crude oil per day. Tankers carry the oil to West Coast refineries. Advancing glaciers flowing into the ocean gouge a deep trench and push forward a wall of rock and debris on which ice rests. As the Columbia Glacier has retreated, that underwater terminal moraine has acted as a barrier to big icebergs near the head of Columbia Bay. The moraine is 60 feet deep at its deepest point. In the past, Swanson said, large icebergs would run aground on the moraine and clog the movement of icebergs. The study by W. T. Pfeffer Geophysical Consultants LLC revealed that that height of the moraine has not been affected. However, many more icebergs are simply floating over it. Shipping lanes begin 12 miles east of the bay. The Coast Guard manages ice risk with 24-hour radar. Five of the escort tug boats dispatched to accompany tankers in and out of Valdez are equipped with radar that can detect ice. “There are probably 50, 60 days per year when tanker traffic is in some way restricted based on ice hazards,” Swanson said.

Study: Highway runoff kills salmon but filters can help

SEATTLE (AP) — Toxic runoff that flows from highways into urban streams is killing coho salmon in Puget Sound, but simple filtering methods can help fish survive, a new study finds. Salmon exposed to untreated highway runoff in controlled experiments became lethargic, lost their orientation and died within hours, according to the study published Oct. 8 in the Journal of Applied Ecology. But fish survived if they were immersed in runoff that had been filtered through columns of sand and soil, similar to rain gardens. The study found inexpensive pollution-prevention tools that completely prevented the toxic impacts to the fish, said Julann Spromberg, the paper’s lead author and toxicologist affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. All fish exposed to untreated highway runoff died within 24 hours, while fish exposed to the treated water survived. Spromberg said she was most surprised to find that the fish weren’t affected by an artificial mixture of heavy metals and oils that the researchers produced in the lab. But actual runoff collected from a Seattle highway caused the fish to die. Heavy metals and oil products weren’t enough to kill fish, she said. “There’s something out there that we’re not measuring that’s causing it,” but scientists haven’t pinpointed what chemical or compound of chemicals in the runoff is lethal to salmon, she added. Knowing that may help control toxic chemicals at its source, she said. Rick Cardwell, an aquatic toxicologist not involved in the study, praised its findings. “This is really a good study that really would have a lot of impact,” he said, though would like to see the experiments independently repeated. In the meantime, the study suggests that rain gardens, bioretention swales and other so-called green stormwater infrastructure that manage stormwater with natural drainage should be incorporated where possible. Nat Scholz, who manages NOAA’s Ecotoxicology Program in Seattle, said wild salmon may have a shot if such strategies are used. The study included researchers from NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State University and the Squamish Tribe.

Low gas prices mean no Social Security increase next year

WASHINGTON (AP) — For just the third time in 40 years, millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees can expect no increase in benefits next year, which is unwelcome news for more than one-fifth of the nation’s population. They can blame low gas prices. By law, the annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, is based on a government measure of inflation, which is being dragged down by lower prices at the pump. The government is scheduled to announce the COLA — or lack of one — on Oct. 15, when it releases the Consumer Price Index for September. Inflation has been so low this year that economists say there is little chance the September numbers will produce a benefit increase for next year. Prices actually have dropped from a year ago, according to the inflation measure used for the COLA. “It’s a very high probability that it will be zero,” said economist Polina Vlasenko, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “Other prices — other than energy — would have to jump. It would have to be a very sizable increase that would be visible, and I don’t think that’s happened.” Congress enacted automatic increases for Social Security beneficiaries in 1975, when inflation was high and there was a lot of pressure to regularly raise benefits. Since then, increases have averaged 4 percent a year. Only twice before, in 2010 and 2011, have there been no increases. In all, the COLA affects payments to more than 70 million Americans. Almost 60 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security benefits. The average monthly payment is $1,224. The COLA also affects benefits for about 4 million disabled veterans, 2.5 million federal retirees and their survivors, and more than 8 million people who get Supplemental Security Income, the disability program for the poor. Many people who get SSI also receive Social Security. Carol Mead of Montrose, Pennsylvania, said she and her husband were counting on Social Security COLA to help them with their finances. “My husband is working just so we can pay our bills,” said Mead, a retired land-use administrator. “He’s 70 years old, and he’s still working in a stone quarry. He’s told me a number of times that he thinks he’s going to have to work until the day he dies.” More bad news: The lack of a COLA means that older people could face higher health care costs. Most have their Medicare Part B premiums for outpatient care deducted directly from their Social Security payments, and the annual cost-of-living increase is usually enough to cover any rise in premiums. When that doesn’t happen, a long-standing federal “hold harmless” law protects the majority of beneficiaries from having their Social Security payments reduced. But that leaves about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries on the hook for a premium increase that otherwise would be spread among all. Those who would pay the higher premiums include 2.8 million new beneficiaries, 1.6 million whose premiums aren’t deducted from their Social Security payments, and 3.1 million people with higher incomes. Their premiums could jump by about $54 a month; the jump could be more for those with higher incomes. States also would feel a budget impact because they pay part of the Medicare premium for about 10 million low-income beneficiaries. All beneficiaries would see their Part B annual deductible for outpatient care jump by $76, to an estimated $223. The deductible is the annual amount patients pay before Medicare kicks in. “This would affect all beneficiaries,” said Tricia Neuman of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “This kind of an increase is unprecedented.” Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would freeze Medicare’s Part B premium and deductible for 2016, but its prospects are uncertain. White House spokeswoman Katie Hill said: “We share the goal of keeping Medicare’s premiums affordable, and are exploring all options.” By law, the cost-of-living adjustment is based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, or CPI-W, a broad measure of consumer prices generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It measures price changes for food, housing, clothing, transportation, energy, medical care, recreation and education. The COLA is calculated by comparing consumer prices in July, August and September each year with prices in the same three months from the previous year. If prices go up, benefits go up. If prices drop or stay flat, benefits stay the same. The numbers for July and August show that, overall, consumer prices have fallen since last year. Fuel prices are down by 23 percent from a year ago, according to the August inflation report. But prices for some other goods and services, such as health care and housing, are up. Advocates argue that the government’s measure of inflation doesn’t accurately reflect price increases in the goods and services that older Americans use. “The COLA is determined by the buying power of younger working adults,” said Mary Johnson of The Senior Citizens League. Many advocates for seniors want Congress to adopt an experimental price index that seeks to capture the inflation experienced by Americans 62 and older. The Social Security Administration estimates it would increase the annual COLA by an average of 0.2 percentage points — which still might not be enough to generate a COLA for next year. Lee Marshall of Greenville, California, said the current inflation index isn’t good enough. “They have a formula that they use that doesn’t reflect the actual cost of living,” said Marshall, 68, a retired laborer and casino dealer. “Just because the price of gas is going down, that doesn’t mean anything.”

State seeks options to fund village water service projects

Flush toilets and running water are elusive dreams for Paul Dock and other residents of impoverished Alaska villages where indoor plumbing has historically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install in just one home. Residents in at least 30 isolated communities far from the state’s meager road system are mired in Third World conditions despite more than $2 billion in federal and state money over the past 50 years to provide basics like running water that most Americans take for granted. But with the state facing increasingly tight budgets, the days of springing for traditional piped water and sewer systems are gone, leaving residents in unserved communities to continue to rely on outhouses or the honey bucket system — large buckets that serve as toilets. The state, meanwhile, hopes to find more affordable options through a contest that’s similar to a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation competition to reinvent the toilet for the 2.5 billion people around the world who don’t have access to modern sanitation. The Alaska project involves six test communities, including Kipnuk, where Dock lives, and Kivalina, a badly eroding northwest Alaska community whose plight captured President Barack Obama’s attention during his recent visit to the state. Dock, the tribal council administrator in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Kipnuk, remembers when Alaska was flush with oil and had big plans to eliminate the honey bucket. “But it didn’t become a reality for some of the villages, including Kipnuk,” Dock said. Instead, the nearly 650 Kipnuk residents get their drinking water from rain, rivers, snow and ice or from the village’s treated-water collection point commonly known as a washeteria. Human waste is dumped into bins outside homes, then collected by locals on four-wheelers and trailers and hauled to the sewage lagoon of the community, located nearly 500 miles west of Anchorage. Dock said sometimes the bins overflow, spilling along the village boardwalks. “Very, very unsanitary,” he said. “Eventually, some of the people walk on it.” The lack of water and sewer service in Native villages has been linked, in fact, to disproportionately higher rates of skin infections and respiratory illnesses. But funding traditional piped systems historically has cost between $200,000 and $400,000 per home in rural Alaska Native communities, according to Bill Griffith with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s water division. “It’s incredibly expensive,” he said. There are no roads linking the far-flung villages to urban areas, so everything has to be flown or barged in, and some communities don’t have a way to barge things there, he said. Also, difficult soils, including permafrost, sometimes are part of the task, adding to the expense. Other complications could include having to mine or transport gravel used for filling pipe trenches, building foundations and other construction necessities, Griffith said. Today, the challenge for the state is finding the money to build water and sewer systems in communities that still lack them, with federal and state funding plummeting and construction costs skyrocketing. Many other rural communities have aging systems that are becoming obsolete or inoperable. Altogether, more than 3,300 homes in rural Alaska still lack running water and flushing toilets, although schools in even the most remote village tend to have indoor plumbing. The DEC estimates there is a gap of more than $660 million between the estimated cost of $724 million needed to bring all communities up to date and the $63.6 million available. As a result, the agency has launched a state-funded private sector competition that it hopes will lead to research and development of new water and sewer delivery services, including systems featuring small-scale treatments at individual homes. Of 18 entities that applied to participate in the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge, the state selected three companies or organizations and their partners to work with two villages each on proposals submitted this summer for prototype development and testing expected to begin later this year. The goal is to take existing technology and combine it in new, affordable ways, Griffith said. One telling rule for participating teams: Projected costs can’t exceed $160,000 per home. The proposals being finalized with the participating teams are all expected to come in far below that figure, Griffith said. The target figure is set by the federal Indian Health Service as the maximum feasible amount for serving a home in rural Alaska, he said. “I’d love to have something much less than that,” Griffith said. The state is finalizing project contracts with the teams for testing that’s expected to begin this year. A total of $4 million has been made available by the state and federal governments for contracting and project administrative costs, Griffith said. The ideas include one headed by the University of Alaska Anchorage, which is working with Kipnuk and the village of Koyukuk to develop a home-based system to treat water from a variety of sources with membrane filters and ultraviolet light for reuse. That proposal — submitted after team members visited each village this year — calls for homeowners to choose individual components, such as a shower and toilet, to fit their needs. Aaron Dotson, a UAA civil engineering professor, envisions sending the systems to communities as kits. “The community then constructs it themselves,” Dotson said. In Koyukuk, only the school and teacher housing have indoor plumbing, and so does just one resident who paid to have a system installed in the home. Cindy Pilot, a City Council member, said everyone else uses outhouses — in the middle of winter when it can get as cold as 50 below zero. Some residents in the Athabascan community of about 90 use honey buckets in their homes overnight. Pilot looks forward to the day when that will be a thing of the past. “It would be just one less thing to have to take care of,” she said.

New dinosaur found in northern Alaska

Researchers have uncovered a new species of plant-eating dinosaur in Alaska, according to a report published Sept. 22. The animal was a variety of hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur that roamed in herds, said Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. Northern Alaska likely was once covered by forest in a warmer climate. The dinosaur lived in darkness for months and probably experienced snow, researchers said. The fossils were found in rock deposited 69 million years ago. For at least 25 years, the fossils were lumped in with another hadrosaur, Edmontosaurus, a species well-known in Canada and the U.S., including Montana and South Dakota. The formal study of the Alaska dinosaur revealed differences in skull and mouth features that made it a different species, Druckenmiller said. The differences were not immediately apparent because the Alaska dinosaurs were juveniles. Researchers teased out differences in the Alaska fossils, Druckenmiller said, by plotting growth trajectories and by comparing them with juvenile Edmontosourus bones. Researchers have dubbed the creature Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis (oo-GROO’-nah-luk KOOK’-pik-en-sis). The name means “ancient grazer” and was chosen by scientists with assistance from speakers of Inupiaq, the language of Alaska Inupiat Eskimos. The dinosaurs grew up to 30 feet long. Hundreds of teeth helped them chew coarse vegetation, researchers said. They probably walked primarily on their hind legs but could walk on four-legs, Druckenmiller said. Most of the fossils were found in the Prince Creek Formation of the Liscomb Bone Bed along the Colville River more than 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The bed is named for geologist Robert Liscomb, who found the first dinosaur bones in Alaska in 1961 while mapping for Shell Oil Co. Museum scientists have excavated and catalogued more than 6,000 bones from the species, more than any other Alaska dinosaur. Most were small juveniles estimated to have been about 9 feet long and 3-feet tall at the hips. “It appears that a herd of young animals was killed suddenly, wiping out mostly one similar-aged population to create this deposit,” Druckenmiller said. UA Fairbanks graduate student Hirotsugu Mori completed his doctoral work on the species. Florida State University researcher Gregory Erickson, who specializes in using bone and tooth histology to interpret the paleobiology of dinosaurs, also was part of the study. They published their findings in the “Acta Palaeontologica Polonica,” an international paleontology quarterly journal. Researchers are working to name other Alaska dinosaurs. “We know that there’s at least 12 to 13 distinct species of dinosaurs on the North Slope in northern Alaska,” he said. “But not all of the material we find is adequate enough to actually name a new species.”

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