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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
Municipal election results in Anchorage. Oil and gas issues continue to dominate the legislative session. The battle over SB 21 – the oil tax revision – continues. Purchasing the legislative office building no longer seems like such a good idea to lawmakers. This is sexual assault awareness month. What can we expect from the Legislature in the last two weeks of the session? The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the Katie John case. An unusual murder trial in progress on Kodiak.
HOST: Michael Carey
- Steve MacDonald, Channel 2 News
- Jill Burke Alaska Dispatch.
- Tim Bradner, Alaska Journal of Commerce.
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, April 4 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 5 at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, April 4 , at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 5 at 4:30 p.m.
A controversial permitting bill has been sentenced to die in committee.
Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel sent out a press release on Thursday evening announcing that the resources committee will not hold any more hearings on HB77.
Committee member Peter Micciche says that with the end of session looming, the bill was simply too complex and too polarizing to advance.
“Some people will be very happy. Some people won’t be as happy. But I think that everyone can agree that we can, in the future, do a better job working together on releasing things that people see as having an effect on their everyday lives, their rights as Alaskans, their right to be heard.”
The Parnell administration introduced HB77 last year. The bill was pitched as a way to make the permitting process more efficient, and it initially zipped through the Legislature. But fishing groups, tribal organizations, and environmental outfits came out strong against the bill, arguing that it gave too much power to the natural resources commissioner and limited the public’s role in permitting decisions.
After the bill failed to secure the necessary votes last year, the Department of Natural Resources held meetings with opposition groups and revised the bill in consultation with Micciche. While some of the more contentious provisions were altered, the rewrite still attracted a heated public response when it was unveiled last month.
Micciche believes some components of the new draft have merit and could have been enacted into law had they not been wrapped in such an expansive piece of legislation. He says those parts will likely need to be revisited in the future and parceled out into a series of less ambitious bills.
But this year, the Legislature is done with permitting policy.
“I don’t know go where bills go in the after life, but I do — I do — honestly wish House Bill 77 a very happy eternity as it rests in peace.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources wrote in an e-mail that the agency is a “disappointed in this outcome,” but understands the decision.
What happens if the Port of Anchorage were compromised by a natural disaster? A collaborative military exercise is orchestrating a plan -- just in case.April 3, 2014
Filmmaker Luc Mehl and his friend Derek Collins took 14 days to travel 250 miles on foot through southwestern Alaska's Wood-Tikchik State Park.April 3, 2014
Alaska State Troopers say a Homer man fatally shot himself after he grabbed a trooper’s gun during a struggle following a domestic violence call.
Twenty-four-year-old Aaron Michael Rael-Catholic is dead following the incident Wednesday night.
According to a Trooper report, an unidentified Trooper attempted to apprehend Rael-Catholic following a report of a domestic violence assault shortly after 8 p.m. at a residence about four miles out East End Road.
The female victim who made the report was able to escape the assault by her ex-boyfriend – Rael-Catholic. She left the residence in a vehicle just as the Trooper arrived on the scene. Rael-Catholic then used another vehicle to ram into the victim’s car.
According to the report, the suspect then got out of the car and a struggle ensued with the Trooper. In an attempt to apprehend Rael-Catholic, the Trooper used pepper spray and then his Taser but to no avail. The Trooper and the suspect ended up wrestling on the ground. During this struggle, Rael-Catholic got a hold of the Trooper’s pistol and fatally shot himself.
Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters said Troopers could not release any further information about the incident until completion of an investigation by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Peters did confirm that the Trooper was the only law enforcement officer who responded to the call. She did not know if he called for backup during the incident. After the shooting, several local agencies – including the Homer Police Department and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department – responded to the scene. The female victim was taken to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer but her condition was unknown.
The Trooper was not injured in the incident. Peters said his identity will not be released for 72 hours.
According to court records, Rael-Catholic was arrested for Fourth Degree Assault in December. In that incident, he was allegedly intoxicated and had assaulted a member of his family.
Peters said an autopsy on Rael-Catholic by the State Medical Examiner’s Office is expected to be performed later this week. She could not estimate how long the investigation might take.
Peters said it is extremely rare for a suspect to get a hold of an officer’s service weapon. The last time it happened on the Kenai Peninsula was in 2003, when 33-year-old David Forster took a pistol from Kenai Police officer John Watson and used it to kill him. Forster was sentenced to 101 years in prison for the murder.
The Coast Guard has released the results of an investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drill rig at the end of their troubled Arctic drilling season. The agency documented multiple safety violations. It also found a desire to avoid a state tax contributed to the decision to move the rig in poor conditions.
The agency found that Royal Dutch Shell and its subcontractor, Edison Chouest, severely underestimated the risk of towing an unpropelled oil rig through the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm in December 2012.
The Kulluk had been moored at a custom-built dock in Dutch Harbor. According to the Coast Guard, Shell executives believed they could dodge a multimillion-dollar state tax bill if they moved the rig out of Alaska before the start of the new year.
Some mariners knew it would be a rough journey: In an email early in the trip, the master of the Aiviq tow vessel said a winter tow “guarantees an ass kicking.”
As predicted, the fleet encountered rough seas. The tow line between the Kulluk and the vessels that were pulling it snapped repeatedly — in part, due to inadequate equipment. After multiple attempts to recover the rig, the Kulluk crashed into a remote island on New Year’s Eve 2012. It took days to recover the vessel.
The accident reportedly cost Shell more than $90 million. And it gave critics of Arctic oil exploration plenty of ammunition.
Michael LeVine is the Pacific senior counsel for Oceana.
“We need to fundamentally rethink the way we’re balancing costs and benefits and the standards to which we’re holding companies like Shell,” LeVine says.
The Coast Guard uncovered multiple legal violations, including failures to report marine casualties and safety issues. The agency also discovered inadequate watch-keeping in the bridge and engine rooms of Shell’s fleet.
LeVine says the federal government bears some blame, since they approved Shell’s Arctic exploration plans.
“It is not sufficient simply for a company to say that they’re prepared to operate in Alaska,” LeVine says. “We all deserve to have these companies come here and show us that they actually appreciate the difficult and remoteness of operating in Alaska water, and the importance of those resources to all of us.”
The Coast Guard is recommending measures to improve tow plans and correct engineering deficiencies on the Aiviq tug.
In a statement, Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino said the company is taking the Coast Guard’s findings seriously.
“Already, we have implemented lessons learned from our internal review of our 2012 operations,” Baldino said. “Those improvements will be measured against the findings in the USCG report as well asrecommendations from the US Department of Interior.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell already rejected a plan to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. These days, all three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation are trying to get her to change her mind. Today was Congressman Don Young’s turn to press the case.
As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Young was allotted five minutes to question Jewell on the president’s $12 billion budget for Interior. Young asked only about King Cove. And Young wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. In fact, at times during the fiery exchange, he wasn’t taking any answers.
Young said the birds of the Izembek Refuge could adjust to traffic, like the birds on the George Washington Parkway, along the Potomac. Jewell told him the Izembek is a wetland of global significance.
–The birds that are in that area (Izembek) are different than the birds in the Potomac River.
–They are no different. There the same type of bird. The same species, as far as genetically goes, and you and I know that!
–No, sir, the Pacific black brant is …
–There is exactly the same attitude. They get used to it!
When bad weather prevents normal air travel in King Cove, critically ill and injured people have to wait for a Coast Guard helicopter. Such rescues generally happen four or five times a year, although there have been five just since December. They are said to cost more than $200,000 apiece. Young threatened Jewell with an unpleasant choice: Which of her divisions should Congress deduct that cost from?
–Which one of those departments do you think we take it out of?
–Congressman, I will continue …
–Which one of the departments should we take it out of?
–Congressman I do not believe money for a medical …
–You don’t think it’ll happen, do you?
–Can I finish? Would you like me to answer the question?
–No, I’m going to ask you which department. You answer.
Jewell also had to defend her King Cove decision last week at a Senate hearing, though Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich were less forceful in style.
Watch the exchange: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxY_ARqi2iU
After a research review, the National Marine Fisheries Service is prepared to loosen controversial limits on fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.
NMFS closed fishing grounds three years ago to protect an endangered population of Steller sea lions. That triggered several rounds of litigation and a new evaluation of the science behind fishing bans.
Brandee Gerke is a NMFS resource management specialist. She helped the agency write its new biological opinion on whether increased fishing would harm sea lions.
That has cleared NMFS to open more fishing grounds in the western Aleutians, according to a plan that was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Gerke says that biologists still have lingering concerns about how to harvest fish safely in critical habitat areas without disturbing Steller sea lions.
“NMFS is still recommending that the fishery be dispersed over a greater amount of time,” Gerke says. “So not going in and catching fish in a very concentrated fashion.”
Those recommendations will be included in a proposed rule from NMFS. They’ll take public comments on the regulations. But if they’re finalized, fishermen will have access to previously forbidden stocks of Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and pollock as early as next year.
Michael LeVine says that’s pretty sudden. LeVine is a lawyer for Oceana — an environmental group that’s been fighting for years to uphold fishing bans in the western Aleutians.
“The controversy is about whether removing 60% of the fish that used to be there is contributing to the continuing decline of the species and its overall failure to recover,” LeVine says. “Historically, the agency has said that is has. This new analysis, we think, reflects a step back from that very well scientifically-justified position.”
LeVine wouldn’t comment on whether Oceana might sue to keep fishing grounds closed.
At least one group applauded the decision to loosen restrictions. The Aleut Corporation holds a small amount of pollock quota in the western Aleutian Islands. It’s supposed to bring business to Adak, but the share is an area that was closed — until now.
In a statement, the Aleut Corporation said it’s grateful for any new fishing opportunities that will come as a result of the federal study — for Adak, and for other communities throughout the Aleutian Chain.
On Friday, state representatives will vote on a sprawling education bill that deals with everything from school budges to teacher tenure to the establishment of charter schools. Some lawmakers, like Anchorage Democrat Chris Tuck, are already preparing for a marathon session.
TUCK: It’s going to be a long one. I think it’s probably going to be one of the longest bills that we probably take up on the floor this year.
APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that some of the biggest fights are expected to center around the education funding formula.
On Wednesday, it took the House Finance Committee about six hours to work through more than 20 amendments that members wanted to make to the legislation. There were split votes, a good bit of sniping, and multiple apologies before the group finally moved the bill out of committee that evening.
The process is not expected to be any easier once the bill hits the floor.
At a press conference on Thursday, the Democratic Minority explained that their major concern is that an increase to the base student allocation — the amount of money a school gets per student enrolled — does not go far enough.
“We’ve faced three years of cuts in the past, this extends three more years of cuts — cuts this coming year, and then bigger cuts the following two years when the base student allocation gets smaller,” said Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage.
The House Finance version of the bill spends an extra $225 million on per-pupil funding over the course of three years, but some of that could cancel out because of a loss of $25 million in one-time funds. Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal adds just over $100 million to that pot of money over the same period of time.
Rep. David Guttenberg, of Fairbanks, said neither of those figures are enough to prevent layoffs in the state’s biggest school districts.
“I think if you ask them if they’d take a poke in the eye or a kick in the backside, they’ll take whatever they can get over nothing,” said Guttenberg.
The Democrats’ proposal costs about $450 million over three years.
But Republicans in the majority are concerned that a bigger increase than what they are offering could put serious pressure on future budgets.
Rep. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters on Thursday that education is being treated as an exception as other state agencies are being told to keep their budgets flat.
“We are still prioritizing education while the rest of state government we are cutting,” said Costello. “We’ve been cutting operating budget of state government so that we can continue to fund education increases.”
Costello also argued that their proposal also gives an extra boost to urban schools, where 80 percent of Alaska’s students are enrolled. The House Finance Committee did this by adjusting the education funding formula to weigh the state’s larger schools more generously. The existing funding formula gives rural schools extra funds because costs in remote areas are higher, and rural legislators have expressed concern that changing it could result in a disparity between small and large schools.
The House is expected to debate the education bill at the same time a citizens group made up of parents will be rallying on the capitol steps for more education funding.
How to address the teacher retirement debt is another friction point for lawmakers.
Governor Sean Parnell says a House Finance Committee proposal to deal with the teachers’ retirement system is “immoral” and shifts the debt obligation to future generations.
Parnell wants the plan pulled from his education bill.
The committee added the retirement plan to its rewrite of the bill, HB278. But Parnell says they’re two, very separate issues.
The bill is scheduled for the House floor Friday.
Parnell has proposed putting $1.1 billion into the system and making annual payments of about $340 million over 20 years. Trust fund earnings would eventually be used to pay benefits.
The committee plan proposes a $1.4 billion cash infusion and would start with smaller annual payments, and payments stretched over a longer period.
Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal says the approaches are just philosophically different.
The plan to construct a toll bridge across Knik Arm advanced yesterday, when the Senate Finance committee voted in favor of sending it to the floor for consideration.
Back in 1960, seven uninhabited Bristol Bay islands south of Togiak were incorporated into the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. As the name suggests, the sanctuary protects one of the largest terrestrial haulout sites of Pacific walruses in North America.
The Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division decided last week that it will terminate its Round Island Program, which staffs the sanctuary to monitor the marine mammals and host visitors.
The wife of a man who went missing during the 2012 Mt. Marathon race is suing the Seward Chamber of Commerce. The wrongful death suit is asking for a judgment of $5 million.