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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
Aliy Zirkle took the lead in the 2014 Iditarod early Friday morning leaving Ruby almost two hours ahead of Martin Buser who also took off from Ruby Friday. Both mushers dropped dogs at the layover and were racing with 14 dogs.
Arron Burmeister was about two hours behind Buser and out of Ruby. His team was down to 12 dogs.
Buser has taken both of his mandatory layovers. Neither Zirkle nor Burmeister has taken an 8-hour layover.
Jeff King and Sonny Lindner led the pack much of Thursday but were still in Ruby early Friday morning.
Last year’s winner – Mitch Seavey – was in Ruby early Friday morning and in 10th place.
Two Rivers’ Abbie West led the rookies. She was out of Cripple and racing towards Ruby Friday morning.
In the beginning, this year's Iditarod was more about surviving treacherous conditions, but it has shifted to a chess match as the leaders reach Ruby. Whose moves will pay off biggest is anyone's guess.March 6, 2014
Jeff King was first to Ruby on Thursday in the 2014 Iditarod but Sonny Lindner was not far behind. The two leaders were joined by Martin Buser later Thursday night.
Racing in fourth place was Aliy Zirkle who had yet to reach Ruby by 9:00 p.m.
Buser and Zirkle have taken their 24-hour mandatory stop. King and Lindner – prior to reaching Ruby – had not.
Throughout his administration, Gov. Sean Parnell has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of “overreaching” on Alaska affairs. Now, it looks like the EPA may have reached into Parnell’s own home. The Governor’s Mansion appears on a list of construction projects requiring EPA intervention for lead violations.
Lead poisoning is nasty business. It can cause headaches and seizures, and result in miscarriages. If you’re a child, the symptoms are especially bad.
“Lethargy. Inability to pay of attention. At high enough levels, it can cause death,” says Wallace Reid.
Reid works out of the EPA’s Seattle office, and his team handles investigations into lead violations. Because a lot of modern cases of lead exposure are caused by home repairs, the EPA implemented a rule in 2010 requiring contractors to be certified in lead paint removal if they’re working on a house that was built before 1978.
Like the Alaska Governor’s Mansion.
The building is a century old, and the state hired Alaska Commercial Contractors to restore the whole exterior a couple of years ago. And that meant removing lead paint, which the company was not certified to do at the time.
“We first became aware of it – this problem in Alaska – because of an anonymous tip and complaint that this work was going on and that there were problems associated with it,” says Reid.
Reid says that as soon as the EPA learned of the violation, they sent two inspectors to check the area for lead paint. They found paint chips on the lawn and on the street.
“When we do this kind of work, all of the lead paint chips and dust has to be maintained within a contained area,” says Reid. “In this case, it was not. And the company was not certified, and the employees were not trained. So those were fundamental violations of our rules.”
Because of the violations, Alaska Commercial Contractors ended up settling with the EPA for $32,000. Their subcontractor, Van Pool Painting, was also dinged $10,000. While the settlements were finalized in September, the EPA only recently made the violations public.
Alaska Commercial Contractors declined to do a taped interview for this story, because there are still outstanding legal questions related to the construction project. But in a written statement, company president Doug Courtney emphasized that Alaska Commercial Contractors cooperated fully with the EPA, and that they became certified in lead paint removal shortly after the incident.
So, why did the state hire a company that was not certified in lead paint removal in the first place?
When asked about that, Administration Commissioner Curtis Thayer declined an interview because of ongoing challenges related to the contract. At $1.5 million, Alaska Commercial Contractors was the highest bidder for the project, and two rival contractors whose bids came in under $1 million appealed the award. The Office of Administrative Hearings rejected both of those protests, but Silver Bow Construction is appealing the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Alaska Commercial Contractors has also requested that the State pay out $150,000 to cover their EPA penalties and legal fees, because they allege that Department of Administration misled them on the scope of the project. The Department of Administration found no merit to that request in January, but the decision is subject to appeal.
Gov. Sean Parnell also declined repeated requests for an interview. Instead, his office referred questions to Larry Hartig, the commissioner of Environmental Conservation.
Hartig says his department’s involvement in the renovation problem was limited. They mostly helped the EPA get access to the governor’s home to make sure the lead paint didn’t pose a health hazard.
“Obviously, there was concerns about the safety of the governor’s family,” says Hartig. “And so they were interested in what was going on – we all were – in making sure that if there is an issue here that would impact the governor and his family, we wanted to be on top of that.”
Hartig says there was no real risk to the Parnell family. He says even the governor’s yellow Labrador, the most frequent user of the mansion’s backyard, was kept safe from lead exposure.
“Annie’s doing fine the last time I saw Annie.”
A former employee of the State Crime Lab in Anchorage has been charged with six felonies, including drug misconduct and tampering with evidence.
The Department of Law in says 53-year-old Stephen Palmer was arrested today.
He’s charged with scheme to defraud, drug misconduct and four counts of evidence tampering. He’s also charged with four misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.
Alaska State Troopers launched an investigation seven months ago after detecting irregularities in lab reference standards, the controlled samples of illegal drugs kept at the state crime lab.
Prosecutors say investigators also determined drug evidence was missing in cases worked by Palmer.
Prosecutors say they don’t believe the irregularities discovered in reference standards affected the validity of testing performed by other analysts.
Borough mayors are asking to be part of the discussions on terms related to a mega-liquefied natural gas project that will affect local communities.
An agreement signed by the state and companies pursuing the project says subject to consultation between the state and local governments, payments in lieu of property taxes would be paid by the companies.
The mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Mike Navarre, told the Senate Finance Committee that consultation is not a strong word.
The mayors are seeking greater assurances for the level of input they will have as the process moves forward.
The committee is weighing a bill that would make the state an equity partner and allow for the project to move into a phase of preliminary engineering and design.
Jeff King is resting at the Yukon river checkpoint of Ruby. The four time Iditarod champion is technically in the lead at this point, but Martin Buser, Aliy Zirkle and Robert Sorlie are closing in, and they’ve already completed their 24 hour layovers. Once teams leave Ruby, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of any remaining speed they have on the flat river miles ahead.
The United States and four other Arctic nations have tentatively agreed to prevent commercial fishing in the high Arctic.
The Canadian Press reports that Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia signed on to the ban after three days of meetings in Greenland last week. The measure was originally pitched by the United States, and it didn’t have support from Norway or Russia until now.
The details of the ban are still being worked out. But the basics are clear: The countries have to do more scientific research on Arctic fish stocks. In the meantime, they will not engage in commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean outside their 200-mile exclusive economic zones.
In the United States, that area begins at the northern edge of Alaska. Fishing has already been banned within the American Arctic since 2009.
Because this new moratorium applies to international waters in the Arctic Ocean, there’s no guarantee that other countries will choose to honor it.
The next step is to get more nations on board beyond these five Arctic states. In a statement, the Arctic group said they plan to spend the rest of the year lobbying for broader support.
Kuskowkim fisherman are expected to face serious restrictions on subsistence salmon fishing this summer in efforts to bring more king salmon to the spawning grounds. With fishing closed possibly all of June, the working group is asking that dipnets be used selectively to harvest non-Chinook salmon.
For the past month, a group of fuel supply workers in Unalaska have been trying to unionize. And they’ve also accused their employer, Delta Western, of mistreating them for it.
The workers took to the picket line on Tuesday to protest with other local union members.
Leo Dacio is a driver for Delta Western, and a spokesman for the pro-union workers.
He alleges that the company cut off their access to some facilities after they walked off the job the first time, in February.
“They changed the locks on the break room and on the shop, and at the shop — that’s where we wash our clothes, our work clothes. And that’s the only shower,” Dacio said.
The only emergency shower, to wash off chemicals in a hurry. The washing machines are there so employees don’t have to worry about getting toxic or flammable substances in their machines at home.
Dacio alleges that the only people who lost access to those facilities were the workers who wanted to join the Inlandboatmen’s Union. He says they didn’t get new keys again until Friday — and they only got them then because they asked their manager.
“They did have some issues with the lock and they changed it,” Kirk Payne, the president of Delta Western, said. ”But this facility is open [from] 7 in the morning to 7 p.m. every day, to where you don’t need a key. And when somebody needed access or needed a key, they were given it.”
In the last month, Payne and the president of Delta Western’s parent company have both visited the island to talk with their employees. Brian Bogen is the head of North Star Petroleum, and he was in town just hours before Tuesday’s strike.
At this point, Delta Western workers says they are still waiting for the company to formally respond to a written request they made in February — to be recognized as union members.
Payne, the president of Delta Western, says that’s not going to happen.
“What the union needs to do is to file a petition with the NLRB that says, ‘Hey, these guys want to be represented,’” he said.
The National Labor Relations Board would run the rest of the unionization process, possibly leading up to a formal vote.
Adam Dalton is an organizer from the Inlandboatmen’s Union. He’s been in Unalaska for the past two weeks, and he says the workers are getting ready to file a petition with the NLRB sometime soon.
In the meantime, Dalton says he’s convinced that changing the locks at Delta Western did keep union supporters from accessing facilities. And Dalton says that that violates the National Labor Relations Act.
“Basically any change to the workers’ conditions — to the conditions of their employment — that they had access to before, would be an unfair labor practice,” he said.
Dalton says the union is adding this alleged violation to a complaint they filed with the NLRB last month. At that time, the Inlandboatmen’s Union accused Delta Western of trying to intimidate and punish its pro-union workers.
That kind of behavior is what the workers said they were responding to when they walked off the job on Tuesday.
About a half a dozen Delta Western employees joined the picket line, despite the fact that the company’s fuel barge had just arrived to deliver a shipment.
Delta Western rounded up a crew to unload the fuel. But they also called the police.
Unalaska police sergeant Bill Simms says the picketers were technically trespassing as they stood at the mouth of Delta Western’s fuel dock.
The protesters moved, the police didn’t get any more complaints, and the strike went on as planned.
“Delta Western, you don’t care. Unsafe, unfair. Delta Western, you don’t care,” the crowd chanted.
Delta Western has roughly 18 workers at its fuel shop in Unalaska. Right now, about seven of them want to join the union.
The state has taken steps to ban the importation and sale of some aquatic plants that are commonly found in aquariums. Elodea is a plant used in fishbowls that has become a big problem in Alaska, and is considered an invasive species. Last year, the state began working to eradicate the plant from areas in Fairbanks and in Anchorage.
Kikkan Randall has a lock on her 3rd straight World Cup sprint title. Randall did not make the finals in a classic technique sprint in Drammen Norway Wednesday, but her seventh place finish there mathematically clinches the season title. Just one sprint race remains. Retaining the title as the world’s top woman sprinter is some consolation for Randall who struggled at last month’s Sochi Olympics, where she’s d hoped to medal.