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Facing fiery opposition, Alaska Senate kills controversial HB77

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:47
Facing fiery opposition, Alaska Senate kills controversial HB77 The bill triggered widespread reaction, much of it negative. Sen. Cathy Giessel, chairperson of the Senate Resources Committee, said she got more than 1,500 letters. Her committee took more than six hours of testimony.April 3, 2014

Coast Guard report shows Shell was underprepared for ill-fated tow across Gulf of Alaska

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:20
Coast Guard report shows Shell was underprepared for ill-fated tow across Gulf of Alaska A new report from the U.S. Coast Guard reveals that Royal Dutch Shell was under-prepared to tow the Kulluk, a centerpiece of its Arctic drilling operation, across the Gulf of Alaska. The rig grounded on New Year's Eve 2012.April 3, 2014

Actuaries note risks, costs in changes to Alaska teacher pension fund

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:11
Actuaries note risks, costs in changes to Alaska teacher pension fund Actuarial consultants tell the Alaska Legislature that a new plan for the Teachers' Retirement System will save money up front but cost more in the long run.April 3, 2014

Photos: Arctic Shield practices for the next Alaska disaster

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:06
Photos: Arctic Shield practices for the next Alaska disaster

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

The book finally done, the fingers can rest and a million chores can get done

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:06
The book finally done, the fingers can rest and a million chores can get done I will believe my new book is done when it is in my hand, about a year from now. It's called “Finding the Good,” and is about how writing obituaries and rearing a big family has taught me to look for and find the good in people and situations.April 3, 2014

VIDEO: Skiing and skating from Aniak to Dillingham

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 19:05
VIDEO: Skiing and skating from Aniak to Dillingham

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

Homer Man Shoots, Kills Self With Trooper’s Pistol

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:52

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.

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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.

Coast Guard Finds Violations in Kulluk Grounding

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:49

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.

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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 remains grounded and upright with no evidence of sheen in the vicinity
on Friday, Jan. 4. The rig grounded in high seas and strong winds Dec. 31, 2012, and a full-scale response and recovery involving the U. S. Coast Guard, Shell, the State of Alaska, local governments and private contractors has been underway since then. Photo by Judy Patrick

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.”

Young Lights into Interior Secretary Over King Cove

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:48

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.

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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

NMFS Clears Commercial Fishing In Sea Lion Habitat

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:47

After a research review, the National Marine Fisheries Service is prepared to loosen controversial limits on fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.

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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.

“We don’t have any direct scientific evidence that fisheries are causing nutritional stress in Steller sea lions,” Gerke says.

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.

As Education Bill Nears Vote, Lawmakers Brace For Funding Fight

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:46

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.

Gov. Parnell Calls Proposal To Deal With Teacher Retirement System ‘Immoral’

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:45

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.

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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.

KABATA Legislation Passes Senate Finance Committee

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:44

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.

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Fish & Game Cancelling Staffed Program At Bristol Bay Walrus Islands Sanctuary

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:43

Round Island walrus haulout. (Photo by USFWS)


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.

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Wife Of Missing Mt. Marathon Racer Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:41

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.

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Aleutians East Scrambles For Cheaper Link To Akutan Airport

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:40

The new helicopter takes off from Akutan, bound for the airport on Akun Island. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Yesterday, we reported that Akutan residents are pleased with their new airport taxi — a helicopter that came online in February. The Aleutians East Borough is already running out of money to pay for it. Today, in the second part of our series on the struggle to connect Akutan to its airport, the borough settles on a permanent solution. It’s one they rejected a decade ago.

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Akutan’s airport is unique in a lot of ways. For one, it’s not on Akutan – it’s seven miles away, on Akun Island.

That means airport operations are a little more complicated than normal. So, they’re divided up among three groups: the city of Akutan, the Aleutians East Borough and the state of Alaska.

One major task is getting people from Akutan to the airport. Sean Holland, of the state department of transportation, says that job falls to just one entity:

“The Aleutians East Borough agreed to provide and fund the operation of the marine link between the city of Akutan and the island of Akun,” he says.

The borough started exploring their options almost a decade ago. A boat seemed like the obvious choice. But they could also try a hovercraft or a helicopter — whatever was cheapest and most reliable.

They hired a maritime engineering firm to figure that out. Glosten Associates said a hovercraft would be able to make the trip to the airport 90 percent of the time, at a cost of just over a million dollars a year. They said that made it cheaper and more efficient than a boat.

That was in 2005, years before borough administrator Rick Gifford was hired. But he knows the history. Based on Glosten’s work, Gifford says the borough was prepared to cover the million-dollar annual cost:

“It was kind of estimated that between charges for passengers and for freight, that they might be able to recoup up to half a million dollars of that,” he says.

And he says they agreed to pay another half a million out of pocket.

The borough was able to save money by recycling a hovercraft they’d already bought for King Cove. It stopped running there in 2010 after it proved too costly and unreliable.

In March 2010, the state broke ground on the airport. Construction was going well for about a year – until the Aleutians East Borough hit a snag.

At a meeting in 2011, the borough assembly re-calculated how much money the hovercraft would bring in. Their estimates were a lot lower than what Glosten Associates had told them years before — and the assembly wasn’t completely sure why.

KUCB reached out to Glosten about the alleged discrepancies, and the firm wouldn’t comment.

Whatever the reason, the assembly was no longer sure if the hovercraft could work long-term.

So they had a choice: Go back to the drawing board, pick a different vehicle, and possibly delay construction – or let it keep going. The state would finish building the airport around the hovercraft. And the borough could eventually use those same facilities for a helicopter, in hopes of saving some money.

And that’s exactly what they decided to do. Three years later, Rick Gifford, the borough administrator, says things have gone about as well as the assembly expected:

“As it’s turned out, the hovercraft cost three times more than a million dollars — it cost over $3 million,” he says. “They’re just not willing to do that. They can’t sustain it.”

In February, the borough made the switch to the helicopter. It’s going to cost $2 million a year — which is less than the hovercraft, but, Gifford says, still not cheap enough.

So after a decade, the borough is looking once again for a permanent way to connect to the airport. Their only option now is a ferry. Gifford says it’ll take at least five years and millions of dollars to set one up on Akun.

“A dock and a breakwater is not cheap. It’s a major capital item up front,” he says. “So it’s going to take some money to get it started. … but once those dollars are put in up front, then you’ll reduce the annual operating cost to the point where it’s feasible.”

Sean Holland, of the DOT, says the state has money left over for the Akutan project. It could help pay for the dock — but Holland isn’t sure if they could use it for the helicopter.

And that’s a problem for the borough: administrator Rick Gifford says they’re running out of money.

“So unless we get some financial help from the state and the users, primarily Trident Seafoods, I just don’t know … how long the borough will be willing to sustain that higher amount that it’s costing them,” he says.

Ideally, he says the borough would split the cost of the helicopter with Trident and the state. Trident’s processing plant in Akutan is the biggest in North America. They fly in thousands of workers every year — but they’ve already made contributions to the airport. As for the state: the legislature declined to pitch in last year.

Gifford says the borough has about six months before they can’t afford to run the helicopter anymore. It’s not clear what that would mean for the 90 residents of Akutan Village.

Mayor Joe Bereskin says they’ve been in limbo for a long time, and it’s starting to feel like the norm.

“It’s a revolving door that we have to go through until we get some sort of structure on Akun for some sort of conventional vessel out there,” he says. “It’s just what we’re faced with out here, and we’ll deal with it, best of our abilities.”

There’s not much else he can do. It’s up to the Aleutians East Borough to bridge the gap for good. The only question now is if they’ll have to do it on their own.

Third suspect in the murder of Anchorage teen arrested by Anchorage police

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:06
Third suspect in the murder of Anchorage teen arrested by Anchorage police Karlie West, 21, was charged her with murder in the second degree and assault in the second degree. She allegedly drove the Jeep Cherokee involved in the incident in the early morning of April 1, when the murder of 15-year-old Precious Alex happened.April 3, 2014

Supervisor describes workplace problems with Kodiak Coast Guard murder suspect

Alaska and Yukon Headlines - Thu, 2014-04-03 17:05
Supervisor describes workplace problems with Kodiak Coast Guard murder suspect Chief Petty Officer Scott Reckner took the stand Thursday, testifying that accused murderer James Michael Wells was a challenging and problematic employee.April 3, 2014

Unique in the world

Southeast Alaska News - Thu, 2014-04-03 16:56

We are all unique in this world. Raven Radio’s commitment is to find and share the unique voices from around the corner and around the world. On Friday, our One Day Drive begins, and with the addition of Raven Radio’s sustaining memberships our total is more than $37,000 towards our Spring Drive goal of $85,000. If you haven’t renewed your membership, please do so now! Thanks to you and thanks to Nan Metashvili for snapping this photo of our friend in India.

Supreme Court Stays Out Of Texas Execution Case

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 15:49

Attorneys sought a stay of execution because Texas refused to reveal details about the drugs it used to execute convicted killer Tommy Lynn Sells.

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