Alaska News Nighty: July 15, 2010

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ACLU Gets Restraining Order Against City’s Camping Ordinance
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has won a court restraining order against Anchorage’s camping ordinance. The ordinance was aimed at the homeless who were camping in city parks, and allowed police to seize and destroy  the possessions of the homeless campers after issuing a five-day notice.  State Superior Court judge Mark Rindner ordered a 10-day restraining order against the city’s ordinance based on issues of constitutionality raised by the ACLU.  Jeffrey Mittman is the Executive Director for ACLU in Alaska.

Mittman says the ordinance has serious flaws which violate property rights which are protected by both the federal and state constitutions,  arguing that the ordinance does not notify campers of the specific violations they must defend against,  and that it does not determine whether or not the property of the homeless is abandoned.

Municipality of Anchorage attorney Dennis Wheeler says the city ordinance notifies illegal campers that they need to remove their belongings or file an appeal before a hearing officer. Wheeler says the appeal process gives the illegal camper time and help in removing property.

Wheeler says the option of holding homeless property is not feasible under the city’s current budget situation.

Mittman says the temporary restraining order opens the way for the ACLU to seek a permanent restraining order against the ordinance.

Presidential Oil Spill Commission Begins Work
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Presidential Commission on the BP oil spill began work this week in New Orleans. The commission took testimony at their first hearing there Monday and Tuesday. University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer is one of the commissioners. She says she’s been traveling southeast of New Orleans and has spoken with a lot of people directly affected by the spill.

UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer is on the Presidential Commission on the BP oil spill. She says the next hearing is planned for the end of August.

Taylor Highway Driver Remains Missing
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
An Eagle River man remains missing along the Taylor Highway.  Alaska State troopers are looking for 56-year-old Charles Collins.  He’s believed to be the driver of the vehicle that careened 200 feet down an embankment earlier this week when heavy rains hit the Forty Mile region.  Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen says a citizen reported seeing a truck in a creek near mile 114 north of Chicken Tuesday.  Alaska Air National Guard para-rescuers checked on the submerged vehicle, and found no sign of any occupants.  Ipsen says Troopers continue to search for Collins using a helicopter and a hovercraft, but accessing the crash site is difficult.

Ipsen says additional rain and more high water are compromising the investigation.  She says there’s no road damage in the area of the accident, but the highway is slick due to rain.

Farenbacher says after the emergency road work is complete, a damage assessment will be conducted, but he expects it will take two to three weeks to make the Taylor Highway safe enough to re-open it to the general public.  He says area gold miners and other local residents will be allowed to travel the road during the repair phase.

Court Holds Railroad’s Spray Permit
Associated Press
The Alaska Supreme Court has continued the hold on the Alaska Railroad’s plan to spray weed killer along its right of way.

The court says it wants to hear more from both sides about the plan to spray herbicides along 30 miles of track. The railroad says it has tried other methods to keep weeds down but needs herbicides.

Environmental groups are fighting the state-issued permit. They say regulators failed to consider the herbicide’s harmful effects on drinking water and salmon streams. The permit would have allowed spraying to begin last week, but the groups were granted a temporary stay until Friday.

The Alaska Supreme Court has extended that stay. Both sides have until next Tuesday to file responses with the court.

Parnell Appoints New Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Governor Sean Parnell’s recent decision to tap Susan Bell as Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner came with relatively little fanfare. She replaced Emil Notti – a Palin appointee and longtime public servant – who once served as Community and Regional Affairs Commissioner under Democratic Governor Bill Sheffield. Notti resigned July 9 with no notice. Bell had been working as a special assistant to the governor, where she helped craft a bill reducing the state’s cruise ship passenger head tax.

Bacteria Levels Elevated at Kenai City Beach
Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reports elevated levels of a bacteria at a beach in the City of Kenai. The bacteria is enterococci, which can be transmitted through fecal matter.  DEC Water Division program manager Nancy Sonafrank says that a recent test was done through a national effort of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act. The testing was done at Kenai’s North Beach from July 8 to July 11.  That was around the time the personal-use dip net fishery began: July 10.

A person infected with the bacteria might have symptoms like stomach aches, diarrhea, or ear, eye, and skin infections.  Sonafrank says her department is reminding the public of precautions that she says should always be followed.  Wash skin after spending time in the water, rinse fish with clean water, and cook fish to 145 degrees.

If you take part in the dip net fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River, you’ve likely seen the large crowds that gather there on peak days.  By some estimates around 10,000 people fit into an area that’s about one square mile.

But Sonafrank says the exact cause of the elevated level of bacteria is not known.  The high concentration of people is one possible reason for the high levels.

Former UAF Vice Chancellor Focuses on Venus Mission
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Former University of Alaska Fairbanks Vice Chancellor of research Buck Sharpton is leading a team pursing a mission to Venus.  Sharpton, who left his UAF post at the end of last month, but will continue to teach at the University, is currently focused on shepherding a proposal to NASA.  Sharpton says the multi-national academic and industry group wants to send an unmanned spacecraft to Venus to scan the planet.

Sharpton says the mission will employ a time-tested radar that will spin around Venus for two earth years.  Sharpton, who’s worked on planetary missions in the past, says Venus is of interest because of its similar position to earth in the solar system, and it’s a very different environment.  He says Venus may hold answers to fundamental questions scientists are grappling with on earth.

Sharpton says just getting the Venus mission proposal together is a multi-million dollar endeavor and his summer is packed with completing its submission to NASA. He says the next challenge will be getting through the evaluation phase. The group being lead by Sharpton is one of several competing for NASA funding.  The proposed Venus mission would launch in 2016.

Technology to Speed Up Border Crossings
Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines
International border crossings are an unavoidable part of Alaskan life.  But with tighter security, lines are getting longer and the process more cumbersome for international travelers.  This month, one small Alaskan town is the first in the state to install new technology designed to speed up border crossings.