Alaska News Nightly: July 27, 2010

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Government Using Alaskan Experiences to Deal with Spill Fallout
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
As the US Congress grapples with how to best deal with the fallout from the Gulf of

Mexico BP oil blowout, they’re calling upon the lessons learned in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill.   The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony on Tuesday from a former Prince William Sound fisherman.  Joseph Banta grew up in Cordova in a fishing family, but as he prepared for the spring herring fishery in 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped 11 million gallons of oil in the Sound.  He says his family no longer fishes, and he’s now a senior project manager with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, which was set up in the wake of the spill.   Banta told the Judiciary Committee that the two decades it took to work through the lawsuits surrounding the spill took a heavy toll on the victims.

One third of the original 32,000 plaintiffs died before final settlement and payment.  Banta warned the senators that as damages are assessed, it can take years to discover the full extent of an oil spill’s impacts.  He says the class action lawsuit ended in Alaska before the fallout was fully known.

Along-side Banta, Brian O’Neill testified about the legal end of the case.  He was a lead attorney for the fishermen, Alaska natives, and cities.

Democratic Senator Al Franken from Minnesota asked O’Neill if the Supreme Court made an ‘activist decision’ when they dropped the payment from 5 billion dollars to $500 million. O’Neill said it did seem like an arbitrary decision.

Only a handful of Senators- and only one Republican- attended the hearing.  Democrats, Republicans, and different committees in Congress are hammering out bills to deal with the BP blowout – including one introduced by Democratic leaders on Tuesday that’s tied to an energy bill.

EPA Head Visits Alaska
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency lists climate change, air and water quality, and state-tribal-and federal partnerships among her priorities. Now she’s taking a few days to visit Alaska to learn more about how those issues play out in Alaska. She may leave with a better sense of why Alaska’s Congressional delegation is so interested in the EPA.

Gubernatorial Races Getting Expensive
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
The primary gubernatorial races are getting expensive this year – and campaign contributors are responding.  On Tuesday, the Alaska Public Offices Commission released the reported amounts of contributions and expenditures – with the top five candidates in next month’s elections showing they have received more than $1.5 million all together.  And they each still have money to start the general election races if they prevail in the primaries.

Republican Candidate Bill Walker leads the pack, showing $512,000 going to his campaign – part of that coming from his own pocket.   He reports he has spent $432,000 so far on letting people know who he is – and turning that into the party nomination.

Among the other Republican candidates, Governor Sean Parnell has raised $446,000 – and Ralph Samuels has raised $308,000.

Ethan Berkowitz is the top fund-raiser for Democrats at more than $240,000.  He says he’s comfortable with where he stands right now – both in money available and in the number of contributors to his campaign.

Hollis French has raised $181,000. The primary election is August 24.

Governor Declares Taylor Highway Flooding a Disaster
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Governor Sean Parnell has declared the Taylor Highway flood damage a disaster.  Yesterday’s decision allows the state to seek federal highway emergency relief funding to pay for fixing washouts along a 90 plus mile stretch of the road between Chicken and Eagle.  The state estimates the cost of fixing damage from a July 10 rain storm, at $6 million. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says emergency repairs that allowed a portion of the gravel road to re-open briefly, were taken out by the more heavy rain late last week.

Bailey says the state is dealing with a total of 23 damaged areas between Chicken and Eagle, where rains have caused washouts and mud slides. She says the area has had so much rain in recent weeks that the road bed is unstable.

The 60 miles from the Top of the World Highway junction to Eagle has been closed for more than two weeks.  The Eagle Trading Company is having to fly in groceries to keep shelves stocked, and tourism has slowed dramatically throughout the Taylor Highway region. Susan Wiren who runs a gas station, restaurant, bar, and gift shop, in Chicken, says the road closures are killing business.

Wiren says she understands the D.O.T. is doing all it can, and hopes to salvage some business this week if the section from Chicken to the Junction can be repaired.

Bill to Mitigate Yukon Fishery Failure Passes in US House
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
A supplemental appropriations bill passed by the US House Tuesday includes $5 million to help mitigate the Yukon River Chinook salmon fishery failure.  The request for the funding was made by Senator Lisa Murkowski.  The bill now goes to the White House for the president’s signature.

The disaster assistance helps fishermen and communities affected by the fishery failure for the Yukon River Chinook salmon fishery. In 2008, the commercial salmon harvest was 89 percent below the five-year average, and the fishery remained closed through 2009. The $5 million in funding is based on the estimated commercial fishing losses for the 2008 and 2009 fishing seasons.

Mountain Village Residents Face Damp Community Vote
Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome
Residents of Mountain Village will vote today on becoming a damp community.

Russia Airline Hopes to Start Russia, Alaska Flights
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
A private airline in Russia is working on a plan to bring back-ticketed passenger service between Alaska and Russia’s far east.  A company made a test flight in a helicopter last week between Anadyr in Chukotka and Anchorage, stopping in Nome along the way. The idea is to promote tourism in Russia. John Tichotsky is a Chukotka expert in Anchorage who helped organize the test flight. He says the idea is to fly to the two Russian regions closest to Alaska.

The airline, called Vertical T, mainly operates helicopter flights in Chukotka right now.  But they’re hoping to start using more small planes. Tichotsky says while Alaskans take small plane service for granted, laws in Russia have severely limited their use. But he says those laws are changing.

Tichotsky says it takes about three hours by plane to fly from Anchorage to Chukotka. The long way around the globe- through Moscow- is a grueling trek of over 24 hours. Alaska Airlines flew to Chukotka and Kamchatka in the 90s, but gave up the route in favor of more profitable destinations. Other airlines have also tried to make a go of it over the years, but haven’t been able to keep it up.  Tichotsky says Vertical T plans to run more test flights next year.

Kenai River No Longer Listed as Polluted
Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer
The Kenai River has been pulled off the state’s list of polluted waterways and the agency responsible for the listing – the Department of Environmental Conservation – is crediting local groups for making it happen.

Akutan May Gain Geothermal Energy Plant
Anne Hillman, KUCB – Unalaska
Only 90 people live in the Aleutian Island community of Akutan. But the village hosts one of the largest fish processing plants in the state. And soon, they might also be home to one of the largest geothermal energy plants. With over $2.5 million from an Alaska Renewable Energy grant, Akutan is exploring the potential of their active volcano. KUCB’s Anne Hillman visited Hot Springs Bay on Akutan Island and has this story.