Alaska News Nightly: September 15, 2010

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Barge Runs Aground Along North Slope

Associated Press

An ocean barge carrying oil field equipment has gone aground along Alaska’s North Slope and responders say the vessel emitted a light sheen in the Beaufort Sea. State environmental regulators say the barge has more than 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel on board. The vessel grounded after the wheelhouse broke loose and settled at the stern.

Tom DeRuyter with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says no one was injured in the mishap, but a small amount of fuel leaked from a tank. He says the valves on all the tanks were closed and the sheen dissipated. The barge ran aground about 40 miles west of Prudhoe Bay.

Arctic Sea Ice Expanding This Year

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has begun to expand again.  It melted back to its minimum a couple of days ago, according to Mark Serezze, head of the national Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.

“We’re at the seasonal minimum for sea ice.  You see it happened just a few days ago.  Uh it takes us a while to crunch the numbers and confirm what’s happening,” Serezze said. “And as it turns out as you look at the satellite record, which starts in 1979, uh we ended up third lowest.”

“And the number came out to be 4.76 million square kilometers.”

That’s one-point-eight square miles.

In 2007, the sea ice withdrew a record amount. Although the overall extent of sea ice this year was greater than that of 2007, both the Northwest Passage through  Canadian waters, and the Northeast Passage above Russia opened up this year.  In 2007, only the Canada route opened.

The Center will publish an analysis of its data in a couple of weeks, but already Serezze is willing to say the signs for future years are not good.  Each year, more of the thicker ice that has built up over the years, has disappeared.  This year a large amount of older ice drifted west from Canada to the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

“Through last winter, we had this tongue of this older, thicker ice creep down to the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska of course, into the Chukchi Sea.  That came from northern Canada. That’s where that older ice really tends to live.  So this stuff moved in, into the northern Beaufort and the Chukchi Sea.  And some of the thinking was ‘well, that might survive the summer melt season – it’s thicker, you know, it can take a bigger hit,’ you know, and if that was so that would kind of replenish ice conditions this year so we’d be a bit better going into autumn.  Ah, but it didn’t happen; it basically all melted.  So it really is telling you that uh things really are changing in the Arctic, and that old, multi-year ice doesn’t even survive any more.  So we’re… Heading into next year I think we’re in kind of worse shape than we even are right now,” Serezze said.

Another oddity this year was the presence of ice in the Bering Sea in the spring, even after it pulled back in the Beaufort.  But even though the Bering Sea froze up more than usual last winter, it was all what is known as “one-year ice” – not thick enough to hang around through the summer.

“That stuff in the Bering, what happened there earlier in the year was that we had this late spurt in ice growth – a kind of uh early spring, late winter.  And ice extent really went considerably above uh average extent in the Bering Sea.  It was one of the areas where it kind of grew.  Uh, but once spring took hold, that stuff melted out really fast.  Because we knew that of course forming late in the year it was going to be quite thin, and so once the warmth of spring kicked in, it went fast, and that’s of course just what we saw,” Serezze said.

The survey is based on an average, as the ice builds up in some places but is still pulling back in others. There is a slight chance that winds will cause more melting.

Lawyer Involved in Exxon Spill Heads to Gulf

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

In the midst of this year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, many Alaskans turned their thoughts to the spring and summer of 1989 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Images of Gulf wildlife and coastline covered in oil were a harsh reminder of the devastating financial and environmental disaster caused by Exxon. In the months since, many Alaskans have travelled to the Gulf either to lend a hand in the cleanup or to offer moral support.

Now that the oil has stopped flowing, Gulf residents have begun to claim economic damages from Deepwater Horizon operator BP. Once again, it’s a story Alaskans are all too familiar with, thanks to a 20-year legal battle with Exxon that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As KTOO’s Casey Kelly reports, one lawyer who was on the ground in Prince William Sound following the Exxon spill is now headed to the Gulf to offer advice and support.

Enstar Ahead of Schedule in Transmission Line Inspections

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The recent gas line explosion in California has consumers across the nation wondering about the safety of their own neighborhood transmission lines. Enstar Natural Gas Company serves 130,000 customers in the Mat-Su Valley, Anchorage and down the Kenai Peninsula to Anchor Point. John Sims is an Enstar spokesman. He says Enstar’s system, which started being built in the 1960s, is more contemporary than others in cities in the Lower 48.

Sims says better steel slows corrosion, which he says is the most important factor in pipeline safety. He says the Enstar system also operates at lower pressure than systems in major cities such as San Francisco.

Sims says before the accident in California, the federal government mandated integrity inspections for all transmission lines be completed by 2012. He says Enstar is ahead of schedule and has 90 percent of their lines pigged, or inspected by sending a sensor through the line that gathers information about wall thickness, an indication of whether or not corrosion is a problem.

He says no significant problems have been discovered.

Lois Epstein is an engineer and board member of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit watch dog group that looks at federal regulations and where they need to be strengthened. She says in reviewing Enstar’s records, things look good.

Epstein says Alaska is unique in that there are no state inspectors here. Enstar is covered by federal regulations and inspectors.

She says there are only about 100 federal inspectors in the country and 300 state inspectors.

Walker Won’t Pursue Write-in Candidacy

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Republican Bill Walker says he’s not continuing a run for the governor’s office.   He came in second in the Republican primary last month with about a third of the party-members’ votes. A Craciun Research poll conducted the day after the election showed that in a three-person race,  he was only one percentage point behind Governor Sean Parnell – and five points ahead of Democrat Ethan Berkowitz. But Walker never reached agreement with any other party to run as their candidate – and he decided not to actively pursue a write in candidacy.

Since the election, Walker has met with both Parnell and Berkowitz – but for now he won’t endorse any of the other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Walker’s main issue was his support for an All-Alaska gas line from the North Slope.

Now both major-party candidates are looking for Walkers voters.   Democrat Ethan Berkowitz says one of his goals is to deliver the All-Alaska gas project from the North Slope to tidewater – with Walker’s having a hand in negotiating Alaska’s gas future.

Republican Parnell’s running mate Mead Treadwell has worked with Walker on the All-Alaska pipeline dating back to the early 80s.  He says since his election in the Lt. Governor’s primary race, he has already met with oil company executives – and he says the time is right to bring potential customers from export markets to help work them into the process.

Treadwell says he and Governor Parnell have looked at other issues that Walker raised and are considering taking action on them.

Project Will Put High-Speed Internet in Every Public Library in Alaska

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

On Monday the U.S. Commerce Secretary announced that another 35-projects will be funded with federal stimulus money to expand broadband Internet access across the country. One of those projects will put high-speed broadband Internet in almost every public library in Alaska.

Sitka Fish Processor Earns Award

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Sitka

A fish processor with its main plant in Sitka is being recognized for its quality and marketing efforts. Seafood Producers’ Cooperative recently won a Governor’s North Star Award for International Excellence.

Historian Looks to Match 19th Century Maps With Decedents of Creators

Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines

A federal historian was in Klukwan last week, working to reunite 19th century maps with the descendents of the local people who helped create them.