Alaska News Nightly: December 3, 2010

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Cargo Vessel Disabled, Adrift in Bering Sea
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
A 738-foot cargo vessel bound for the United Arab Emirates is disabled and adrift in the Bering Sea.

The U.S. Coast Guard received reports at 10 p.m. on Thursday that the vessel Golden Seas had suffered a main engine failure and was in distress. The vessel was 70 miles north of Adak at the time of the call, and it has been drifting southeast at a rate of 2mph. Twenty crew members are aboard the Golden Sea, and no injuries have been reported.

The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was launched from Unalaska to assist the vessel, and the cutter Spar was also diverted. A C-130 aircraft and two helicopters have been dispatched from Kodiak to the Adak area. The icebreaker Tor Viking, which is currently operated by Shell, is carrying an emergency tow system and is also assisting in the effort to prevent the Golden Seas from running aground. Because of Adak’s distance from Seattle, support from Washington-based ocean-going tugs could take over a week.

Initial reports from the Coast Guard suggested that the Golden Seas was carrying a shipment of Canola oil from Canada to the United Arab Emirates. However, it has been confirmed that the cargo is instead canola seed. There are still 450,000 gallons of crude oil aboard, along with 11,700 gallons of diesel and 10,000 gallons of lube oil.

Because of the harsh weather and the vessel’s proximity to shore, there is concern that the vessel could run aground. Gale warnings are in effect through Saturday, and winds are expected to blow 54 miles per hour with seas at 30 feet. Still, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr anticipates that the situation could be resolved.

Right now, response and rescue are the top concerns of the Coast Guard. But there is also concern that the grounding of the Golden Seas could cause serious environmental damage, much like the grounding of the vessel Selendang Ayu on Unalaska Island in December, 2004. Here’s Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration.

Coast Guard is in the process of doing a flyover of the Golden Seas, and is expected to have more information on the status of the vessel later this evening.

Obama Administration Proposes Protection for Two Arctic Seal Species
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
The Obama Administration proposed Endangered Species Act protection for two species of Arctic seals today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will seek to list all populations of bearded and ringed seals found in Alaska as threatened. The proposal is based on projections of sea ice loss caused by climate change.

Next Year’s State Revenue Forecast Appears Strong
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
With more than $11 billion in reserves,  the state is looking for another good year as far as having money to spend.  But don’t look for more big spending next year.

Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin Friday morning released the most recent revenue forecast –showing an expected revenue of $5.4 billion in the current fiscal year, and $5.7 billion available for the budgets the governor will give the legislature on Dec. 15.  He says Alaska is in the strongest financial position in its history.

The forecasts are mostly based on the expected price of oil – which is directly linked to national and world economic conditions.   The department’s economists predict that the annual average of price of a barrel of oil for the current year – which ends at the end of June 2011 – will be $77.96.  For the following fiscal year, they expect oil to average $82.67.

Oil this morning was trading at $87.80 a barrel.

Galvin says oil production will drop slightly in the coming year, but will begin to trend higher in 2012 because of new fields expected to come on line then. He credits the oil tax passed by the legislature in 2006 for the strong economic returns.

Galvin would not discuss the possible effects of Governor Parnell’s campaign statements that the oil and gas tax might need to be changed this year to encourage yet more investment.   Galvin is leaving his revenue position when the new Parnell administration takes over next Monday.

Concerned Alaskans Address Sex Trafficking Problem
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Concerned Alaskans packed the main conference room at the Egan center yesterday during an informational session on sexual assault and sex trafficking. The session was part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs annual provider conference gathering in Anchorage. Other than an occasional fussy baby, the room was hushed as worried looking parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and others listened attentively to speakers from local FBI and Anchorage police units who focus on the sexual exploitation of young people.  Sergeant Kathy Lacey who heads up APD’s vice unit says although many communities have drug units, few have police who specifically address forced sexual exploitation. Because of that she says, sex traffickers make a lot of money without being detected.

A 17-year police veteran Sergeant Lacey says she’s spent a lot of time convincing people that sex trafficking and forced prostitution is not a problem that only exists in other places. She says it’s hard to know how prevalent the problem is in rural Alaska but she says it’s a big problem in Anchorage and when they put the squeeze on sex traffickers here, they move to the interior.

She says an under laying problem is the societal acceptance of prostitution as fairly harmless or victim free.

And stories were heard. After the formal presentation, people shared heart wrenching accounts of the loss of loved ones to the hard life of addiction and being forced to sell their bodies. One tearful woman from Barrow told of how a trip to an AFN convention four years ago resulted in her younger sister’s ongoing struggle with crack cocaine and prostitution. She said her sister accompanied their father to AFN. He hugged a friend at the crowded gathering and when he turned around, her 14-year-old sister had disappeared. They didn’t find her for months. Her struggles with addiction and trauma from her experience continue to plague the family. Another woman said 20 years ago her 19-year-old sister was snatched and murdered in Fairbanks. No one has been arrested for the killing.

Diane Payne is the project director for Justice for Native Children. She helped bring speakers like Sergeant Lacey to the BIA conference because she wants people in rural Alaska to know and believe sexual exploitation of minors is happening here. Basketball tournaments, NYO, AFN and other large gatherings where teenagers can slip away into dangerous situations is a risk. She says another problem is children taken away from families in villages and placed in foster care in the city who run away.

But she says the city is certainly not the only place where young people are vulnerable.

She says abuse from the boarding-school era left many people too dysfunctional to protect their own children. But Payne says it’s not all bleak. She says increasingly, as evidenced by the full attendance at the session, village families are educating themselves and saying no more will this happen in our communities. She says she just wrapped up training in several villages in the lower Kuskokwim region and Kodiak is now having annual child abuse conferences.

Sex trafficking is real and it’s here, she says, but increasingly survivors are speaking out. She says we want our children to know they can tell us and we’ll do something.

Protesters Gather Against Pebble Discussion
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Protesters gathered outside the University of Alaska’s Consortium library Friday afternoon to protest an informational discussion going on inside on the proposed Pebble Mine.  Over the next few months, Keystone, a Colorado-based is hosting a series of workshops on the development of the Pebble prospect,  but many Alaskans are opposed to the development due to its feared impact on the environment.

Senate Working to Decide on Middle-Class Tax Breaks
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The weekend may be around the corner but the U.S. Senate will be working tomorrow.  Democratic leadership called for two votes tomorrow on whether to extend tax breaks for the middle class.  It’s a political issue that both sides of the aisle are trying to win the debate on during this Lame Duck session of Congress.

Leadership Team Takes Shape at Fish and Game
Jacob Resneck, KMXT – Kodiak
A new leadership team is taking shape at Fish and Game. Acting Commissioner Cora Campbell announced late Wednesday two appointments. They are: Craig Fleener as deputy commissioner and Kelly Hepler as assistant commissioner.

Her office also confirmed that commercial fisheries deputy director Sue Aspelund will serve as acting director of that department until a permanent choice is made. That post had been left vacant following the retirement of commercial fisheries director John Hilsinger who had decided to follow departing Commissioner Denby Lloyd.

Gordy Williams, a special assistant in the commissioner’s office, says the appointments come during a time for the agency that’s seen some high-level turnover.

Last month, Governor Sean Parnell tapped his fisheries aide Cora Campbell to serve as Fish and Game commissioner. In recent days he’s publicly stated she’s his top choice for the job in the long-term. He also rejected criticism that the 31-year-old lacks managerial experience to steer an agency with a $200 million budget.

The leadership team named Wednesday isn’t on an interim or acting basis but could signal she’s settling into the job. Williams didn’t dispute this.

Campbell’s choice for deputy commissioner, Craig Fleener, joined the agency in 2008 as director of the subsistence division. He’s a trained biologist with a background that includes work with tribal governments.

Her choice for assistant commissioner, Kelly Hepler, has a longer history with Fish and Game, joining the state agency in 1979 as a fisheries biologist. He’s since served as the director of the sport fish division and had been a special assistant in the commissioner’s office in the past. He also chairs the National Fish Habitat Board.