Alaska News Nightly: February 7, 2011

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EPA Announces Assessment of Bristol Bay Watershed
Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham
The EPA announced on Monday that it’s immediately beginning a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed. The review is in response to concerns over the proposed Pebble Mine project.

Legislators Supporting Deadline for Gasline Project
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Legislators are supporting a deadline that could lead to the closing of the state-licensed gasline project from the North Slope to North American markets. House speaker Mike Chenault introduced legislation last week giving the state’s licensee, TransCanada, until July 15 to provide lawmakers with evidence that the line is still economically viable.

He says the administration is asking for $163-million in next year’s budget to cover pipeline expenses for the project, and the public is asking about its status. He says the bill is simply asking for information.

Anchorage Republican Mike Hawker, who co-sponsored the bill, sees it as an attempt to create a sense of urgency around the project by adding a reporting deadline that was not in the original terms of the legislation.

Governor Sean Parnell recognizes the urgency that Hawker sees. However, in a written statement released by his staff Monday, he says adding the deadline for transportation commitments would, “lead to delays and ultimately end our opportunity to build this pipeline.” He says it will have a chilling effect on businesses considering investing here.

Other opponents to the bill agree with the governor. Minority Leader Beth Kerttula – a Democrat – says Alaskans want the pipeline project now, but that desire doesn’t recognize the reality and the size of the project. She says lawmakers who approved the pipeline project in 2007 knew it wouldn’t be finished immediately.

The bill was referred only to the House Finance committee and hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Leaders Setting Fast Pace for Yukon Quest
Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks
Frontrunners Hugh Neff, Brent Sass, and Ken Anderson are setting a fast pace on the Yukon Quest, more than 250 miles into the 1,000 mile race. Four time champion Hans Gatt is also up front. But he says he felt like he was being dragged by a snow machine during the early part of the trail.

Begich Finds Unlikely Ally for ‘Orphaned Earmark Bill’
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Senator Mark Begich has paired up with an unlikely ally: conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. The Republican is totally opposed to earmarks and other spending projects that Alaska thrives on, and has personally blocked legislation because it included specially allocated funding bound for Alaska.

But the two have found common cause in trying to kill what are called “orphaned earmarks,” earmarks that were given out but never actually spent.

The duo says rescinding orphaned earmarks could save more than $500 million.

They have introduced a bill to take back earmarks that are 90 percent unused after nine years, giving agencies 12 more months to use the money or it goes back to the treasury.

Senator Begich said on the Senate floor Monday that while he still defends the use of earmarks, if the money isn’t being used, it shouldn’t sit out of reach.

The newspaper “USA Today” did an analysis last month that showed Alaska has lost more than $187 million in the past two decades because of earmarked money that hasn’t been spent. That’s because when funds are earmarks for specific highway projects, it often lowers the amount states receive from the feds.

Senator Coburn says their “orphaned earmark bill” is one small bipartisan step toward reducing the national debt.

Another Senator, Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, has his own bill to deal with orphaned earmarks, it specifically goes after highway earmarks, and has a tighter three-year time limit. It would return the money to the states, not the treasury like Begich & Coburn’s.

Department Creating New Office to Improve Services for Native Veterans
Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel
The Department of Veterans Affairs is creating a new office aimed at improving services for native veterans. Alaska’s Democratic Senator Mark Begich says it’s a good step towards his proposed Hero’s Health Card.

Some Financial Assistance Available for High Heating Costs
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
Alaskans who need help in paying the high cost of staying warm through the winter may qualify for financial assistance from the state.

Attorneys Battle for Ground in Waterman Trial
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Motions were flying in the sixth floor courtroom of Anchorage’s Nesbitt Courthouse Monday morning, as state prosecutors and defense attorneys fought for ground in the Rachelle Waterman murder conspiracy trial.

Tongass Futures Roundtable Agrees to Keep Meeting
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The Tongass Futures Roundtable dodged a bullet last week when members agreed to continue meeting. But the diverse group working on Southeast issues may play less of a role in timber decisions.

Rocket Launch Probing Formation of Stars
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
A recent rocket launch at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Poker Flat Facility is helping probe the formation of new stars. University of Colorado Astrophysicist Matt Beasly sent a camera up on a rocket late last month to photograph stars in the Whirlpool Galaxy. Beasly says the Far Ultraviolet Imaging Rocket Experiment or “FIRE” snapped pictures of the young galaxy, providing a window on where new stars are forming.

Beasly says that can help scientists understand the movement of the raw material of stars, gases still floating in the universe from its formation over 13 billion years ago.

Beasly says Fairbanks Poker Flat Rocket range provided an ideal spot to launch his rocket camera because the galaxy it photographed is directly overhead.