Alaska News Nightly: February 28, 2011

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High Winds Shut Down Valdez Port
Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez
High winds over the weekend have prompted the Coast Guard to close off traffic going in and out of the port of Valdez.   The closure also led to the Alyeska pipeline company’s decision to stop loading tankers at its marine terminal.

Bad Weather Hinders State Ferry Operations
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
High winds and low temperatures are interfering with state ferry operations in Southeast, Prince William Sound and Southwest Alaska.

The ferry Aurora had to cancel its Lynn Canal sailing Sunday due to storm-force winds, high seas and freezing spray.

Marine highway operations manager Captain Tony Karvelas says ice deposited on the small ferry makes it top-heavy.

“The ship has a center of gravity and when the ice attaches to the hull it raises that center of gravity,” Karvelas said. “And the ship gets more tippy and it has a chance of rolling over if you exceed the stability characteristics of the ship.”

He says the Aurora will resume sailing from Juneau to Haines and Skagway as soon as the weather permits. Ticket-holders should check online or with their ferry terminal for details.

Lynn Canal sailings were scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Other Aurora routes were not affected.

Meanwhile, high winds limited the Chenega’s Prince William Sound sailings over the weekend. The fast ferry remained tied up Saturday and skipped Valdez on Sunday.

“We have very strict rules that we have to run those ships by because they’re light, they’re made out of aluminum,” Karvelas said. “So we have to keep a constant eye on the weather.”

Karvelas says the Chenega is expected to resume its scheduled Cordova-Valdez-Whittier sailings on Thursday.

The large ferry Tustumena also had to cancel Saturday and Sunday sailings due to heavy weather. It was back on schedule Monday, leaving Kodiak for Port Lions.

Drilling Advocates Dominate Public Hearing
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
Drilling advocates dominated an Anchorage public hearing put on by federal offshore drilling regulators who sought comment on a proposed five-year plan for offshore oil and gas lease sales that includes the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. More than 100 people signed up Friday night for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management scoping session covering 2012 through 2017.  Pro-drilling forces offered pizza and soft drinks to encourage supporters to arrive early and sign up to testify. But in Barrow last week, the scene was much different.

Alaska’s Largest Union Learning to Communicate Effectively with Legislators
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
While state workers in Wisconsin were protesting anti-union legislation proposed by that state’s Republican governor and lawmakers last week, members of Alaska’s largest public employee union were in Juneau, learning how to more effectively communicate with elected officials.

The two-day Political Education Leadership Conference sponsored by the Alaska State Employees Association allowed members to meet with lawmakers individually and in groups, and discuss issues important to union members.

The law prevents state employees from serving in the legislature, but ASEA Business Manager Jim Duncan says there’s nothing wrong with them being part of the process.

“Many of our folks are involved to some extent, but they’re not really involved to the extent of knowing how all this works,” Duncan said.”So, we bring them down, they get familiarized with the issues, get a chance to be involved with their legislators, it’s a very positive experience.”

Duncan has a unique perspective. He was a legislator for almost 25 years, and served two years as Administration Commissioner under former Governor Tony Knowles before going to work for the union. He says the battles in Wisconsin and other states aren’t happening in Alaska, which is flush with oil tax revenue at the moment. But state employees recognize they’re easy targets for lawmakers looking to trim spending.

“We need to be vigilant, and I think by having our members involved early on, letting the legislators know that we are actively involved and very concerned, and that we really are just their neighbors,” Duncan said. “We’re working people of this state.”

Val Kenny is ASEA’s Executive Committee President. She works for the State Department of Health and Social Services in Anchorage, and says a big priority for the union is returning the state to a defined benefit retirement system with a guaranteed pension. All state employees hired since 2006 have been set up with a retirement account similar to a 401(k) plan. Proponents say it gives workers more flexibility, because they can manage their own investments and the plans are portable. But Kenny says it may be costing the state money.

“Because we invest in the training of these people and then they take what they have and they leave and we invest in training more people,” Kenny said.

There’s currently no momentum in the legislature to return to the old system, but Kenny says the union hopes its members can convince state lawmakers it’s worth considering.

“We need them to vote and we need them to support labor friendly candidates,” Kenny said.

Another focus of the conference was identifying the next generation of union leaders. 33-year-old Daniel Bussard from Juneau chairs ASEA’s Next Wave Committee. The state Department of Natural Resources employee says more than a third of the membership is under the age of 35.

“And then we also have a large percentage of people who are within, say, five years of retirement, and there’s a pretty big gap in between there,” Bussard said. “So, we’re trying to get people familiar with the ASEA and how things work and the issues.”

31-year old Jeremy Stephens of Juneau joined the Next Wave Committee because he wanted to learn more about how the union works.

“I will be absolutely honest with you, is I was very upset at seeing how much I had to donate to the union when I first got hired on, and I needed to know more,” Stephens said.

Stephens has been with the state Department of Transportation for six months. He says he’s glad he got involved, and the Political Education Leadership Conference was a good opportunity to discuss union issues with the state’s elected officials.

“We get to see their points of views, and they get to show us what’s going on inside their offices, and we get a better understanding,” Stephens said. “It might not be all the understanding we need, but we definitely get to open our eyes and get our brains wrapped around some of their ideas.”

The conference attendees came from all over the state and all ranks of union membership. Several state lawmakers addressed the union members. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski met with them in-person, and Senator Mark Begich by video conference.

ASEA represents about 8,500 State of Alaska employees. Members agreed to a new three year contract with the state last year.

Military Spouses Bill Passes State House
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The state House has passed a bill making it easier for military spouses to find work in Alaska.

House Bill 28 allows qualified wives or husbands of service-members to get temporary professional licenses from the state. The measure is aimed at professionals already licensed in another state or territory.

Homer Family Survives New Zealand Quake
Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer
A Homer family spending their winter in New Zealand found themselves in the middle of a harrowing ordeal last week when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake caused massive devastation around them.

Seal Pup Population Declining in Pribilofs
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
The National Marine Mammal Laboratory has released the results of its most recent Northern fur seal pup count in the Pribilofs, and the survey shows that pup production continues to decline in the region.

Approximately 94,000 pups were born in St. Paul this year, and nearly 18,000 were born in St. George. Pup production has declined about eight percent since 2008, when the survey was last completed.

Rod Towell is a mathematical statistician, and he’s been working on this biannual survey since 1992. He says that the changes to the seal rookeries have been apparent since he started, and that the researchers working on this project weren’t surprised by the lower population numbers this year.

In the 1970s, an estimated 300,000 pups were born in the Pribilofs every year. The cause for the decline in pup production is still unknown.

Scientists will work on the next pup production survey in 2012.

Local Business Hopes to Make Use of Waste Glass
Jerzy Shedlock, APRN – Anchorage
Many Anchorage residents throw away their glass, since the municipality no longer recycles it. But one local business is making use of the problematic waste material.

Egil Ellis Wins Rondy Sled Dog Race
Diana Haecker, KTNA – Talkeetna
The Fur Rondy Open World Championships Sled Dog race wrapped up Sunday crowning a new champion. It is Egil Ellis of Willow, making this victory his fifth Fur Rondy win.

Ellis of Willow finished ahead of Salcha’s Arleigh Reynolds and Michigan musher Ken Chezik. Ellis credits his lead dog “Ruby” for making his magic carpet ride to victory possible.

Notably absent from the finishers list is last year’s champion Blayne Streeper. After an altercation on the trail with a fellow musher on Saturday, Streeper was disqualified.

Going uphill on Cordova Street – a hotspot for fans to cheer on mushers – Streeper passed Luke Sampson of Kotzebue. As the mushers were side by side, Streeper shoved Sampson in passing while hollering a profanity. After investigating the incident, the Alaska Sled Dog Race Association made a decision and race marshal Janet Clark said that such unsportsmanlike conduct is punished with disqualification from the race. Sampson did not file a formal protest. Streeper issued a press release apologizing to Sampson, but said that the race marshal over-reacted with the disqualification.