Alaska News Nightly: May 20, 2011

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Customs Officials Seize $1.2 Million Worth of Heroin
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
U.S. Customs officials have seized more than $1.2 million worth of heroin in three different shipments through Anchorage’s FedEx facility.  The drugs were discovered in April and May.

On April 22, customs officers searched a shipment of women’s purses from Malaysia, which were found to contain 432 grams of heroin sewn into the liners.  On April 26, almost two kilograms of heroin were found in a package of baby wipes, and on May 10, 830 grams were hidden in picture frames sent from Thailand.

All the seizures add up to six pounds.  The incidents are under investigation, according to Jerry McGhee, chief customs and border protection officer in anchorage.

McGee can’t say where the packages were destined, because of the ongoing investigation. He says six pounds of heroin is considered a lot.   McGee says Anchorage cargo facilities pose a challenge to customs officers.

There are over 100 customs and border protection officers statewide, with about half of them stationed in Anchorage.

McGee says cruise ship season is a busy time for his officers, with ships entering various ports across the state.

McGee says they’ve even got customs inspectors at Poker Creek on the Top of the World Highway.

BOEMRE Releases Environmental Impact Statement of Chukchi Lease
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement or BOEMRE released today a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the Chukchi Sea lease sale 193.

The draft was developed after environmental and Native organizations sued over the 2008 sale, saying important cumulative impacts from drilling were not considered in the first EIS.

Environmental groups are decrying today’s release saying it doesn’t address information that was deemed missing in the first document. Carole Holly is the Alaska program co director for Pacific Environment, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit against BOEMRE. She says nothing has really changed.

Holly says the U.S. geological survey has just concluded a report on the missing information in the arctic. She says BOEMRE’s release of the new draft EIS before reviewing the USGS study is unfortunate. She says any activity in the Chukchi will not only impact marine life, it will greatly impact the subsistence hunters in the arctic who depend on them.

BOEMRE officials refused comment today but contend the revised draft addresses the concerns raised by Judge Ralph Beistline, the federal judge who handled the lawsuit brought by the Native Village of Point Hope, Pacific Environment and others. Beistline gave BOEMRE until October 3rd to finalize their decision, but he wants a progress report by June 3rd.

Shell Oil Company wants to move forward next summer with plans for exploratory drilling.

Homeland Security Releases Information About Possible Al Qaeda Threat
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Information released Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates that Al Qaeda last year considered hijacking and detonating oil tankers in non Muslim seas to provoke  an economic crisis in the West. The information comes from documents seized from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

Speaking for the federal DHS, Matthew Chandler,  says there is no specific or imminent threat, although he said officials didn’t know whether al Qaeda had continued the plotting since last year.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security, says that the state “always maintains a high state of monitoring critical infrastructure,” and said the information comes from the federal level, not the state.

Chandler stressed that the information does not indicate the presence of an “imminent threat.” Intelligence gathered by American officials suggests the 2010 plans to target marine oil infrastructure were not fully formed.

Two Men May Face Charges After Shooting Walrus
Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham
Two men face possible federal charges in an ongoing investigation of a shooting of a federally protected Pacific Walrus near a State Sanctuary near Togiak.

Students Head to Seattle Marine Science Conference
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
A group of scientists who study the Pribilof Islands are on their way to Seattle for a North Pacific Marine science conference. That isn’t big news- since the “Galapagos of the north” is a hub for all kinds of interesting research. But these scientists are special, because they live on the islands… and most of them haven’t yet graduated from high school.

Hometowns of Clam Diggers Killed in Accident Released
Associated Press
While the names of the five clam diggers who died earlier this week in Cook Inlet have not been released, the president and CEO of Pacific Seafood Group said yesterday that three were from Oregon and two from California.

Pacific Seafood Group is the parent company of Pacific Alaska Shellfish, where the five were contract employees.

Frank Dulcich said he was withholding the names in respect for the families’ privacy.   He also said his company was setting up a memorial fund for the families.

The men went missing Tuesday while traveling in a 20-foot skiff near Polly Creek.  The bodies of all five were recovered.  The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

MS Amsterdam Makes First Anchorage Stop of Season
Len Anderson, APRN – Anchorage
Today the MS Amsterdam makes its first Anchorage appearance of the season with a morning docking and a day long stay.   It’s the second year that the Holland America vessel has come to Anchorage and the first of eight calls scheduled for the summer, on alternating Fridays.

The Amsterdam carries just under 1,400 passengers and 600 crew members.  It spends approximately 16 hours in Anchorage.

Two other ships, Oceania’s Regatta and the Silversea Silver Shadow will also dock at Anchorage this summer.

Fairbanks Borough Ride Service for Disabled in Jeopardy
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
There’s concern the Fairbanks Borough’s ride service for the disabled may not be able to keep up with rising costs.  Van Tran is seeing 18 percent annual growth in demand, and last week the assembly turned down measures, including a fare hike, aimed at supporting an alternate voucher program.  Mayor Luke Hopkins told the assembly vouchers for cab rides are a proven option for some users.

Van Tran users pay $2 for rides that cost the borough $76 each to provide.  The $1.4 million a year program is required to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, but Borough Transportation Director Glenn Miller described vouchers to the assembly as an alternative for more than half of Van Tran users.

Van Tran users didn’t like the idea of raising fares to support the voucher program, and the assembly turned down a proposal to allocate additional  money to fund it.  Miller said the borough is preparing for a user eligibility audit to assess who really needs Van Tran.  Privatization of the program is another possible cost cutting option.  Anchorage and Juneau have contracted out their transportation services for the disabled, and substantially lower per rider costs. Some members of Fairbanks disabled community advocated for privatization at a recent assembly budget hearing.

Economic Indicators Point to Strong Salmon Market
Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham
Many economic indicators point to strong salmon markets this year, which could be good news for those who make their living netting sockeye each summer in Bristol Bay.

10 Klukwan Residents Training to be Community’s Only Medical First Responders
Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines
10 residents of a Southeast Alaska native village just completed training to be the only medical first responders in their community.

Yup’ik Traditional Healer Honored in Anchorage
Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel
Rita Blumenstein, a Yup’ik traditional healer, is being honored this week in Anchorage by women from around the world. She is part of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, a group which seeks world peace and healing. The grandmothers travel to each others homelands to help spread that peace.