Alaska News Nightly: July 7, 2011

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Alaska Senators Back ‘Pilot’s Bill of Rights’

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Senators are backing what’s being called a “Pilot’s Bill of Rights.” The legislation proposed by Oklahoma Senator and pilot Jim Inhofe aims to grant aviators more access to information and clarifies Federal Aviation Administration rules.

Under the proposed “Pilot’s Bill of Rights,” if there’s a claim that a pilot’s broke the rules, the FAA would have to turn over all evidence to him or her thirty days before giving any punishment. That information would include air traffic communication tapes. Senator Inhofe says that’s not currently done, and it leaves pilots unprepared to defend themselves.

Senator Lisa Murkowski says pilots deserve access to the personal information held by the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board.

“Issues within the NTSB not being able to gain access to your files or to your records, it’s pretty simple stuff in terms of transparency and access to your own records.”

Murkowski says Alaskan pilots have contacted her with complaints that the current system just doesn’t grant them enough information.

“It’s interesting hearing some of the stories that were told about situations where there had been an incident and a pilot was given either a reprimand or license pulled, and no clear understanding to the reason behind it. Or what he or she may have to do to get it back.”

Senator Inhofe had a run-in with FAA rules last year when he landed on a closed Texas runway. In the Senator’s case he had to take a remedial training program, but the FAA didn’t take legal action against him. Afterward he pledged to introduce legislation relating to his experience.

The bill he’s proposed also calls for a review of the FAA’s medical certification process and forms.  Senator Inhofe says there are too many cases when pilots misinterpret the paperwork and are then accused of intentionally falsifying them.

The issue of pilot medical exams and records is controversial. In May the NTSB found in an investigation into the plane crash that killed former Senator Ted Stevens and four others last summer that the pilot did not go through rigorous enough medical screening after suffering a stroke. The Inhofe bill does not call for a loosening of medical qualifications, just a review.

The so-called “Pilot’s Bill of Rights” has two dozen co-sponsors in the Senate. Congressman Don Young’s office says a companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House soon, which he plans to support.

Meanwhile Alaska’s Senators are also pushing for more privacy in the skies, they signed a letter sent last week to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pushing him to keep what’s called the BARR program, or Block Aircraft Registration Request program. It allows plane operators to have their aircraft tail number withheld from real-time flight tracking software.

LaHood is calling for the program to be dismantled, saying only operators with a verified security threat could keep their flight path private. But Senator Mark Begich says releasing the tail numbers and flying routes makes public too much information.

“Let’s say you have two companies that are talking about merging. Lots of times they’re flying back and forth on their corporate jets back to corporate headquarters.  Here’s what can happen.  You can start having speculators who know where these guys are going. Or let’s say there’s a company in Alaska that’s an oil company, has prospects that they’re developing, and they are now talking to other oil and gas partners that could have dramatic positive impact to our state, but they want to keep it private while they’re trying to figure out all the financial arrangements that are going on.”

Begich says people in the public eye should also be able to remain anonymous when they travel, whether they’re witnesses in a court case or millionaires concerned about kidnapping threats.

Begich co-authored the letter as co-chairman of the Senate General Aviation Caucus. Besides Murkowski, 23 other Senators also signed on.

‘Bullet Line’ May Disrupt Plans for Cook Inlet Drilling

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

State legislators have largely been enthusiastic about a report they asked for that indicates it would be possible for the state to finance a so-called “bullet line” to deliver North Slope natural gas to the Interior and South Central parts of the state, where gas wells are playing out.

But State Senator Tom Wagoner of Kenai points to growing signs of renewed industry interest in Cook Inlet, and urges caution. He is concerned about discouraging the investment climate.  Wagoner is the author of a tax credit bill that is designed to pay for the first wells drilled from a jack-up rig capable or reaching the deeper waters of Cook Inlet. Two companies are actively preparing to bring rigs to the state.

Sea Otters Tagged for Population Study

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Add sea otters to the list of critters transmitting radio signals in Southeast Alaska.

Researchers recently captured and tagged the marine mammals north of Petersburg. It’s part of a project studying the habits and rapid spread of otters, which were reintroduced to the region a little more than 40 years ago.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Verena Gill is part of a cooperative effort that captured and tagged 30 sea otters near Kake. They ranged from babies to a male weighing more than 100 pounds.

“I think a lot of times people think that they’re a cute, cuddly, small, little creature. They are cute, but they’re not cuddly and they are not small,” she says.

Scientists and others implanted VHF radios so they can track movement and monitor behavior.

They also sampled bodily fluids and whiskers to check for viruses and learn more about diet. She says otter studies can help track other environmental issues.

“Otters are a real good canary in a coal mine, so to speak. They’re a really good indicator of what’s happening in the near-shore ecosystem. They inhabit the same area that we do. They eat many of the same subsistence foods that we do. They’re impacted by runoff from terrestrial environments. And so they are really sort of like a first warning system as to what is going on,” she says.

The capture program is one of several coordinated sea otter research projects going on in the region. Another will determine their numbers in northern Southeast, following a similar count in the south.

A third effort is monitoring feeding behavior from shore.

Zach Hoyt, of the University of Alaska School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, is part of that project.

“They’re voracious predators. They have the ability to consume 25 percent of their body weight a day in invertebrates. They have a very, very high metabolism because they’re the only marine mammal that does not have blubber, so they have to fuel themselves and they do that through consuming energy,” he says.

That energy comes from eating large amounts of crab, sea urchins, shrimp, clams and sea cucumbers.

“It’s kind of like watching a Tasmanian devil eat,” says Sunny Rice, who works with the Petersburg office of the university’s Marine Advisory Program.

She says research on otter numbers and feeding habits will help crabbers and dive fishermen anticipate future impacts.

“As otters were moving into new areas they traditionally fished, they were not seeing any more of that resource,” she says.

The fur trade virtually wiped sea otters out in Southeast Alaska by the early 1900s. The state transplanted the mammals to the region in the 1960s.

Recent population growth in the southern part of the region has been 13 percent a year.

Hoyt, the university researcher, says that‘s not as surprising as it seems.

“Well, right now I would say the population is definitely growing exponentially, which is typical of a species that isn’t resource limited,” he says.

The sampling part of the capture project will also help define otter diet. Wildlife biologist Gill says whiskers can show what’s been consumed during the past year.

“And the real exciting thing about that is we had a series of whiskers spanning the last 20 years from animals that had been harvested by Native people in the area. We had those analyzed and we’ll be able to compare the diet from 20 years ago to the contemporary animals we captured here in May,” she says.

Federal protections limit otter harvests to Alaska Natives. Pelts can only be sold to the general public if they’re been significantly modified.

Researchers are asking hunters to avoid taking tagged otters. But they’re also interested in information about any carcasses, which could become part of the scientific database.

New Statistics Show Unemployment Rates are Higher for Veterans

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The U.S. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee has released updated statistics on veterans’ employment numbers since September 11, 2001. Committee Chairman Senator Bob Casey says the high unemployment rate among the nation’s nearly 2.5 million veterans who have served since then is unacceptable. Alaska’s overall unemployment rate as of May is 7.4 percent, but it’s higher for vets.  I spoke with Verdie Bowen, who is the Director of Veterans Affairs for the state of Alaska what kind of a job market Alaska’s vets can expect when they are discharged.

Refugees Celebrate Birth of ‘Republic of South Sudan’

Heather Aronno, APRN – Anchorage

While Americans celebrated the Fourth of July just a few days ago, a smaller group in Anchorage will be enjoying their own Independence Day this Saturday.

July 9, 2011 marks the official independence of South Sudan from their northern neighbors, and it’s been a long time coming.

Mading Bol is part of the small but vibrant Sudanese community in Anchorage. As chairman of the Alaska Sudanese Community church, Bol can speak to the happiness his congregation is feeling.

“Everybody is very excited to see this happen, because we’ve been in war for years, and to see that South is an independent country now, everybody is very happy.”

Sudan has been in conflict for the majority of its 55-year history. A peace was brokered between North and South Sudan in 2005, but it wasn’t until January of this year that South Sudan, soon to be the Republic of South Sudan, voted to claim their own sovereignty.

Border conflicts are ongoing, but Saturday will be a day of celebration for the many Sudanese refugees that have come to the United States over the past few decades. Bol hopes that with peace and independence, refugees can return to South Sudan to help the nation grow.

Here in Anchorage, Bol invites the community to be a part of the Sudanese Independence Celebration.

“There will be dancing and singing. They are going to cook some traditional foods.”

Bol will also be leading a children’s chorus in singing the new national anthem for the Republic of South Sudan. The event takes place this Saturday, from 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Anchorage.

Memorial Honors One-Year Anniversary of Helicopter Crash

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

Thursday, July 7, 2011 marks the one-year anniversary of the crash of Coast Guard helicopter 6017, on a routine flight between Astoria, Oregon, and its home base at Air Station Sitka.

Opponents Speak-Out Against Moving Alaska Commercial Fisherman’s Memorial

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The board of directors for the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial in Juneau has come out in favor of leaving the monument where it is – and against building a cruise ship dock in front of it.

Last year, the City and Borough Assembly approved a plan to construct two new floating berths on Gastineau Channel – one of which would sit in front of the memorial. City officials asked the board to weigh in on whether the shrine should move, and if so where.

The board’s Bruce Weyhrauch says having a cruise ship dock in front of the memorial defeats the purpose of having an unobstructed view of the water.

In a letter to CBJ Port Engineer Gary Gillette last week the board said it prefers the city not construct a dock in front of the memorial at all. If the dock is built there, the board wants the memorial moved to Marine Park, and assurances that nothing will be built on the water in front of it.

Gillette says the recommendation will go to the Docks and Harbors board as well as the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

And Gillette says the assembly may end up making the final decision.

For now, $2 million is included in the dock expansion budget for the purpose of moving the memorial.