Alaska News Nightly: August 3, 2011

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State Approves Lease Agreement for In-State Gasline

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The state has approved a right-of-way lease agreement for the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline, the in-state gas project which has the approval of the Alaska State House.

Department of Natural Resources commissioner Dan Sullivan last week signed an agreement with the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, which was tasked by the legislature with developing a plan for the in-state gasline. The agreement grants access to state land for potential development of the 737-mile natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Big Lake.

Dave Norton is manager of Engineering and Regulatory Affairs for AGDC. He says the state lease is for 427 miles, more than half the length of the proposed gasline.

Norton says AGDC is in the middle of an environmental impact statement process now:

If approved, a final EIS will be out by the end of the year, he says. The Army Corps of Engineers must issue the Record of Decision which will approve wetlands permits necessary for gasline construction. The state agreement does not cover the entire length of the line, however. Norton says additional agreements must still be signed with Alaska Native corporations, federal and private lands the gasline would traverse if it is built.

The proposed natural gasline would run from Prudhoe Bay along the Dalton Highway and TAPS route to Livengood, then head south across Minto Flats then to the Parks Highway near Nenana. Then follow the highway to connect to the Beluga gasline from the west side of Cook Inlet. Gas would then be provided for the local distribution system. Another spur line running from Nenana would provide gas to Fairbanks.

AGDC president Dan Fauske has signed the lease agreement. Fauske calls the right of way deal a “major milestone” in the progress made on the project.

Denali Commission Official Anxious for Clarity on Returned Funds Request

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

As Congress debates how to cut federal spending, federal managers are left without answers about how their agency will be impacted. In May, APRN reported Congress said the Denali Commission may have to return $15 million from 2010 carry over appropriations. But three months later, the commission is still waiting for clarification about that amount.

The problem is two federal agencies are interpreting congressional intent differently. The Office of Management and Budget says simply, Congress wants the money, send $15 million back. But Denali Commission federal co-chair Joel Neimeyer says the Government Accountability Office sees it differently.

“They haven’t determined whether we need to give back the $15 million, because they’re very closely looking at the question that Congress put forward of unobligated prior year funds. In their mind that means that’s FY10 and prior, and if we were to give FY11 funds, we have essentially gone against Congress.”

The cloudiness doesn’t end there. GAO says the amount could be only $1.4 million. That’s the money left un-obligated at the time of the signing of the 2010 budget. Neimeyer says he has asked for written clarification from both bodies. Something the nearly 30 year federal employee says is perhaps unprecedented. He knows of no other agency that has questioned the mandates of the OMB. Neimeyer says the commission typically gets between 5 to 6 million returned each year as projects come in under budget. Paying 1.4 million would feasible without much fall out, but if the final amount is $15 million all at once, that will be disruptive.

“If we get the bad news we got to give $15 million back, we hope it will be over time not by the end of the fiscal year. Because the only way it’s going to happen if its between now and the end of the fiscal year is we’d have to cancel active projects.”

Those projects Neimeyer says would mainly be power system upgrades and waterfront projects. These are funded through Denali’s base appropriation. The commission also helps direct money to projects from other agencies and these funds are of concern to Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation President Gene Peltola. YKHC has its own construction arm and they are currently finishing up their 25th and 26th Denali commission funded clinics in Nunapitchuk and Mountain Village. Peltola says to date, YKHC has built over 100,000 square feet of clinic space with $35 million. He says there are 8 villages that need new clinics and that won’t happen without Denali commission funds.

“Basically we’re hearing the commission hasn’t received any designated funding from the feds for clinic construction. Senator Murkowski tried to get 10 million dollars in the 2011 budgetary process for new clinic construction in rural Alaska and that didn’t prevail.”

Greg McIntyre is YKHC’s Vice President of support services, which encompasses building construction. He says YKHC has returned about 1.8 million in funds to the Denali Commission after completing the last six clinics between 200 and 300 thousand under estimate. He does not want to see that money returned to the federal government:

“We haven’t been frivolous by any means. We’ve been very good at being thrifty so it will be a disappointment if that doesn’t go back into health care, whether it’s ours or someone else’s.”

It’s not yet clear if all or part of the clinic money will be protected. It will depend on what funding stream it originated from. YKHC President Peltola says the future is concerning for securing infrastructure funds for rural Alaska.

“I feel it’s the coming of a new age. We’ve never experienced this uncertainty in the past. On a smaller scale, yes, but not like it is now.”

Both YKHC officials say Denali Commission funds have been critical not only for construction of clinics and other infrastructure in rural Alaska but also for training and jobs, saying a decade ago, only one laborer may have been employed in a village building project, now local hire is nearing 100 percent. Health aide jobs, dental therapists, and billing and coding work also stays local.

The commission’s Neimeyer says in addition to changing how he allocates funds to better address congressional concerns; he’s also revising the expenditure rate. Neimeyer says many entities build their project and then send a bill, which makes it appear that projects are stagnant. He wants quarterly billing.

“And so then we can show to Congress that money isn’t languishing, that these projects are moving forward as Congress wants and good things are happening. But if you look at the balance sheet and you see several projects where there’s no money going out, you would just assume that those projects are inactive. Well, we’re going to start addressing that question.

Neimeyer says written opinions clarifying whether $15 million or $1.4 million must be sent back is expected from both GAO and OMB by August 15. Commissioners have a meeting scheduled for the next day.

Parnell Objects to Federal Management of Wetlands

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Governor Sean Parnell is working to change what he sees as the direction of federal management of wetlands in the state. In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, the governor objects to new guidelines for wetlands permitting and management – which he says expands the reach of their current jurisdiction.  Deputy Chief of Staff Randy Ruaro says the guidelines will have the same impact as formal regulations – only they are being written in a much less-formal manner. He says the government is writing tests that will be applied to determine their authority over public or private lands — and they are being written to expand the amount of land it calls wetlands.

Ruaro says the federal agencies are also defining wetlands within the “guidance” they are preparing. He sees those definitions as vague, based on U.S. Court decisions that are not clarified by federal statute.

Ruaro says he anticipates a decision on how the federal agencies will proceed by this fall. He says Alaska and seven other western states are watching the process and will decide then whether to take any action.

Arkansas Teenagers Charged With Attack on Juneau Man Will be Tried as Adults

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Like Juneau, a small Arkansas town is trying to make sense of the death of a 19-year-old Juneau man who was allegedly beaten by four teenage boys while he was visiting their community.

As previously reported, Kevin Thornton died from his injuries Wednesday in a Little Rock Hospital, where’d been in a coma for a week. The sheriff’s investigator is calling the assault “completely random violence.” The youth charged in the attack will be tried as adults for murder.

Scientists Keeping an Eye on Cleveland Volcano

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory are keeping an eye on Cleveland volcano. The Aleutian Chain volcano started showing increased thermal activity last month. Tuesday, AVO raised the alert level after identifying a new lava dome on the volcano. Dave Schneider is a geophysicist with AVO.

Schneider says as eruptions go, this one is a bit of a yawner, but that could change quickly. AVO scientists are studying satellite images in case Cleveland starts spewing ash that could be hazardous to airplane traffic in the area. Schneider says the lava dome forming now on the volcano could be leading up to a bigger eruption.

Cleveland is one of about 20 historically active volcanoes in Alaska that don’t have seismic monitors. Schneider says that’s because it’s located in a remote part of the central Aleutians. He says getting instruments there would be tricky.

Several years ago, during another Cleveland eruption one of the best views of the volcano was from space. AVO took a call from an astronaut who watched the eruption and was able to e-mail pictures from orbit.

Kenai River Cleanup Begins After Season’s Close

Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai

The Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery has closed for the season. It ended at midnight Sunday. But for the city of Kenai, the cleanup takes a few more days.

Sewer Repairs Reveal Early Visitors to Sitka

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

An anthropologist has found what she believes are stone tools in a street excavation in downtown Sitka.

The finds – if they are confirmed – could help shed light on Paleolithic humans who either lived in, or passed through, the region.

First, let’s make clear that this is not an epic story about archaeology. This is about a couple of rocks that you or I – or anyone who didn’t know what to look for – would have walked right by, or maybe even have skipped into the ocean.

“It’s a simple tool where you have a certain kind of rock, and you drop that rock on another rock and a flake comes off. And if it’s nice and sharp along there you’ll use it for a while. You grip it like that – use it as a skin scraper, or for whatever you’re scraping. Then, when it gets worn out, you throw it away,” says Nancy Yaw Davis, an anthropologist by trade, and an archaeologist by coincidence.

She’s standing next to a trench in Sitka’s Monastery Street, about a block from her home. The rock, called a “boulder chip” is absolutely unremarkable – Wilma Flintstone did not have anything like this in her kitchen – until Davis folds her fingers around it and it becomes a compact and efficient-looking scraper.

Next she shows me a stone point, called a “bi-face.”

“The shape, the size – it’s about three-and-a-half inches by two inches. The unusual material, the way it could fit on a spear. And it just stood out.”

Davis honed her eye for stone tools working for years in the Cook Inlet area. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and a Doctorate from the University of Washington. She’s the author of numerous publications, including a major book exploring connections between prehistoric cultures in Japan and the Americas called “The Zuni Enigma.”

Monastery Street is in the epicenter of Sitka’s cultural footprint. Prior to the construction of Crescent Harbor in the late 1960s, this area was known as Crescent Beach. It’s also on the Indian River flood plain. The river is about a mile away now, but millennia ago, who knows? River meandering, glacial rebound, volcanic activity, and dramatic sea level changes have all affected the landform.

Close to where Davis found the possible stone tools is what appears to be a deposit of beach cobble. It could be an ancient river beach, or it could be fill from previous sewer work. Because this site has been disturbed many times, it doesn’t really matter. In archaeology, as in real estate, it’s sometimes location, location, location.

“Human nature really hasn’t changed over the millennia,” says Mark McCallum, the archaeologist for the Tongass National Forest. “And that the qualities that attract you or me to a location today are probably some of the same qualities that attracted people hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.”

McCallum knows Davis, but has not had a chance to examine the possible artifacts. He considers it by no means far-fetched that a backhoe could unearth stone tools in downtown Sitka. This is no Gold Rush town, or a former cannery site that has evolved into modern city. As even the Huffington Post has recently declared, places in Alaska don’t get much better – for us, or for early man.

McCallum urges us to view Sitka through a Paleo-lens.

“What would be the qualities that you would look for? Think about it. Those things that you would seek, say, level ground to erect your tent, well-drained, perhaps proximity to water, perhaps a nice view – those are all factors that a Paleo person might have sought as they made their way down the outer coast.”

McCallum says this “layer cake” of use in ancient cultures is common in archaeology worldwide. McCallum also is deliberate in how he describes Paleo cultures, as making “their way down the coast.” The Tlingit, who have a ten-thousand year-old oral tradition in Southeast Alaska, don’t record displacing anyone. That the earliest Americans might have migrated down the coast – rather than walking across a land bridge – is gaining acceptance in academic anthropology, and Davis is a proponent of the idea.

It makes it all the more interesting that Davis almost literally fell into this job.

The public works map of Monastery Street refers to it as an “area of possible archaeological significance,” and the city requires that utility work there be monitored by an archeologist. The contractor, ACI, had not been able to find one by the time work started, and Davis says she recommended several, all of whom were unavailable. In the end, they offered her the job.

“I thought of my background of archaeology in the Philippines when I was a student, excavating in a cave where people had been buried in different-sized ceramic jars for about a thousand years. And then I worked with students at Alaska Methodist University fifty years ago, if you can believe it, and we went out in the field. And the technique hasn’t changed that much. This is salvage archaeology, and I’m just stunned by how much material is here.”

Davis bagged and catalogued over 80 specimens in a few days of work, everything from colonial-era ceramic fragments, pieces of old pipe, door handles, to a piece of a stone china chamber pot.

The stone tools, however, if they prove up, will be the star discoveries for this accidental archaeologist.

Davis believes that there is still much to learn beneath Monastery Street, but the extensive disturbance of site over the centuries does not warrant shutting down the sewer work. It will still be there the next time the mains need to be replaced.

In the meantime, we’d better learn to look before we launch.

“So when you’re on a beach, don’t skip those flat rocks, unless you look at ‘em first,” says Davis.