Alaska News Nightly: August 5, 2011

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State May Intervene in Pebble Mine Case

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The State of Alaska has intervened in the case of the Pebble Limited Partnership versus the Lake and Peninsula Borough.  The case revolves around whether or not a citizen initiative can go to the ballot in October.  ‘Alaskan’s for Bristol Bay’ has been working to get the ‘Save Our Salmon’ Initiative on the ballot since March. The initiative is aimed squarely at Pebble Mine. It would amend the Borough’s development permitting code to prevent the advancement of any large-scale resource extraction activity, including mining that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat.

The case started out in the Dillingham court back in March. A hearing took place in Anchorage in June, and in late July a judge ruled the vote could to go forward.  August 1 the Pebble Partnership took the case to the Supreme Court of Alaska.  The office of the Attorney General issued an ‘emergency motion’ to join the case Friday, citing the state’s interest because the SOS Initiative, “will interfere with the state’s management of Alaska’s mineral resources for the benefit of the state of Alaska,” and the likelihood of the outcome of the case to have a precedential effect.

The state’s motion for expedited consideration of the case was quickly granted and the Supreme Court has agreed to make a decision in the case by August 15.   All parties have until 8:00 a.m. Monday Morning to file responses to the state’s motions to join the case and respond to the state’s arguments. The Lake and Peninsula Borough is set to vote on the initiative October 4.

Murkowski Unaware for Months of Aide’s Plea Deal

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Senator Lisa Murkowski says she didn’t know for months that her fisheries aide had signed a plea deal with federal authorities admitting to fishing illegally. And Murkowski’s spokesman says if she had, she would’ve fired him.

Arne Fuglvog resigned from Murkowski’s staff on Sunday, one day before he was formally charged and his plea agreement became public.

Murkowski says Fuglvog told her one month prior that he planned to enter into the plea agreement. But Fuglvog had actually signed the plea deal back in April. Murkowski’s spokesman Matthew Felling says the Senator did not know that.

“Only to find out this week that the paperwork had been signed into, that in affect the charges were filed by virtue of him signing, and he had plead guilty on April 8.”

Fuglvog admitted to breaking federal commercial fisheries law by falsifying catch records. He agreed to pay $150,000 and serve 10 months prison time.

Questions arose this week about exactly what Senator Murkowski knew about Fuglvog’s violations, and when. She initially deferred responding, saying the legal process needed to go play out. But spokesman Matthew Felling says when she learned that a plea deal had been struck months ago without her knowledge, she started answering.

“The Senator had been reluctant to expand on the statement before the court accepted Arne’s plea next week. But what got her to expand on that message was the new information that came to her attention, the entire office’s attention, namely in the form of the legal documents that become publically available this week.”

Felling says Senator Murkowski was first told her staffer faced a fishing violation charge around the New Year, but that she wanted to let the legal process take its course, believing “innocent til proven guilty.”

When Fuglvog came forward to tell the Senator he would plead guilty, she told him he’d have to resign, but kept him on staff another month until right before the charges were filed. Murkowski’s spokesman says she now regrets not letting him go right then.

And Felling says if Murkowski had known sooner the details of Fuglvog’s plea deal and admission, she would have fired him right away.

“And if on June 29 he had told the Senator about the plea agreement he signed in April, or if she had learned about it, she would’ve embarked on a wholly different course of action with regards to Arne, immediate termination.”

Fuglvog admitted to falsifying catch records repeatedly between 2001 and 2006. During that time he was a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing off Alaska. He joined Murkowski’s staff right after the time period the allegations cover in fall of 2006. In 2009 Fuglvog was on the short list to run the National Marine Fisheries Service. He pulled out of consideration two years ago, saying the process was taking too long.

Senator Murkowski could not comment personally for this story because she’s traveling to Ketchikan, but her spokesman says she’s willing to answer follow-up questions.

Airport Safety Project to Resume Following FAA Reauthorization

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

On Thursday, congress was finally able to end a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.  The reauthorization brings with it hope that a project at one of the state’s busiest airports will be completed. The airport at Bethel has a new landing strip, but the work to complete the safety lighting there has not been completed.

Boycott, Protests Continue Outside of Hilton Anchorage

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Hilton Anchorage hotel employees marched in Anchorage Thursday in front of one of the city’s landmark high rise buildings.

Matthew Fennel led the 40 or so disgruntled employees of the hotel in an orderly sidewalk parade, despite blustery weather.

Fennel is an organizer and staffer for Unite Here, the union which represents Hilton employees of all kinds: kitchen, servers, and housekeepers.

The protests have been happening once a week for the past couple of years. Fennel, waving a Boycott Hilton sign, says they will continue indefinitely.

Local Hilton Anchorage management would not comment on the protests. The hotel is owned and operated by Kentucky- based Columbia Sussex Corporation, which could not be reached for comment Friday.

Court of Appeals Will Not Hear State’s Juneau Access Petition

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The full U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will not take up the State of Alaska’s latest petition in the Juneau Access case. In May, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court’s order for a new Environmental Impact Statement for the road project. The state appealed to have all 11 members of the appeals court hear the case, but not one judge asked for a hearing. In light of this latest defeat, Alaska Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Brenda Hewitt says the state is looking at its options.

In 2006, the Highway Administration issued a record of decision approving the project. But in 2009, the federal agency declined to participate in the state’s appeal over the EIS decision. Juneau Access would extend the road north of the Capital City to a ferry terminal at the Katzehin River, where a boat would shuttle passengers the rest of the way to Skagway. A citizens group is already urging the state to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Citizens Pro Road Chairman Dick Knapp says the project has been studied enough and a new environmental impact statement would be a waste of time and money.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council challenged the original EIS, saying it didn’t adequately consider improvements to existing Lynn Canal ferry service. SEACC Communications Director Dan Lesh says if the state wants to move the project forward it should do another EIS.

The latest estimates put the project cost at $500 million. It’s been a regional transportation priority of the past three state administrations.

‘Connect Alaska’ To Map Internet Connectivity in Southwest Alaska

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Broadband internet is coming to Southwest Alaska, but how is that going to help homes that don’t even have computers? A government-funded project is looking into that by mapping internet connections in rural Alaska.

DNR Makes Increased Oil Flow Top Priority

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The State Department of Natural Resources top priority is increasing the amount of oil moved by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. That was the message of D.N.R. Commissioner Dan Sullivan in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

Pipeline throughput is currently below 700,000 barrels a day, and declining about 6 percent per year. Sullivan says Alaska is suffering compared to other oil producing areas.

Sullivan says the Governor and D.N.R. have a five-part plan to increase North Slope oil production.  The strategy includes more efficient permitting, partnerships with industry and other governments, promotion of Alaska oil, and incentivizing development of nonconventional sources like shale, but he says the cornerstone is state tax reform. The governor and industry were unsuccessful in pushing oil tax cuts through the legislature last session, and Sullivan acknowledges the issue is complicated.

The current tax regime includes breaks for investment and a tax rate that increases at high oil prices. Fairbanks State Senator Joe Paskvan questions the need for additional tax breaks.  Paskavn, who attended yesterday’s address by Commissioner Sullivan, says the state is already doing a lot to encourage oil investment.

Paskvan says the state provided oil companies with between $800 million and $900 million in tax credits in FY 11. He says the progressivity aspect of Alaska’s oil tax can create an unhealthy relationship between the state and industry at high oil prices, but that the tax system needs to be considered as a whole.

Paskvan, who co-chairs the Senate resources committee, has been pressing the state for a more complete accounting of the impact of Alaska’s tax system on industry. He says he’s getting closer to numbers needed for a better understanding and debate of the tax issue.

AK: The Mail Boat

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

Living in a small town can be tough, but living in a small town without even a small grocery store is a special type of challenge. On the Southern tip of Baranof Island, in Southeast, there are three tiny communities like this. Residents rely on a mail boat that travels 80 miles from Sitka for supplies. And when the mail arrives twice a week, it’s not just a delivery: it’s an event. Diana Saverin took a ride on the mail boat and has this story.

300 Villages: Beaver and Moose Pass

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Now it’s time for our weekly trip around the state for 300 villages. Today we’ll take a peek into life in Beaver, an Interior village on the Yukon River with a history going back to commercial whaling days, and then we’ll visit with Moose Pass, a railroad town on the Seward Highway.

That was Derek Murray in Beaver and Dawn Campbell in Moose Pass. 300 villages is AK’s attempt to put every community in Alaska on the radio.

Thanks for listening to AK this week. We had help this week from Diana Saverin on the mail boat and Ellen Lockyer in Anchorage.