Alaska News Nightly: August 23, 2011

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NOAA Administrator Visits Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Jane Lubchenco, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is in the state this week, visiting Anchorage, Homer and Fairbanks. The Agency has a broad reach in Alaska, overseeing weather forecasts, fisheries and species like seals and whales. The Cook Inlet Beluga Whale was the focus of a meeting Lubchenco had Tuesday morning with oil and gas producers in Cook Inlet. The companies are worried the whale’s endangered status will hinder their ability to drill in the area.

Murkowski Answers Questions on ‘Talk of Alaska’

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Jane Lubchenco interrupted the meeting in Anchorage this morning to announce there had been an earthquake in Washington DC. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake was an unusually large one to strike the DC area and the capitol building was evacuated. APRN’s Libby Casey was in her office in the capitol at the time, preparing to go on the air with Talk of Alaska. She says at first she didn’t realize it was an earthquake.

Senator Murkowski fielded a wide range of questions from Alaskans during Talk of Alaska. She says replacing Arne Fuglvog, her former fisheries policy advisor who has entered into a plea agreement for falsifying fishing records, is a priority because of the wide range of issues his job entailed for her office.

She says she is looking for suggestions for the position. A caller from Palmer concerned over the national debt wanted to know why taxing the rich is opposed by Republicans. Murkowski said she thinks raising taxes now is a bad idea but she’d like to see an overhaul of the entire tax regime to close loopholes and create a more equitable system. She says however that taking taxes off the table completely is not reasonable. In response to a question about how to create jobs, she suggested reducing regulations on business would help.

Murkowski said she realizes the halibut catch share plan is controversial but she says the numbers of fish needed for larger shares are not there and overfishing must be guarded against. She says both the commercial and charter fleets have seen reductions and both sides feel they’re giving up more than they should.

Senator Murkowski said she hopes Congress will get more done in September, citing the fact that only one appropriations bill out of 12 has been dealt with. She said continuing resolutions for funding is not good government.

Senate President Defends Travel Expenses

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Reports Monday of recent travel expenditures by legislators indicate that this current year is on track right now to costing about the same as most previous years’ travel – with one exception.

Annual reports from the Legislative Affairs Agency show total reimbursed travel expenses peaked in fiscal year 2009 at $1,010,000. That was the first year that legislative sessions were shortened to 90 days, leaving more time for travel.  It was also the year that 26 lawmakers traveled to Washington DC during that 90-day session to attend meetings of the Energy Council – a national Petroleum-oriented group.  That fiscal year began in 2008, and also included a special session dealing with the legislature’s final action on the state-sponsored gas pipeline project and other energy issues.

Last year, that expense dropped by a fourth — to $764,000.

Most travel requests and expenditures are approved by the House and Senate Presiding officers – only the Finance Committees approve their own expenses. Senate President Gary Stevens says there is value in the meetings and sessions members attend. And it’s up to them to explain their activities.

“It’s up to the legislator to say this is what I want to do and I’m willing to go to my constituents and say ‘Okay I went to Hawaii, yes I did, and it was of value and this is why I went and this is what I learned.’  It’s up to each of us to go back to the people who elect us and say,  and be transparent and be responsible for what we’ve done,” Stevens said.

Stevens says there is value in the organizations that sponsor the national meetings – and there is knowledge in other meetings. About 10 members of the House and Senate will join another 30-or-so Alaskans on a trip to Norway at the end of this month.   He says most legislators are not experienced in oil and gas production and taxation. And he sees that trip as a chance to learn first-hand from a lot of people who have made Norway a success.

“I think there’s a lot to learn, and I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being a legislator and a Senator.  You know, economics and the oil industry are not in my background. Yet the people I represent want me to know what’s going on and watch out for their interest and the interest of the state.  It’s important that all of us have some understanding of that industry and that’s why the Norway trip – I’m really glad it’s turning out this way.  I think it’s going to be of value,” Stevens said.

Stevens says as long as expenses don’t get out of control – and members don’t request travel to too many meetings – he is prepared to continue approving their travel requests.

25 Alaska Post Offices Taken Off Possible Closure List

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

25 Alaska post offices have been pulled off a nationwide list of nearly 3,700 facing possible closure or consolidation.

Lake Minchumina Resident ‘Walking on Air’ After Postal Service Announcement

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The closure study list included post offices in the interior communities of Anvik, Beaver, Hughes, Kaltag, Koyukuk, Stevens Village, Shaegeluk and Lake Minchumina.  Lake Minchumina resident Julie Collins has been contacting legislators and media outlets about the threat, and says she’s “walking on air’ after hearing news it’s over.  Collins says post offices are very important in off road system communities.

Collins says Lake Minchumina’s post office was set up in a duplex with the local library following a 2007 closure threat, locals fought back, with the help of former senator Ted Stevens.  She says the postal service has since spent nearly $300,000 standardizing the facility.

The post offices being reviewed included interior facilities at Clear, Circle, Chitina, Eielson, and Ft. Wainwright.

Boat Harbor Helping Turn St. Paul into Successful Fishing Town

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

Ever since the commercial fur seal harvest in the Pribilofs was shut down, the residents of St. Paul have worked to turn their community into a successful fishing town. The completion of a major infrastructure project is a big part of making that happen.

Developer Plans to Renovate Polaris Building in Fairbanks

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

An Anchorage developer, with plans to refurbish the derelict Polaris building in downtown Fairbanks, is seeking additional concessions from the city.  Marc Marlow, who owns the empty 11 story apartment and commercial building, is seeking waiver of about $150,000 in planning and permit fees for the renovation project.  Marlow has already been granted local property tax breaks worth around $1 million, and he told the city council at work session last night, the additional concession is small relative to the benefits of bringing the 60 year old Polaris back to life.

Marlow said eliminating the city fees would help him cover about a $600,000 shortfall in financing the $19 million project.  Marlow, who’s Native American, outlined a complicated web of loans and tax credits he, or the project qualify for, through federal housing, historic preservation and Bureau of Indian Affairs programs.  The reaction to Marlow’s request was mixed by the city council.  Member Emily Bratcher questioned Marlow’s request for additional breaks from the city.

Bratcher was also suspect of demand for apartments in the 1950’s era high rise, but Marlow has experience turning around old buildings.  He renovated the McKinley Building in Anchorage, where he says there’s a waiting list for apartments. Marlow assured the council that his plan calls for making the Polaris a desirable place to live.

Marlow said there’s currently less than 1 percent vacancy in market rate apartments in Fairbanks. His Polaris plan calls for the building’s first and top floors to be made available for commercial use, and for tenants to rent space in the underused downtown parking garage. Council member Vivian Stiver was receptive to Marlow’s request for fee waivers.

Stiver has personal experience making an aging downtown building successful.  She renovated the former Caribou Pawn building into a coffee shop and apartments.  The council would have  to pass an ordinance to grant the permit and planning fee waivers to Marlow, w ho hopes to start work on the Polaris project next summer.

Crews Recover One Body from Cordova Plane Crash

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

The body of an Oklahoma man missing from a plane crash, last week, has been found.  The man was a passenger in the aircraft when it went down 90 miles southeast of Cordova.

Fast Ferry Fairweather Out Until September

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

The fast ferry Fairweather will be out of service until early September.

The ship has been tied up in Juneau since a small oil leak was discovered Thursday evening in one of its four water jets, which power the ship.

Officials hoped to weld a temporary patch and return to service by Thursday. Further repairs would have taken place during a scheduled October overhaul.

But Captain Mike Neussl, who runs the ferry system, says that won’t work.

“Now the plan is to do the ultimate plan, which is to take the vessel to Ketchikan, drydock it, remove the water jet and repair it outside the vessel with a factory-approved permanent repair. That does involve welding and grinding back to original specifications, not just welding a plate over the pinhole that is in there,” he says.

Neussl says the Juneau-based Fairweather will be out until September 3rd. Ferry staff are looking at alternatives for Sitka, which gets five sailings a week. One option would add staff to the ferry LeConte, so it could run a longer schedule.

They’re also considering options for its two weekly Petersburg sailings, which have attracted less traffic.

The Fairweather will sail to Ketchikan’s Alaska Ship and Drydock under its own power. Neussl says it can operate on three engines.

“Obviously, we can’t be leaking oil all the way down there. If there’s oil in the system and it’s pressurized it’s going to leak. So basically we’ve got to vacate all the oil out of the system and not operate that No. 4 engine on the way down to Ketchikan to get it to the drydock,” he says.

He says about five quarts of oil leaked last week before the hole was discovered. It was cleaned up.

Neussl says the leak is not connected to ongoing engine problems that threaten to sideline the Fairweather and its sister ship, the Chenega.

Those problems are the subject of a lawsuit against the engine manufacturer and ship builder.
The fast ferries each carry up to 250 passengers and 36 vehicles.