Alaska News Nightly: September 7, 2011

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Congress Reconvenes After Five-Week Recess

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

As Congress comes back to work after a five-week recess, the White House is going on the offensive, pushing lawmakers to pass what’s normally routine legislation instead of getting tied up in politics.

But, the Alaskans in DC say this is a time of unparalleled gridlock, and they’re looking to the  White House to lead.

At the end of this month, the federal Transportation Department loses its authorization to collect money and spend out new funds on highways, bridges, and transit projects.  The White House wants to see Congress extend it – as it typically does.  But Obama Administration officials like Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari says there’s a risk Congress could get log jammed by partisan disagreements.

“We’re appealing directly to the American people.  Because the first rule of economic development is you hold on to the jobs that you have.  There have always been philosophical and substantive issues on transportation, always dealt with in a bipartisan way. We think it can be done this time too,” Porcari said.

Porcari says what’s spooking the White House is the stalemate that happened last month over reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.  Congress left town without dealing with it, leading to a partial shutdown of the FAA that halted construction projects and put federal workers and construction contractors out of a job.
A short term fix was eventually found, but Porcari says it signaled a new game of chicken.

“What’s different between then and now is what we saw in the FAA bill, which is, what had been routine extensions in the past as in the case of the FAA bill was held up because of ideological issues. That is a sea change,” Porcari said.

The White House says if the Surface Transportation funding isn’t extended when it runs out later this month, it could jeopardize more than 8,500 jobs in Alaska and more than 1,100 highway and transit projects in the state.  But John Katz, director of the Alaska Governor’s office in Washington, follows these issues closely and isn’t overly concerned.

“At this point we don’t see much push back in Congress to the idea of a clean and simple extension of existing transportation law,” Katz said.

Katz says transportation extensions aren’t usually partisan, but he admits that he’s seeing an unparalleled level of bickering and brinksmanship.

“I’ve been involved in public policy at the federal and state levels for almost 43 years and never in that period of time have I seen the kind of partisanship and other dynamics which exist now,” Katz said.

Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski agree with Katz that the mood in Washington threatens to hold up important action. Senator Begich says it’s going to be a grinding few months as Congress tries to rise above partisan gridlock and tackle issues.
“So I do think it’s going to be piece by piece, and then they’re all going to clutter up at the end and then collide into a result of some sort.  It’s like a whole bunch of meteors falling at one time. The question is will they hit at one place, or scatter all over.  I don’t know,” Begich said.

Begich says the big focus of the coming weeks will be on jobs. And he says President Obama needs to hit a home run Thursday night in his jobs address to Congress.

Senator Lisa Murkowski says passing routine legislation and extending things like the transportation bill and the FAA should happen – especially as a way to keep jobs already in place.  She wants to hear concrete plans from the President Thursday night.

“It would be helpful if the President would actually announce something that would actually help to incent job creation.  I am, based on the press reports to this point in time, I’m really not anticipating that we’re going to see anything or hear anything new. I’d like to be proved wrong on it,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski has harsh words for the President, who she says has failed to lead on jobs. But the Senator says Congress holds some of the blame, too.

Both of Alaska’s Senators plan to attend the President’s speech Thursday night. Congressman Don Young is not back in Washington yet even though the House returned to work Wednesday.

His office says he’s in Alaska through the week and will be back in the Capitol soon.

Highways, Bridges and Ferries Top STIP Priority List

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Dangerous highways, old bridges and the Alaska Class ferry top the Alaska Statewide Transportation Improvement Program for the next four years.

The STIP is Alaska’s list of priority state and local projects from 2012 through 2015 eligible for partial or full federal funding.  The Federal Highway Administration requires all state transportation departments to put together a STIP.

Arctic Ocean Sea Ice Withdrawing at Record Pace

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is nearly finished with its seasonal melting.  Soon the onset of longer nights will begin freezing it up again.  But by the time it is over, this year’s sea ice withdrawal may be a record.

Miner Dies in Kensington Gold Mine Accident

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

A miner has been killed in an underground accident at the Kensington Gold Mine.

Coeur Alaska is withholding the victim’s name at this time.

Company spokeswoman Jan Trigg says the company is investigating the accident and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been notified.

An emergency response team is located at the mine, which is about 45 miles northwest of Juneau.

This is the first Kensington fatality since the mine opened in June 2010.

Home Owners Voice Concerns Over Usibelli Mining Project

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The contentious issue of coal development held the floor at a packed Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly meeting in Palmer Tuesday night. Home owners in the vicinity of a proposed Usibelli mining project were not shy about airing their views before the panel.

Numbers Promising for Proposed Livengood Gold Mine

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The latest numbers show promise for a proposed major gold mine at Livengood. The Canadian company International Tower Hill is in the early stages of studying the open pit mine, but a Preliminary Economic Assessment was issued late last month. Project Manager Karl Hanneman says the document contains numbers that bode well for the Livengood mine.

Hanneman says it’s estimated that 16 million ounces of gold could be recovered at a mine that would surpass Ft. Knox as Alaska’s largest surface gold mine. Operating costs are currently estimated at about $550 per ounce.  That does not include debt service on construction investment, but with gold at $1,800 dollars an ounce, Hanneman calls the economics robust.

It’s estimated that Livengood would employ more than 1,000 during construction and about 400 during operation.   Hanneman lays out an upcoming four to five year time frame during which additional studies and permitting will determine whether the project moves ahead.

NOAA Releases 2010 Seafood Landing Port Rankings

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

NOAA Fisheries released the 2010 port rankings for seafood landings on Wednesday. Dutch Harbor-Unalaska is once again at the top of the list in terms of tonnage, with 515.2 million pounds crossing the docks. Reedville, Virginia was number two, 89-million pounds behind. Kodiak was number five, with 325.3 million pounds landed. Cordova was eighth at 147.7 million. Other Alaska towns in the top 20 were Naknek, Ketchikan, Seward, Sitka and Petersburg.

New Bedford, Mass., which was ninth in poundage, was on top by far, in terms of value, with a catch worth $306-million. Dutch was second at $163.1-million, followed by Kodiak at $128.1-million,

Coast Guard Shows Off New Station Juneau Response Boat

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The U.S. Coast Guard are getting new response boats. The vessels are 45 feet long aluminum hulled, sporting twin diesel engines with water jet propulsion. Station Juneau recently got one of the new boats. Another is scheduled to arrive next month.

As far as Coast Guard assets go, Petty Officer Joe Baxter says nothing beats the style, class and comfort of the new medium response boats.

“Crew accommodations, we have an actual toilet, marine toilet (a head), and we’ve got a microwave, a sink, creature comforts that were never on any other Coast Guard boat this size,” Baxter said.

The 45-footers are replacing a fleet of 41-foot response boats used at Coast Guard stations nationwide. Station Juneau hasn’t had one in over a decade, using a 47-foot motor life boat instead. For the newer vessels, Baxter says the Coast Guard made sure to get input from medium response boat crews during the design phase.

“They did an excellent job getting operators on the boat taking recommendations and applying those recommendations,” he said. “So, we sit on this boat, things are where we want them as an operator.”

Response boats are primarily used for Coast Guard legacy missions like search and rescue and fisheries and law enforcement. With twin 825 horse power engines, the new vessels can really fly. Top speed is 40 knots, or about 40 miles per hour.

“So we can get on scene a lot quicker,” Baxter said.

Of course, there are some major changes. A lot of the older boats in the Coast Guard fleet use outboard engines, but the new ones have a water jet propulsion system. Petty Officer Phillip Ketcheson says that means learning a new steering method.

“The direction you turn the outboard is the direction your stern will go. This is now the opposite. So rather than, we’ve taught the guys backing down, you kind of stare at your stern. On this boat, we’re teaching them to drive the bow. So wherever you turn your nozzle is the direction the bow is now going to go,” Ketcheson said.

The new medium response boats have been in the works for about 10 years. The Coast Guard ordered 180 of them. The first one was delivered to Station Little Creek Virginia in 2008. Each one costs about $2 million. When the second one arrives in Juneau in October, it will be based at Auke Bay. The new response boat that’s already here is stationed downtown.

Petersburg Landslide Repaired

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

The City of Petersburg has just about finished fixing its collapsed hillside along downtown Hammer Slough. It’s also removed the huge pile of debris that settled in the creek after last month’s landslide. The work cost less than expected and much of it will be covered by the federal government. The City Council got an update from the City Manager Tuesday night.