Alaska News Nightly: September 14, 2011

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Native Organization Seeks Supreme Court Review on Contract Payment Disputes

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Arctic Slope Native Association is waiting to hear whether the U.S. Supreme court will review a case involving underfunded contract payments between tribally ran medical facilities and the Indian Health Service. At issue are two circuit court decisions that are in direct opposition. The 10th Circuit court in Denver found earlier this spring in a similar lawsuit over nonpayment of IHS contracts, that a government contractor that has satisfied its contract but is not fully paid, should have legal remedy against the government. The DC Federal Circuit court disagreed, essentially saying, if the federal government does not pay its bills, contractors can’t sue for damages. Attorney Lloyd Miller is handling the case for the Arctic Slope Native Association or ANSA. He says the IHS never asks congress for enough money to fully fund the contracts they award to tribes. For fiscal year 2012, IHS has contracted for $615 million but is seeking $465 million in appropriations.

“That’s not right, they know it, they know what’s going on, the president in the president’s budget, they tell congress straight up, in an honest way, we know this is not enough, we know the total requirement is $615 million, we also know that we’re not requesting $615 million and then they ask for congresses blessing to pay less. This is nuts,” Miller said.

Although Miller says that tribes are the only federal contractors that get short funded, other businesses that contract with the federal government are worried about the conflicting decisions. So much so that the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and the National Defense Industrial Association have filed briefs supporting ANSA’s Supreme court request seeking clarity. Miller says it’s unusual for support briefs to be filed before the court has even agreed to hear the case, but he says it’s an indication of how worried government contractors nationwide are about what the decision could be.

“Because the Federal circuit, that made the decision we’re talking about is the circuit that hears almost all government contract appeals. So if that court got it wrong, as the contractors are concerned they did, it means a whole new regime for government contractors in the country and that’s not an acceptable outcome for them,” Miller said.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was in Alaska last month. When asked about IHS contract underfunding, she said historically that has been the case, contract services have not been adequately funded.

“And I think there’s no question that the US, historically has never lived up to its treaty agreements. What has happened in this administration is a significant effort to close that gap. We’re still not there,” Sebelius said.

But she says progress has been made, pointing to IHS funding increases each year since she’s been secretary, even as other agencies have been cut. When asked why congressional requests are less than the contracts the agency has committed to, she says it’s because of the gap that has been in place.

“It still doesn’t meet, there was such a huge unmet need, so it’s one of the agencies out of the 11 under the umbrella of health and human services that has had an increase, all three years, but that increase is not enough to make up the historic gap. We’re trying to make up for a lot of lost time,” Sebelius said.

Attorney Lloyd Miller says if the government is running out of money with other federal contractors, such as defense businesses who provide food services or security, they ask congress for a supplemental appropriation. He says this is what should happen with the tribal organizations that are running hospitals in Oklahoma or Alaska.

“But the government never does it, not once in 25 years has the government gone to congress and requested a supplemental appropriation to pay the contracts in full. Not once,” Miller said.

Officials with the Arctic Slope Native Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It will likely be October before Supreme Court justices announce whether they will review the case where two different courts of appeals have come to two diametrically opposed answers on the same question.

Walruses Hauling Out Near Point Lay Again

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Walruses are hauled out near Point Lay in huge numbers again. Federal scientists estimate tens of thousands of animals came to shore in Alaska in late August as the sea ice retreated. It’s the fourth year since 2007 Walruses have hauled out in the US. But their behavior this year has been a bit different.

Stryker Brigade Commander Expresses Condolences For Soldiers Killed, Injured in Afghanistan

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The commander of Ft. Wainwright Stryker Brigade is expressing condolences for soldiers killed and injured in Afghanistan, but says the unit is making progress.  Colonel Todd Wood spoke with reporters via teleconference from Afghanistan yesterday. The press conference followed news of another Stryker soldier death, the 12th to be killed since the 4,000 member unit deployed in April.  Colonel Wood says despite the losses, brigade morale remains strong.

Wood says the Strykers have moved from Zabul Province to Kandahar Province since arriving in southern Afghanistan.  They are nearing the end of the summer fighting season in a rural agricultural region. Wood says Taliban fighters do not engage Stryker soldiers and their Afghan counterparts in battle, and rely instead on IED attacks.

Other IEDs blow up when driven over by vehicles. The explosions have taken a deadly toll on the Stryker Brigade but Wood says many incidents have been averted.

Wood says the Stryker’s mission is security focused and involves working alongside and training Afghan Army and police, both of which have taken on more leadership in preparation for the drawdown of U.S. forces.

Over 90,000 Alaskans Seek Assistance from Food Pantries

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Over 90,000 Alaskans sought food assistance for food pantries, soup kitchens in 2010.  Some only once, but the vast majority more than once, sometimes in the same week.   KSKA’s Len Anderson has more on efforts to help with the increasing numbers of food-short Alaskans.

Metlakatla Fisheries Certified as Sustainable

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Metlakatla’s fishery has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. That should help the southern Southeast community maintain salmon sales overseas. It’s the first tribal fishery to earn the certification.

Exploratory Drilling Underway to Map Out Gold at Herbert Glacier

Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau

A pair of Vancouver-based mining companies in a joint venture to explore the Herbert Glacier area say they’ve found high-grade concentrations of gold.

Assays of test drilling showed gold concentrations averaging 1.08 ounces per ton. Some samples came back as high as 4.14 to 6.63 ounces per ton. Initial assays were announced last month with updated results released on Tuesday.

Ian Klassen, President and Director of Grande Portage Resources Incorporated, says they did some modest drilling last year with fourteen holes down to over 900 feet. Twenty-two holes have been drilled so far this summer. Klassen says they’ve identified what he calls multi-ounce intersects in at least two of the five vein systems in the area.

“We’re very pleased with some of the results we’ve been getting,” said Klassen.

Herbert Glacier, 18-miles north of downtown Juneau, is in the middle of the historic Juneau mining district, with Kensington Mine currently operating 25-miles to the north and Greens Creek Mine about 12-miles to the west.

Klassen says they plan to meet with their field geologists this weekend to determine future plans – such as further exploration. He says it’s way too early to come up with a reliable resource estimate.

In late 2007, Vancouver-based Quaterra Resources acquired the 1700 acre property with 84 federal mining claims either staked or leased from three local prospectors. There are at least four to five significant veins that strike east-to-west and dip sharply to the north. One of the veins was described as being discovered in the 1980’s when glacial ice receded. Information provided by Quaterra showed varying amounts of gold found during exploratory drilling by Tenneco Minerals and Echo Bay Mines in the late eighties.

Quaterra President and CEO Thomas Patton is currently unavailable for comment. But his firm partnered with Grande Portage in June, 2010 for exploration and development of Herbert Glacier. Grande Portage’s Ian Klassen says they’ve committed to spending $1.25 million in exploration costs before June, 2012 in exchange for a 65 percent interest in the project.

“It just was the right place, right time and an opportunity for us when we were looking for an added portfolio to work with that we struck a deal to go forward,” said Klassen. “We’re pleased we’ve done so.”

Grande Portage is also developing the Merry Widow Group on Vancouver Island and the Pass Property in British Columbia. Quaterra either owns or is a partner in nine other mining projects from Montana to central Mexico.

‘Climate Change Reality Project’ Heading to Kotzebue

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Kotzebue is one of 24 sites around the world featured in a 24 hour event today to raise awareness about climate change. Former Vice President Al Gore founded the Climate Reality Project as a global campaign to mobilize people to help solve the climate crisis. 24 presenters will give speeches on climate change in each time zone around the globe.

Larry Schweiger, President of the National Wildlife Federation will give the talk in Kotzebue at 7pm Alaska time. He says he’ll focus on the startling number of extreme weather events that have struck the U.S. in the last year.

Schweiger knows there are a lot of climate change skeptics in the U.S. And he acknowledges it may be impossible to convert a small segment of population that adamantly believes human caused climate change does not exist. But he thinks events like the Climate Reality Project can have a big impact on average Americans.

The Climate Reality Project speeches start out in Mexico City this evening and wrap around the globe to finish up with a talk from Al Gore in New York City tomorrow. Other sites include Auckland, Jakarta, Seoul, Dubai and Bejing.

Family Embarking on Odyssey Across Malaspina Glacier

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

A family of Kachemak Bay adventurers is at it again. After hiking and packrafting the Chuckchi Sea and the Northwest Arctic last year, Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick are departing their comfy little yurt outside Seldovia again – this time for a two-month odyssey across Malaspina Glacier in Southeast Alaska.