Alaska News Nightly: September 30, 2011

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio

Trial Begins for Men Accused of Torturing, Killing Hooper Bay Man

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A jury in the Western Alaska city of Bethel is hearing a high profile murder case today.  Two men stand accused of torturing and killing 19-year-old Benjamin Kaiser of Hooper Bay last October. One is 47-year-old Jeffery Hout of Bethel, the other is 33-year-old Harry Williams of Bethel.

Coast Guard Intercepts Vessel Suspected of Illegal Drift Netting

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

A stateless fishing vessel suspected of illegally drift-netting in high seas is being escorted into Dutch Harbor this weekend.  The Coast Guard intercepted the Bangun Perkasa in mid-September.

The crew initially tried to cut their nets and flee when spotted by a patrolling Coast Guard helicopter and once boarded, they falsely claimed the vessel was registered in Indonesia.  The boarding team discovered 10 miles of drift net, 30 tons of squid and 30 shark carcasses onboard the Perkasa.  High  seas drift-netting is banned by the United Nations.  Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis says it’s harmful for ocean ecosystems.

Usually illegal fishing vessels are sent back to their home countries, but stateless vessels have to be seized and escorted to a U.S. port.  In the Perkasa’s case, this poses a problem because in addition to its illegal catch, the boat is carrying rats.  Because of the danger rats pose to the Aleutian ecosystem, the Coast Guard is holding the boat outside state waters until all of the rodents are exterminated.

Once in port, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement will assess the boat’s catch to determine criminal and civil liability.  Vessels fishing illegally face criminal penalties of up to $100,000 and civil penalties of up to $25,000.

All 22 crewmembers will remain onboard the Perkasa until Customs and Border Protection can determine their countries of origin.  They speak five different languages, but it is unclear whether they have any official documentation.  The crew will also be questioned about whether they were working with other vessels and who is financing and profiting from the illegal fishing.

It has been at least five years since the Coast Guard intercepted a pirate vessel of this kind.

Rare Earth Meeting Draws Large Crowd

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A meeting on rare earth minerals drew a big crowd in Fairbanks on Friday.  The state sponsored Strategic and Critical Minerals Summit brought together government, industry and research officials to discuss Alaska’s rare earth potential.  The minerals are in high demand by technology industries for making everything from batteries to sensors and other electronic components. China currently controls the market, but Alaska is one of the other places with rare earths, and Governor Sean Parnell told the 250 conference attendees, the state wants to compete.

The state is spending millions of dollars to survey and catalogue rare earth mineralization sites in Alaska.  There are 70 known already, including Mt. Prindle, north of Fairbanks and Bokan Mountain, near Ketchikan.  The Bokan prospect, which is being investigated by a private company, contains dysprosium, a metal used in the making of electronic parts in high demand by the auto industry.  Jack Lifton of Illinois based Technology Metals Research, and an authority on rare earth metals, urged Alaska to compete with China, which is holding back its dysprosium.  Lifton laid out a plan by which Alaska could develop an in state rare earth industry with the resource at Bokan Mountain.

Lifton stressed the importance of developing a complete industry, from mining to processing and manufacturing of electronic components.

Mat-Su Elections Take Place October 4

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Wasilla city elections are set for October 4.  Four candidates are vying for the mayor’s seat in the bustling city in the Matanuska Valley.  Incumbent Vern Rupright is running for a second term.  He’s being challenged by Taffina Katkus, Michael Carson and Dianne Woodruff.  Wasilla city voters also must fill two City Council seats.

In Palmer, city voters will decide on a $2 million water utility bond, and select two city council members from three candidates.

Alaska Delegation Asks for Eielson Fines to be Dropped

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska’s congressional delegation has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop a fine against Eielson Air Force Base.  As KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports the delegation is requesting more time for base officials to address issues at Eielson’s aging coal fired power plant.

NANA Announces Shareholder Dividend

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Thursday, NANA Regional Corporation announced a per share dividend of $14.70.

Last year’s dividend was slightly over $12 a share.

NRC has 12,700 shareholders and is based in Northwest Alaska.  NRC will distribute the dividends in mid November.

Tlingit, Haida Get Federal Funds to Expand Tribal Court

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The U.S. Justice Department has awarded the Tlingit and Haida Central Council nearly $900,000 to expand tribal court services.

Currently, the court hears paternity and child support cases involving tribal members. Attorney Jessie Archibald with Tlingit and Haida’s Child Support Unit says the grant will eventually allow the court to hear domestic violence cases.

The Central Council was one of 20 Alaska Native organizations to receive a grant under the Justice Department’s Coordinated Tribal Assistance program this year.

Archibald says the council’s Judiciary Committee will use the money to develop codes governing family violence cases, and work on a cooperative justice agreement with the State of Alaska. Funds will also be used to update court computers and develop a video conferencing system.

Eddie Brakes, Manager of Tlingit and Haida’s Tribal Child Support Unit, says the goal is to offer a more “holistic” approach to tribal member victims of domestic abuse.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is the sovereign tribal government for more than 27,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide. Its judicial branch includes three elected judges and a magistrate.

Earlier this year, the Alaska Supreme Court recognized tribal court authority in child welfare cases in its decision in the case State of Alaska vs. Native Village of Tanana.

Road, Line Work Starts at Reynolds Creek Hydroproject

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Haida Energy is starting to build Prince of Wales Island’s next hydropower plant. But it still needs more funding.

The Reynolds Creek hydroproject has long been a dream of the Haida village Native corporation, based in Hydaburg.

Project manager Corry Hildenbrand says that dream is close to becoming reality.

“We are on the ground. Durrett Construction is moving in with their barge. We awarded early in September. And we’ve got 9 to 11 weeks of work, so hopefully the weather will cooperate and we’ll get this first phase of work done,” he says.

Reynolds Creek is about 10 miles from Hydaburg, which is about 25 miles southeast of Craig. It’s being developed by Haida Energy, a joint venture of the Haida Corporation, and APT, the Alaska Power and Telephone Company.

Its powerhouse and small dam will feed electricity into Prince of Wales Island’s grid, eliminating the use of high-cost diesel generators.

Hildenbrand, speaking at the Rural Alaska Energy Conference in Juneau, says there’s a long list of projects for this fall.

“Repairing the roads, building a road into the powerhouse site, building a road into the dam site so we can do our geotech investigations confirming what we have for foundation conditions. APT is also starting construction of the transmission line from Hydaburg out toward Deer Bay. The turbine generation is very close to being on order. And then we’ll be moving into final design based on our geotech work this fall,” he says.

The project’s power is expected to cost 11 or 12 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Its overall cost is estimated at $28 million, paid for by a mix of grants, loans and backing from its developers.

Alvin Edenshaw of the Haida Corporation says that’s more than they have.

“Along the way, since 2000 and 2006, the cost has gone up. So we’ve gone back to the state and we are in the process right now with the Alaska Energy Authority and AIDA to develop another $9 million loan to bring our project on line,” he says. (Read a letter about Reynolds Creek from Edenshaw to shareholders.)

Haida Energy is also looking for ways to save money.

One approach is to change its Fish and Game Department permit. It requires what’s called a rotating drum fish screen to keep grayling out of the turbine. Hildenbrand says the fish were stocked and are not native to the area.

“So we’re looking to mitigate the cost of that fish screen and the possible operation problems with some outside mitigation funds so they can go ahead and perhaps in Hydaburg enhance some of the fisheries streams that have been damaged over history,” he says.

He says the screen costs about three-quarters of a million dollars.

Developers hope to have the hydroproject complete and producing electricity in 2014.

AK: Music Education

Emily Schwing, APRN Contribution

A little known, but long running program is teaching music in villages across Alaska.  Earlier this year, teachers with “Dancing with the Spirit” were in Eagle. The program aims to prevent suicide and substance abuse in villages, but it’s also bringing communities together.

300: Whittier and Koyukuk

Now its time for our weekly trip around the state. First, we’ll drop in on Whittier- the tunnel accessed community on the west side of Prince William Sound. Then its north to the interior village of Koyukuk, on the Yukon River.

That was Dyanna Barnes in Whittier and Katherine Folger in Koyukuk.