Alaska News Nightly: October 26, 2011

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Experts Puzzling Over Mysterious Seal, Walrus Disease

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Experts in the U.S. and Canada are still puzzling over what’s sickening ringed seals and walrus in the Arctic. Dozens of seals have died from the mysterious disease. A small percentage of walrus are ill with something that looks very similar, but no walrus deaths have been tied to the disease. Several labs in the U.S. and Canada have been unable to figure out what’s causing the illness in both species.

Veterans Speak of VA Struggles

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

During the AFN convention in Anchorage over the weekend, Alaska’s U.S. senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski brought together officials from both the federal and state Veterans Administration to conduct a Native Veteran’s listening session. The senators were joined by the deputy undersecretary of the VA John Garcia. He said the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki is committed to bringing the VA into the 21st century, using technology for outreach, health care and education.

Verdie Bowen is the administrator for the office of Veterans Affairs in Alaska, he said beginning this week, the VA will be going village to village across Alaska to make sure every territorial guardsman has a discharge document. He says this is important to insure that the military records facility in St Louis Missouri has those documents forever.

And then the flood gate of stories opened and for the next hour, veterans told of struggles with getting VA services because of bureaucracy and because most of those VA services are available only in major hubs or cities like Anchorage making it expensive and difficult for vets in rural Alaska.

A veteran named George from Nome said he’d traveled the country and at one time thought the VA services in Washington DC were the worst in the country, but now he said, Anchorage has that distinction for him. He told of flying from Nome for an appointment at the VA hospital, misplacing his VA card and being refused service, even though he was clearly in their system.

He said he would not go back until he got an apology. It came quickly as Alex Spector, the Director of the Alaska VA health care system immediately stood up.

Another veteran tearfully tried to tell of being denied disability benefits for years, finally getting them, only to be told three years later that he suddenly owed the VA $24,000. He was so distraught he could not continue speaking. Another veteran Terresa said after serving in the Middle East she became sick and finally was diagnosed with cancer. She fell behind on her mortgage payments and although the bank didn’t work with her, she said the VA loan servicing center in Denver told her a loan modification program was in the works for her.

She said the home still sits empty. The Senators listened and staff took names and information from the veterans. Senator Begich said the benefits Veterans earn must be delivered to them at the highest level possible.

Journal of Commerce Investigates Executive Pay

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Investigative reports usually get a lot of attention from the public and in the media. But an investigation of executive pay in the Community Development Quota program that was published in August 2010 in the Alaska Journal of Commerce seemed to slip under the radar.

The CDQ program was established in 1992 to help create economic activity in 65 Western Alaska Villages. But reporter Andrew Jensen found exorbitant pay for executives at the Coastal Villages Region Fund. For example, CEO Morgen Crow earned $800,000 a year in salary, bonuses and benefits for 2009.

And Jensen found that compensation for the top three executives at Coastal Villages increased last year.

Alaska Ranks First in Per Capita Gun Deaths

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

Alaska is the number one state in the nation for per capita gun death rates. That’s according to a study done by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization.

CDC Weighs in on Particulate Pollution Health Effects

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has weighed in on health effects of fine particulate pollution.  Atlanta based CDC officials were in Fairbanks last night for an air quality forum.  CDC Chief of air pollution and respiratory health Paul Garbe says cardiac problems are the best known impact.

Garbe, who manages the CDC’s National Asthma Control program, says asthma is another disease which fine particulates effect.

Garbe says it’s unknown if the tiny particles, like those in the wood smoke that fouls Fairbanks area during extreme cold, cause asthma, but says health concerns are not restricted to the acute.

Garbe and the CDC’s Rachel Kossover were among speakers at the state and borough sponsored forum in Fairbanks.  The presentation included previously released data from a study Kossover conducted when she worked for the state department of health.  It shows increased emergency room visits for heart and respiratory problems when Fairbanks air violates the EPA fine particulate pollution standards.

‘Occupy Fairbanks’ Protestors Unable to Camp in Veteran’s Memorial Park

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fairbanks Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins has told members of the Occupy Fairbanks group they can’t camp out in Veteran’s Memorial Park.  Members of the local group have been staying at the downtown park for more than a week in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Mayor Hopkins says borough attorneys informed him the group is violating local code.

A few Occupy Fairbanks protestors have been camping overnight in the gazebo at the Veterans Park since October 17th, following a downtown march by a much larger group.  Fairbanks police initially ordered them out, but the protesters were granted reprieve while local officials conferred.  David Leslie, a UAF student with Occupy Fairbanks, says the group is not out to break the law.

Leslie says the group met last night and decided to maintain a vigil at the park, but no one will be sleeping there.

New News Blog Emerges in Unalaska

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

When Alaska Newspapers Incorporated went under, many residents in rural Alaska worried that it would be harder to get local news. Now, one man in Unalaska has decided to do something about this.