Alaska News Nightly: November 2, 2011

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State Looks for Coastal Management Alternative

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Parnell administration is still looking for a way to replace the work done by the Alaska Coastal Management Program before it was forced to close at the end of June.   The program was involved in getting permits for development projects in Coastal areas by acting to coordinate local, state and federal requirements.

The State’s Director of Oil and Gas,  Bill Barron, told the House Resources Committee this week that working through a series of permitting issues was an impediment to the oil industry’s ability to put more oil into the TransAlaska Pipeline.  And, he said, since the Coastal Management Program closed,  it is the responsibility of individual companies to coordinate their work with governmental agencies at all levels.

“That may sound really fast, as an okay thing.  But that is a real issue.  It’s an issue that has come up in several of the meetings that we’ve had in the general public.  It’s a discussion that we’re ongoing right now, having with several of the operators of the companies that we’re dealing with in the DNR and the DOG,” Barron said.

The Department of Natural Resources has established a special Task Force on Permitting to come up with alternatives to the Coastal Management Program for developers.  Barron told the committee that its plans do not now include trying to re-establish the old Coastal Management system.  Instead, the task force is looking at modifying the Office of Project Management and Permitting – or O-PUMP.

“So what we’re trying to structure, recognizing that OPMP has worked very well,  is there a way we could have – for lack of a better term – O-PUMP- Lite.   Something that a smaller company can use to help coordinate that.    Is that a twist on ACMP?  Maybe.  It depends on how you slice the words,” Barron said.

Bethel Representative Bob Herron – one of those who attempted to negotiate a continuation of Coastal Management during this year’s regular and special sessions — asked Barron about the practical side of the administration’s work.

“Is OPMP-Lite going to be recognized by your federal counterparts?,” Herron asked.

Barron responded, “That’s yet to be seen.  I believe part of that is how we structure it and present it.  But we’ll find out.

Re-creating Coastal Management is the goal of a voters’ initiative that the administration is currently reviewing before allowing petitions that could put it on next year’s ballot.  Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho is one of the sponsors.  He says before the program was lost this summer, it provided state and local participation in planning and management of development.  But it was an advantage to developers, also.

“One of the great features of coastal zone management is the opportunity for basically one-stop permitting — the idea that all agencies would work together in terms of a streamlined permitting process and coordination,  which now is lacking.   And of course the second element which I think is of particular importance is that the federal government would be required to submit its plans for review,” Botelho said.

The Department of Natural Resources will be back before the Committee during the regular session.  The initiative was submitted to the Lt. Governor’s office Oct. 7. A determination is due by December sixth on whether sponsors may try to gather nearly 26,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot.

Fairbanks May Opt to Pursue Redistricting Suit

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks Borough Assembly could reverse itself again in the redistricting case. A state court response filed Wednesday has raised the possibility of another twist in a suit challenging a proposed new Alaska voter district map.

High Winds Cause Extended Power Outage on the Kenai

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Residents on the Kenai Peninsula are experiencing an unhappy start to winter weather. A powerful wind storm with gusts estimated at up to 60 miles an hour knocked out power to thousands of peninsula homes and businesses on Tuesday. Joe Gallagher is the public relations coordinator for the Homer Electric Association. He says the wind started blowing hard in the morning and outages started in the afternoon.

“And by Tuesday evening the wind intensified and by 6 pm, suddenly we were really seeing outages across the central peninsula. Talking about the Nikiski area, Kenai, Soldotna, Sterling and through Soldotna and down to Kasilof. At one point we had about 7000 homes and businesses without power on Tuesday evening,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher says the wind died down today and new outages have stopped but he says the clean up and restoration work is significant. He says there are about 100 separate outages with 4,000 homes without power Wednesday.

Gallagher says there was not any rain, icing or even much snow, but the wind knocked numerous trees down and took out power line poles.

“Broke the pole, broke the cross arms on the pole , broke the transformers on the pole. I took a ride down Holt/Lamplight, which is in Nikiski earlier this morning and there was just span after span after span of wire that is down, I saw two broken poles, a number of cross arms were damaged. This is just one road that I’m speaking about. So we have similar situations across the central peninsula that we’re going to have to deal with. So it’s going to be a very time consuming restoration effort,” Gallagher said.

Temperatures are in the 20s and 30s and Gallagher says Peninsula residents should prepare for an extended outage.

Airports Prove Vital to State Economy

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska Airports are key drivers of the state’s economy and an area for growth.  That’s the message of Deputy Commissioner of Aviation Steve Hatter. Hatter was in Fairbanks for a quarterly meeting of the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board, and also spoke to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.  Alaska is a major stopover for international air carriers.  Anchorage is among the world’s busiest cargo airports and Fairbanks is in the top 100.   Hatter says Alaska is well positioned as a refueling stop.

Hatter says major facility upgrades at Fairbanks and Anchorage airports allow for new growth, beyond just refueling.

Alaska airports are also vital in state.  A new report that looks at 12 Alaska airports, identifies Fairbanks International as a hub for more than 50 communities in Interior and Northern Alaska for freight, mail, and commuter services.  Over 2,100 Fairbanks jobs, 1 in 20 in the community, are attributed to airport related business that totals $261 million in wages, capital project and operating expenditures.

New Technology May Help Roads Resist Wear and Tear

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Most of us spend a lot of time rolling over pavement each day, but very little time thinking about it. For a team of workers at the state Department of Transportation though, it’s their job to consider the intricacies of asphalt. And this week, the state brought experts from across the country and even around the world to Anchorage to look a new ways to extend the life of Alaska’s roads.

Maintaining pavement in Alaska is not easy. 80 percent of the state is covered in permafrost. The weather is extreme. And studded tires are allowed to assault the road surface for half of each year. Mike St. Angelo is the statewide pavement engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says it all adds up to serious wear and tear.

St. Angelo says studded tires are responsible for a lot of damage. He says most states have outlawed the type of case hardened studs that are still legal in Alaska. And they are simply rough on roads, especially in high traffic areas like Anchorage.

St. Angelo says new technology from Sweden may help resist studded tire wear. It involves applying a very thin, very hard layer of rock aggregate to the top of the road surface. He says the state is always looking for ways to extend the life of the pavement.

It’s called “pavement preservation” and it’s a big focus of the Department of Transportation right now. Mike Coffey is the statewide maintenance and operations chief with the department.

Coffey says focusing on preserving pavement is a philosophy switch that transportation departments around the country are making. He says the old way could be summed up with the phrase “worst is first.” The roads with the most cracks and potholes got priority. Now the department likes to start working on roads as soon as the first cracks start forming.

Overcoming those unique challenges in Alaska is a job these pavement engineers seem to relish. And for Mike St. Angelo the ultimate goal is really a simple one.

And luckily, St. Angelo says the smoothest roads also tend to last the longest.

November is ‘Highway Safety Month’

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

November is “Highway Safety Month” in Alaska, as declared by Governor Sean Parnell.

And Tuesday in Anchorage, personnel from various state agencies met  for the release of the Alaska Strategic Traffic Safety Plan.

The plan is mandated by the federal government and must be reviewed every four years.  In 2007, the state set a goal to reduce the rate of fatalities and major injuries by one third over a decade

Still, this year so far, there have been 60 deaths on Alaska’s roadways – that’s four more than in 2010.  Pat Kemp, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, says automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 34.

The state says seatbelt use is up, and alcohol related accidents are down.  Joe Masters, Public Safety Commissioner, says there is a common factor in many accidents.

This year’s Strategic Traffic Safety Plan is focusing on three major areas.   Driver behaviors, especially young drivers; lane departure and intersection crashes,  and on special users of the transportation system, such as bicycles and motorcycles.  The goal is to reduce the number of traffic fatalities in half by the year 2030.

Industrial Solvent May Be Subject of Federal Study

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

An industrial solvent that contaminated ground water in an area of North Pole may be the subject of a federal study.  Sulfolane, has been nominated by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for study under the National Toxicology Program.  D.E.C.Environmental Health Program Acting Manager Nim Ha says the move is aimed at getting answers to questions about the health effects of sulfolane.

Ha says the state could hear whether the National Toxicology Program accepts the sufolane study nomination as early as next month.  She says any sulfolane studies would be conducted on animals. Sulfolane was first detected in ground water outside the North Pole refinery boundary in October 2009.  The contamination is traced to historic spills at the facility.  Current owner Flint Hill has provided new city wells, and offered bottled water, water tanks, filters and other fixes to people whose private wells were contaminated.

Bethel to Host New Aircraft Mechanic School

Sophie Evan, KYUK – Bethel

Bethel will soon be the home to a new aircraft mechanic school. It will be run by the Association of Village Council Presidents and is scheduled to open in September of 2012.

Catcher-Processor Endures Fire at Sea

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

When a building catches fire, the situation is scary enough. The stakes are even higher on a boat, where there’s nowhere to go and no one to fight the fire but the people on board. The 23 person crew of a Kodiak-based catcher-processor found themselves in that situation last week, while finishing a long fishing trip on the Bering Sea.