Alaska News Nightly: December 14, 2011

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Norton Sound Health Aides Prepare To Go On Strike

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Health Aides in 15 communities across the Norton Sound are set to go on strike Monday if a dispute with hospital administration is not resolved. They say administrators are instituting unfair labor practices and ultimately causing harm to their health, and their ability to care for patients.

Behavior Risk Survey Moving Work Out-of-State

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Department of Health and Social Services is carrying though with plans to close the office that gathers raw data for its annual Behavior Risk Survey.  The Survey, which began in 1991, is an analysis of health-related activities of the adults in the state – pointing out lifestyle choices and activities that would impact health.   The anonymous surveys ask telephone respondents about such things as smoking, alcohol use, dietary habits and exercise. Working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and all 50 states, the Department’s spokesman Greg Wilkinson says the information is used to determine what needs to be done to improve public health.

Alaska Soldier Dies in Virginia Helicopter Accident

Associated Press

An Alaska man is one of the fatalities in a helicopter accident that took four lives.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord has released the names of the four Army aviators killed when two helicopters crashed during training at the Washington Army base.

They are Capt. Anne M. Montgomery, a native of North Dakota; Chief Warrant Officer Frank A. Buoniconti, a native of Colorado; Chief Warrant Officer Joseph S. Satterfield, a native of Alaska; and Chief Warrant Officer Lucas Daniel Sigfrid, a native of Alabama.

An investigation into the cause of the accident by a team from Fort Rucker, Ala., began Wednesday. Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield says the investigation could take as long as a year.

Congress Wrestles With Payroll Tax Holiday Funding

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Democrats and Republicans are wrestling over how to pay for continuing the payroll tax holiday that’s been in affect this year.  Tuesday night, the Republican-led U.S. House led passed their version of a bill that carries the tax cut over into next year, indicating that both sides of the aisle want to keep it on the books.  Democrats have been pushing to extend the tax break, saying it helps middle class Americans.  But there’s no agreement on the way to do it.

Republicans loaded their bill with add-ons that some Democrats oppose.  And Democrats are balking at the way Republicans would pay for the tax cut.

Alaska Congressman Don Young joined most of his Republican colleagues in voting for the bill which passed 234 to 193.  All but 10 Democrats voted against it.  They don’t like that it would be paid for by increasing Medicare premiums, shortening the amount of time America’s jobless could claim unemployment insurance, and continuing a freeze on federal workers’ pay.

Those are deal-breakers for Democratic Senator Mark Begich.  He’s long been a supporter of continuing the payroll tax cut, which affects 400,000 Alaskans.

“On average when you look at it, a family under $50,000 in income, not putting that money in the black hole of the federal government I think is a good thing.  So I think there’s a lot of opportunity on this one, it’s just tweaking through the pay fors,” Begich said.

Democrats have proposed paying for the payroll tax break by raising taxes on millionaires, but on Wednesday  leadership admitted they might have to drop that plan.

Another sticking point is that Republicans inserted in their bill language that would fast-track the proposed Keystone X-L oil pipeline extension from Canada down to the Lower 48.  Many Democrats don’t like that, but Senator Begich is supportive of moving the project forward and his office says that’s not a problem.

The hang-up over how to pay for the payroll tax cut is clogging up the rest of what Congress has to accomplish before it leaves for the winter holiday.  They have to pass a massive spending bill or the government will shut down this weekend.  Leaders of both parties say they’re close to agreement on the 1 trillion dollar spending bill, but they’re waiting to get the payroll tax cut plan hammered out first.

Popular Beach May Have High Mercury Levels

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A popular Juneau recreation area is being checked for mercury contamination. Preliminary tests of Sandy Beach, on Douglas Island, show high levels, most likely from a long-closed mine nearby. But officials say there’s no need to stay away.

Ft. Wainwright Losing 62 Civilian Jobs

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fort Wainwright will lose up to 62 civilian jobs in the coming year as part of the Army’s share of cutbacks intended to reduce federal spending and the nation’s budget deficit.

National Group Supports ANWR Development

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

One of the largest bipartisan groups of state elected officials will campaign in favor of petroleum development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The National Conference of State Legislatures this month approved a resolution supporting the opening of ANWR – making it part of the groups’ national policy and adding its input to the issue if it comes before the federal government.

Chenault Speaks On Alaska Gas Line Project

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The speaker of the State House does not have encouraging news on prospects for an Alaska gas pipeline.  In an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Speaker Mike Chenault of Kenai said the state is bound by the AGIA contract with Trans Canada and Exxon Mobil and cannot pursue another large diameter gas line without facing triple damages.

Chenault sponsored a bill that funded state investigation of a small diameter in state line that fits under a volume cap in AGIA, but told chamber members there are other obstacles to any pipeline project.

Chenault said the state should not invest billions in an Alaska gas line without confirmed gas sellers and buyers. Chenault said a North Slope gas supply is a problem, and the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission would not approve gas export if the state had a pipeline ready right now.

Gas is currently re-injected to increase pressure and oil output from the Prudhoe Bay reservoir.

Chenault said nearby Pt. Thompson holds great prospect for gas, but it’s unclear until further exploration takes place how much oil or high value gas condensate would have to be developed there before gas could be pumped out. Chenault says he will continue to push for the in state North Slope to Southcentral line being pursued by the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, but is not turning his back on the AGIA export line to Canada.

Big Chunk Super Project Near Pebble Deposit

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The Pebble Mine is the most talked about and controversial proposed mining project in Southwest Alaska but it’s not the only project being looked at.

But for several years a handful of companies have also been exploring for a mineral resource in the areas around and near the Pebble Deposit.

One of those companies is Liberty Star Uranium and Metals Corporation which has the rights to develop what it is calling the Big Chunk Super Project. The company is reviewing a new technical report on the resource.

Subsistence-Only Herring Zones Proposals Fail in Sitka

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

Two proposals to establish subsistence-only zones for herring in Sitka Sound failed to win recommendation from the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee in a contentious meeting last week.

Subsistence harvesters say the commercial seine fishery is having a negative effect on their ability to gather herring eggs on hemlock branches, which is a traditional food for Southeast Natives.

Every three years, the state Board of Fish reviews how herring are managed. When the board meets in February, it will consider some proposals designed to address the conflict between subsistence users and seiners, and find some compromise.

But if testimony at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee is any indication, compromise will not be easy.