Alaska News Nightly: January 9, 2012

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Investigating Officer Recommends Dropping Charges Against Leone

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

An investigating officer has recommended dropping the charges against the sole survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash that killed three crewmen from Air Station Sitka.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of Capt. Andrew Norris’s report. Leone was charged with failing to navigate around safety hazards and with negligently causing the deaths of two of the crewmen aboard the helicopter.

Norris’s recommendation that the charges be dropped was received as good news by Leone’s family. But, the case could still proceed to a full court martial.

Accused Hoonah Shooter Declared Incompetent To Stand Trial

Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau

A Hoonah man has been declared incompetent to stand trial for the murder of two police officers nearly a year-and-a-half ago. Monday’s ruling means that a long-delayed jury trial, recently scheduled to start January 30th, will not happen anytime soon.

Cook Inlet Beluga Population Estimate Lower Than Previous Year

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

National Marine Fisheries Service scientists released the 2011 population estimate for Cook Inlet Belugas today. The current number is 284 whales, nearly 20% less than last year’s estimate of 340. But although 20% may sound like a dramatic decrease, so little seems to be known about the belugas that it’s difficult to know how significant the number may be.

Rod Hobbs works in the National Marine Mammal lab in Seattle. Hobbs designed the aerial survey that takes place in Cook Inlet each year and has been researching the Cook Inlet population of belugas for nearly two decades. He says the numbers are in a slow decline.

It’s not known why the belugas do not appear to be recovering. They are no longer hunted, but concerns about depleted food supplies, pollution from sewage and street run off from Anchorage, oil development and vessel traffic have been highlighted as adding stress to the whales. The Cook Inlet Beluga were listed as endangered in 2008 and critical habitat has been designated. There is a recovery team working on a plan to try to turn the population numbers around. In the 1980s, there were around 1300 belugas in Cook Inlet.

Cordova Braces For Another Storm

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

The weather in Cordova is better today, and locals are taking advantage of it. With the Alaska National Guard on hand, residents are working hard to shovel snow from most of the town’s public buildings. AS KCHU’s Tony Gorman reports, the city is also preparing for another big storm.

Renda Continues Slow Trip To Nome

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The Renda and Healy continue to slog through difficult ice conditions.  They were 110 miles south of Nome this afternoon. The vessels made it just 32 miles closer to Nome this weekend.  And given the tough conditions, the ships have begun to take breaks at night to allow the crews to rest up for the next day.

There is no set arrival date as the vessels move though some of the toughest ice they will encounter.  Kathleen Cole from the National Weather Service Ice Desk says the current icepack is dense and pressurized.

The Renda became lodged in ice several times throughout the weekend.  Coast Guard spokesperson Sarah Francis was aboard a C-130 flying over the vessels late last week.  She says a variety of icebreaking techniques are used with the Healy escort.

The vessels should get a bit of a break later tonight as they enter ice that’s thinner and less pressurized.

In Nome, teams from Sitnasuak and partners were double checking equipment and going over the last details of emergency plans. Jason Evans, the Sitnasuak Board Chair says State Regulators and Coast Guard personnel got a close look at the equipment and conditions for the upcoming fuel transfer.

John Kotula, the Manager of the Marine Vessels section for the DEC, says crews used the daylight hours today to get oriented with the situation at the port.

And in the air, a research team launched an unmanned aerial vehicle to photograph ice conditions near the port. The team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is helping to gather data to help chart the tanker’s final approach.

Crab Tender Runs Aground In Unalaska

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

A 180-foot crab tender ran aground in Unalaska Monday morning.

Chieftain Says No Road, No Mine

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

The company building a mine at the headwaters of the transboundary Taku River expects a new road to be completed by the end of the year. That will allow year round access to the Tulsequah Chief Mine.

The Taku is the most abundant salmon-producing river in Southeast Alaska. But Saturday, Chieftain Metals tried to reassure members of a Juneau task force concerned about the impact of the project.

First of Two Superintendent Candidates Visits Anchorage

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

The first of the two finalists for the Anchorage School District superintendent position made a three day visit to the city last week.  After his first face-to-face interview with the school board, the candidate hoping to replace retiring Carol Comeau visited schools, met Anchorage assembly members and talked to the local press.

Dupre Abandons Solo Denali Ascent

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Lonnie Dupre has abandoned his attempt of making the first January solo ascent of Denali. The veteran adventurer from Minnesota spent the weekend making his way down to base camp after 18 days on the mountain.  In an audio update posted on his website, Dupre says he spent 7 days pinned in a snow cave by high winds at 14 thousand 200 feet, and decided to abandon the climb after getting a daunting weather forecast Friday.

Dupre reports winds gusted in excess of 90 miles an hour above 17 thousand feet, and to around 80 where he was at 14 thousand and below.  Down climbing Saturday was harrowing.  Dupre says he was buffeted by 60 to 80 mile an hour winds, and nearly fell to his death on a section of the route known as Squirrel Hill.

Dupre says he was forced to face the hill and slowly down climb using crampons and ice axes to keep from being blown off the icy surface again.   Dupre worked his way down toward his 72 hundred foot base camp on the Kahiltna Galacier yesterday.  He hopes to be picked up by plane and flown back to Talkeetna before more bad weather moves in.