Alaska News Nightly: February 20, 2012

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Coast Guard Admiral Breaks Silence on Crash

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The Coast Guard admiral in charge of Alaska has broken his public silence on charges against the survivor of a helicopter crash that killed three people from Air Station Sitka.

Lt. Lance Leone faces charges that include the military equivalent of negligent homicide. It will be up to Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo to decide whether those charges proceed to a full court martial, get handled administratively, or are dropped altogether.

But Leone’s attorney says comments Ostebo made on a Juneau radio station compromise his ability to be fair in the case.

House, Senate Working to Increase School Funding

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The state House and Senate are both working on increasing funding to schools this year. But the lawmakers disagree over how to get there.

House Speaker Mike Chenault from Kenai says he believes the House and Senate are close in principle over approving an increase in funding for local schools.

But while the Senate has approved an increase of the Base Student Allocation – or BSA — over the next three years.  Chenault indicates the House is more in agreement with the governor – who opposes increasing the base amount of the appropriation.  Speaker Chenault says that type of funding adds up.

“Since 2004, the average daily membership cost of education – just in general fund dollars – has went from $6402 per kid to today averages $14,290 per kid – for a total cost of $842.7 million to 2013 at $1.8 billion,” he said.

The current BSA is only $5,680 per student. The amount Chenault refers to comes from the law setting up the formula. It adds extra money to that base for such things as students with special needs, or for costs of providing services in various, remote parts of the state. By combining money for low-cost schools, like Anchorage, with expensive schools like the Yukon-Flats district, the average cost is closer to the number Chenault uses.

Last year, the legislature did not raise the BSA.  Instead it provided extra funding specifically directed to covering the high costs of energy that school districts faced. The governor and proponents of a flat BSA say other special requirements can be met without making a commitment.

But Carl Rose, the Executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, says it all begins with the Base Student Allocation.  He says that’s the lynchpin for all the calculations of other expenses.

“The only way you can factor these things in is through the Base Student Allocation,” he said. “If you put the money anywhere else, it’s not reoccurring and we can’t function from year to year. Oh. I take that back, we will function. The buses will run and the doors will open and we will service our kids.  But we will not be able to provide the kind of opportunity and program that we expect from our schools.”

School district leaders in the capitol last week complained that they could not make plans for next year without knowing if this year’s budget will include those add-on grants – such as the energy costs of last year.

The bill increasing the BSA is currently in the House Finance Committee and is not now scheduled for hearings.

Senate Introduces Energy Voucher Bill

The Associated Press

Alaska residents would receive energy vouchers to help address high energy costs under a bill introduced in the state Senate.

SB203 would provide every adult recipient of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend this fall to receive a voucher either for 250 gallons of heating oil or an equivalent amount of natural gas, or for 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Sen. Joe Thomas, the bill’s primary sponsor, in a floor speech called for working together to solve what he called “the greatest challenge facing far too many Alaska families.”

The bill does not yet have a fiscal note detailing the cost. A $3.7 billion surplus has been projected for this year and next. Thomas (D-Fairbanks) said a goal is to use about 9 cents of every surplus dollar to provide assistance.

Girdwood Skier Survives Washington Avalanche

By Annie Feidt and The Associated Press

A Girdwood Skier survived an avalanche on Sunday that killed three other skiers in Washington. Elyse Saugstad was swept nearly 2000 feet down a steep slope in the backcountry near Stevens Pass. The four were among three groups of skiers — about a dozen people in all — making their way through a foot and a half of fresh snow when the avalanche hit. It has been reported that the avalanche danger was listed as “high” when they were skiing but in an interview with NBC’s Today show this morning, Saugstad says that wasn’t true when they left in the morning.

Saugstad credits an air bag inflating device with saving her life. The skiers were all well equipped with rescue gear.  They rushed to dig out the victims and preformed CPR on the men, but weren’t able to revive them. Saugstad grew up skiing at Alyeska and racing on the Alyeska Ski Team. She says she intends to keep skiing despite the tragedy.

Kanaga Volcano Acting Up

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

For months, scientists have been on watch for a possible eruption at Mount Cleveland. Now, another Aleutian volcano is acting up, too.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory issued an advisory for Kanaga Volcano after it experienced tremors and released a small ash cloud on Saturday. Kanaga lies just 16 miles west of Adak, but so far there are no reports that this weekend’s explosive activity has affected residents. The community suffered disruptions to air travel when the volcano last erupted in 1995.

The aviation warning for Kanaga is at code-yellow, while Cleveland remains at orange. Both volcanoes are located along major international flight paths.

Young Fishermen Exploring Leadership Roles

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

With oil and gas issues dominating Alaska politics, it can be easy to forget that as many as 20,000 people work in the state’s commercial fishing industry every year. That’s six to 7,000 more jobs than on the North Slope.

So as many fishermen near retirement age, the next generation is looking to step into leadership roles.

For the last four years, the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit has brought together some of the brightest young minds in the industry.

Crews Thawing Equipment on Rig That Suffered Blowout

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Crews are still thawing equipment on the North Slope drilling rig that suffered a blowout last week. The Spanish company Repsol was drilling an exploratory well on Wednesday when they hit a gas pocket that caused the blowout. Natural gas was flowing uncontrolled from the well and so workers had to shut down the equipment and evacuate the rig.

Now that equipment is so thoroughly frozen, Cathy Foerster, with the Alaska Oil and Gas conservation Commission says crews could be thawing it for four or five more days.

Repsol is contracting with a company called Wild Well Control to gain control of the well. They will likely use heavy mud to do the job but the Department of Environmental Conservation reports the line to inject mud is also frozen. Crews are working on a way to bypass the line. Foerster says even though the well is mostly quiet now, Wild Well Control will have to make sure no more gas or debris can escape.

Foerster says she hasn’t seen a proposal from the company on how they plan to kill the well, but she expects to have it in the next few days.

Alaska Senators Question Plans to Move Fighters

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska’s U.S. Senators told a well attended public meeting in Fairbanks over the weekend, they doubt an Air Force estimate, that moving a fighter jet squadron from Eielson to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will save $32 million.  Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mark Begich (D-AK) question Air Force leaders’ assumptions, and will work to convince them to reconsider.

February Much Warmer than January

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

February weather will go down in the record books in stark contrast to January. Above normal warmth so far this month following January’s extreme cold is hard to pin on any one factor, but National Weather Service lead forecaster Rick Thoman in Fairbanks says the cooling of equatorial Pacific waters called La Nina likely figures into it.

Thoman says last winter was also La Nina and featured some ups and downs, including 2 late season blizzards in the interior. Thoman says atmospheric conditions affecting Alaska since the start of this month, are keeping the interior, and other parts of the state – warm.

Auto Museum Provides Window to an American Passion

Robert Hannon, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks is a unique attraction in a frontier town better known for riverboats and snow machines. The car museum’s elegant collection provides a rich window into the birth and development of an American passion.