Alaska News Nightly: February 22, 2012

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Tax Bill Taking Longer Than Expected

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Senate is running a little behind in rewriting the state’s oil and gas tax statutes.   President Gary Stevens of Kodiak this afternoon (Wednesday) pointed out that the Senate Resources Committee missed today’s goal of moving its tax bill on to the Finance Committee.

State Plans To Extend DoL Lease Despite Health Concerns

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The state is negotiating a new lease for the Department of Labor building in Juneau, even as employees who work there continue to suffer ill health effects.

Water damage, mold, and air quality issues have long plagued the structure, known as the Plywood Palace. But under the current lease terms, the state is limited in the improvements it can require the building’s absentee landlord to make.

The two parties have now engaged a mediator to help settle a dispute over the terms of the new lease, and repairs the owners will be required to make.

Jade Bickmore dreads going to work every day at the Department of Labor building. She likes her job, but hates the environment.

“Start out with sneezing, headaches, burning eyes, sinus pain and pressure, difficulty breathing, pressure on the chest, light-headedness, kind of almost a brain fog,” says Bickmore.

State Wage and Hour Investigator Mike Notar has had some symptoms, though he says not as bad as many of his co-workers. He says the building definitely seems to be the culprit.

“I had a co-worker who had to go home the other day. He was coughing violently and when he got home he called me and he said, ‘I’m not coughing anymore,’” Notar says.

And they’re not alone. Earlier this month, more than 40 members of the Alaska State Employees Association attended a union sponsored meeting for any worker who believes the building may be causing health problems. Supervisors, who spoke on background, report daily absenteeism rates around 20 percent for some divisions in the building. Bickmore, who also suffers from chronic sinus infections, says it got so bad that she and her co-workers in the Employment Security Technical Unit were moved to another part of the facility.

“A separate room that is on a separate air system,” Bickmore says. “So it’s certainly better there, but of course if you walk down the hall, get a drink of water, something like that, people are still affected just being in the building.”

State Chief Procurement Officer Vern Jones told lawmakers in a recent House Finance Subcommittee hearing that the state has entered into mediated negotiations with the Labor building’s private owners in hopes of forcing them to address any mold or air quality issues.

“The HVAC problems that some of the employees have reported – heating, ventilation, air conditioning – as well as there had been in the past organic growth, mold found in the building,” Jones testified. “We’re in negotiations with the owners to open up the walls, examine what’s there, and if there’s any mold or other substances that shouldn’t be there, to have them remediated and cleaned up.”

In an interview with KTOO, Jones declined to be more specific, citing a confidentiality agreement as part of the terms of the mediated negotiations. But he acknowledged the two sides are far apart on a number of issues.

“We’ve actually engaged a mediator to help bridge the gap and come to a mediated settlement for a lease extension,” Jones said.

Built in the early 1980s, the Labor building has been rapidly deteriorating in recent years. A water leak in 2005 prompted replacement of some carpet. A downspout burst in 2008, flooding part of the first floor. Continued complaints about water leakage eventually led the owners to re-side the exterior, which was completed in 2009.

But Jones says past lease terms did not allow the state to request specific improvements.

“The state’s leases generally have performance specifications in them,” he says. “So we describe how the building has to perform, the conditions that must be present in the building without really getting into design or technical details.”

Late last year, the state hired a consultant from Seattle to prepare a report on the conditions. The firm recommended inspection of the roof to determine the source of various leaks, opening walls to determine the nature of the organic growth seen throughout the facility, as well as air quality testing. The consultant noted several areas of cracked wallboard in the building, as well as a pungent odor in at least one room.

Building Operations Manager Bill Endicott, who led the consultant on the tour, declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an e-mail that employee health and safety is “paramount.”

Juneau Republican Representative Cathy Munoz sponsored legislation three years ago that could have led to construction of a new state office complex in the Capital City for employees from the departments of Labor, Public Safety, and Fish and Game. The bill died in the Senate in 2010. Then last year, the Parnell administration announced it was scrapping plans for a new building, in favor of renovating the Fish and Game offices in Douglas. In her talks with the administration, Munoz says officials have committed to “major upgrades” to the Labor building.

“We need to deal with the problems in that building,” says Munoz. “There’s no question about that. That needs to happen.”

Long term, Juneau’s legislative delegation have said they’re not giving up on a new state office building, though it will be significantly scaled-down from the original proposal.

Labor Department employee Jade Bickmore says a new building would be the best solution. But until then, the least the state can do is move the affected employees out of the Labor building while it investigates the cause of the health problems.

“As they’re trying to get into the walls, maybe look at the air handling system, take the people that are affected out of the building, so they’re not having to be in the building while the work is being done,” Bickmore says.

State Chief Procurement Officer Vern Jones says Labor Department officials tell him they would move employees around within the building during remediation and make an effort to seal off the areas that are under construction. Jones expects the mediated negotiations with the building’s owners to be complete before the current lease expires at the end of June. He declined to say how long the state is seeking to extend the agreement.

Rep. Young Responds To Planned Eielson F-16 Move

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Representative Don Young says it will be tough to turn around the Air Force’s planned move of an F-16 fighter jet squadron from Eielson to Joint base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage.  The Air Force says transferring the squadron, which is used for training in areas near Eielson, will save money. Speaking in Fairbanks yesterday, Young echoed the message of Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, saying the best tactic is to disprove the alleged cost savings.

The military is making similar moves across the country as it looks to trim the budget, and Young says Alaska does not have the clout of more populous states in the Lower 48 to fight back.

Young says another challenge is that the jets, and the over 1,000 service members and support personnel that go with them are being moved from one Alaska base to another, not out of state.  There’s concern that the F-16 move is a first step toward closing Eielson, when there’s another round of Base Re-Alignment and Closure, but Young said he’s been assured by Chairman of the Military and Armed Services Committee Buck McKinnon there will not be a BRAC round during the next 4 years.

Former Guest UAF Journalism Professor Reports On Afghanistan War

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Cheryl Hatch, the former University of Alaska Sneddin chair of Journalism is in Afghanistan visiting Fort Wainwright Stryker brigade troops. Last week Hatch was in Khenjakak, which is the combat outpost for Charlie Company in the 1st battalion, 5th infantry regiment of the 125th Stryker brigade. Hatch says it’s in the Panjawa’i district, an area she says is in the heart of the Taliban. Hatch is working on stories for the Christian Science Monitor following an Army female engagement team as they make contact with Afghan women to help them assess their access to health care and schools.

Hatch is no stranger to traveling alone in conflict areas. She’s covered Middle East and African combat in the past. She’s also been in Khenjakak before and plans to visit all the different companies while she’s in Afghanistan.

Hatch says although the battalion has been hit hard, they’ve suffered 21 deaths and IEDs continue to be a problem, she says they are making good progress. She says work clearing IEDS has been productive and they are returning facilities to the control of local government and performing joint operations with the Afghan National Army or ANA.

Sergeant Robert Taylor agrees. Sergeant Taylor is approaching his two year service anniversary. He says he joined the Army late, going to college first and working as a financial advisor before deciding to join the service. The 28 year old says he didn’t know how much he’d love it and want to make it a career. He says they’re making progress suppressing insurgent activity and turning things over to the ANA.

Sergeant Taylor says morale is good as they prepare to end their deployment, possibly within the next 60 days. He says all soldiers have fears, but family, friends and plans for the future help them stay motivated.

Sergeant Shawn Eidson is also part of the Fort Wainwright Stryker team. The 26 year old, is nicknamed ‘Bluegrass’, not because he’s a musician, but simply because, being from Georgia, he loves bluegrass music. He says the Afghan people, many of them farmers were apprehensive about the Army’s presence at first, but when they realized the soldiers are there to help, things changed.

Journalist Cheryl Hatch says a Lt. Colonel she spoke to told her the work list they wanted to accomplish in 12 months has been completed in 6. The soldiers are still going out on missions and patrols but have started the transition toward preparing to leave the country and ending their deployment.

Military Families Able To Stay At New Fisher House During VA Treatment

Heather Aronno, APRN – Anchorage

Military families with members receiving medical care from the Alaska VA Healthcare Hospital in Anchorage have a new place to stay.

Groups Challenging Shell Oil Air Permit

Associated Press

An air permit granted by the Environmental Protection Agency to Shell Oil for a drilling ship in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea is being challenged by nine environmental and Alaska Native groups in federal appeals court.

The groups want the permit sent back to the EPA for reconsideration.

Earthjustice attorney Colin O’Brien says the EPA failed to make sure all standards were met for a major new source of pollution in the Arctic.

Shell hopes to use the ship to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this summer.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh says Shell retrofit its catalytic exhaust systems and will use ultra-low sulfur fuel on all of its vessels. She says Shell is confident in EPA findings that emissions will not harm the air shed.

New Movie Highlights Importance Of Baby’s Early Years

Jessica Cochran, APRN Contributor

The importance of a baby’s earliest years is becoming more well understood with new research – and a handful of outreach efforts across the state aim to get that message out to parents and caregivers.  One of those outreach efforts is a new movie – that premieres this weekend across the state. Kids These Days reporter Jessica Cochran has more.

Jonrowe Explains What It Takes To Be A Lead Dog

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

With the Iditarod just around the corner, mushers are making final preparations with their dogs. Finding the right dogs for the job begins months, sometimes years before the race. KSKA reporter Daysha Eaton visits with a woman whose had 15 top 10 finishes in the race, Dee Dee Jonrowe … and her team, to learn what makes a good leader.