Alaska News Nightly: July 29, 2010

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Air Force, Guard Investigating C-17 Crash
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
Air Force officials have decided to continue with the Arctic Thunder air show this weekend despite the crash of a C-17 aircraft shortly after takeoff yesterday, claiming the lives of four servicemen.

“We do this to both honor the loss of our four Airmen and also to pay respect to all service members who make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms,” said Col. Jack McMullen, 3rd Wing commander. “We hope our friends and neighbors throughout Alaska will come out and join us.”

The investigation into yesterday evening’s fiery crash at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage is now in its beginning stages. Meanwhile, notification of the next of kin of the four airmen killed continues.

This morning Colonel Jack McMullen, the Air Force’s 3rd Wing commander updated the press on the investigation.

“Emergency crews have worked through the night to secure the site. That work is going to continue today. We’ve got an interim safety team that’s standing up that’s going to be out there secure data, to secure information and to preserve the site. We’ve got another safety team that’s going to come in that should be in within the next 24 hours which will start an official safety investigation to try to determine the cause of the accident.”

According to McMullen, next-of-kin are still being notified and the names will not likely be released until tomorrow. He added that friends are already with local family members.

Brigadier General Chuck Foster of the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard said that concern goes beyond family members.

“Also those squadron mates. Of course we tell them what we know when we know it and help them work through the grieving process especially in the air national guard, but certainly true in the active duty air force. We work together for years and we’ve become quite close. And we

bring the resources, chaplains, counselors, also to that squadron.

The C-17 crew consisted of three members of the Alaska Air National Guard and one on-duty Air Force person. Neither officer knew who was at the controls of the plane when it crashed moments after take-off a little after 6 o’clock Wednesday evening.

The plane was part of the 3rd Wing and was about to perform a training demonstration for this weekend’s scheduled air show. McMullen said the plane had been flown earlier that day, but not by that crew. He did not know how many Wednesday flights the plane had done.

The large, four engine cargo plane has a good safety record and often appears in air shows such as the one scheduled for this weekend. As of this morning, the McMullen said the fate of the popular annual air show remains uncertain.

“What’s best for the wing, what’s best for the community is kind of what we’re looking at to try and do the right thing. Obviously this is a huge tragedy. But at some point we’re going to need to get up. We’re going to need to press on and move forward. And so that’s what we’re thinking through as we go through this.”

Elmendorf to Receive Six New F-22 Fighter Jets
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Elmendorf Air Force Base is in mourning today, but the tragedy of the C-17 crash is followed by news that six new F-22 fighter jets will be stationed at the Anchorage area base. On Thursday morning, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force contacted Alaska’s Congressional delegation this to inform them of the decision.  The new planes will give Elmendorf two full squadrons of 21 F-22s each, and add 102 new personnel to the base.

The move is part of the Air Force’s efforts to consolidate the F-22 fleet by determining the most effective basing for the planes.  The F-22s destined for Elmendorf come from Holloman AFB in New Mexico

Therriault Resigns From Post
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Governor Sean Parnell’s Senior Policy Adviser for Instate Gas has resigned from the administration following complaints about the timing of his taking the position.  Gene Therriault had left the state senate to accept the position last fall.

Gubernatorial Candidates React to Therriault Resignation
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Governor Parnell says Therriault was not asked to resign. Following a Republican governor candidates debate at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday afternoon, Parnell said he’d miss Therriault’s service.

Parnell’s opponents in the Republican primary continued to hammer the governor on Therriault’s hiring and how long it took for him to step down. Bill Walker said it was long overdue.

Ralph Samuels said the governor and Therriault should have followed the constitution, which says sitting legislators must wait a year to accept jobs with the executive branch.

Asked how and when he planned on replacing Therriault, Parnell would only say he’s working to find good people to serve in his administration.

Weyhrauch Trial Delay Request Will Be Considered on Friday
Matt Miller & Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau
A request for a trial delay for former state Representative Bruce Weyhrauch will be considered in U.S. District Court Friday.

Judge John Sedwick has scheduled a status hearing to determine if Weyhrauch’s September 13 trial date should be vacated indefinitely.

Weyhrauch, a Republican was indicted in 2007 for using the U.S. mail to solicit a job from VECO while the legislature was considering oil tax legislation.

Weyhrauch’s attorney Doug Pope says it makes no sense to begin preparation for a September trial until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on the admissibility of evidence relating to Weyhrauch not declaring a potential conflict of interest before he voted on the 2006 legislation.

The case was sent to the Ninth Circuit in June by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Briefs are due by August 9.

Meanwhile, Pope says prosecutors tell him they’re not planning to call former VECO CEO Bill Allen and FBI agent Mary Beth Kepner as witnesses. Allen is in prison and Kepner herself is under investigation.

Allen was the chief government witness in the botched case against former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.

Pope said he hopes to call Allen in Weyhrauch’s case.

Prosecutors’ response to Pope’s motion to vacate Weyhrauch’s September trial has not been submitted to the court yet. But they have told Pope – and it’s detailed in his court filing – that they don’t want a trial to be held in Juneau.

Natural Gas Storage Facility Plans Go Before Regulators
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Cook Inlet’s long-term energy prospects are beginning to look better as plans for a year-round natural gas storage facility went before state regulators Wednesday.

Semco, the owner of Enstar, Anchorage’s gas utility, and MidAmerican Energy have joined forces to apply for a certificate to build an underground system that, when filled, will make available 11 billion cubic feet of natural gas for the region.  The plan is to inject gas into the reservoir when demand is low during the summer and make it available when the need reaches a peak during the winter.

John Sims with Enstar says it will fill their expected supply gap.

Enstar will use 70 percent of the storage capacity while Chugach Electric and Municipal Light and Power will share the remaining 30 percent. It is designed to allow 150 cubic feet of gas per day to be taken out – far short of the total projected needs of the companies.

Both Enstar and MidAmerican say their plans came together as a result of the Cook Inlet Recovery Act that the legislature approved unanimously during this year’s session.  That measure was sponsored by Anchorage Republican Mike Hawker – co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.    He says the industry has known for a long time that storage was a critical element of meeting the region’s needs. But he agrees there is still work to do.

Trans Canada Open Season Ends Tomorrow
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
Trans Canada’s open season for a natural gas pipeline ends tomorrow.  The company opened its proposed pipeline for bids from natural gas producers on the North Slope three months ago under the terms of the state’s Alaska Gas Inducement Act, which also guarantees producers ten years of tax stability.  A second open season is also underway, put forward by Conoco-Phillips and BP.

Trans Canada Vice President for Alaska Development, Tony Palmer, said today that a number of potential bidders have visited the secure offices the company set up for putting bids together, known as data rooms.  All bids will be opened at close of business tomorrow.

Palmer says if there are no bids, he can make that announcement right away, but conditioned bids would take weeks of negotiations, and all of that would have to take place behind the scenes, because of the intensely competitive nature of the industry.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires the company to tell all bidders by September first whether it plans to go ahead with the pipeline.

Exxon-Mobil has formed a partnership with Trans Canada, but Palmer says that does not automatically translate into a bid from the North Slope’s largest gas producer.

The Trans Canada proposal allows producers the option to bid to ship their gas through a shorter pipeline to Valdez, as well as to the gas pipeline hub in Alberta.  The other proposal – called the “Denali” pipeline – does not contain that option.

Agencies Take Look at New Oil Spill Mapping Technology
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Oil response agencies and organizations in Alaska got a first-hand look today at a new spill mapping technology that’s being used in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean Imaging Corporation – the company that developed the system – demonstrated how it works using dye in Cook Inlet.

Lakina Bridge Closed to Vehicles
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The state has closed the Lakina Bridge on the McCarthy Road to vehicles. The D.O.T. says the structural integrity of the bridge, about 15 miles from McCarthy, is compromised, after a vehicle struck overhead bracing and a truss.  Pedestrians are being allowed across the damaged bridge, but the D.O.T. says parking is limited.  The state also advises people with reservations in McCarthy or Kennicott to arrange for pick up on the other side.

State Opens More of the Taylor Highway
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The state re-opened the Taylor Highway from Chicken to the Top of the World Junction this morning following another round of emergency repairs to the flood damaged road. The Department of Transportation cautions that the 30 mile section of gravel is rough, but gives motorists access to the Canadian border.  The next stretch of the Taylor, which heads north toward Eagle remains closed due to numerous slides and washouts.

Repair work is underway, and the D.O.T. is optimistic that the road can be made passable in a week or so.

State Offers Program to Help With Education, Job Training
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
Most good jobs require training beyond high school or a GED, and the state of Alaska is offering a program that helps people get that training.

Rain Delays Harvests in Valley
Diana Haecker, KTNA – Talkeetna
This is the time of the year when owners of livestock fill up their hay barns with the new crop. But long periods of rain have hampered the valley hay harvests and the maturing of many other crops.