Alaska News Nightly: December 9, 2010

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Cod, Mackerel Restrictions Aim to Protect Steller Sea Lions
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the western Aleutian Islands area will be restricted starting January first.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service issued the final interim ruling Wednesday.  The move is aimed at protecting the western Aleutians Steller Sea Lions, which feed on cod and mackerel.

Coastal Management Program Facing Elimination
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
The state’s Coastal Management Program faces certain termination on July first unless the legislature and governor agree to grant an extension during next year’s session.   The program began in 1978 with the goal of facilitating development in the state in a way that supported local communities by allowing them to have input into what happened in their areas.   However, by the time Governor Frank Murkowski moved the agency out of his office and into the Department of Natural Resources – and eliminated the Division of Governmental Coordination portion of the program – its role had diminished.   APRN’s Dave Donaldson reports that its supporters want it back in some form.

State Taking Action Against Aggressive Wolves
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Alaska Peninsula community of Port Heiden has been struggling with aggressive wolves for the past several months. Pets have been killed and the wolves are not easily run off. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wildlife division supervisor Bruce Dale says the state has decided it’s become a public safety issue. He says they will take action similar to last spring when wolves killed a teacher 50 miles across the peninsula in Chignik Lake.

Dale says it’s unlikely that the wolves bothering Port Heiden residents are from the same pack that was responsible for the Chignik Lake killing. In that incident, state hunters killed eight wolves. Dale says they haven’t yet determined how many wolves will have to be shot because accounts vary as to how many are in the area. He says it’s rare for North American wolves to be as aggressive as the Peninsula wolves have been.

He says several factors may be contributing to the wolves’ behavior.  A substantial number of the northern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd winter close to Port Heiden, marine mammal carcasses wash up in the area and wolves feed on them and Dale says it’s also where wolves hunt sea otters on the ice.

Dale says the fact that Port Heiden villagers have killed six wolves since August and others were not deterred was part of what led to the decision to kill more.

Dale says pilots will back track wolves to locate those involved in the village incidents. Weather and snow conditions will determine when the wolves will be taken.

Ft. Richardson Soldier Shown in Recently Released Taliban Video
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson spokesmen had no comment Thursday regarding the plight of Spc. Bowe Bergdahl, the Ft. Richardson based soldier now being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl, 24, from Haily, Idaho, was spotted in a video released recently by the Taliban.  Bergdahl has been held for the past 18 months.

He is a member of the First Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry division at Joint base Elmendorf Richardson.

Bergdahl disappeared in June of last year, from Paktika Provence in eastern Pakistan.

The most recent video is the fourth in which he has appeared, although authorities do not know when it was filmed.

The latest video appeared on the website of the Afghan Taliban on Dec. 2.

Murkowski Votes Against Defense Bill Ending ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Senate Democrats failed Thursday to move forward on a defense bill that included ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”  Republicans shot down a procedural vote on the Defense Authorization bill, making slimmer the chances of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell this year.  Senator Lisa Murkowski was being watched as a crucial vote – but she stuck with her party.

Only GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine voted to bring the bill to the floor.

Murkowski said Wednesday she wants to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” but she wanted to see many days of debate and discussion on the floor.  She says Democrats were not willing to allow for enough time and were rushing it through, so she voted no.

Senator Mark Begich voted with all other Democrats except for West Virginia’s Joe Manchin to move forward on the Defense Bill.  The final vote was 57 to 40, three votes short of the needed 60.

President Obama weighed in this evening in a statement, saying he was “extremely disappointed,” and calling to task Republicans who he said were a minority quote, “standing in the way of the funding upon which our troops, veterans and military families depend.”

Lack of Dedicated Rescue Tug Causes Concern in Aleutians
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
On Tuesday the 738-foot bulk tank ship Golden Seas was successfully towed into the Port of Dutch Harbor, four days after issuing a distress call. Now, the state of Alaska and conservation groups alike are reconsidering emergency preparedness in the Aleutian Islands.

The Golden Seas had lost power and went adrift 70 miles north of Adak. There was initial concern that the vessel, which was carrying approximately half a million gallons of fuel and oil, could run aground and cause a spill. Though the Golden Seas ultimately regained partial power, an ocean-going tug was still needed to assist the vessel and tow it to a port of refuge. The icebreaker Tor Viking had been moored in Unalaska, and was able to reach the Golden Seas within a day.

But usually, there aren’t any ocean-going tugs in Unalaska. The Tor Viking was there under contract with Shell Oil, which is preparing for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea. No dedicated rescue tugs are stationed in the Aleutians region. There is one rescue tug available in Cook Inlet on standby for tankers, and there are a few in Prince William Sound. Leslie Pearson, a member of the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment facilitation team says these could take a week to get to a distressed vessel near Adak or Atka. She says there’s also one other possibility.

Lack of rescue tugs have been a consistent problem in the region. In 2004, the vessel Selendang Ayu went aground and caused an oil spill partially because the tugs available were not powerful enough to prevent it from running aground. Gary Folley is the on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and he says that the Golden Seas incident could have been worse and might have substantially affected the areas fisheries.

Right now, the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment team is drafting a report on emergency response. The risk assessment is part of a cooperative effort between the state, the Coast Guard, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Their goal is to reduce the number of accidents in the Aleutians. Right now, they are considering the possibility of maintaining a dedicated rescue tug in the Aleutians on a permanent or seasonal basis. They are also looking at the possibility of stationing an all-purpose tug in the region that could be used in case of emergencies. The problem, says Folley, is finding the resources to do this.

According to a traffic study report by the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment project, more than 2,000 vessels pass through the region on annual basis.  Shawna Larson, who works with the non-profit Pacific Environment says that number will only increase.

A new Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment report should be forthcoming in the spring, the state’s Folley says. In the meantime, the cargo vessel Golden Seas is undergoing repairs in Unalaska. It is expected to depart for the United Arab Emirates by the end of the week.

Fairbanks Borough Revisits Fine Particulate Control Ordinance
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fairbanks Borough Air Pollution Control Commission met Wednesday night to go over proposed changes to a fine particulate control ordinance.  Borough administration has removed smoke fines from the legislation in response to a voter approved ballot measure that prevents the borough from banning, prohibiting or fining residents for use of heating devices. The revised ordinance also removes a smoke opacity standard as a means to assessing stack emissions.  Air Pollution Control Commission member and fine particulate researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Cathy Cahill lobbied for keeping an opacity standard in the ordinance.

Cahill suggested using opacity violations as a way to trigger a visit from borough officials to provide education on clean burning.

Medical research has shown breathing the tiny particles produced by combustion of wood, coal and other fuels, including oil, to be hazardous to health, and local research points to wood smoke as a major contributor to Fairbanks wintertime fine particulate pollution problem.

There was a lot of public testimony taken at last night’s meeting. Fairbanks resident Tim Suvdy challenged the validity of fine particulate science, and the legality of forcing education on polluters.

Most testimony came from the other side.  People talked about smoke infiltrating homes and schools, and health problems brought on by it.   Some called the voter passed ban on borough smoke enforcement unconstitutional.  Fairbanks resident Sean McGuire, urged commissioners to challenge Prop A in court.

Others said the borough’s draft amendments go too far in responding to the voter passed proposition.

The amended fine particulate ordinance deletes a standard for moisture content of wood, but retains restrictions on burning garbage, tires and some other non-wood fuels.  Borough attorney Rene Broker said there’s room for clamping down on polluters by taking them to court for creating a nuisance, as long as the problem isn’t the result of normal stove or boiler operation.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation can enforce clean air standards regardless of the voter instituted restraints on the borough. Fairbanks has until 2014 to get into compliance with federal fine particulate pollution standards.  Local air has dipped into the unhealthy range in Fairbanks this week due to elevated fine particulate concentrations.

Department of Justice Corrects Case of Mistaken Identity
Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai
The U.S. Department of Justice has corrected a mistake they made identifying a defendant that was arrested in a bust of a drug trafficking ring in Alaska. But it meant for one weekend, a Kenai Peninsula woman was worried her reputation was incorrectly tainted.