Alaska News Nightly: February 11, 2011

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Small Business Administration Announces 8(a) Changes
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The Small Business Administration is changing the program that gives Alaska Native Corporations advantages in scoring government contracts.  The 8(a) program currently lets the Corporations go after no-bid, sole source contracts.

The changes announced Friday are its first re-vamp in a decade.

The 8(a) program’s goal is to give Alaska Native shareholders the benefits of their corporation’s business successes.  Critics claim the corporations get too many advantages over other contractors, and that not enough jobs and money make it back to the villages.

SBA Associate Administrator Joseph Jordan in Washington says the changes make some basic updates and also aim to get program benefits flowing to the intended recipients.

Jordan says one of the biggest changes is that Alaska Native Corporations must now report exactly what benefits their shareholders receive.

Jordan says the Alaska Native Corporations, or ANC’s, have six months to comply with that change – and he says the SBA will work with them to work out the details.

Another change affecting all minority-owned and disadvantaged small businesses that get a leg-up from the 8(a) program has to do with partnering with bigger, “mentor” companies.  The 8(a)’s can still pair up with a larger corporation on a contract, like Boeing or Raytheon, but now the small business has to do 40 percent of the work.  Also the joint venture can no longer subcontract out the remaining work to the big mentor company.  Jordan says if the mentor company wants more work, they have to bring the smaller business along too.

So far reaction the changes among users of the 8(a) program are mixed.  Three of the nation’s largest Native American groups expressed concern on Friday.  The National Congress of American Indians executive director Jacqueline Johnson Pata warned that the regulations could be “painful” for Alaska Natives.

But Will Anderson, president of Koniag Incorporated, which serves Alutiiq shareholders from Kodiak, says the new regulations should not prevent ANCs from being successful.

Anderson says the new requirement that the Corporations list exactly how they’re helping shareholders will take more effort, but he hopes it proves ANCs are serving their purpose.

Fairbanks based Doyon Corporation Chief Operating Officer Aaron Schutt says Doyon and partners Arctic Slope and Cook Inlet Regional Corporations proposed changes to the SBA and he says they support more disclosure of how the programs benefit shareholders. But he has concerns about how that reporting will be used.

The changes to the 8(a) program kick-in in 30 days.

Federal Regulators Demand Pipeline Improvements
Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez
A demand from federal regulators that major work needs to be done on the aging Trans-Alaska pipeline are pushing the line’s operator Alyeska to make improvements.  The findings are part of an on-going federal investigation that was triggered by last month’s emergency shutdown due to a leak at pump station one on the North Slope.

TAPs Maintenance Shouldn’t Require Long-Term Shutdown
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Fairbanks Democrat David Guttenberg has monitored Alyeska and safety issues surrounding the pipeline his entire legislative career.   He says the federal findings are not necessarily new events – but it is the first time they have been brought to the public’s attention.

Guttenberg says there have been many problems and orders over the years, but many of them have been delayed and never properly addressed.  He says previous delays are now, “coming home to bite them.”

He does not now see the need for a system-wide, long-term shut down of the line for the required maintenance.

Guttenberg says the recent choice of Thomas Barrett as president of Alyeska will fit in well with any improvements the pipeline needs.  He says Barrett’s experience as a former Coast Guard official will serve the company well in dealing with the regulatory process and in understanding the need for safety in pipeline operations.

Weather Hampers Yukon Quest Racers
Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks
Weather on the Yukon Quest trail turned sour early Friday morning.  A blizzard on American summit has taken a toll on four-time Yukon Quest Champion Hans Gatt.  Other mushers who have checked in at Eagle have admitted that the storm is probably the worst they have ever mushed in.

Coast Guard Rescues Five After Vessel Runs Aground
Jacob Resneck, KMXT – Kodiak
Five crewmen had to be rescued after their fishing vessel ran aground on Afognak Island this morning. The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter after a second vessel relayed the ship’s distress call.

Environmental Group Emphasizes Danger of Coal Ash in New Report
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Alaska environmental groups sound the alarm about the danger of coal ash in a new report.  The report cooperatively produced by Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center looks at the ash leftover from coal burning at Fairbanks area power plants that’s commonly used as fill.  Alaska Community Action on Toxics Environmental Health Coordinator Sara Paras lead author of the report, says ash from local power plants, residential coal boilers and storage piles was analyzed. Paras says, in almost all cases, toxic heavy metals were found at higher levels than back round soil.

Paras says the study findings are consistent with similar analysis done on coal ash in the lower 48.  The study says power plant stack scrubbers that remove heavy metals from exhaust, leave more of the toxins in ash.  Lisa Hughes, with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks says pollution from coal ash has raised concerns nationwide, and locally.

Many tons of coal ash are produced daily in Fairbanks.  It’s stored in large piles for use road substrate or fill for construction projects. Hughes says there was a coal ash pollution incident in Fairbanks last summer, when wind borne ash from a storage pile spread over the Tanana Valley Farmers Market

Hughes says the local handling and use of coal ash warrants an investigation by the state. Department of Environmental Conservation Air Quality Program Director Alice Edwards says coal ash is currently regulated like other particulates.

Edwards says concerns have prompted talks about additional air pollution mitigation measures.  The environmental groups are also worried about soil and water contamination from coal ash. DEC. solid waste program coordinator Doug Butyne says the Department has conducted its own tests on local coal ash samples.

Butyne says the test results warrant coal ash’s continued regulation as an inert material. He says storage regulations may need to be looked at, but that no changes are in the works.

Operation Denali Aims to Help Wounded Vets
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
President Obama has said he wants to incorporate National Parks into plans for helping returning war veterans have success in overcoming physical and physiological injuries. One Alaska soldier is way ahead of that plan.

These days Major Mark Hoffmeister runs marathons, skis and ice climbs. But just a few years ago, he was struggling to recover from a severe injury he sustained while on patrol in Iraq. The vehicle he was riding in was hit by an explosively formed penetrator. Shrapnel hit his body and head, causing the most damage to one of his arms which now has limited function. The recovery took months. But as he got better, his wife convinced him to hike Crow Pass near Anchorage.

His wife then came up with a much bigger challenge: to summit Denali. In 2009 Major Hoffmeister decided to go for it and ended up taking other wounded vets with him. They called the trip Operation Denali. But he says when his wife first suggested the idea, it seemed like a stretch.

Major Hoffmeister is on active duty and is planning to return to the war zone soon. But he and his wife want to continue helping other wounded vets accomplish outdoor goals.