Alaska News Nightly: September 12, 2011

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Pebble Mine Battle Extends to Lower 48

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The battle over the Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska is extending to the Lower 48. This week US Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington State, sent a letter to the head of the EPA urging her to – if necessary – consider using the Clean Water Act to stop the development of the mine. If the EPA uses its veto power over the mine before the permitting stage, it would be a first for the federal agency.

In the letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Washington State Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell expressed support of the EPA’s decision to conduct a thorough, scientific analysis of the effect that a large-scale development project would have on the Bristol Bay Watershed, adding that Bristol Bay Salmon populations are “economic lynchpins” for commercial fishermen not just in Alaska but also in Washington State.

In her letter, Cantwell writes, “Should scientists determine that pollution from a large-scale development in the Bristol Bay watershed could have unacceptable adverse impacts on water quality and the fish stocks that depend on it, I would support efforts to prohibit or appropriately restrict such activities, including the utilization of Section 404-C of the Clean Water Act.”

404-C gives the EPA the power to veto permits required to develop the mine if it is determined that the impacts would be too damaging to waterways. If developed, the Pebble Mine could be the largest open pit mine in North America. The claim area spans 150 square miles near Lake Illiamna.   It’s estimated that more than 80 billion pounds of copper and more than 100 million ounces of gold could be extracted from the site, which is being explored by UK-based Anglo American and Canadian-based Northern Dynasty.

Supporters of the mine argue it would create jobs. Opponents argue the mine could leach toxic waste into the watershed, wrecking commercial, sport and subsistence fishing for generations to come. Barney Warren is a commercial fisherman from Washington State who’s fished for sockeye in Bristol Bay for nearly four decades. He says Senator Cantwell’s letter is a step in the right direction and he hopes more politicians will start speaking out to protect Bristol Bay.

There have been several attempts to stop or slow down development of the Pebble Deposit.    Those attempts included a state-wide voter initiative that was rejected and the recent request by several tribal and fishing entities to have the EPA step in and preemptively use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act. Last month, the Alaska Supreme Court approved a ballot initiative in the Lake and Peninsula Borough that could restrict permitting of any large project that would harm salmon runs. In a press release, Senator Cantwell says she’s been contacted by thousands of Washington State residents recently, expressing concern about the potentially harmful long-term impacts of the mine on Washington State businesses.

It’s estimated that in 2008, Bristol Bay yielded over $113 million dollars in total value for Washington State commercial fisheries while recreational salmon fisheries yielded an additional $75 million. And it’s not just fishing that brings home the money to Washington – it’s also processing.

Nearly all the major seafood companies that process salmon in Bristol Bay salmon have a footprint in Washington.

Nancy Blakey, Co-owner of Seattle-Based Snopac products, which has a plant in Dillingham, says if something went wrong with the mine, it would inventively impact her business.

Cantwell is sure to face opposition on the Pebble Mine issue from Alaska Republican Senator Don Young, who introduced a bill earlier this year that would restrict the EPA’s reach, stripping the agency of its 404-C veto authority. Many well-known national environmental and conservations groups, including the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited oppose development of the Pebble deposit, and politicians throughout Alaska have been taking sides, but Senator Cantwell is the first politician from outside Alaska to take a stance on the issue.

Fuel Spilled After Vessel Loses Power, Drifts into Channel Rocks

Laureli Kineen, KNOM – Nome

There was a fuel spill in Nome Saturday morning that leaked up to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the ocean near the harbor.

The vessel that hit rocks near the Nome Harbor and spilled up to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel belongs to Alaska Logistics – one of the main shippers to Western Alaska.

10-year Owner and General Manager for Alaska Logistics Allen Long says the Kaktovik 2 was trying to move a barge off the beach when one of the tow wires got caught in the prop, which left the tug at the mercy of the ocean, and Friday night, when the vessel could not operate, there were up to five-foot waves. The Kaktovik 2 ended up hitting some rocks and Long says 600-700 gallons of fuel spilled into the ocean. Saturday, booms were put in place around the vessel and key locations and oil absorbent material was placed on the beaches.

DEC’s State On-Scene Coordinator for spill response Ashley Anderson says one responder from the DEC is on scene, working with the US Coast Guard, Harbormaster Joy Baker and Alaska Logisitics to develop a towing plan. Their plan is to eventually move the vessel on to a barge.

Anderson says because the Kaktovik 2 has a large hole, they do expect further release when they remove the vessel from the water.

And Alaska Logistics General Manager Allen Long says the Coast Guard first has a plan to move the Kaktovik 2 to the dock in Nome to inspect the vessel.

The DEC’s local responder has not been able to do a full-on shore assessment, due to the high waves, but plans to head out this afternoon to see how things look near Snake River and the entry to the harbor.

Second Controller Speaks About Korean Airliner Incident on 9/11

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Another Air Traffic controller who says he worked with Korean flight 085 that was diverted to Whitehorse on Sept. 11, 2001 has come forward with additional details of the day’s events. APRN reported Friday that retired Air Traffic Controller Rick Wilder says the pilot was ordered to squawk that he had hijackers on board.

Dave Connett worked as an Air Traffic Controller in Anchorage for 15 years and was also in the tower and worked the flight that was suspected of being hijacked that day. Connett contends he was the one that first ordered the pilot to squawk the 7500 hijack code. Connett says it was because of a message the pilot had sent to his own company Korean Airlines.

Connett says he asked the pilot to verify squawking 7500 and he says the pilot said disregard. Then Connett’s area manager told him to squawk the hijack code. Connett says he gave the order and the pilot did not argue, he complied.

Connett says he’s also a pilot and had never before given such a command. He says the order to tell the plane to squawk 7500 – meaning it had been hijacked – surprised him. But he looked later and it was in the FAA manual. He says when those regulations were written, it was presumed that a hijacker would be someone bursting into a cockpit with a weapon.

The pilot’s lack of protest about the code added to the suspicion that the Korean jet had been hijacked. This confusion is what then NORAD commander, now Air Force General Norton Schwartz outlined when he spoke to reporters in the days after the event. Schwartz said that if controllers asked pilots to confirm if they were squawking that code, the correct response would be negative, negative, I am not that code.

Connett says he wanted to clarify some of the day’s events and affirm that the jet had been sent to Whitehorse because of concerns it was in fact a hijacked plane and it was determined that sending it to Whitehorse endangered less lives than Anchorage.

Committee Considers Issues Raised By Recent Court Cases

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Monday, legislators revived what once was a regular step in preparing for upcoming legislative sessions – the House Judiciary Committee discussed recent court cases that might need action next year.

Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg said the annual meetings were routine when he was first elected to the House in the 1980s.

“This is the first meeting in 10 years of this committee dealing with this report. So what we’re doing today is setting the precedent I hope the way the House Judiciary Committee and maybe the Senate Judiciary Committee, too, will look at these reports,” Gruenberg said.

The committee considered five cases from a report by legislative attorneys – and selected by committee chairman Carl Gatto – and three cases from the Department of Law. Of those, only two were referred for further consideration next year.
The Labor and Commerce committee will look for statutory changes to address a decision that leaves in question the liability for workers’ compensation claims.  Legislative Attorney Dennis Bailey said in its decision the court pointed to legal openings that could lead to consequences the legislature did not expect when the law was written.

“If a subcontractor doesn’t provide workers’ comp coverage, then the contractor’s liable. And if the contractor doesn’t provide coverage, the project owner is liable,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the court pointed to a property owner hiring a snow plow contractor who doesn’t insure his sub-contractors for injuries.  The property or homeowner could be held responsible for a worker’s claims.

The Health and Social Services Committee will take up a frequent problem for law makers – Certificates of Need.  They are now required to prevent unnecessary competition among medical services.  The case involved a private clinic offering competing services that opened near the Matsu Valley Medical Center. The individual case is not the point of the committee referral, however. Anchorage Republican Bob Lynn said he wants to eliminate certificates of need altogether.

“The whole thing’s rather confusing – language can be. Can anybody explain to me if a Certificate of Need is actually a more politically correct way of saying Certificate of Monopoly?,” Lynn said.

He mentioned public utilities as an example of monopolies that are allowed – but regulated – by the state.

Among other cases the committee discussed were those involving distribution of pornography,  ballot initiatives under the election laws,  and predator control.   However, members decided that House Committees do not need to introduce bills relating to the other cases that were discussed Monday.

Destination of Nearly Complete Ferry Remains Unclear

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Work on the ice breaking ferry Susitna is nearing completion, and Matanuska Susitna Borough officials are scrambling to find a place to put the vessel when it arrives. The Borough Assembly is considering a number of ideas as to how to cope with the financial obligations of  storing the ferry over winter.

The ferry project has been a priority of the Matanuska Susitna Borough administration for years.  The keel was laid in August of 2006 at Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan. Now the completed vessel will be ready for delivery sometime between now and the end of the year, according to Borough manager John Moosey. But the Borough has not built any landings for the ship yet, on either side of Knik Arm, so the problem is what to do with the ferry when it arrives. Estimates are that it will cost about $1 million a year to drydock the Susitna.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the Borough Assembly considered how the administration could reduce the operating costs of storing the Susitna while filling its obligations to the Federal Transit Administration and the Office of Naval Research. Both federal agencies are involved with the one of a kind catamaran, dubbed an expeditionary or E-craft.  Moosey says it’s doubtful now if the ferry will be making any money for the Borough anytime soon.

The Borough Assembly has directed Moosey to gather more information on eight specific areas:  obviously, seeking additional grants for ferry landings is one of them. Moosey says the Borough has $7 million earmarked for a landing on the Borough side.

The snag has always been an Anchorage landing spot. The Borough and the municipality have never come to agreement on exactly where the Susitna could safely unload its cars and passengers in the traffic congested Port of Anchorage area. Steve Ribuffo is deputy director of the Port of Anchorage.

Ribuffo says the Borough, after months of talks, decided not to land the boat at the Port.

Other options for a ferry resolution are more intriguing.  One would sell the ship, than have it leased back to the Borough. Whichever entity owns the vessel also owns the intellectual property that goes with it. The Borough owns 50 percent of the intellectual property assigned.

The saga of the Susitna is a long and complicated one.  Initial cost estimates ranged from $44 to $58 million, for the ship alone. Final costs are more like $71 million. The Navy picked up the tab, because Office of Naval Research Sea and Warfare and Weapons Department looks on the vessel as the forerunner of the Navy’s next generation of ships. The Susitna embodies five new technologies, it is a high speed, ice breaking catamaran that can transition into a barge, and has shallow draft landing craft capabilities, all of them in line with a Navy plan involving sea basing.

Navy researchers would collect data on operations for five years while the Mat Su Borough operates the ship in Cook Inlet weather conditions.

But the immediate problem is where to put the ship until its ferry runs start.  The Borough is currently working on lease agreement with private companies.

One other option discussed at the August meeting: incorporating the ferry into the state’s Alaska Marine Highway system.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Enrollment Lower Than Expected

Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has lower enrollment than it anticipated. And the borough may have to close one school.  The Superintendent briefed the Borough Assembly on the issue last week.

Section of Kensington Mine Remains Closed After Accident

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Memorial services for a Juneau man killed last week in an underground accident at Kensington Gold Mine are Tuesday at 3:00pm at the Juneau Christian Center. 30-year-old Joe Tagaban died Wednesday while working at the 1,260-foot level underground.  It was the first fatality since the mine opened in June 2010.   Rock from an underground blast struck Tagaban, according to a preliminary report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The report says he had been working near a previously drilled hole that had not been plugged. The blast sent a concussion of rock through the hole, striking him.   That section of the mine remains closed while the investigation is underway, according to MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere.

MSHA and mine owners Coeur Alaska are investigating the accident. Investigators from the MSHA Boise office have been at the mine since last week to gather evidence from the scene, conduct interviews and piece together an accident timeline. Louviere says the investigation could take a few weeks or even months.

Mining Company Finds Promising Deposits Near Tok

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Officials with a Canadian-based mining company say they’ve found promising ore deposits near Tok.

La Nina Likely to Persist into Winter

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

Conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that gave Alaska its unusual summer this year are likely to persist into the winter.

The National Weather Service confirms that La Nina has re-emerged in the tropical Pacific Ocean and it’s anticipated that it will gradually strengthen and continue into winter. A strong La Nina could impact weather patterns in Alaska. The reemergence of a La Nina has prompted forecasters with “NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center” to upgrade last month’s La Nina Watch to a La Nina Advisory.

Mike Halpert is the deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center. He says La Nina winters often result in drier than normal conditions across the southern tier of the U.S. with wetter than normal conditions across the Pacific Northwest. Halpert is quick to point out that a La Nina should be seen as just a contributing factor to a particular weather pattern.

La Nina is basically a phenomenon where cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures cause changes to weather patterns. Halpert says the  threshold used is just a half a degree Celsius below average.

It believed that the 2010-2011 La Nina contributed to extreme weather across the globe.  Halpert says that included record winter snowfalls, spring flooding and a drought across much of the U.S.

Halpert says that La Nina’s typically occurs every three to five years but about half the time La Nina’s occur in back to back years.

La Nina conditions typically last for about nine to 12 months but sometimes the event can persist for as long as 2-years.    The name means “the girl” in Spanish and its counterpart is El Nino, which features warmer than normal sea surface temperatures.  It’s anticipated that the reemerging La Nina will influence “NOAA’s” official winter outlook that will be released next month.