Alaska News Nightly: December 5, 2011

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Agreement Moves NPRA Opening Process Another Step Forward

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

An agreement between two federal agencies on Monday leaves only one formal step in the process to open  the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska – or NPRA — for development.

The Army Corps of Engineers has refused to permit access to the area by way of a four-mile long gravel road and a bridge across the Colville River.  The Corps’ rejection was based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s declaration of the Colville as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance.

Monday’s agreement between the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares the bridge as the preferred environmental alternative for access to the reserve. With their objection removed, final approval by the Corps. is expected within a few weeks and will allow ConocoPhillips to begin work on the leases it now holds at the CD-5 oilfield,  just west of the Alpine fields on the North Slope.

Senator Lisa Murkowski said word of the agreement is good, although she recognizes that final step the Corps of Engineers needs to take.

“For years we have been talking about the potential available within the NPR-A. But if operators can’t access the area through roads or bridges, then the promise of a lease or a permit means nothing.  So to finally be on the way where Conoco will be able to advance a bridge over the Colville River – to get to the other side – is very welcome news,” Murkowski said.

Conoco-Philips’ spokesperson Natalie Lowman sees the agreement between the agencies as a positive step in getting to work in the CD-5 field.  However, she declines to say when work would get underway.

“Because we haven’t seen the permit or its conditions, we can’t really say when we would start,  But receiving this permit is one of the key steps in order to receive the go-ahead to sanction the project.   But again, because the actual permit hasn’t been issued we can’t say when work will begin,” Lowman said.

Murkowski says she, too, hopes no problems come with conditions attached to the permit when it is issued.  She says she spoke this morning with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who assured her that the EPA is no longer objecting to the development.

“The conditions are yet to be finally reviewed.  We anticipate that they will be in the area we had anticipated which is a requirement for using the same crossing rather than additional crossings in the river and some engineering changes.  But we are very hopeful that there will be no surprises with these conditions once we learn the exact nature of them,” Murkowski said.

Republican Congressman Don Young said he welcomed hearing of the agreement, but added, “It should have happened sooner.”

And Senator Mark Begich praised Conoco-Philips and the Interior Department for continuing to work toward the agreement.  He said “Alaska’s oil and gas industry needs to hear some good news on the development front.”

Russian Icebreaker To Make History In Alaska

Laureli Kinneen, KNOM – Nome

A failed marine delivery of 1.6 million gallons of fuel due to last month’s storm spurred the leadership at the Sitnasuak (SIT-nuh-sahk) Native Corporation in Nome to get creative. They’re looking to Russian and Korean companies to keep fuel costs down in the Western Alaskan community.

Cantwell Gas Station Explosion Injures Five

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Investigators will try to determine the cause of an explosion and fire that injured several people at a convenience store and gas station in Cantwell on Sunday.  Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen says the evening fire, which destroyed the building, started with a large explosion.

Ipsen says the blast and flames injured five people, including two store employees.

Ipsen says the injured were transported to hospitals in Fairbanks and Anchorage.  Firefighters and other emergency personnel came from the Cantwell, Tri Valley and Trapper Creek departments.  State Troopers, the National Park Service and the State Department of Transportation also aided in the response.  Bad weather and icy roads slowed their arrival.  Flames were kept from spreading to outside fuel pumps and tanks, but Ipsen says some vehicles were burned.

Storms Knock Out Power For 38 Northern Alaska Homes

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Storms have knocked out power in a few northern communities. 22 homes are without power in Nuiqsut, and 16 in Atqasuk. Emergency responders have opened a shelter in Atqasuk. Jeremy Zidek is a communications officer with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He says responders in Nuiqsut are working to keep water pipes from freezing.

Temperatures in the two North Slope villages are expected to get into the double digits below zero tonight.

Hearing Set For Coast Guard Helo Crash Survivor

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash has his first day in court this week.

Lt. Lance Leone is expected to appear Wednesday before a military judge in Juneau. The Coast Guard has brought charges against Leone for the loss of a Coast Guard helicopter in July 2010, and the deaths of two of its crewmembers.

The chopper and its crew were based in Sitka, where community members who support Leone have taken up a collection for his legal defense.

NovaGold Ready To Start Permitting Process

Associated Press

A Canadian company says a gold prospect in Southwest Alaska is ready to advance to permitting.

NovaGold Resources Inc. says its updated feasibility study for the Donlin Creek Mine shows a reduction in previously anticipated capital costs, and underscores the benefit of using natural gas instead of diesel for power generation.

Pending board approval, the permitting process could be initiated early next year.

Mat-Su Gravel Mining Concerns Get Fresh Look From Borough

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Concerns about gravel mining in the Matanuska Susitna Borough are getting a fresh look by Borough authorities.  The debate over gravel mining’s effects on the area has gone on for some years, prompted by fears that digging too deep may harm the water table. The Mat-Su Borough Assembly plans to discuss an ordinance regulating gravel mining at its meeting this week. The ordinance would establish reclamation standards, while creating a permitting process for mining operations that dig into the water table. Alex Strawn is a permitting services manager for the Borough planning department

The gravel issue came before the assembly in 2008, when the Borough put a moratorium on new mines digging into the water table. Gravel pit owners say the ordinance is not necessary and hurts their business. Strawn said the new ordinance also requires gravel miners  to gather data and get insurance before they can get a permit.

Warm Weather Heightens Avalanche Danger in Southcentral

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Recent high winds and unseasonable warmth in Southcentral Alaska have created prime avalanche conditions.   The Chugach National Forest’s Avalanche Information Center’s Wendy Wagner is warning of considerable danger for all upper elevation slopes at Turnagain Pass.

Rain on snow and wind over the past weekend created the considerable danger.  Wagner says in a taped advisory Monday morning that the danger will likely continue through Tuesday.

Randall Wins Two Gold Medals In Weekend Sprint Events

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Anchorage Nordic skier Kikkan Randall took home two world cup medals in the skate sprint events this past weekend in Duesseldorf, Germany. She won the individual event on Saturday and got second in the team event on Sunday.

Newtok Prepares to Move Residents to New Site

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that in 10-15 years, the village of Newtok would be lost to erosion. Villagers were concerned about erosion as early as the 1980s and started the process of relocating despite a projected cost of $80-125 million.

The work of village residents and a couple of dozen federal, state, and regional agencies is starting to pay off as Newtok prepares to move people to the new site.