4 minutes | Feb 4, 2021
Hilcorp eyes gas exploration near Anchor Point
Cook Inlet oil platforms are visible from shore near Kenai, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk) Hilcorp Alaska is looking to build two gas exploration wells near Anchor Point later this year. The Texas-based company has requested approval from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to build an oil-gas combination well and a gas-only well in Whiskey Gulch, three miles northeast of Anchor Point. It also wants to build a gravel pad and access road on the privately-owned property above the lease. The proposal is for a gas prospect: An ENSTAR Natural Gas line runs past the site down the peninsula. Hilcorp is the biggest oil and gas producer in Cook Inlet. The Texas-based company owns several onshore gas wells, including the Seaview Unit south of Anchor Point, and operates most of the inlet’s offshore platforms. Hilcorp drilled five test wells to assess the geology in Whiskey Gulch last summer, including two on the lease involved in its current proposal. All were plugged and abandoned in July, according to data from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. In its application, the company proposed constructing the gravel access road and pad in April. The Department of Natural Resources says the company could start drilling June 1. Any future production would need to be approved in a separate permitting process. You can find Hilcorp’s application here. Send comments to DNR by March 4 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
0 minutes | Feb 4, 2021
Regional subsistence councils hamstrung by stalled appointments
Two caribou hides hanging on a rack behind a house on the east side of Shishmaref (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media) A large number of unfilled seats on councils that manage Alaska’s subsistence hunting and fishing has left advocates worried their voices won’t be heard and confused about the process of filling those seats. The decisions for opening and closing hunting grounds and setting harvest limits are decided by more than 100 Alaskans who sit on 10 regional advisory councils (RAC) that inform the Federal Subsistence Board. “They’re the ones that are on the ground and making these observations based upon a lifetime of experience,” said Jim Fall, who until recently was the state’s head of subsistence research. He retired from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game after 39 years of service. And he’s been to a lot of these council meetings, where wide-ranging groups from across regions have frank and full discussions about the state of wildlife populations, fish stocks, and observations about what’s happening in their communities. “The broader representation you have at a regional council, the better those ideas are,” Fall said. But this year there will be fewer voices at the table: More than half of advisory council seats are unfilled. It’s not due to lack of interest. The federal Office of Subsistence Management said it dutifully forwarded names last fall to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. “We still have 35 open seats on all RACs, which means that 56% of 2020 open seats were not filled,” wrote Office of Subsistence Management Acting Policy Coordinator Katya Wessels in a recent briefing to the Federal Subsistence Board. “Some RACs now have as many as eight open seats.” The Southeast Regional Advisory Council has eight vacancies ahead of its March 16-18, 2021 meeting. Many of those whose appointments are stalled are long-serving members. Until the end of last year, Don Hernandez chaired the Southeast RAC. His reappointment was inexplicably held up and he’s gotten no explanation. “Either they’re not telling us or they don’t know,” Hernandez said from his home in Point Baker on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island. “So we don’t even know who to call.” That leaves the Southeast’s 13-seat regional advisory council with five members. “That’s just not a real good representation for all of the different issues that we have here in Southeast Alaska,” he said. “So it’s going to be really tough to get anything done at this next meeting, I’m afraid.” It’s not just Southeast that’s struggling to fill seats. The Western Interior council oversees a chunk of landlocked territory stretching from Aniak on the Kuskokwim River to the Brooks Range. “It’s a huge area, it’s like multiple states,” said Jack Reakoff, who lives in remote Wiseman, a former mining camp halfway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. He’s been on the board since its inception in 1993. But not anymore: His reappointment was inexplicably held up on the eve of the spring meeting later this month. “They’re going to be completely overwhelmed for this meeting,” he said. It’s not clear who or what is responsible for the breakdown in appointments. A Trump administration executive order signed in mid-2019 did direct federal agencies to reduce or eliminate advisory boards considered obsolete, duplicative or expensive. And it’s clear the Trump administration’s Interior Secretary chose not to fill 35 RAC seats late last year. But the recent change in presidential administrations has added yet another layer of uncertainty, leaving people in federal agencies scrambling for answers. The Interior Department headquarters in Washington D.C. declined to comment. The Office of Subsistence Management is soliciting nominations now, but it’s a year-long process. Applicants who file by the February 15 deadline likely won’t be seated until 2022. There has long been tension between rural subsistence hunters and the state over their priority use rights. Some of those conflicts have recently wound up in court. Reakoff said there are political actors who’ve long been hostile to subsistence rights and would cheer dismantled regional advisory councils. “Rural subsistence priorities have never been palatable to the state of Alaska,” Reakoff said. Rick Green, an assistant in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner’s Office, said the state is neutral on the stalled nomination process. “That is their process to carry out,” Green wrote in a statement to CoastAlaska. “As for their public meetings, yes, there is value to state managers as they bring parties interested in conservation of our resources together for public comments and suggestions and any group that brings the public together for the shared goal of conservation of our trust properties is useful.” Subsistence priorities are enshrined by ANILCA, landmark legislation signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 that expanded national parks and monuments in Alaska, but also guaranteed Alaskans had some decision-making authority over subsistence rights on federal lands. “The regional advisory councils are kind of the linchpin of the whole system,” Hernandez said. “Having good functioning, well-qualified advisory councils is the key to make the whole subsistence system work in Alaska.” Whether the lack of appointments is due to bureaucratic inefficiency or political wrangling, the outcome will be the same: Less input on federal wildlife management decisions by the people whose lifestyle and livelihood depend on them.
3 minutes | Feb 3, 2021
As planet warms, researchers project more ‘extreme’ rainfall in Southeast and Western Alaska
Ketchikan Creek rages after heavy rains and a high tide in 2015. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD) Climate scientists say a warming planet is likely to make big rainstorms in Southeast and Western Alaska more common. And rising temperatures are also forcing researchers to reconsider just how much rain a storm can drop. Researchers project storms that might occur once every 20 years could start to happen every five to 10 years in Southeast Alaska, and every three years in Western Alaska. But what is a 20-year storm? Jeremy Littell is a United States Geological Survey researcher who works with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Let’s say you look out your window and see sheets of rain coming down. You say to yourself, “Wow, that’s quite a rainstorm.” “If your neighbors are saying, ‘Well, that’s also impressive,’ and they lived there a long time, then probably, you know, you’re approaching that one in 20 years,” Littell said in a phone interview. He presented the findings at a webinar earlier this month. To get more technical, a 20-year storm has a 5% chance of happening every year. As the planet warms, Littell projects that 5% will increase to 10-20% in Southeast and 33% in Western Alaska. For a more concrete example: A early December storm that triggered flood warnings and threatened to damage a dam upstream of downtown Ketchikan dumped 19.9 inches of rain in seven days, making it a roughly 20-year event. Littell projects that as the Earth warms, storms like that could start coming to Southeast four times more often. But Littell said, that’s not the whole story. “The game changer is that while we were focused on the one in 20-year event, which was previously kind of our definition of extreme, the definition of what is possible was also changing,” Littell said. As storms that were once thought of as extreme become more common, storms that are thought of as impossible — or at least extremely unlikely — start to become real concerns. “It can lead us into a false sense of security by saying, ‘Oh, well, okay, we can plan for one in four instead of one in 20, that’s okay.’ But you’re not thinking about one in 500, one in 1,000,” Littell said. “Those are no longer one in 1,000. Whether they’re one in 100, or one in 500, or one in 20, nobody really knows for certain yet.” Take the rainfall that triggered a deadly landslide in Haines in December. That was even more out of the ordinary — a 200- to 500-year storm over two days. Littell said scientists also expect those to become more likely: They’re just not sure how much more likely. In any case, Littell said the rising chance of severe precipitation — both rain and snow — should be on state and local officials’ minds when thinking about things like public works projects and building codes. “All of our built environment is affected by those kinds of assumptions, and the codes that we relied on in the past may not be sufficient for the extreme events that we could expect to encounter in the future,” he said. Just how much more common these 20-year storms become depends on how much warmer the planet gets. That depends on what’s done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, among other things. But Littell said it pays to prepare for a warmer future, even if the United Nations’ most dire predictions of an eight-degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures by 2100 don’t come to fruition. “In that case, you came out ahead, even if you invested quite a bit on the front end. But if you plan for that lower-warming future, and you get the higher-warming future and didn’t plan for it, then those consequences might be quite a bit more impactful,” Littell said. Just like with any natural disaster, it’s better to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KRBD and Alaska’s Energy Desk.
0 minutes | Feb 3, 2021
US Forest Service mismanaged Tongass timber sales, report says
Logs are transported from the road system to water on Kupreanof Island near Petersburg in 2013. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK) An internal audit by the U.S. Forest Service says the federal agency mismanaged two timber sales. The report blames pressure to meet timber harvest targets. Mistakes meant $2 million less for habitat restoration work on the Tongass National Forest. Auditors also found the sales failed to outline planned restoration work and potentially violated conflict of interest rules among other findings. The August 2020 internal agency audit found problems with the oversight and administration of two large timber sales in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The report only saw the light of day after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued for it. Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of the Maryland-based watchdog group, said the report only tells part of the story. “The report concludes that the problems were motivated by pressure to meet timber sale quotas but doesn’t explain pressure by whom, what about that pressure, how was it manifested, which officials were responsible,” Ruch said. “That sort of cryptic, unspecific kind of finding makes it difficult for the Forest Service to use it as a basis for reform.” The report was done by an oversight branch of the Forest Service’s Washington office. It reviewed the Big Thorne Stewardship Contract, awarded in 2014 to Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island. It found the agency underestimated the volume of timber by more than 10%. That matters because the Forest Service isn’t legally allowed to put out timber sales that don’t pencil out for companies. If the cost of getting wood out of the forest is more than the lumber is worth at market, it’s a no go. The report said the agency lowballed the timber, “making it possible for a positive value, and ultimately helped the Tongas and the Region obtain its annual timber sale goal.” In the end, to avoid a lawsuit from Viking, the agency effectively reduced the overall contract amount to around $2 million. The agency also reviewed the state of Alaska’s Good Neighbor Authority Agreement from 2017. That agreement allows the state’s Division of Forestry to do the preparation, administration and oversight for logging on federal lands. Under the pact, nearly 30 million board feet on Kosciusko Island in southern Southeast were awarded to Alcan Timber of Ketchikan. Auditors were concerned by potential conflicts of interest: The same unnamed person who did the state’s appraisal later contracted with the purchaser to do preparation work for logging. The report said that would give the individual the ability to gain financially based on privileged details of the sale. Alcan’s Eric Nichols said a state employee with 40 years of experience in Southeast Alaska did the appraisal, and retired from the state after it was awarded to Alcan. Then, according to Nichols, the appraiser got an ethics clearance from the state and started a forestry consulting company doing timber sale layouts, adding people with the necessary experience are “very hard to find with the downward spiral of the timber industry.” The Forest Service’s report also notes problems with the state’s software for estimating timber and valuation of trees, and said the 2017 agreement omitted the habitat restoration work supposed to accompany logging. Environmentalists seized upon the critical audit to question the Forest Service’s timber management practices in the Tongass. Sally Schlichting, with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau, said the 20-page audit’s findings are concerning. “They really call into question whether the other timber sales that the Forest Service has planned are being properly developed and whether there are other issues out there with other timber sales that are not being properly managed,” Schlichting said. Forest Service officials declined an interview, but in a statement the agency said it’s updating its policies to clearly define roles and responsibilities, strengthen internal controls over timber sales, improve oversight of the program, and provide additional training for employees. Unlike a prior agency analysis, the report didn’t find low-value hemlock was being left uncut in the woods, but said “the contractor is cutting every decent hemlock in the forest.” The report also didn’t include any mention of the Tonka timber sale near Petersburg that was flagged in prior internal reviews for sale oversight problems. State forester Chris Maisch was not available for an interview Monday. An agency spokesperson referred questions to the Forest Service. The timber industry group Alaska Forest Association also declined to comment. Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the impact of the lost value from the timber contract. The $2 million reduction is not paid by taxpayers but impacts the habitat and restoration work that could happen on the Tongass National Forest.
7 minutes | Feb 2, 2021
Without justice in Nome, women wrestle with trauma and healing after sexual assault
Four-wheeling down Front St. in Nome, fall 2020. (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) Content warning: this story contains sensitive subject matter. There were 432 reports of sexual assault in Nome over a 10-year period ending in 2018. Of those, Nome Police made 45 arrests. So far, there have been even fewer convictions. Some Alaska Native survivors say those statistics don’t surprise them, and that law enforcement has prioritized other crimes but not sexual assault — especially when survivors are Native. Nome police have acknowledged problems with a backlog of investigations and community trust. They say they have changed how assaults are investigated and how survivors are treated. The region’s single district attorney said specifics of how consent is defined in Alaska law makes sexual assaults very difficult to prosecute, especially when alcohol is involved. But for women who have been assaulted and see their attackers walking free in their small town, those facts bring little comfort. Read Part 1 of this series: In Nome, few sexual assault crimes result in prosecutions KNOM interviewed eight sexual assault survivors as part of this series. A few themes emerged. Many are survivors of childhood abuse who were assaulted again as adults. Sometimes they were prosecuted for minor crimes while their attackers escaped prosecution entirely. The lack of resolution in their sexual assault cases deepened their sense that law enforcement was untrustworthy, leading survivors to grapple with their trauma for years — sometimes leading to depression, risk-taking and self-harm. Many found empowerment through sharing their stories, redefining what justice meant to them. Brenda Qipqiña Evak is a 31-year-old Nome resident, justice advocate, and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. At 15, Evak felt angry and confused without knowing why, feelings she later recognized as a trauma response to abuse she was exposed to as a child. As a teenager, she and friends began experimenting with alcohol. They turned to older community members in Nome to buy it. Sometimes, those older suppliers — always men — would drink with them. That’s what happened one night in 2005 before Evak woke up at the Norton Sound Regional Hospital. “The nurse said I was sexually assaulted,” Evak said. “They told me what the police told them. The police told them they found me without my pants on.” Brenda Evak on Nome’s Steadman Street in 2020 (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) In interviews, survivors of sexual assault said they grew up hearing stories about local police — who were always white, always from out of town — harassing Alaska Natives. They recounted stories about police slamming heads into the cop car doors, or stripping their clothes off in winter and sending people home on foot. “I hear a bunch of stories about people who experience sexual abuse and they don’t get their justice. So people don’t really do anything,” Evak said. When justice fails, then works against you Evak’s assailant was never charged. She doesn’t know if police even looked for him. Nome police won’t release Evak’s case file, citing Alaska State Statute AS 40.25.120(a)(2), which exempts from public disclosure “records pertaining to juveniles unless disclosure is authorized by law.” The only legal action that took place that night was against Evak. Nome Police issued her a citation for being a minor consuming alcohol, to which she pleaded guilty. It remains on her record. She was assigned a counselor at Behavioral Health Services under Norton Sound Health Corporation. On her first visit, Evak remembers the male counselor asking if she was wearing her hospital bracelet from the incident, which happened just days before, to garner attention. Keely Olson, director of Standing Together Against Rape, or STAR, in Anchorage, said that when sexual assault cases involving alcohol go unprosecuted, it leaves survivorsalone to grapple with the trauma, feelings of guilt and the injustice that follows. A lot of survivors blame themselves. “A lot of folks will talk about how it was their fault because they were drinking,” Olson said. “It’s a very common response for us at STAR to say, you know, the natural consequence of drinking too much is to be hungover. It’s not rape.” Who’s listening? Another Nome woman, 25-year-old Andrea Ciuniq Irrigoo, said she also saw the justice system work against her. In April 2019, the days were getting long again, and Irrigoo had a new job and a new studio apartment downtown. Irrigoo decided she would head down to Front Street and poke her head into the bars to find friends or even family who might be in town. At one bar, she was approached by a man she recognized as an acquaintance from around town. He offered to buy her drinks, and she said she accepted. That was the last thing she remembers. When she came to in what she recognized as her apartment, she was naked and the man from earlier was naked on top of her. Irrigoo asked him to leave, but he refused. “I was trying to hand him his clothes, and then he started to get rough. I was trying to push him away, then he punched me,” Irrigoo said. Irrigoo fought back, but he got on top of her and strangled her until she lost consciousness. “Then it goes black,” she said. Irrigoo remembers screaming out for her neighbor, who heard her pleas and called police. “Then, the officer broke down the door.” EMTs took Irrigoo to the hospital for a forensic exam and rape kit swab. The police report from that night includes notes about a golf-ball sized bruise on Irrigoo’s cheekbone as well as red and raw patchy skin on her neck. The man was charged with domestic violence — to which he pleaded not guilty — but the charges were dropped a year later by the Nome district attorney John Earthman. Earthman declined to speak with media about the specifics of why he chose to dismiss the case, but said that ultimately the available evidence would not have led to a conviction. “I definitely made a decision not to charge that case. And I definitely talked to her about the reasons for that. But I did have to give her news and you know, it’s not good news. It’s bad news,” Earthman said. But despite that, Irrigoo doesn’t understand why such a violent attack against her wasn’t charged. Andrea Irrigoo in Nome in 2020. (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) Irrigoo is a teacher, musician, and traditional Yup’ik grass weaver, but throughout various moments of life she’s also struggled with trauma responses. Those are behaviors like self-medicating or self-harm that professionals say can occur after a traumatic event like rape. Trauma specialist Eden Lunsford works at STAR with Olsen. She said substance use is a common coping mechanism in traumatic events. “There are so many symptoms that come after a person has been through a sexual assault,” Lunsford said. “Panic attacks, or anxiety, or depression, all these different things can come up. So the substance use (gives) a person a way for them to avoid feeling some of those things. It’s a maladaptive way of kind of reclaiming their safety, their environment. But in all actuality, it’s putting them in harm’s way.” When she was four, Irrigoo said she was raped by a relative in the village where she grew up. She attempted suicide once in middle school, and again last spring after the charges against the man who assaulted her were dropped. “I went through a phase of, you know, what do I have to do to get the court to see that he is not a good person and he deserves to be in jail?” Irrigoo said. “Do I need to slaughter my wrists in front of the courthouse and say, ‘You did this,’ with my blood on there? … I guess just to prosecute him, I’d have to be dead. Not actually be here talking about it. If we’re not even being listened to in the court or anywhere else, then who’s listening?” Understanding Indigenous history as healing According to a survey published by the Urban Indian Health Institute in 2018, the risk of rape or sexual assault is 2.5 times higher for Native women than the rest of the United States. By sharing their stories, survivors like Evak hope to bring awareness and understanding as to how the community got here in the first place. “That is true, we do have high numbers,” Evak said. “[Sexual assault] does happen a lot amongst our people. They’re quick to point that out, but they’re not acknowledging why these high numbers are the way they are. Why do we have such high numbers of sexual assault? Why has this gone on so long? The answer is because it all stems from generational trauma stemming from colonization. Nobody wants to say that westernizing our people was the reason.” Anvil City Square in Nome at sunset in 2020. (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) Some residents say despite Alaska Native settlement in Nome for thousands of years, European history has overwritten Indigenous history, as seen in the town’s square honoring the “Three Lucky Swedes” who found gold on Anvil Creek, attracting an extractive gold mining industry to Nome that still exists today. A growing body of research connects Alaska’s extractive industries to the dehumanization of Native people — particularly women — dating back to first contact. Some say the legacy of that dehumanization is carried forward in government institutions, like the justice system. In 1741, Russian hunters invaded the Aleutian Islands in search of natural resources and took Alaska Native women and children as hostages to bribe the Native men to hunt for them. “So they were using women, and they were using our land for their own ends and their own means, and it didn’t matter that we were human beings,” said tribal attorney, Nome resident and sexual assault survivor Meghan Siġvanna Topkok. “We were not viewed as equal. If you were not considered civilized — Christian — you had less rights, fundamentally, than a person who was. So that’s how European nations could come in and lay claim to our land and completely divest us of that.” Topkok said it’s important for Natives to understand history to contextualize some of the inherited traumas that have resulted from colonization. “For me, I didn’t learn about a lot of this stuff until I was in college,” Topkok said. “The moment that I learned about this in college, it completely reframed my understanding of the issues, and my response. So all of a sudden, I started to understand why my family acted the way that they did, (and) why they made decisions the way that they did. For me, that brought a lot of healing.” Not an exclusive problem Despite sexual assault rates being higher among Native community members, it’s not an exclusively problem. Former Nome resident, 55-year old Karen McLane, is a childhood sexual assault survivor turned sexual assault nurse examiner who grew up in Nome. Her family moved into a trailer across from the armory on the seawall side in 1970, and she lived in town until leaving for Tucson, Arizona in 2011. McLane moved away because of severe medical issues that inhibited her motor skills and her ability to defend herself. Ultimately, she didn’t want to be in Nome — a place she feels is dangerous to be a woman — without the ability to move around freely. McLane, who is white, said she was sexually assaulted in the 1970s and 80s by a family member and various community members but didn’t report it to police until decades later when she fully understood her own abuse and became worried about the safety of another family member. “We always called it ‘bothering us,’” McLane recounts in a phone interview from Arizona. “When we say, ‘Is that person bothering you?’ Up there, they were sexually harassing you. That’s what we mean by that.” When McLane called in to report the incidents in 2017, the statute of limitations had run out, and no evidence besides testimony could be garnered. Still, she said she felt it was important for the community to know that her family, like others, was plagued with similar issues. “Maybe if other women in Nome knew that an Anglo person like myself … had those same kind of domestic violence issues as anybody else, and that sexual assault happens to … a large percentage of us … maybe other people would feel more comfortable saying something,” McLane said. “Using your voice in the right circumstance and with the right tact can effect change, even if it’s scary.” Opening the door for other girls Nome seen from Anvil Mountain in fall, 2020. (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) Instead of vindication through the criminal justice system, many survivors in Nome are turning toward telling their story as a form of justice, empowerment and healing. Deidre Levi, 24, is one of them. Levi is the high school girls basketball coach in her hometown of St. Michael. She describes herself as a very active and social member of her community — attending open gym every night — before her assaults. Now, when she enters a room, the first thing she does is look for three things she could fight someone off with. Between 2018 and 2019, Levi was assaulted twice during trips to Nome. One summer night in 2018, Deidre was hanging out with her older sister and a few of her sister’s friends at one of the women’s trailers in Nome. They were all drinking when the perpetrator came by for a haircut from her sister’s friend. He stayed to drink with them. The next time Deidre woke up, the man was on top of her, raping her. Afterwards she got up and left to her sister’s hotel room at the Aurora Inn, where a friend was called who took her to the hospital. The case was forwarded to the District Attorney’s office, where it still is today — two and a half years later. Nome District Attorney John Earthman has not yet filed charges. Deidre has given up on formal resolution. After a certain point, she said she grew weary of the emotional toll of dealing with the case. She changed her number multiple times and made herself unavailable to the investigation. That made Earthman’s job harder. Instead of focusing on prosecution, Levi said she’s directing her energy to mentoring the youth in her community through coaching. “I was just opening a door for other girls that were too scared to open the door,” Levi said. She wrote about one of her assaults on Facebook in a post that was shared hundreds of times, garnering the attention of survivors around the world. “A lot of girls messaged me, and they told me that they’re not going to let anything happen again. And they said this cycle is stopping now, and we’re not gonna be quiet about it anymore. The more you tell your story, the more it doesn’t hurt you.” Four-wheeling down Front St. in Nome, fall 2020. (Jenna Kunze/KNOM) This story is part of the “Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice” series by Alaska Public Media and KNOM, with funding in part provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. This portion of the series was written by Jenna Kunze, co-reported by Alice Qannik Glenn and Emily Hofstaedter. The other parts to come outline community dynamics around sexual assault, deal with the difficulty in prosecuting a sexual assault crime, examine how Nome Police have handled cases in the past and hope to in the future, and explore what community members, survivors and law enforcement see as a path forward. If you need to talk with someone after reading this or need help, here are some resources: Bering Sea Women’s Group: 907-443-5444; toll-free: 1-800-570-5444Behavioral Health Services at the Norton Sound Health Corporation: 907-443-3344, emergency number: 907-443-3200.STAR Alaska: 907-276-7273; toll-free 1-800-478-8999Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: 907-586-3650 If you are outside of the Bering Strait region, visit the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault website for a list of resources.
0 minutes | Feb 1, 2021
New ferries will stay tied to the dock under Alaska Marine Highway’s ‘skeletal’ summer schedule proposal
The 280-foot Hubbard is an Alaska Class Ferry tied up in Ketchikan on Jan. 29, 2021. It was built for $60 million by Vigor Alaska and completed last year. It and its sister ship recently received new side doors at a cost of about $4.4 million. It has not been put into service. (Eric Stone/KRBD) Summer is peak time for the Alaska Marine Highway System, and the proposed five-month summer schedule just came out. Many communities will get only limited service, and coastal lawmakers aren’t happy. “We need to get more ships in the water,” said Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman. He’s concerned about long gaps despite lawmakers’ efforts to fully fund the marine highway. Stedman co-chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Last year, he worked with coastal allies in the state House of Representative to send more money to ferries. But much of the extra funding was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The schedule leaves no slack in the system if and when one of the aging ferries breaks down. “With all the deferred maintenance that has been going on over the years, it would be good to have a vessel on just for backup,” said Earling Walli, a former ferry boatswain and now regional head of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, the largest of the three ferry unions. Veteran ferry crew members have made similar warnings in years past. When the Matanuska ferry broke down a year ago, there was no immediate replacement. That effectively shut down the marine highway’s regional service for more than two months. That’s not to say the state isn’t spending money on upgrading its ships. The Department of Transportation confirmed to CoastAlaska that it recently spent about $4.4 million to have side doors installed on the two Alaska Class Ferries. “The total cost for both vessels’ doors, including installation, is $4,440,906,” the agency wrote in a statement in response to CoastAlaska’s questions. “The doors and the installation contract are funded entirely by state dollars.” The work was done at the Vigor Alaska shipyard in Ketchikan, the same facility that built the two ships for $120 million in a sole-source contract using state money. The Tazlina entered service in 2019 and did a few runs last year. But since then, it’s been almost completely idle. Its sister ship, the Hubbard, hasn’t spent a day in service. Both are slated to remain tied up in Ketchikan despite recent upgrades. Why are the two newest boats in the fleet staying tied up, while the ferry system puts out fewer and fewer sailings on its older vessels? For one, DOT says the Alaska Class Ferries aren’t suitable to the fleet’s immediate needs. They were built as day boats: They don’t have crew quarters so they can’t run for more than 12 hours at a time. They were designed to complement the Juneau Access Project, which would’ve extended the capital city’s road system nearly 50 miles north and shorten the ferry ride to Haines and Skagway. “And of course, that road and that construction never happened and so therefore, those vessels are pretty much non-usable,” Rep. Dan Ortiz, an independent from Ketchikan, said in an interview. And those new side doors? Well, it would allow them to tie up in communities with smaller docks — if they had the range to get there. The legislature added funding for crew quarters, but that was part of the ferry package mostly erased by Dunleavy’s vetoes. Tthere are two other modern ferries that have also stayed tied up — a pair of catamarans, Fairweather and Chenega, the state is trying to sell. But at a recent auction they received one low-ball bid that was less than half the minimum price. Meanwhile, Stedman said the state is paying a lot of money to moor mothballed ships. “We need to cut some of our losses,” he said. “If we’re not going to sail those ships ever again, we need to get rid of them.” In the meantime, Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound communities will be mostly served by ships built in the 1970s. The monthly Aleutian run will be done by the Tustumena, which entered service five years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. “We need to get a replacement plan for these ships,” Stedman said. “And we need to get them funded.” There’s no long range plan or state savings to replace the aging fleet. “There’s nothing and that is alarming,” Stedman added. A lot of these issues were addressed in last year’s marine highway report commissioned by the governor. Stedman served on that working group and said its recommendations will be presented in detail to the Legislature. “I think this winter is going to be very telling if we can make some forward progress and trying to stabilize the marine highway,” he said. “In my opinion, right now, it’s still going backwards a little bit. I am concerned about the schedule that’s been presented for consideration by the public.” He said he hoped the public would weigh in at a February 8 public hearing. Already some communities have concerns: Kake, a village on Kupreanof Island, recently learned it isn’t on the skeletal summer schedule at all. “For some reason, we’re the black sheep of Southeast, I guess,” said Joel Jackson, president of Kake’s tribal government. He said the village of 500 people was off the schedule last summer too. “We don’t very much appreciate it,” he added. In a follow up email, a state transportation spokesman says Kake’s lack of ferry service was an oversight. It would be getting two ferries a month after all. Proposed Vessel Deployment (May 1-September 30): Kennicott to operate Bellingham/Juneau cross the Gulf to Southwest, twice per month.Matanuska to operate on the Wednesday Bellingham Route.LeConte to sail Northern Panhandle.Lituya to sail 5 days per week between Annette Bay and KetchikanTustumena to sail the Southwest Route with one Aleutian chain trip per month.Aurora to sail Prince William Sound. The state Department of Transportation is hearing public testimony on the draft summer schedule on Monday, February 8. Southeast communities will be heard from 10 a.m. And Southwest communities — including Kodiak Island and the Aleutians — will be heard at 1:30 p.m. Written comments can be emailed to email@example.com through February 7.
0 minutes | Feb 1, 2021
After more than half of Bethel students fail their classes, some parents urge reopening schools
The playground at the Gladys Jung Elementary School on March 16, 2019. (Katie Basile/KYUK) Parents in the Bethel region are increasingly distressed about their childrens’ education after more than half of students failed their classes last semester, according to a report from the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Parents called in to the Jan. 27 school board meeting pleading for the district to reopen schools to students despite the pandemic. “I was shocked, during the school reports, about the high numbers of students that are not engaging at all in school,” said Megan Newport, parent of a student at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik. She was one of four Bethel parents who called into LKSD’s board meeting and urged the district to reopen schools. Two parents called in cautioning against a rush to do so. The report shows Bethel high schoolers failed 59% of their first semester classes for 2020-21. For K-8 students, 36% to 52% of students didn’t turn in enough work to receive a grade — that’s what Newport meant by “not engaging.” Grades in villages looked a little better, but the rate of failed classes was still alarming. “Even the most cursory review of the current data on attendance, no basis grading, and student failure rates provides overwhelming proof that LKSD is currently in the midst of an unprecedented educational crisis,” Newport said. LKSD has acknowledged the problem, and is trying to fix it. Assistant Superintendent Ed Pekar said the district is forming a committee of principals, teachers and students, and has hired consultants and researchers all tasked with identifying how to re-engage students who have tuned out of school during the pandemic. Superintendent Kimberly Hankins hopes the intranet — which functions as a limited internet — will also improve remote learning. But more than halfway through the school year, many teachers and students are still struggling to connect to and use the intranet. Norman Ayagalria, a teacher in Napakiak, said given the problems with the intranet, he’d rather not use it at all. “In Napakiak and some of the villages, intranet has not been working,” Ayagalria said. “I’m not going to be spending some time on something that is not consistently working. I’d rather have iPads and paper and pencil.” Several parents at the Jan. 27 meeting brought up an article by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 26. They wrote it would be safe to reopen schools as long as precautions are taken, since “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” But according to Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, that’s not true for the Y-K Delta. “In our region, schools in more than one community have been a significant source of seeding an entire village with cases, causing outbreaks of hundreds and a handful of deaths,” Hodges said. The Y-K Delta has also consistently had one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation. YKHC recommends schools not resume in-person classes until three conditions are met: All cases in a community are linked to travel, there are fewer than 25 new cases a week, and less than 3% of COVID tests come back positive. The region is a long way away from hitting those numbers. Over the last week, YKHC announced 242 new cases. Around 12% to 15% of tests have been coming back positive. To get to the point where schools can reopen, Hodges said as many people as possible need to get vaccinated. “We can’t vaccinate our children, so we have to surround them in a cocoon of people who have been vaccinated,” Hodges said. Though the vaccines are not approved for people under 16, they’re available right now to everyone else in the region. As of Jan. 27, Hodges said YKHC had vaccinated 5,793 people — more than 20% of the region’s population — and 1,842 people had received both doses. Within a few months, every eligible person in the region who wants the vaccine will likely have had the opportunity to receive the two required doses. At that point, Bethel parent and LKSD social worker Ryan Wheeler said schools should not stay closed. “If people have chosen not to be vaccinated, they’re accepting the risk that comes with living in a time where COVID is a threat to them and their physical health,” Wheeler said. The school board didn’t take any action on when to resume in-person classes. Board member Hugh Dyment, who works at the Bethel jail where there has been a huge COVID-19 outbreak, said it was not yet time. “If you asked me to vote on opening Bethel schools right now, I’d say no,” Dyment said. “Because I’m familiar with what’s happening medically, and I know how quickly something can spread. I’ve seen it happen.” LKSD has a work session scheduled for Feb. 8, when board members will keep discussing the reopening of schools. Whenever that turns out to be, sports will come back, too: Board members voted to allow practice as soon as students are back in classrooms. However, local advisory school boards could still choose to override that decision.
5 minutes | Feb 1, 2021
Northwest Alaska health provider cleared to serve seal oil to elders
A jar of seal oil processed at the Siglauq building in Kotzebue. (Wesley Early/KOTZ) In Iñupiaq communities, more than any other food, seal oil is a fixture. “I had it for lunch today,” said Cyrus Harris. “I’ll have it for supper tomorrow.” Like many Iñupiaq people in the Northwest Arctic, Harris grew up eating traditional foods such as seal oil, caribou and musk ox. When his relatives moved into Maniilaq Health Center’s elder care facility, Utuqqanaat Inaat, he found they weren’t able to eat the same food they’d lived off for years. “They didn’t choose to be living off the Western diet that they were being served every day,” Harris said. “So I found out I could cook a meal at home and take it to my ahna and taata over at the long term care, and serve it in that manner. But where does that leave the other 18 elders there?” Seal oil has been a diet staple for Alaska’s Iñupiat people for centuries. But because of federal and state regulations, you can’t buy it in stores, and it can’t be served in restaurants. Cyrus Harris is in charge of Maniilaq’s hunter support program. (Wesley Early/KOTZ) In 2015, Congress passed a federal farm bill which allowed people to donate wild game they’ve hunted to certified nonprofits, such as hospitals or food banks. Since then, Harris has been in charge of Maniilaq’s hunter support program, which prepares traditional foods for elders in long term care. The food is processed at the Siglauq, a state-certified meat processing building. The name comes from the Iñupiaq word for the underground ice cellars used to store meat. “Back in the day, everybody had their own Siglauq,” Harris said. “They had their own underground cold storage.” Cyrus Harris shows frozen musk ox meat to be served to elders at Maniilaq Health Center’s elder care facility Utuqqanaat Inaat. (Wesley Early/KOTZ) Walking through the Siglauq freezer, Harris described some of the donations. “These are some products that we will most likely use for our certain potlucks,” Harris said. “This is sheefish filet. We do have moose burger. We do have some musk ox burger.” While getting wild meat on the menu for elders has gone smoothly for about five years, Harris said seal oil remained prohibited. The only time it could be served was at a potluck, and it had to be brought in from home. It couldn’t be made and served by Maniilaq — until now. Just outside the freezer in the Siglauq is the main processing room. Sitting on a table are three large drums, with blubber floating in vats of seal oil. Harris describes the process for rendering the oil, which starts by separating the skin and blubber from the carcass. “Then flesh the blubber from the skin,” Harris said. “And cut into maybe one-inch by three-inch pieces and set into containers like this.” Three containers of seal oil being rendered by Cyrus Harris. (Wesley Early/KOTZ) Granted, Harris said, most seal oil is made out in the field, not under the strict lab requirements of the Siglauq. “The best seal oil I ever had was stored in seal pokes,” Harris said. “Seal pokes have a long story behind it. It’s seal hides made into a container.” While seal oil is generally ingested without incident, a major reason it was restricted was its connection to a foodborne illness called botulism, which can cause nausea, blurry vision, muscle fatigue, and in some cases, death. Since the 1950s, the Maniilaq service area has seen more than 15 outbreaks of the illness tied to eating traditional Native foods. Chris Dankmeyer is environmental health manager for Maniilaq. For the past few years, he, Harris and others have been collaborating to develop a way to safely render seal oil. Those include food safety scientists at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center as well as microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin. After several years of running lab tests, they found heating seal oil to 176 degrees for 10 continuous minutes made it safe. “That completely destroys the toxin that may or may not be in the oil,” Dankmeyer said. Dankmeyer stated the heat treatment has only proven to make pure seal oil safe, not seal oil that contains other traditional additives. “We’re not keeping blubber in there,” Dankmeyer said. “We’re not throwing in pieces of dry meat. And that’s a traditional thing.” Chris Dankmeyer displays a sample of seal oil in 2018, when researchers were developing a method to heat treat the oil. (Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media) Once the seal oil is heat treated, it’s rapidly cooled to prevent the toxin from reforming, and placed in the freezer where all the other traditional foods are. “And we keep it frozen until it’s time to serve,” Dankmeyer said. “Basically, over there at the hospital, they’re going to dip it out frozen into a serving dish. It’s going to come up to room temp and be eaten.” Dankmeyer said the last step is ensure Maniilaq’s kitchen staff know how to safely handle and serve the seal oil. For example, it can’t be left out for more than four hours, or it runs the risk of creating more toxin. In the next few weeks, elders can look forward to seeing plates filled with traditional foods they’ve eaten their whole lives. One person excited to see the elder’s reactions is Marcella Wilson, who heads Utuqqanaat Inaat. She said elders have been able to eat seal oil during the occasional potluck, and she always sees an immediate reaction. “It brings back memories,” Wilson explained. “Memories of when they were children, and how they had the seal oil and traditional foods growing up. And that brings about storytelling. And then the storytelling starts bringing about laughter.” Wilson said that she’s learned a lot about the Iñupiaq culture from the elders, and she expects them to feel more lively as traditional foods become more available. “I’m not saying there’s magic in it, because there’s not,” Wilson said. “But there is such a nutritional value to it, and such a cultural value to it, that the two together are just immeasurable.” Dankmeyer said Maniilaq is the first organization in the nation approved to make and serve seal oil. He’s excited to share their process with other organizations in the future.
0 minutes | Feb 1, 2021
In Nome, few sexual assault crimes result in prosecutions
Front Street in Nome, Alaska in January 2017. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media) Hundreds of sexual assaults have been reported in Nome over the last 15 years, but few have brought arrests. Even fewer resulted in convictions. There are a number of factors that make it hard to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases. But some survivors feel law enforcement doesn’t prioritize these kinds of crimes, especially when the victims are Alaska Native. A National Native News analysis of more than 300 sexual assault cases reported in Nome between 2010 and 2017 shows only 25 of them went to court. After 2020 saw unusually high numbers of sexual assault reports, Nome police said they’re working to address the shortfall and arrest more suspects. They’re also finishing an audit of 460 sexual assault cases going back to 2005. Alaska Native women in Nome Nearly 65% of Nome’s population of roughly 3,700 is Alaska Native. There were 372 sexual assaults reported to the Nome Police Department between 2008 and 2017. The majority of those sexual assault cases involved Alaska Native women, and less than ten percent of them resulted in arrests. Darlene Trigg, an advocate for Native women and longtime resident, said statistics like that don’t surprise her. “As an Alaska Native woman, do I feel safe in this community? No, I do not feel like I can partake in all of the things that our community has to offer, safely,” Trigg said. “I limit my interactions in this community, I make sure that I don’t put myself in a situation where something unsafe might happen.” Trigg said she doesn’t feel safe walking alone in town after dark and limits her daily interactions in public. Trigg is a sexual assault survivor: She said her attacker was not prosecuted and still lives in Nome. Trigg said she didn’t report her assault, and she “didn’t experience any justice.” Bertha Koweluk runs Bering Sea Women’s Group, the regional shelter for victims of domestic violence who are sometimes also victims of sexual assault. Koweluk argues historical trauma creates a different reality for Alaska Natives in Nome. Bertha Koweluk, leader of Bering Sea Women’s group, in Nome during late fall of 2020. (KNOM) Historical trauma is defined by Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, which emanates from massive group trauma.” There’s a longstanding distrust of law enforcement within the Native community, rooted in unfair treatment for generations. It leads people to be less likely to report crimes. “I know that’s why there is such a disconnect of people understanding historic trauma and domestic violence, why it plays in the way we think about who we are, where we come from,” Koweluk said. “I just remember in grade school not wanting to admit that I ate Native food because the kids who came from the village were always put aside and treated differently, so you never claimed [being Alaska Native].” Chief Mike Heintzelman said there’s some indication the department’s recent efforts to build trust with the community might be working. Reports of sex crimes in Nome last year were particularly high. At the end of 2020, over 120 sexual assault cases had been reported. Heintzelman said almost all of those cases involved Alaska Native perpetrators and Alaska Native survivors. “If the trend continues, we’ll be in excess of 130 cases for the year. 88 were reported [in 2019] and that was a record high,” he said. “But I am really hoping that a lot of this has to do with people who are more comfortable with coming to the Nome Police Department, knowing that the case will … be given the due diligence that it should be. We have things in play right now that make us more efficient and checks and balances that will make sure that the case doesn’t go missing.” Heintzelman said when an officer takes on a new case, a superior monitors progress. In turn, superiors are monitored by higher level officials such as the chief and deputy chief. As a result, Heintzelman said cases don’t go cold when an officer leaves town, as they have in the past. Officers and police leadership see frequent turnover in Nome: Many in recent years have stayed less than a year. Nome’s seven patrol officers also have the option to work on a “two-week-on, two-week-off” schedule. This enables officers to spend their off-time away from Nome. In a high-profile case from 2017 that garnered criticism and media attention, Clarice “Bun” Hardy, a former Nome police dispatcher, reported her sexual assault to officer and co-worker Nicholas Harvey. Hardy claimed Harvey did not follow up on her case, nor did the Police Chief at the time, John Papasadora. Two years later, Hardy joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit against the City of Nome, Lt. Harvey and Chief Papasadora alleging they mishandled her rape claim. That lawsuit is currently working its way to trial. Data shows numerous sexual assault cases went unresolved and piled up at the department until 2018. That fall, then-Police Chief Bob Estes started an audit of 460 cases dating back to 2005. Estes left the department a year later with the case-audit still in progress. It is still incomplete. Court system and consent In a region where sexual assault rates are the highest in the country, District Attorney John Earthman is the city’s lone prosecutor. He has one of the highest caseloads in the state. Two years ago, a report from Alaska’s Criminal Justice Commission to the Legislature showed the 2017 rate of sexual violence reported to law enforcement in Western Alaska was 106% greater than the statewide rate — the highest of any region, including urban areas. That same report showed a third of Alaska women experience and report sexual violence in their lifetime. In 2015, 7,136 women — almost 3% — reported experiencing sexual violence that year alone. In the Bering Strait region, the number of women reporting sexual violence in their lifetime is similar, but the report emphasizes the actual number of incidents is much higher than what’s reported. Some survivors in Nome said they chose not to report their own trauma for many reasons, including lack of support or little accountability from law enforcement. John Earthman, District Attorney of Nome, during an interview with KNOM in fall of 2020. (KNOM) Earthman said rectifying past wrongs goes deeper than finishing NPD’s audit of former cases. Sexual assault cases are complex and difficult to prove under existing statutes. “What’s difficult, though, is when you’re dealing with a criminal statute of sexual assault, without consent has a very specific definition … without consent means with or without resisting. Basically, the victim was forced, or that this happened because they were threatened,” Earthman said. According to state statute, the burden of proof is on Earthman to show the offender used force, implied or otherwise, to have sex with the victim, and that the accused was mentally aware they didn’t have consent from the victim. Screenshot from a 2015 report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. (KNOM) Roughly 9% of all reported felony-level sex offenses in Alaska in 2015 ended in a conviction, according to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. A total of 1,352 felony-level sex offenses were reported that year, for which law enforcement made 225 arrests. A conviction for felony sex offense resulted 159 times, 119 times including “one or more.” For Nome, arrest rates for sex offenses since 2008 follow statewide trends, but conviction rates have been a lot lower. No audit, no acknowledgment When Chief Estes departed Nome, a new city manager, Glenn Steckman, assumed leadership in the fall of 2019. Concurrently, the City Council commissioned an outside management and evidence audit of the Nome Police Department to be conducted by Greg Russell Consulting. Steckman told the public during a November City Council meeting to expect results of the audit from Russell Consulting, LLC in a couple of months. As of the publishing of this story, the audit of NPD has yet to be released by the consulting firm. Greg Russell said his workload and COVID-19 have delayed the finalization of this audit. Regardless of the results, advocate Darlene Trigg said the lack of action on scores of cases with Alaska Native victims by NPD needs to be acknowledged so the community can move forward. “Well, it’s necessary. That’s the truth. You know? Some level of acknowledgment that harm has been done is probably not something that an attorney would want the city to do,” Trigg said. “However, there are people who are owed that in this community, who are, you know, lost in their own trauma response because of the way that they were treated. And their families, and their livelihoods and their … ability to walk in our town in a healthy, safe way is forever changed.” The current city administration said they’re less interested in looking in the “rearview mirror” and would rather make improvements for the future. Steckman said he, Chief Heintzelman and several of the newer Nome police officers were not part of past mistakes. That said, the city manager said a rebranding of NPD is in the works. “You know, from potentially what our uniforms look like, to what our badges look like. And, you know, how we initiate that … we’re still working on the details,” Steckman said. “And we mean a true rebranding, it’s not just doing a facade. And that’s why we are encouraging training.” ‘We need to fix our humanity’ Nome police officers currently receive training through the Alaska State Trooper Training Academy. Training includes topics such as forensic examinations, collecting better evidence, and learning about culturally informed police response. One of Nome’s newest officers, Scott Weaver, is undergoing training. He’s an investigator, hired to finish the department’s audit of cold cases going back to 2005. After being in Nome for two months, Weaver said he already feels the community’s pain. “I just took a sexual assault case, it’s an old case, a couple days ago from a mom and dad reporting a child that was abused,” Weaver said. “And you know, both of them, mom and dad in tears, thankful for me just taking it and running with the case. I think it’s just, they’ve had a bad experience.” “I can see some of it in the cases. You know, I can understand why. I have empathy for their hurt, and I want to fix any injustice.” He said. “I can stand up and say, ‘I’m not responsible; I wasn’t here.’ Sure, I could take that cop-out, but I am here now and I can do something.” Council member Jennifer Reader, one of two women on the local city council, said increasing Nome’s law enforcement is not the way to increase the arrest and conviction rate for sexual assaults. “I wholeheartedly believe that our community has a humanity problem,” Reader said. “We don’t have a policing problem. We do not need police to tell us what to do, the right thing to do. We don’t need that; we need to do the right thing. And that’s not what’s occurring right now. No policeman on this earth is going to be able to change that. So, we need to fix that. We need to fix our humanity.” This story is part of the “Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice” series by Alaska Public Media and KNOM, with funding in part provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. If you need to talk with someone while reading this or need help, here are some resources: Bering Sea Women’s Group: 907-443-5444; toll-free: 1-800-570-5444Behavioral Health Services at the Norton Sound Health Corporation: 907-443-3344, emergency number: 907-443-3200.STAR Alaska: 907-276-7273; toll-free 1-800-478-8999Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: 907-586-3650 If you are outside of the Bering Strait region, visit the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault website for a list of resources.
0 minutes | Jan 31, 2021
Feds investigate: Does Alaska lock up too many kids with behavioral health issues?
Alaska Psychiatric Institute is the state’s only inpatient psychiatric facility. It has beds for 50 adult patients. (Alaska Department of Health and Human Services) The Department of Justice is investigating whether the state of Alaska has unnecessarily institutionalized children with behavioral health issues. That’s according to a Jan. 21 letter from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to the Disability Law Center of Alaska, first reported by the Anchorage Daily News. The investigation is the result, in part, of the Law Center’s 2020 complaint that the state has failed to provide appropriate treatment, relying too heavily on locking up children with behavioral health disorders, often at out-of-state, for-profit psychiatric institutions. “Some of these kids are quite young, and they’re away from their families, away from their community, away from their culture,” said Leslie Jaehning, the Disability Law Center’s attorney. There were several problems noted in last year’s complaint to federal authorities, Jaehning said. They include a lack of community-based services, pressure on families to put their kids in institutions, and a growing number of children again being sent Outside, she said. A multi-year effort by the state to bring such children home to Alaska has stalled recently, something Jaehning said is likely due to a lack of funding. “I mean, everybody wants to see Alaska’s kids getting help. Everyone wants to see kids get the treatment and services they need,” Jaehning said. “But yeah, what needs to happen is a greater focus and investment on making sure those kids can get those services here at home, staying in their home with their family or guardians, and staying within the community.” Jaehning said she’s not sure exactly how long the Justice Department’s investigation will last, though she was told to expect it to take about a year. The state Department of Health and Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. A department spokesperson told the Anchorage Daily News health officials are aware of the investigation and are communicating with the Justice Department.
3 minutes | Jan 30, 2021
Water donations trickle into Tuluksak but may not be enough for village in crisis
The first donation from CeeJay Johnson’s GoFundMe waiting to be delivered to Tuluksak. (Photo courtesy of Elsie Allain) The Western Alaska village of Tuluksak is relying on private donations and the regional health corporation for shipments of bottled water after the village’s water purification plant burned down about two weeks ago. But the donations may not be enough. Listen to the story The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends drinking eight glasses of water per day. That’s about half a gallon of water a day and about 3.5 gallons of water a week. So with that math, a village like Tuluksak with a population of about 370 should go through 1,300 gallons of drinking water a week. Or if you’re a visual person, imagine 16 big bathtubs or 260 5-gallon buckets. RELATED: No easy answers after fire destroys Tuluksak’s water supply But in the first week after the fire, Tuluksak only received about six bathtubs of water or 96 buckets. The first few cases of bottled water came in from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and from a GoFundMe fundraiser set up by an activist. That water was quickly reserved and rationed out to elders and bottle-fed babies, tribal administrator Melony Allain said. But Allain is used to rationing water; most people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are. “I’ve always been conserving my drinking water,” she said. Allain said that she uses the Tuluksak River water for cleaning but not for drinking. “I would never ever, no matter how thirsty I am, I wouldn’t want to drink the Tuluksak water,” she said. She said that the one time she accidentally drank it, she was pregnant and immediately threw up. “Just regurgitated it back out — sorry,” she laughed. Part of the water delivery hold up was because in the first days after the fire, both the Kuskokwim River ice road and Tuluksak runway conditions were poor and made it difficult for the village to get their donations. As the airplane runway and ice road conditions improved, more water donations started to trickle in. A spokesperson from Donlin Gold said that they delivered water over the weekend. “Just from that Donlin Gold, it was able to be only 1.5 gallons per household which isn’t enough. Pretty sure it lasted a day or two,” Allain said. Indigenous activist CeeJay Johnson and her team of volunteers were able to get more water to the village. “Alaska Airlines flew in six pallets of water for us. In the six pallets alone, we sent 11,520 bottles of water,” Johnson said. Tuluksak is also expecting more shipments from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services, which are sending about a week’s worth of water to the village. Brian Lefferts, Director of Environmental Health & Engineering at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, wrote in an email that he knows of six pallets of water scheduled to be delivered but did not say where the water was coming from. Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation did not respond to follow up emails seeking clarification. The health corportion is also working on testing a portable water purification system. If it can purify Tuluksak’s river water, the health corporation will send the purifier upriver. The testing hasn’t been completed yet. Not knowing when they can expect potable water again is stressful for Allain. “I don’t know the timeline for the drinking water, that’s why I’m so concerned for people in my community. I really wish there was a faster solution,” she said. So far, 1,950 gallons of water have been delivered to Tuluksak — about 24 bathtubs worth.
4 minutes | Jan 29, 2021
Alaska Permanent Fund Corp, with millions of dollars in GameStop shares, eyes stock surge warily
Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation CEO Angela Rodell at the corporate office in 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North) The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation owns more than 100,000 shares of GameStop stock. That’s the video game store that made headlines this week when individual investors sent the company’s stock soaring to the dismay of hedge fund investors. The Permanent Fund isn’t getting ready to cash in though. And fund managers are concerned about the conditions that allowed the stock surge to happen. Fairbanks resident Connor Sherman recently purchased stocks for the first time – two shares in GameStop. But some individual Alaska investors see it otherwise. “About a week ago, there was this big sticky post in Wall Street Bets,” said Sherman. “Sticky means moderators decide it’s important enough that they just keep it on the front page.” R/Wall Street Bets is a page on the website Reddit, that now has nearly 5 million members. “It was just convincing and compelling that these hedge funds just oversold themselves and overextended themselves,” said Sherman. “It seemed pretty easy and it really wasn’t that much to buy in there.” Sherman bought in at $35 per share. When the market closed Thursday, the stock was selling at just under $200 per share after peaking at nearly $500 per share earlier in the week. What happened with GameStop goes back to a common practice in investing called shorting. And it starts if a hedge fund or an individual thinks a company is overvalued. Economist Mouhcine Guettabi explains, they’re basically betting on the stock declining. If the stock does decline, investors make money. If it surges, they can lose big. Recently, Guettabi said, GameStop and many other companies were the target of a lot of shorting activity. That’s where r/WallStreetBets comes in. “For some reason, hordes of individual investors took offense or disagreed with the premise or thought that it was unfair that there was all the shorting activity,” said Guettabi. “And what they decided to do was basically, in hordes, start buying the stock.” And that, in turn, drove up stock prices. Prices declined significantly on Thursday, as trading was restricted. Among GameStop’s many investors is the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation. The Permanent Fund is worth about $70 billion. And that means it owns a lot of different stocks. CEO Angela Rodell said the organization recently held slightly over 168,000 shares in GameStop, but that number changes daily. “If I get out my handy dandy calculator and see that 168,000 shares are what we had yesterday, I don’t know what their proportion is today, lets just assume it’s the same, you multiply that out, that means it’s a value of $32.5 million,” said Rodell. That’s a lot of money, but it’s less than one twentieth of one percent of the Permanent Fund’s value. Rodell said GameStop is just one of over 11,000 different stocks in the organization’s portfolio. On top of that, it’s also invested in bonds, real estate and private equity. Rodell said the Permanent Fund Corporation is invested in GameStop through an index fund, which means they can’t sell the stock on its own. Rodell said that they accept this type of market volatility when it comes. “We’re not going to react to one stock reacting in a particular manner that is an anomaly,” said Rodell. She said fund managers will look for longer-term trends, but don’t get caught up in day-to-day changes in the stock market. While Rodell said she doesn’t see the GameStop surge impacting the Permanent Fund, she is concerned about how it all came to be. “Even if you are not buying and selling GameStop yourself, you’re still exposed if you have investment in any type of index fund that GameStop is in,” said Rodell. “I think that’s a cause for concern and I think it’s going to cause our regulators in Washington to take a hard look at how this could happen.” Meanwhile, Sherman, in Fairbanks, said he’s not trying to give anyone else financial advice, but he’s holding onto his GameStop shares. Correction: This story previously stated that the total value of GameStop shares the Permanent Fund Corp. holds is less than half a percent of the fund’s total value. It is less than one twentieth of one percent of the fund’s value.
3 minutes | Jan 29, 2021
Alaska’s Pacific Islanders are being hit hard by COVID-19. But they aren’t getting vaccinated.
An Anchorage School District nurse fills a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at the Education Center in Anchorage on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Robert DeBerry/ASD) Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have been the racial group hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in Alaska. But state data also shows they’re the least likely to be vaccinated. Just 143 Alaskans who identify as Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian had been vaccinated out of 84,000 Alaskans as of Wednesday, according to the state’s vaccination dashboard. That means Islanders are about 10 times less likely to be vaccinated than the general population. But the most recent state data on mortality shows Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19. Nurse Judy Tanuvasa, who is Samoan, said she feels the community has been overlooked by state officials. “I’m looking at our people and they have no access at all,” she said. She’s an active community leader and her husband leads several Samoan churches. But she said she can count the number of Islanders she knows who have been vaccinated on one hand. “I only know maybe four people that already got vaccinated,” she said. “It’s sad.” RELATED: Hit hardest by COVID-19, Alaska’s Pacific Islanders face death and severe illness at an alarming rate Health officials say they’re working to correct the inequity, but putting the pieces together is complex. Language is one factor. Some Islanders don’t speak English as a first language, especially seniors who are currently eligible for vaccine. Tanuvasa said she had to help her 72- and 73-year-old parents navigate the state’s vaccination website. It was hard, even for her. “It’s really confusing and discouraging,” she said. Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska at an event last year. Hansen said that she’s been tasked with public health work that her cultural association wasn’t designed to do (Photo courtesy of Lucy Hansen) By the time she figured it out, appointments were booked through April. The website doesn’t offer translated information. To get the message out takes time and money. “It’s not just the Samoan language — there’s Tongan language, and then there’s Hawaiian, and then there’s Fijian, there’s Palau — there’s so many of Pacific Islanders here,” said Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska. Her group has been working to translate materials, but she’s operating on a volunteer basis. With several adopted children at home, she said she’s juggling a lot. Without an organization in charge of Islander health, directing resources is challenging for both health officials and community members. Tanuvasa, who has given dozens of vaccines to patients in the course of her work at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said she sees firsthand the difference having healthcare infrastructure designed for a group of people can have. Alaska Natives also had high rates of death and hospitalization from COVID-19. But in contrast to Islanders, Natives have a vast infrastructure in place through the tribal health system. Their efforts have been lauded for quickly getting vaccine into thousands of arms. RELATED: The Trump administration joined with tribes to get vaccines to rural and Indigenous Alaskans. Here’s how. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, this is amazing how they reach out and bring people to get immunized,’” said Tanuvasa. “I am hoping that they can come up with something like that [for us].” Without a specific healthcare organization, the Polynesian Association and a loose network of church and community leaders have taken on public health efforts for Islanders. In a normal year, the Polynesian Association would be focused on organizing dance performances and pancake fundraisers. Now, it’s translating materials, producing public health messages and countering misinformation about vaccines. There’s no good data about whether anti-vaccination beliefs could be affecting vaccination rates in the community. National public opinion polling shows some minority groups are less likely to think the vaccine is safe. An Alaska poll on COVID-19 attitudes conducted in November didn’t break down attitudes about the vaccine by race. Getting meaningful data about Islander attitudes would require a specific effort because of the relatively small size of the population, said Matt Larkin, a pollster involved with the survey. Tanuvasa said that anecdotally, she thinks there is pervasive misinformation about vaccines circulating on social media within the Islander community. “I saw there were things that say, ‘Oh, so and so received their shot and ended up, you know, dead.’ So they’re getting mixed mix information,” she said. Anchorage Health Director Heather Harris said there are ongoing efforts to correct for inequities health officials have seen in the data. A move by the state last week would give the city more control over how the vaccine is allocated within the municipality, which will allow it to address racial inequity, Harris said. The city will convene its own vaccine allocation committee to help come up with ways to make sure the vaccine gets out to underserved communities, she said. The new committee will work within the state’s allocation guidelines, “but also really bring in that ethics piece to trying to promote justice and mitigate health inequities,” Harris said. Hansen said one obstacle will be geography. There are currently few clinics with vaccine doses in the areas where many Islanders live, such as Mountain View and East Anchorage, and many people don’t have their own cars. Harris said officials are planning mobile clinics to be more accessible. “We’re calling them Strike Teams that might administer that vaccine to specific locations,” she said. It’s a model that was used successfully when the city brought COVID-19 tests to community churches in East Anchorage last fall. But it’s all contingent on having more vaccine, which so far has been in short supply.
3 minutes | Jan 28, 2021
Sitka artist becomes first Indigenous winner of the ‘Oscars of kids books’
“We are Water Protectors” urges activism to protect water and other natural resources. Author Carole Lindstrom was inspired by Indigenous-led movements like the 2016 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Cover illustration courtesy of Michaela Goade) Sitka illustrator Michaela Goade was awarded one of the highest honors in children’s literature this week for her work on “We are Water Protectors.” Goade, who is Tlingit, is the first Indigenous person to win the Caldecott Medal. Earlier this week, Michaela Goade thought she was signing on to an ordinary Zoom call with her small publishing team. Instead, she was met with a group of new faces congratulating her on her win. Click here to view the full cover illustration of “We are Water Protectors.” “I was completely caught off guard and didn’t even really know what to say beyond just thank you a million times,” she said. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished children’s picture book. “It’s kind of like the pinnacle for kids books. It’s called like the Oscars of kids books, so it’s a dream I think a lot of us have. And it was definitely a far-fetched dream, like — maybe one day, if I’m lucky,” Goade said. The 15-person award committee chose “We are Water Protectors” from more than 100 other children’s books sent to them by publishing companies. Chair Annisha Jeffries said the book was chosen for its powerful message and its captivating illustrations. “You know looking at the beautiful illustrations by Michaela, it just gave an overwhelming pictorial representation throughout the book. And she was able to breathe so much life into the story,” Jeffries said. The book urges activism to protect water and other natural resources. Author Carole Lindstrom was inspired by Indigenous-led movements like the 2016 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. When Goade read the story, she knew immediately that she wanted to illustrate it. Michaela Goade grew up in Juneau and moved to Sitka in April. She’s a member of the Kiks.ádi Clan of Sitka. (Photo by Sydney Akagi) “Just growing up in Southeast Alaska, being Tlingit, people of the tides — water is a way of life here, and it is our life here in so many different ways, so that core theme really resonated,” she said. Goade is a member of the Kiks.ádi Clan of Sitka and the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She made national headlines as the first Indigenous person and the first BIPOC woman to win the award. “I think it’s important to look at that and digest it and acknowledge and reflect on being the first in the award’s 83 year history, while also just being excited for the future and just know that there have been a lot of big strides in the publishing industry in the last few years,” she said. Goade also received attention late last year when her drawing of Alaska Native leader Elizabeth Peratrovich was featured as Google’s Doodle of the Day. She said some of the most powerful recognition she’s received is from Indigenous children and their parents. She hopes this book and the honor help elevate their voices. “To help Indigenous children feel seen and validated — and adults. And to know that their voices and their stories are worthy of everyone lifting them up,” Goade said. Goade’s next book is a collaboration with author Tasha Spillett-Sumner called “I Sang You Down from the Stars.” It comes out in April. She’s also working on a book set in Southeast Alaska that focuses on traditional food gathering and generational knowledge.
32 minutes | Jan 28, 2021
Coast Guard suspends search for missing pilot flying from Ketchikan to Port Angeles, Washington
U.S. Coast Guard graphic shows a pattern flown by an aircraft searching for the missing plane. (U.S. Coast Guard) Authorities called off Wednesday’s search for the pilot of a missing Cessna airplane that went down near Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. The U.S. and Canadian coast guards helped scour more than 1,000 square miles for the small plane that had left Ketchikan the day before. The Coast Guard said the aircraft was flying from Ketchikan to Port Angeles, Wash. A man piloting the single-engine Cessna radioed for help around 4:40 p.m. local time Tuesday. He reported he was about five miles north of Port Angeles and could see boat traffic below. “Right in the middle — I’m out here by — there’s a boat going by. There’s a tanker getting drug. I’m out in the middle. I’m going down now. I’m going into the water,” the man said. U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said Wednesday that units were activated to search both from the air and water. “We also received help from our Canadian partners up north, as well as a Naval Air Station helicopter from Whidbey Island,” Strohmaier said by phone. He said Coast Guard vessels from both nations used infrared cameras and radar to search for the lost plane overnight Tuesday. But as dusk fell Wednesday, Strohmaier said the search was called off. “It’s very unfortunate and tragic that we have not been able to find any parts of the plane or anything in regards to the missing man,” he said. He added the search may resume if more information becomes available. Authorities have not released the name of the missing pilot or the Cessna’s tail number. Strohmaier said authorities are in touch with the man’s family.
3 minutes | Jan 27, 2021
Researchers confirm location of 200-year-old Kiks.ádi fort
The site where Shís’gi Noow , or the Fort of Young Saplings, once stood in Sitka National Historical Park. A plaque commemorating the spot reads: “The Kiks.ádi clan of the Tlingit Tribe fought here against invading forces in 1804. The Kiks.ádi men and women sought to preserve and protect their land and its resources for this and future generations. At this point, the Kiks.ádi mark the beginning of the Survival March and the dawn of a new era.” (Erin McKinstry/KCAW) Researchers have confirmed the location of an important site in Tlingit history. The Sitka National Historical Park has long commemorated the spot of a Kiks.ádi fort destroyed by Russian invaders over 200 years ago, but the fort’s exact location remained uncertain until now. A peaceful clearing, a plaque and a totem pole mark the spot where Shís’gi Noow , or the Fort of Young Saplings, once stood. “It’s a sacred place, and I have been going out there for years when I feel in the need of strength,” Louise Brady a Kiks.ádi from the Point House in Sitka. “When I’m working on a project that I feel is, there’s some controversy, I go out there because that’s where my ancestors died for this land and for us to be able to be here today as Tlingit people.” The fort was built following the Battle of Old Sitka in 1802, when the Kiks.ádi ousted Russian colonists from a site around seven miles north. They anticipated the Russian return two years later and held off invaders from the fort for four days, until the loss of their gunpowder supply ultimately forced them to retreat and abandon the site. The Russians then established a colony that remained until they sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867. Oral histories and archaeological evidence like cannonballs and debris pointed to the clearing near the mouth of the Indian River, but some thought the fort stood in a different part of the park. A study released this week in the journal Antiquity has dispelled those doubts. Tommy Urban is a research scientist at Cornell University and the study’s co-author. “We did such a large survey, much larger than the area immediately around the fort clearing because we wanted to rule out these other possibilities that it could be located somewhere else in the park,” Urban said. Urban used something called an electromagnetic induction unit, which works kind of like a metal detector, to survey more than 40 acres of park property by hand over the course of two weeks. He also used a tool called a ground penetrating radar. “With the ground penetrating radar you’d think I was mowing the lawn or running a vacuum cleaner or something like that and it’s about that size,” he said. The technologies helped Urban and co-author Brinnen Carter determine the exact outline of the wooden fort, which was slightly larger than the current clearing and shaped like a trapezoid. That knowledge not only has historical implications, but also cultural significance, said Carter, who’s a former park employee and current cultural resource manager at Shenandoah National Park. “It has really, in a lot of ways, been a symbol of ongoing cohesion in the Tlingit community in Sitka to have that site available and accessible for Kiks.ádi people,” Carter said. Brady of the Kiks.ádi clan said it’s reassuring to know with certainty where the fort once stood. She hopes the findings prompt more visitors to learn the history of the site and remember those who died there. “Now we know for sure that this is the place that this happened and let’s learn more and learn more together. And respect all the history that is being taught or that is available,” she said. Brady said she’s always pleased when scientific and technological findings align with oral histories. The park will include information from the study in an upcoming “Cultural Landscape Report.” They’ll then work with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska to decide whether to make changes to the site, like additional signage or a physical marker identifying the fort’s outline. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.
0 minutes | Sep 25, 2020
Forest Service forging ahead with full Roadless Rule exemption for Tongass
A mountain peak rises above the Tongass National Forest northeast of Sitka Aug. 3, 2016. (Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska) On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is forging ahead with a proposal to make the Tongass National Forest fully exempt from a Clinton-era rule designed to limit road development on federal lands. It’s known as the Roadless Rule, and successive Alaska governors and the state’s congressional delegation have pushed to make it not apply in the Tongass. Proponents say exempting the Tongass would allow for more mining, communications and renewable energy projects on federal land. It could also open up more areas for logging, though advocates and opponents seem to agree that the impact on the timber industry would likely be minimal. But many Alaska Natives worry that rolling back the rule would damage areas tribal members use for hunting, fishing and foraging. Nearly 200 people testified at 18 hearings last year specifically geared towards people who rely on the forest for their way of life — and large majorities supported keeping the rule in place, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Nine federally-recognized tribal governments asked the USDA to restart the rulemaking process in July, saying federal officials have brushed aside Alaska Natives’ concerns. An internal Forest Service report notes that 96% of public comments received on the issue last fall supported leaving the rule in place. Approximately 1% supported a full exemption. The final environmental impact statement is expected to be released Friday. That would start a 30-day waiting period before the USDA can issue a final decision on the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest.
59 minutes | Sep 24, 2020
LISTEN: Primaries or ranked choice? Vote Yes and Vote No make their case on Ballot Measure 2.
Voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary election at Glacier Valley Baptist Church in Juneau. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO) This election season, in addition to voting on candidates, Alaskans will also decide on ballot initiatives. Ballot measure 2 seeks to make changes to the state’s election structure by replacing the political party primary and by selecting candidates through ranked choice voting. There would also be campaign finance disclosure changes. What would it mean for elections and what do you need to know about the measure before voting on it? We’ll hear from supporters and opponents on the next Talk of Alaska. HOST: Lori TownsendGUESTS: Brett W Huber, Sr., Campaign Manager, Defend Alaska Elections – Vote No on 2 Shea Siegert, Campaign Manager, Alaskans for Better Elections – Vote Yes on 2Leighan Gonzales, Chair, Protect Our Elections – Vote No on 2Rachel Kallander, Consultant to the Campaign, Alaskans for Better Elections – Vote Yes on 2 PARTICIPATE: Call 550-8422 (Anchorage) or 1-800-478-8255 (statewide) during the live broadcast. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (comments may be read on air). Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air). LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, Sept 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.LIVE Web stream: Click here to stream.
0 minutes | Sep 22, 2020
Investigator blames haste, lack of supervision for alleged Dunleavy ethics violations
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference at his Anchorage office last year. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media) An independent investigator found that a social media campaign from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy broke state ethics laws because of “quick decisions” and “lack of appropriate staff ethics awareness and supervision,” according to a 22-page report released in response to a public records request. The report adds new detail to a spare, three-page settlement resolving the violations that Dunleavy, a Republican, quietly posted to his state website earlier this month. Read the full report here Under the settlement, Dunleavy personally paid $2,800 to reimburse the state for social media and mailed advertisements from his office that praised his allies in the Legislature — and which the investigator, Fairbanks attorney John Tiemessen, said broke a law against spending state money for partisan political purposes. Alaska Gov. Dunleavy will pay $2,800 to settle ethics complaints over publicly-funded political ads Tiemessen, in his report, said that consulting with state ethics officials and seeking advice from the attorney general could have identified possible illegal actions beforehand, and immunized the governor against subsequent complaints. Dunleavy’s attorney, Brewster Jamieson, noted in an email Tuesday that, according to the settlement, the governor “gave direction that his staff should proceed in conformance with all laws, seeking guidance from the Department of Law as may be required.” Dunleavy disputed that his actions were illegal and said state ethics laws didn’t hold him strictly accountable for actions taken by his staff, according to the settlement.
0 minutes | Sep 21, 2020
Alaska’s pro-oil Republican governor is quietly pushing green energy projects too
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters at a fundraiser in January, 2020. (Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk) Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and disbanded the commission charged with guiding his state’s response to climate change. Kerry Williams and Ceal Smith are climate activists who were among the 50,000 Alaskans to sign the application to recall the governor. Nonetheless, all three found themselves on the phone in January. Dunleavy initiated the call after reading about Williams’ idea for a hydroelectric megaproject at Eklutna Lake, outside Anchorage, which would tie in with a huge expansion of wind energy across the state. “We were quite surprised by how enthusiastic he was,” said Smith. “He said he even drove out to Eklutna to conceptualize it.” Alaska is warming twice as fast as fast as the global average, and even as climate change threatens to impose steep costs here, Dunleavy and other elected officials have continued promoting the oil industry, which underpins the state’s entire economy. RELATED: As Arctic warming accelerates, permafrost thaw hits Red Dog mine with $20 million bill But the plummeting costs and increasing availability of renewable power sources are making their adoption increasingly inescapable, and even major oil companies like BP have expanded into the industry. Renewables make an especially compelling case in Alaska, where electricity costs nearly twice the national average. And the Eklutna hydroelectric concept isn’t the only renewable power idea to draw Dunleavy’s interest. The governor has also quietly pitched Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, on Alaska’s wind power potential, with Buffett responding in a letter that he hopes he can “join forces” with Dunleavy. Executives from one of Buffett’s companies, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, have held a series of meetings with the governor and senior administration officials. “I know there’s a view, on the part of some, that a Republican governor that is supportive of Alaska’s resource extraction industries, including those around fossil fuels, would not want anything to do with renewables,” Dunleavy said in an interview Friday. “That’s not the case.” Improvements in technology and decreasing costs of renewable power, he added, “open up some new and tremendous possibilities for Alaska.” The Eklutna project is still more of a concept than it is a formal proposal, and neither the governor nor Berkshire Hathaway is talking about what could come out of their discussions. But alternative energy boosters say that the governor’s interest reflects a growing political consensus around the benefits of renewable power. “Things are shifting,” said Smith. “And this is a new place we’re in, that we haven’t been in before.” The Eklutna hydroelectric project and accompanying wind power investments could cost $5 billion or more. But boosters say that the project could supply most of Alaska’s road system communities with 100% renewable power and cut electric costs by a third over time. The concept stems from an inherent problem with wind power: It isn’t consistent, because it rises and falls with the wind itself. Eklutna Lake is tucked into the Chugach Mountains not far from Anchorage. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media) Williams and Smith want to use the project at Eklutna Lake, tucked in the mountains outside of Anchorage, as a kind of battery: When winds create more energy than Alaskans need, the extra power would pump water uphill to the lake, and to two new reservoirs built even higher in the mountains. Then, in times when more power is needed, the water would be drained downhill out of the reservoirs and through an existing hydroelectric plant that connects to the lake. It’s a system known in the energy industry as “pumped hydro.” Supporters say that extra water flowing out of Eklutna Lake could actually boost salmon runs in the Eklutna River downstream — a major difference from another major hydroelectric project that Alaska elected officials advanced in the past, in the Susitna River watershed. And the Eklutna project faces no opposition from the region’s Indigenous people, according to Aaron Leggett, the president of Eklutna’s tribal government. Dunleavy said he stumbled on the idea doing some late-night internet research and felt like “the concept had potential.” “It makes total sense to explore pumped hydro, using wind as a main source of energy and the reservoir as the batteries,” Dunleavy said. “We have the topography to make this work.” Alaska’s electricity costs are the second-highest of all 50 states, and Dunleavy said that he’d like to install more predictable energy sources, like renewables, as a means to recruit businesses to the state. He said Alaska could tap into not just wind and hydroelectric energy, but also into tidal power, given the massive tides in Cook Inlet near Anchorage. After discussing the Eklutna project with Williams and Smith, Dunleavy asked them to write a memo on their idea, which has since been published. Dunleavy also asked the Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency charged with reducing power costs, to review the proposal. The authority has not published any of its own findings, but its preliminary analysis suggests that a pumped hydro project may have more potential near an existing state-owned hydroelectric dam at Bradley Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula, said Executive Director Curtis Thayer. He said the authority aims to produce more detailed recommendations within six months to a year. The Eklutna project was what sparked Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s interest in Alaska, Thayer said. The authority hasn’t had detailed conversations with the company, but Berkshire Hathaway does have a copy of the memo about the project, Thayer said. The company’s executives have held at least four phone calls with Dunleavy since he wrote to Buffett in May, according to copies of the governor’s schedules obtained through a public records request. A Berkshire Hathaway Energy spokeswoman, Jessi Strawn, declined to comment. Dunleavy also declined to describe his conversations with the company. But in his original letter to Buffett, also obtained through a records request, Dunleavy said he’d read Buffett’s annual message to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that touted the company’s success in harnessing wind power in Iowa and attracting new high-tech plants to the state. “I believe Alaska presents similar opportunities and would welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you,” Dunleavy wrote. “Transitioning Alaska to clean, reliable, inexpensive electricity is one of the greatest things we could do to attract additional investment, diversify and grow our economy and lower the economic burden on Alaskans in powering their homes and businesses.” Chris Rose, who leads an advocacy organization called the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, said his group welcomes Dunleavy’s interest in efforts to make the state’s power grid more efficient. But Rose said he wants to make sure that planning for renewable power projects is careful and strategic, not driven by political interest in megaprojects. That’s because many of Alaska’s road system utilities use relatively new power plants fueled by natural gas, and displacing them with projects that are too big could actually drive costs up, Rose said. “We have to, I think, look at this a little bit more surgically and say, ‘We’re going to be displacing this much natural gas by putting in energy storage here, or by putting in a smaller wind farm over there,’ rather than thinking about much larger projects,” Rose said. Rose said he’d also like to see the governor focus on efficiency efforts that might be “less sexy” than megaprojects but that are already underway, like an initiative to better coordinate power generation and transmission between Alaska’s many different road system utilities. Dunleavy said his administration is planning “a lot more” action on renewable power. And he cited his State of the State speech earlier this year, when he said he was pushing his departments to hit a 2025 goal for Alaska to produce half of its energy from renewable sources. “I think Alaska has tremendous opportunity in this,” Dunleavy said. “Alaska is open to business, and the governor is trying to reduce energy dependence — and we’ll use any and all methods to get to that.”