NMFS Corrects Math, Seismic Testing Continues

A lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service has been settled in District Court in Anchorage. Native and environmental groups took issue with some of the math the agency used to calculate how many Cook Inlet Beluga whales would be affected by seismic testing for oil and gas.

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NMFS issued permits to Apache Corporation for that kind of testing last year. But the plaintiff’s group in this case didn’t like the way the agency projected the number of whales that might swim through these testing zones.

Rebecca Noblin is the Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. They joined the Chickaloon Native Village and the Natural Resources Defense Council as plaintiffs.

“Basically, the National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t account for the number of Belugas that would be under water when they counted how many Belugas would be harmed and harassed by the company’s activity. So as a result, they really underestimated how many whales might be harmed as a result,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

They joined the Chickaloon Native Village and the Natural Resources Defense Council as plaintiffs.

The plaintiff’s group logged several complaints about the permits, but this is the only one that stuck. The real problem is that they based the number of whales that would be affected on an aerial survey, but didn’t correct that estimate for whales that can’t be observed in that kind of survey.

“So that correction factor was used for the overall estimate of the whales in the Inlet for our population estimate, but it was not used when we estimated the actual animals that were in this area that would be affected by the project,” said Brad Smith, Supervisory Administrator for NMFS’ Protected Resources Division.

So, because there were some errors in these calculations, the court found that the agency’s limit for takes of whales was arbitrary and capricious. That limit was 30 whales per year. About ten percent of the total population.

A ‘take’ in this circumstance doesn’t necessarily mean a kill. The permits issued are called IHA’s. Incidental Harassment Authorization. That can mean a couple different things, but basically, it means disturbing a marine mammal by conduct ranging from incidental harassment to killing.

For Apache’s part, they did have a mitigation plan in place that NMFS was okay with. If Belugas started swimming into a testing area, they would pause or stop testing.

“They would have the observers on board the seismic vessel with binoculars and looking during daylight hours when visibility allowed them to see whether whales were coming in this zone at the point where they may be harassed,” Smith said.

And beside that, Smith says Belugas tend to cluster; usually where they can get a fill of salmon near river mouths and not necessarily near testing zones. He says one testing zone is in an area where no whales have been observed by aerial survey.

“That’s not to say that we wouldn’t expect them to be found or to occur in the area where we expected most of the seismic noise to be found during the surveys, but rather the distribution is going to be clustered and most of the whales are not going to be in those areas but rather at the mouths of those salmon streams,” Smith said.

NMFS has reworked their math and Apache is operating under a new batch of permits, but Noblin says a new approach is needed; that the focus of the agency should be more precautionary and look at all the activity going on in Cook Inlet. Apache, after all, is not the only company doing business out there, and oil and gas development isn’t the only activity.

“There’s shipping and there’s pollution from Anchorage and there’s all sorts of things going on in Cook Inlet that can impact Beluga whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service is the only agency that can really get a handle on everything impacting Beluga whales and balance all those competing interests,” she said.

The permits Apache applied for allow for testing at both 180 decibels and 160 decibels. How loud is that? Well, back when NASA was still in the space shuttle business, they had to use a sound suppression system during launch so they wouldn’t damage the cargo with excessive sound pressure. NASA kept the volume under 145 decibels.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Tesoro, EPA Reach $1.1M Agreement

Tesoro Corporation has been issued a fine of more than one million dollars for violating provisions of the Clean Air Act.

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In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a complaint that Tesoro wasn’t properly testing and keeping records of its conventional gasoline. This was happening at a handful of refineries in the western US, including the one in Kenai.

On Thursday, the EPA announced an agreement with Tesoro. The company will pay a $1.1 million dollar fine and revamp its procedures for testing and reporting fuels.

The records in question date back to 2003.

“It has more to do with testing protocols…paperwork; what got filled out, what boxes got checked,” said Tesoro spokesperson Matt Gill.

“At the end of the day, we believe that all the fuel that went out complied with regulations, just not within the manner that they wanted it tested,” he said.

EPA officials handling this case in Washington DC couldn’t be reached in time for this story, but in a press release Thursday, the agency said “by taking action against violations of these regulations, the Agency is protecting people’s health and ensuring a level playing field for refiners that play by the rules.”

Based on the consent decree handed down by the DC District Court, Tesoro must preserve all documents and records of its fuel tests for two years. The EPA can ask for samples from Tesoro any time.

Gill says the company has already started working with EPA to clean up its testing protocol.

“You see this and it makes you wonder about the quality of your fuels and what’s going out into the environment, and we certainly take this very seriously and we certainly don’t feel that any of our products that have gone out have been anything less than what people would expect,” he said.

Tesoro will also prepare and implement a System Wide Compliance Plan and provide EPA with all of that paperwork as it pertains to the Clean Air Act.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


New Testing Procedures Could Ease Concerns About Standards Based Assessments

Mt. View Elementary is one of 44 individual schools in the district that faces unique challenges in administering the state's SBAs.

 

This month, Alaska joined the growing list of states to be granted a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

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This waiver business is welcome news for a lot of people. People like Joe Niichel. He’s got a son, Leif, just finishing up 5th grade at Mt. View Elementary. Listening to Niichel’s story, you can begin to see how standardized tests, which are the back bone of No Child Left Behind, are anything but. On the first day, students at Mt. View were allowed some extra time to finish up. But the following day, the tests were promptly picked up at the final bell.

“The Principal said hey, sorry but the testing ends when the school day ends. But my daughter is eight, and she’s in third grade at Kaleidoscope and she’s also taking the SBAs. Herself and other students in her grade were allowed to stay until 5 pm. And I wanted to know why there were different rules for different schools for these standardized tests. I thought it was supposed to be standardized,” Niichel said.

What the school day looks like during testing can be entirely unique to each student. The goal is to find out if students are measuring up, academically, while at the same time accommodating the needs of each student. That’s where the waters get a little murky. There’s no scheduled end for the test. But there are guidelines for how long it should take, and someone eventually has to decide when a student is no longer making progress toward completing a test. The concern for a parent like Joe Niichel is that the quality of a school is based on how well it performs on a test. But if the standards for how you get to take that test are up in the air, it can’t provide a very full or very true picture. And that’s a concern for administrators like Tim Vlasak, too. He’s the Director of Assessment and Federal Programs for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

“There’s so many things, when you tie things down to those three days, that it’s important to never rely on one piece of information.”

So, it’s really a matter of semantics. Tests aren’t actually standardized at all. They are standards-based assessments. The SBAs. It’s a subtle, but distinct difference.

“So they look for specific information and the ability of students to be successful with that information, and it’s based on some standard; some objective,” Vlasak said.

The ambiguity in all of this is one of the reasons Alaska is one of forty states, plus the District of Columbia, to apply for and receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

“By granting the waiver, we have an opportunity to move away from so much emphasis just on testing,” said Erik McCormick, Director of Assessment, Accountability and Information Management at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Under that federal law, those tests are pretty much the only measuring stick for how well a school is performing. That is, how proficient a school’s students are at hitting certain benchmarks for progress. The measurement was done by something called AYP, annual yearly progress. With the waiver, schools will be measured not just on whether or not they hit those benchmarks, but how much progress was made from year to year. That wasn’t the case before.

“The growth is something we wanted in the original AYP that they denied. At the time we first applied for our new accountability system, they weren’t ready yet to consider growth models,” McCormick said.

The time limits for testing is one of several issues that come up every year. But looking ahead, the waiver from No Child Left Behind will possibly reduce the impact of a single measure of progress like the SBAs.

And new testing should also help put an end to the discrepancies experienced by Joe Niichel’s kids.  After next year, schools around the state will begin testing on computers. The problem of determining progress will be solved, since those tests will be more adaptive.

“If the kid is hitting and they’re having positive results with some of the higher difficulty items, they move on to even higher difficulty items. And on the opposite end, if it’s a kid that’s struggling a little bit, the test is adjusted to their skill level. One of the benefits to that is the test could be shorter in that it picks up pretty quickly where the kid’s strengths and weaknesses are,” McCormick said.

For Joe Niichel, it’s a step in the right direction.

“I hope that some of the bureaucracy gets left behind and they make some common sense decisions, because my son will be taking this next year as will every other child in this district, and of course it will continue on through high school where it becomes even more important in things like scholarships, grades; a lot of that stuff will become important and will also be the ruler which he gets judged by. And so it’s only fair that they make the point to do this better every year.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Parnell Touts Legislative Accomplishments At Chamber Luncheon

 

Governor Sean Parnell was in Soldotna Wednesday. He signed three bills crafted by Peninsula legislators. He also gave his take on the legislative session.

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The Governor signed a bill that establishes performance audits for state programs, something the state hasn’t done since the early 80’s. Another bill, sponsored by Representative Kurt Olson would discourage oil companies from buying up leases and sitting on them for long periods, by making it easier for companies who are exploring and developing to renew their leases. Senator Cathy Giessel’s bill lowers the state’s take on taxable income for small businesses that make less than $222,000 per year.

The Governor’s talk to the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce was focused on three key issues that he considers victories; SB 21, the controversial oil tax legislation, a 14% reduction in the state’s budget, which he says is something that went largely unnoticed.

“Beyond that, we set a five-year spending plan, a fiscal plan if you will, that says we are going to maintain that lower level of spending,” Parnell said.

But with a caveat.

“If all of Alaska can benefit from a gas line, that’s an investment we’ll make and that will stand outside that spending limit. But when we’re talking about our normal operating and normal capital budgets, we’re going to maintain this healthy band, but much lower band of spending, than we currently are.”

The other big accomplishment for the Governor was to cut out what called redundancies in the permitting process for natural resource development projects. The claim here is that by getting projects approved faster, more jobs will be created faster.

“Without having to wait for the permitting process to go through its repetitive processes over and over and over again for the same project, for the same scope of work, the same environmental factors. It’s done at one time with the public notice and comment,” Parnell said.

That prompted the question: Aren’t there times when it’s not a bad idea to have more than one set of eyes look at a project?

“Well, clearly we care very deeply about our environment. We all live here, we’re not going to treat it improperly nor harm it. That’s not what we’re about as Alaskans. But permitting doesn’t have to be about five or six layers of doing the same thing. Making the same determination, the same best interest finding over and over and over again, when the project hasn’t changed in scope, the environment hasn’t changed at all. It’s about getting jobs to Alaskans sooner, while protecting our environment and we think we can do that,” he said.

Parnell says quickening the permitting process is a goal he’ll continue to work on. He says he’s not looking forward to the next legislative session just yet, instead focusing on fulfilling the promises of the measures passed this time around, like Senate Bill 21.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Public Hearing Date Set For Anadromous Streams Ordinance

After more than a year of debate, public hearings and task force meetings, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will finally make a decision about anadromous streams protection.

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Mark this one on your calendars: June 18th. At that meeting, the Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing, and maybe even a vote, on an ordinance that would change what lands fall under the Borough’s habitat protection code.

This is the one we’ve been hearing about for over a year. In 2011, the Borough’s protection ordinance was expanded to include all the waters in a state catalog of anadromous places. This meant a 50 foot buffer, even on private property, that’s regulated in terms of what can be done or not as it pertains to fish habitat.

In the time since that measure passed, public outcry from a handful of property owners has gotten louder. This issue has become so divisive, that even setting a public hearing date for it couldn’t be done without a fair amount of back and forth between Assembly members and the administration.

Debate on an amendment to change the public hearing date wandered into fiduciary territory.

How much will it cost? Will the Gilman River Center need more staff to enforce the new rules and process the permits that will be necessary for some things under those rules?

“You know, some of us up here claim that we’re fiscally responsible and we’re conservatives and we’re going after that savings, but yet they’re willing to say yeah, I’ll do this. This is a feel good thing. And I don’t feel real good about it,” said Assembly member Charlie Pierce.

“I want a number, I want to know what it’s going to cost and I want to tie you down to something so that when you’re going forward and you add four or five more bodies (at the River Center), we can come back and look at the minutes and say hey, you said you weren’t going to add four or five more bodies.”

So, the administration will attach a fiscal note to this one. But Mayor Mike Navarre isn’t a real big fan of those.

“In terms of tying me down, I just have to remind you and the public, the Mayor doesn’t appropriate. The Assembly does,” Navarre said, responding to Assembly member Pierce.

“So if I say it’s going to take one person, the Assembly might say ‘we think it’s going to take two.’ That’s where the battles come in over fiscal notes. So we will put some estimates together as to what we believe the fiscal impacts will be.”

Navarre also had to answer for the make-up of the Task Force. It includes two Assembly members, the mayor’s Chief of Staff, the River Center’s Resource Planner, three biologists and two private citizens. That’s the group that came up with the recommendations for the ordinance the Assembly will eventually vote on. The popular claim is that Task Force members had their minds made up long before they were done working.

“If I put some expertise in the area of habitat and resource management on the Task Force, I think that was perfectly appropriate. The recommendations that came back are going to be before the Assemble for consideration and the public will have another chance to weigh in on it. That is the public process,” Navarre said.

There’s a lot of information in the ordinance as it’s currently drafted, but here are a few of the basic rules for property within the 50 foot buffer:

You won’t need a permit to mow or maintain a garden, or remove a tree that falls on its own. You will need a permit to take down a standing tree, and it has to be replaced with two saplings.

Gazebos, fire pits, decks, saunas and the like are all okay, provided enough native vegetation is kept in place.

Float plane landings and boat launches are also fine if, again, it doesn’t mean ripping about a lot of native vegetation.

There’s also a grandfather clause for existing structures. If you’ve got a building that doesn’t fit the new rules, but can establish that it was under construction before they went into effect, you’re fine.

You can see everything in the proposed ordinance here (the good stuff starts on page 183).

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


‘Bad Song Survey’ Lives Up To Its Name

Shaylee Rizzo (R) explains to Royce Wood just how bad a song can be. Carla Jenness (L) tries to imagine hearing something else. (Photo courtesy Triumvirate Theatre)

The Triumvirate Theater in Soldotna is putting on their new Bad Song Survey show this weekend. Inspired by former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, the Survey includes performance and analysis of some truly horrendous pop tunes, submitted by the public.

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Movin’ On Up

Madison Willets, Kianna Steadman, Brian Dusek, Cody Quelland, Afton Carlson and Jacob Creglow perform the Star-Spangled Banner Wednesday morning at Soldotna Middle School

Graduation season is in full swing and students up and down the Kenai Peninsula are closing the book on another year. Eighth graders at Soldotna Middle School took their turns walking across the stage Wednesday morning.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Group Seeks To Increase Voter Turnout With New Ordinance

A group of citizens on the Kenai Peninsula is trying to change the way voters cast their ballot in Borough elections.

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Depending on where you live in the Borough, as few as six percent of the registered voters in a precinct could decide an election. James Price is one of 16 borough residents who are working to change that.

“The turnout has been getting lower year by year. (The proposal) will give people a more meaningful opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice,” Price said.

Last week, the Borough Clerk’s office received a proposal, co-sponsored by Price, called the Better Elections initiative. The ordinance that’s been drafted would change Borough elections in two big ways. Voters would receive their ballots in the mail, and that would work basically like casting an absentee ballot. The other change would be to introduce ranked choice voting.

So in something like a Borough mayoral election, if one candidate doesn’t get a majority, you start going down the rankings, eliminating the candidates with the least votes, until a clear winner is found. This would eliminate the need for run-off elections.

“In the last several (elections), the voter turnout for the run off election to determine who the mayor is, there’s been less people showing up than in the first part, which if it were a state wide election, you’d be calling that a primary. So you’re having a fall off in interest at a key time in the election,” Price said.

Besides getting more voters in on the action, the measure aims to lower the cost of administering elections, perhaps by as much as half.

I got some numbers from the Clerk’s office, and, in theory anyway, that math works out. The Borough has about $127,000 budgeted for elections for the next fiscal year. And there are not quite 42,000 registered voters on the rolls. Take that times the dollar ten the Clerk’s office estimates as the cost of mailing out a ballot, and you do get somewhere in the ball park of a fifty percent savings.

This policy isn’t set in stone. In fact, it hasn’t even been brought before the Assembly. The Clerk’s office will either certify or reject the initiative this week. If it is certified, it will have to go to a petition. And it will need 997 signatures to go before voters, who would decide in the booth if they want to vote from home in the future.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Eagle Eyed: Kenai Birders Complete 24 Hour ‘Big Sit’

 

Seagulls, seen through a viewing scope on the Kenai Wildlife Veiwing Platform, rest on exposed mudflats at low tide near the mouth of the Kenai River during the 24 hour Big Sit.

Visitors from across the state and even across the Pacific from the tiny island of New Caledonia were on the Peninsula for this year’s bird festival. A new feature was the Big Sit, where volunteers tried to check off as many species as possible in 24 hours.

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Todd Eskelin and Toby Burke had more than 30 species checked off a list of nearly 300 before 7 o’clock on an overcast Saturday morning, including seagulls, of course.

“Several times this morning we’ve had these big bait balls over here by the dock,” Eskelin says, pointing away from the Kenai Wildlife Viewing Platform toward the winding Kenai River.

“There’s only about 50 there now, but in a few minutes there will be several thousand.”

He and Burke are on the first shift of the 24 hour Big Sit held over the weekend at the platform. Volunteers took three and four hour shifts, keeping eyes, ears, binoculars and scopes peeled for…everything. Gulls, sandhill cranes, owls, geese…

Big Sits like this are gaining popularity Outside, but this was the first real official one in Alaska. It makes pretty good sense to have one here. We get a great variety of birds and a lot more daylight to observe them. Eskelin tells me that as interest in birding has grown over the years, so has the list of observed species.

“A lot of people don’t consider themselves birders, so they come out here and they look at the birds and they really love seeing them. But it’s only when you have these festivals and you have these speakers explaining to them, you know, ‘that bird winters in Brazil’ and ‘that bird winters in Chile’ and ‘that bird only goes down to the southwestern US’. Then they really get a grasp for the difference in all the birds.”

A pair of Dowitchers bob for breakfast early Sunday morning. They were one of more than 70 species documented during the Kenai Bird Festival.

Twelve hours later, the sun was out and Cindy Avery was bravely manning the platform against strong winds coming in from Cook Inlet.

She was working the 4-8 pm shift and had observed 35 different species when I stopped by around six.

“But pretty much I’ve been abandoned, as you can see,” she said with a laugh toward the chilly wind.

Avery is the vice-president of the Kenai Bird club and she’s been behind the binoculars for about four years. She says the club has been a rich resource for learning more about our winged friends who return each spring.

“Since I joined the Kenai Bird Club, everyone’s been so helpful and really great at the learning curve and explaining to you the differences, the very subtle differences in some birds and they’ve been really wonderful. My information has gone tremendously sky high, I think, but I have a lot to learn still,” Avery said.

They started a new list with each shift. Twelve hours later, and six o’clock Sunday morning, Toby Burke was back at it, making the final scans over the Kenai Flats. The final tally was more than 70 species identified over the 24 hours that started the previous morning.

He says events like the Birding Festival and the Big Sit all help contribute to the social aspect of the culture of birding, which I’ve found out, is just as important as a clean scope, a pair of gloves and an appreciation for observing the natural world.

“There’s this assumption that for birders to have a great time, it’s all about the birds. And actually, the birds are a backdrop. There’s all this social interaction. (The birders) need that interaction for them to say ‘that was a wonderful birding experience’. And we’re learning that here. They’re saying you have to give the birding public certain things for them to really feel like they had a good experience,” Burke said.

“The birds are definitely important, but (they) want that people-to-people connection.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Rock For The River Bands Announced

 

The Kenai Watershed Forum has announced the band lineup for the 23rd annual Kenai River Festival coming up in a few weeks.

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From the Kenai Watershed Forum:

The Wailin' Jennys perform Saturday, June 8th.

 

Heart-Stopping Harmonies Headline Saturday: The Wailin’ Jennys & Melissa Mitchell

The Wailin’ Jennys have toured three continents and are enjoying international acclaim as one of today’s most popular folk-roots bands. Boasting a perfect mix of Americana, pop and traditional folk reminiscent of Alison Krauss and the Indigo Girls, the festival is excited to have the Jennys take the stage on Saturday evening to celebrate the Kenai River.  Alaska’s own Melissa Mitchell’s music combines powerful lyrics and melodies with a soulful vocal delivery that aims straight for the heart.  Her vibrant performances and committed activism are a great addition to the festival line-up.

 

Rock for the River All Weekend Long!

Locals 907 perform Sunday, June 9th

The Friday night line-up includes a rock filled list of local favorites including Backwoods Revolution, Robb Justice Band, Off the Cuff and the last performance of the PG Band to close the Friday night show.  Saturday’s line up features a folk and newgrass feel with Amy Hettinger, Melissa Mitchell and headliner the Wailin Jennys with dance friendly Troubador North, the Baked Alaskans with special guest Mike Morgan and other talented acts gracing the stage.  Dance away the weekend on Sunday with Say Surrender, Barroom Roses, the Holy Santos Gang and 907 closing out the festival.


Little Growth For 2014 Borough Budget

 

The start of the next fiscal year is coming up and the Kenai Peninsula Borough budget is ready for public view. There are few changes in the proposed budget compared to last year.

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You could buy a top of the line Ferrari with the money the Borough added to its budget for this year; about $300,000. That sounds like a lot, but it represents less than one percent growth to a proposed budget that totals $73.2 million.

“Overall, it’s very, very small; about a 4/10ths of a percent increase in the overall budget for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and most of that went to education,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. “I think our priorities are straight.”

Some costs are up and some are down. There’s a savings of more than $1 million in the solid waste budget. That comes mostly from switching the Homer landfill to a transfer station. Some staff positions vacated by retirement won’t be refilled adding some more savings. The budget for the roads department is up, though. Navarre says that’s not a big surprise, especially as state and federal spending on roads goes down. The borough has had help with capital spending on roads from the state the past few years, but the proposed budget project that by 2017, perhaps, more of those capital expenditures will be covered by the Borough.

“That’s something we have to take into account. We’re impacted fairly directly by what the state does. We’re seeing a small decrease in funding this year in revenue sharing from the state, we’re seeing some impacts from payment in lieu of taxes from the federal government. All of those things impact us, because when we lose those revenue sources we either have to reduce…or find additional dollars to make up for that loss,” Navarre said.

Despite that, revenues remain pretty stable for next year, with the lion’s share coming from property and sales tax. Less than 15% of the Borough’s income is from other sources. Unlike a municipality such as Soldotna, which can get by mostly on sales tax alone, the Borough is responsible for providing services to such a wide area, that dependence on property taxes is a hard truth.

We have a number of service areas that are funded on the mill levy on property taxes. Obviously, it would be very difficult to assess the sales tax by service area, it would be really a nightmare for the Borough to try and do that,” he said.

Far and away the biggest budget item is education funding. The School District will get almost $49 million dollars this year, more than half the total budget. After that, it’s the first responders: Central Emergency Services will have $5.8 million to work with this year. The Nikiski Fire Service Area, which extends to the west side of Cook Inlet, gets $3 million.

A public hearing on the budget is schedule for June 4th. If the Assembly adopts it, it goes into effect at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1st.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Murkowski Pushes Resource Development At Chamber Luncheon

Former Governor Frank Murkowski addresses a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Wednesday in Kenai. (Photo: Brian Smith/Peninsula Clarion)

 

Former Governor Frank Murkowski was in Kenai Wednesday. He’s traveling around the state asking the question “Who owns Alaska?”

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The short answer: not Alaskans.

“These policies are set by an elitist, powerful environmental lobby. Make no mistake about it,” Murkowski told those in attendance at Wednesday’s joint luncheon of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce at the Kenai Visitor’s Center.

He talked for nearly an hour, lamenting about road blocks to resource development that he says are put up by special interest groups and endorsed by the federal government through policy.

“They have a void between the common desire of the public to aspire for good jobs, opportunities, better quality of life, that has to come from something. It can’t come from the expansion of government. It’s got to come from the resource base of this country and this state.”

He tried to make the case for opening up development in federally controlled areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve as a means of generating more jobs and more revenue. And, of course, the Pebble Mine. Like most politicians, he’s not decidedly for or against that project; he simply wants the process to work as intended.

“I have no problem if the EPA goes through the process and says ‘the danger is too great, and it would endanger the renewability of the salmon runs’. Don’t do it. But for heaven’s sake, don’t cut it off this way,” he said.

Looking at things from a global perspective, he says the policies of Washington just don’t mesh with the current state of things; namely an ever growing appetite for natural resources, especially in the developing economies of places like China, India and Brazil.

“The world does not revolve around the US. It revolves around a product that’s in demand worldwide, and the worldwide demand sets price…and policy. But why is our government so reluctant to allow exploration and development that will provide Americans with jobs, tax base and so forth on federal lands that it owns? And that’s where you have to question, where in the hell is the logic?”

Murkowski’s message was pretty much the same as when he was governor. It’s all about jobs and growing the economy. To that end, I asked him if resource development is always the answer.

“No, it’s not always the answer by any means, but you have to identify where the jobs are going to come from. If you have a society where the predominate employer is government, then what supports government? Defict? Borrowed money? Or, responsible development?”

And the debate continues…

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Kenai City Council To Vote On Annual Budget Wednesday

 

The Kenai City Council will vote this week to approve the budget for fiscal year 2014.

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Looking at the draft proposal for next year’s budget, nothing really stands out as a major change. No big million dollar projects, no big changes to property taxes or other revenue generators. The most noticeable change is kind of one for the accountants. There will be a separate fund to pay for the State’s personal use fishery. That money used to come out of the general fund. That’s unique because other stand-alone funds, like the airport or water and sewer fund, have their own department heads. Not so with the dipnet fishery.

“When it comes to the personal use fishery, it really is more of a collaborative effort,” said city finance director Terry Eubank.

“Our Parks and Rec department has a significant role in that, our streets department has a significant role in that. So there’s a lot of different players in that and by us putting that in its own fund and breaking it into departments, it gives each of those managers control over their budget and their activity and a way to account for it and isolate those costs a little bit better.”

The budget for Kenai next year will grow by about five percent, to just over $24 million, due mostly to increases in employee compensation; either higher health care costs, paying for overtime or cost of living increases. Beyond that, things are pretty static.

“Most of the revenue streams are pretty constant. There’s no proposed change in the city’s mill rate…or sales tax rates,” Eubank said.

The city is feeling a bit of a pinch from the effects of sequestration of the federal budget. One thing in particular is the loan payment for the Library expansion a couple years ago. A federal program subsidized repayment of that loan to the tune of 45%, but that program’s funding was cut when Congress couldn’t reach a budget deal this year. And there are other areas where federal dollars won’t be found this year.

“Funding at the airport through the FAA has been tied up for awhile dealing with federal funding issues. And who’s to say how many federal grants have been reduced or cut back that I don’t know the exact amounts of to put in the document. Just because it’s not spelled out in there, I think there are other impacts of sequestration and the issues going on on the federal side of life that are definitely impacting the city,” he said.

In all, the city has an ending fund balance of about $41 million. That’s divided up between the roughly $15 million general fund and everything else: permanent funds, debt service, congregate housing and more. Eubank says that balance works sort of like the savings account you or I have that can be used as proof that you’re a good customer for a loan.

“Having an adequate level of savings, not an excess level, but an adequate level, gives us the ability to match grants. It gives us the ability when we have major projects like the library expansion…I was able to go to the bond market and borrow $2 million at some really favorable rates. And the reason we’re able to do that is because of the financial health of the city.”

The council will vote to approve the resolution adopting the budget at its meeting Wednesday night at 7pm.


Scientists Digging Up Clues To Explain Low Razor Clam Numbers

 

Alaskans who make an annual habit of digging for razor clams on the Kenai Peninsula may have noticed something odd over the last few years – there just doesn’t seem to be as many clams on the beaches as there used to be. Scientists have also noticed the trend.

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-Aaron Selbig/KBBI-

 


Signing On: Volunteers Gather Signatures To Put Oil Tax Reform On The Ballot

 

Kate Veh (left) and Michele Vasquez gathered signatures Friday afternoon in Soldotna to get SB 21 put on a referendum ballot for the August 2014 elections.

Even though the state legislature is gaveled out, citizens on the Kenai Peninsula and across the state are trying to advance the legislative process in their own way. Rallies against Senate Bill 21 have been held all over Alaska since before the bill that lowers tax rates for oil companies was even voted on.  The effort to get SB 21 on the fall ballot continued Friday in Soldotna.

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 With mid-day traffic rushing by Soldotna Creek Park Friday afternoon, Michele Vasquez and Kate Veh had a prime spot to try and grab the attention of people who might be sympathetic to their cause.  She and Vasquez were trying to get signatures on a petition so that the fate of the controversial Senate Bill 21 will go before voters.

They picked up three more signatures in the short time I was with them. Vasquez describes the effort as sort of a grass roots campaign.

“We’ve got signs that say ‘Have your say on the oil giveaway: Sign here’ because we want to get as many signatures as possible. We need 32,000 (signatures) statewide. This is one small way we can advertise and it doesn’t cost anything but a couple hours of our time,” she said.

The group in charge of this effort is called ‘Vote Yes: Repeal the Giveaway’. It was started by Vic Fisher, former Alaska First Lady Bella Hammond and former Fairbanks representative Jim Whitaker.

Veh says the effort is doing well in the cities, but getting those signatures in other places is taking a bit more time.

“But it’s surprising who comes up to you and is enthusiastic about putting their signature on your referendum. You just don’t know unless you try,” she said.

Senator Peter Micciche was one of the leading voices in getting SB 21 passed this year and says people have not only the right, but sometimes a duty to try and bring legislation they don’t agree with to a referendum vote. But, he wants people who are gathering signatures and signing the petitions to understand what they’re signing for.

“Find out why reasonable people who you normally respect and support have gone one way or another on this issue and find out if it’s something you’re truly opposed to or something that conceptually you’re supporting because your friends or your party or someone else has a problem with a particular piece of legislation. I think that’s the case in a lot of this activity.”

He says assertions by the bill’s detractors that it’s nothing more than a billion dollar giveaway to oil companies are oversimplified. Numbers aside, he says the bigger issue is that Alaska’s resource production is declining while other states are seeing booms.

“There are states that have turned around their production declines that we never even think of as a producing state. We have great potential in this state and as opposed to riding it down, I think…I honestly believe and I strongly feel that we can begin to turn around that decline and become a leader in energy production as we’ve been in the past,” Micciche said.

I asked Veh and Vasquez what they’d like to know if, by chance, a legislator came by their post and Vasquez has actually already had that conversation; with Senator Micciche.

“(I) had my petition and actually asked him if he would like to sign it. Of course he declined, and we talked briefly. You know, we’re just on different sides of the issue. I don’t have anything personally against Senator Micciche, it’s just that I fundamentally disagree. This is a people’s issue. We own the resource and we believe, to the core, that the citizens of this state should have a say in whether or not we give tax breaks to oil companies,” Vasquez said.

Veh says people just need more time to understand the issue.

“I think people need about a year to figure this out; to compare ACES to SB 21. We really need to decide for ourselves,” she said.

The group has until July 13th to get signatures turned into the Division of Elections in order to get the issue put on the ballot for the August 2014 elections.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Invasive Water Weed Threatens Daniels, Stormy Lakes

Elodea Canadensis. This popular aquarium plant poses a threat to lakes on the Kenai Peninsula

 

Two lakes near Nikiski are home to a very unwelcome variety of water weed.                                Elodea (pronounced EL-oh-DEE-uh) wasn’t known to be on the Peninsula even a few years ago, but now it’s posing a serious threat.

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At this week’s Borough Assembly meeting, Kenai Wildlife Refuge supervisory biologist John Morton gave the lowdown on this plant, that’s typically found in home aquariums.

“It’s a very bad plant. It’s prolific, it grows very, very quickly, it reproduces vegetatively,” Morton told the Assembly.

He said the important thing to note is that it does not need seeds to reproduce. Elodea can clone itself.

The Kenai Peninsula isn’t the only place in Alaska where this stuff has turned up. Anchorage, Cordova and Fairbanks are all seeing it, too. Morton says the best study of what can happen if the spread of elodea isn’t slowed or stopped is Chena Slough in Fairbanks, where it’s been growing for about a decade.

“Eighty to ninety percent of Chena Slough is covered by elodea. This used to be grayling habitat and now it’s pretty much an aquarium,” Morton said.

The concern on the Peninsula is that elodea could choke out areas that support fish. Right now, it’s only known to live in Daniel’s Lake and Stormy Lake up by Nikiski. Fisheries biologists first noticed the weed last fall when they were treating Stormy Lake to rid it of Northern Pike. The props on their boat motors were cutting through the elodea.

Over the winter, biologists augured through the ice and discovered that elodea continues to grow even under the ice. In March, a working group that includes property owners was established to help sort out the problem. Last month, permits were submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation for chemical treatments. Morton says they’ll continue surveys on other lakes next month and hope to begin those chemical treatments by July. They’ve got two different treatments in mind. The herbicide Diquat suppresses growth by killing the plant, but leaving the root. It’s also relatively cheap at $200 per surface acre. He says another herbicide, Fluridone, is the preferred chemical for eradication.

“The problem is, it’s very expensive: $750 per surface acre. And it has to be maintained at a small dosage: 45-90 parts per billion, for 45 days. So it’s a very long haul; you have to constantly monitor and pump more chemical into it,” Morton said.

He lobbied the Assembly for some funding to help curb the spread of elodea. He says the Wildlife Refuge has already set aside $40,000 and that there are matching grant funds available for any money the Borough could pitch in. The cost to totally eradicate both Daniels and Stormy lakes could be as much as $300 thousand if work begins this year. He says the window of opportunity to get ahead of elodea is small. More surveys this summer will determine the scope of growth

“The reason we can’t wait is because this is a very, very scary plant. You saw the price tag on this stuff, you can see how bad it would be if it started multiplying by lakes.”

Right now, it’s assumed that the source of the contamination is science lab kits or aquariums. If nothing is done to halt its spread, it could be transferred from lake to lake by boats or float planes.

“And once it does that, we cannot contain it. It is gone.”

He says the problem is new enough that only this spring did state agencies decide who would be in charge of combating the problem at the state level; with ADF&G focused on Pike eradication, any efforts to eliminate elodea will be handled through the Department of Natural Resources.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Cook Inlet Lease Sales Reflect Renewed Interest In Oil Development

 

A map of current oil and gas activities in Cook Inlet

The state of Alaska leased nearly 150,000 acres to oil and gas developers in a sale Wednesday. The sale represents a continued interest in development in Cook Inlet that could focus on oil drilling in the coming years.

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Hilcorp was the big bidder Wednesday, picking up 19 tracts totaling more than one hundred thousand acres at a price of $2.6 million. The past three years have seen a surge of interest in Cook Inlet. 2011 and 2012 were both record years for oil and gas lease sales, and that interest continues.

“These leases are getting more expensive, but the industry is also saying they’re willing to invest in leases to be able to further develop this…potentially rich basin,” said Bob Pawlowski, the Legislative and Policy adviser for the Division of Oil and Gas.

In all, the state received nearly $4.5 million in high bids for Cook Inlet. Of the 28 tracts companies put bids in for, 17 are on the southern Kenai Peninsula in the West Eagle unit just east of Anchor Point. Pawlowski says incentives developed by lawmakers have made Cook Inlet more attractive.

“The legislature, in the past, passed some Cook Inlet incentives that have allowed drill rigs to come in and do surveying and seismic (testing). The utilities have seen the need for getting more natural gas to keep a stable energy source for the rail belt, and oil is still a very productive commodity,” he said.

There’s been a scramble the past few years to get enough natural gas to market to serve south central Alaska. But companies that have shown up recently, like Hilcorp, are gearing up for the potential for more oil production.

The wells they want to drill near Ninilchik are the first new wells on the Kenai Peninsula in decades.

That renewed interest in producing oil on the Kenai Peninsula is raising the eyebrows of environmental watchdogs. Cook Inlet Keeper’s Bob Shavelson says that while onshore development is preferred, like what Hilcorp plans to do this year, getting oil out of the ground in a populated area presents unique challenges.

“The thing that’s…surprising a lot of Alaskans, particularly people on the Kenai Peninsula, is that the state offers every year, roughly 4.2 million acres of our lands for oil and gas leasing.Oil and gas development (is) coming into more populated areas, and you’re seeing some conflicts between the different uses that we want to have in those areas. You don’t see those things, for example, on the North Slope,” he said.

Shavelson’s other big concern with onshore development is the quick turnaround time for granting permits. It takes about a week for the state to review a company’s fish habitat permits, less than two weeks to complete the coordinated review process. He says the process is driven by politics and permits are “rubber stamped without any real scrutiny”.

Not every tract that was leased will be developed for oil and gas production, though. The state sold its first geothermal lease on Augustine Island. The last time the state leased land for that potential energy source was in 2008.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Peninsula Profile: Ray DeMeo

Ray DeMeo works on a custom violin at his home in Anchor Point. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleve/KBBI)

 

 

The KBBI and KDLL news team brings you the latest in our series “Peninsula Profiles.” In this installment, Ariel Van Cleave met up with Ray DeMeo at his workshop just outside of Anchor Point. DeMeo is what’s known as a luthier. He’s been professionally building stringed instruments for nearly 20 years.

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A musically-inclined friend of mine sent me a link to a Craigslist ad a few weeks ago that advertised custom-built stringed instruments. She told me she wanted to know more about the person behind the ad. And being a bit of a music geek myself, she knew I couldn’t resist. So I called the number that was listed and made an appointment to go see Ray in his element.

His German Shepard Beatrice greeted me as I made my way up the driveway and into the house. A large work table sits in the middle of the kitchen/workshop area. The walls are lined with shelves that hold tools, works in progress and completed instruments. Ray’s first instrument is included in that collection.

“I just had an interest when I was a young kid. I grew up in Chicago and I used to play hooky and hang out in places where they made them. I actually started making them in high school. That was one thing I did in high school, that lute,” he said.

Since that lute, he’s made another 58 instruments. When he was in high school, Ray would go to one of the libraries in downtown Chicago with pockets full of quarters and copy pages out of the instrument-making reference books.

He tried college after high school, but it really wasn’t for him. Since then he’s worked in construction, drove truck, served as a soldier and was a logger in Canada. Eventually he decided to put his focus back on instruments, so he went back to school to learn how to repair violins and violas.

“The teacher was a master violin maker. She taught me at the same time I was learning repair, on my own time… I was able to make a violin with her. She showed me how to make a violin. There was a night class at the same time for mandolin making,” he said.

Ray also has learned from masters from places like Japan and India. That’s translated into a more traditional approach to instrument building, which he said some people shy away from these days.

“I cook my glue. This is just hide glue. It’s just from animal parts,” he said. Ray also makes his varnish. “You ever hear of lac? It’s a bug. They leave this hard secretion… I use seed lac because it looks like little seeds. And then it’s mixed with

Those more traditional methods, like making your own glue, tend to make the business of putting an instrument together that much harder. Everything Ray does has to be deliberate and controlled.

“You have seconds. You only have a minute at the very top. And a lot of times you’ll heat the parts to give it a little extra time. You know, we’re talking seconds.”

But he said the easiest way doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best result.

“There’s modern stuff, and modern ways and bolts and new kinds of glues. But there’s a reason why the 1960s Martins sound so nice,” he said.

Ray couldn’t give me an exact time for how long it takes to make each instrument. But from what I saw, it takes a while.

Ray told me the building process starts with selecting a piece of wood. Maple and spruce are pretty typical choices. And as a matter of fact, some of those pieces come directly from Ray’s yard. He draws lines with a pencil on the wood to tell him where not to go, then gets to cutting.

Soon he has a rough shape of what will eventually become a ukulele or violin. But remember, it’s all very specific. Ray takes his pencil once again and starts to measure out depths for each part of the instrument. There are posters on one of the walls of a violin, viola and mandolin. They are covered in numbers.

“This is millimeters. That’s the thickness. It’s specific. It’s been mapped out. So that’s a benchmark and then there’s a matter of pulling the plates and flexing them and tapping them. You deviate from that exact… and that’s a judgment call,” he said.

Ray said it’s part science, part instinct. One way he was testing his work was tapping the board to hear certain tones.

“The viola, the top is C# and the back is a D. If I can hit these I will. I’m happy. The violin is different, it’s F# and G. Mandolins are different, they’re a full step away.”

Ray loves what he does.  And you can really tell as you talk to him about his craft, too. Another thing I noticed about Ray, he’s incredibly humble.

“I’m not a big shot myself. I’d rather have my instruments being played and I don’t really need a pat on the back.”

And it turns out that Craigslist ad was actually put online by a buddy of his. Ray said he doesn’t have much use for the Internet. Makes sense coming from a guy who spends his days cutting wood, making glue and mixing varnish. Why watch another cat video on YouTube when you can make a beautiful instrument instead?

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

 


Hilcorp Looking For Oil Near Ninilchik

A wave of smaller, independent gas producers has come up Cook Inlet in recent years. At least one of them is looking for more than just natural gas. Listen:

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Back in March, Hilcorp filed to have its operations plan amended for the work being done near Ninilchik. They want to drill two new oil wells.

To this point, Hilcorp had been focused on gas production. “We didn’t necessarily have it identified at the beginning of the plan, but it certainly speaks to our proficiencies as a company,” said Hilcorp spokesperson Lori Nelson.

“Our success is based on taking over these legacy fields such as this and turning them around and upping production. Just by turning over a couple stones and taking a look at some of the old records, we identified this opportunity.”

These are the first new wells intended for production in more than 30 years. Nelson says they hope to have rigs mobilized to the site by June.

“It’s our first oil well for that unit. We’re bringing in two drilling rigs, one of which will be assigned to the Ninilchik Unit. The other will be over in Swanson River,” Nelson said.

Swanson River, of course is where oil was first discovered on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. Production began to wane by the late 60’s, though, and all but disappeared after North Slope oil came online.

According to Hilcorp’s operation plan filed with the state department of oil and gas, Hilcorp plans to move approximately 500 barrels a day from the Susan Dionne well by Ninilchik.

Nelson says that’s enough for the project to pencil out.

“We wouldn’t drill the well if we didn’t think there was some prospect for commercial production and that’s certainly what we’re hoping for. If that’s brought online, it will draw the need for further development with facilities in that area as well,” she said.

Right now, plans include a drilling schedule that will run around the clock for two months for each of the two wells. Well testing is anticipated to take about three months.

The oil produced during that testing period will be stored on site in 400-barrel tanks. As many as six of them; with two to four loads being trucked out daily. The operation will also include a drilling camp of 20 to 30. Hilcorp is negotiating placement of the camp with the Ninilchik Natives Association. That’s in addition to the seven permits Hilcorp anticipates it will need to start work. Calls to the state department of oil and gas permitting office were not immediately returned.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Local Anglers Spawn New Trout Unlimited Chapter

 

There is a new voice for the on-going and always important discussions about fish, habitat, and conservation on the Kenai Peninsula.

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Boasting more than 140,000 volunteers in 400 chapters across the country, Trout Unlimited has landed on the Kenai Peninsula. The group has been meeting quietly for a few months, deciding what its priorities will be here. Chapter president Branden Bornemann was talking about those priorities Saturday at TU’s booth at the Sportshow in Soldotna. He says most people wanted to know simply what the group is about.

“Clean water and habitat. That’s really the focus of the national organization and as a local chapter, we’re really trying to identify some community needs and where we can fit in and work with groups doing those things here already,” Bornemann said.

As a group, they’re still hashing out just where they do stand on some issues that are politically charged and controversial. The Chuitna mine is one, Pebble mine is another. In fact, the national organization of TU has taken a stance on that one. Decidedly against. The homepage on their website touts dollar a matching contribution by a Vermont company of up to $50,000 to stop Pebble Mine. But back on the Kenai, things aren’t getting quite that serious just yet.

“(There have been) lots of questions this weekend about ‘what’s your stance on this, what’s your stance on that’. It will probably come down the line, we’ll have to start discussing those decisions within the Board, and hopefully by that time (there’s) enough organizational structure that those decisions come easy,” Bornemann said.

More than anything right now, he says they’re looking for ways to get into the community and find other organizations or agencies to work with, like the Department of Fish and Game.

“Right off the bat, we’d really like to develop some sort of partnership with ADF&G. One thing we can offer to people right now is that general membership pool. If you need hands for some sort of habitat restoration project, we can offer… those bodies on the ground.”

He says the group is working with the Department on pike eradication.

A recent clean-up effort in Cooper Landing removed more than 2 tons of debris and material, including portions of a dock that had been treated with creosote that were causing a visible oil slick on the surface of the Kenai River.

As the group gets itself off the ground, Bornemann says they’ve got their own questions to ask potential members.

“What would you like to do? What would you like to see us do? How can we help our community? Would you rather meet up on a Saturday and go fly fishing or to a fly tying clinic or a casting clinic?”

Trout Unlimited is hosting a showing of the Fly Fishing Film Tour and a silent auction fundraiser at 6pm Friday at the Kenai Visitor’s and Cultural Center. Tickets are available at Sportsmen’s Warehouse.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Is It Spring Yet?

In part two of our ongoing gardening series, we hear from the pros at Trinity Greenhouse.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Plant Tour Highlights Efficiency Gains For HEA

HEA Independent Light Project Manager Brad Zubeck (3rd from left) leads a tour under the cooling fans at HEA's new combined cycle conversion plant in Nikiski. The plant will be the cornerstone of the co-op's Independent Light Program.

 

A new addition to the Homer Electric Association’s power generation portfolio is set to go online by the end of the year. The Nikiski Combined Cycle Conversion Project is a steam turbine, fueled by the excess heat generated by an existing natural gas turbine.

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I was joined by nine others Wednesday afternoon for the tour. We left the old Agrium plant in Nikiski for a short drive next door to HEA’s new steam turbine. It’s part of the co-op’s Independent Light Program, where HEA will generate all of its own electricity beginning in 2014. That’s when its current contract with Chugach Electric is done.

We were greeted by Brad Zubeck, HEA’s Independent Light Project Manager, who told us the combustion turbine at this site came from Soldotna, where it generated both power and waste heat that went to Agrium.

After the Agrium plant shut down in 2007, the heat generated by the natural gas turbine went to waste, essentially. By itself, that turbine cranks out 40 megawatts. The new steam turbine will kick that up to about 60 megawatts. A little more natural gas, and the total output is 80 megawatts. The plant just outside Soldotna that’s currently under construction will serve as back up.

We made a quick stop by the control room where the 12 operators, five shift supervisors and the plant manager will keep an eye one things, then moved into a big room that’s home to a gas turbine.

“Without firing any additional gas, so for the same gas the we burn through this unit, we’re able to pick up 18 megawatts from our steam turbine. That’s about a 45% increase in efficiency,” Zubeck said.

Back outside for a quick look at the boiler that captures the steam and sends it on the turbine, then on to the building where all that steam ends up.

“The boiler sends steam to the steam turbine to move that unit. (Then we) send it over to a big radiator, like in your car, and it takes that steam and makes it water again, and we pump it back over to this boiler to make it into steam again. So it’s a closed loop system and we recycle that water.”

Working in concert with HEA’s share of the Bradley Lake Hydro plant, this site in Nikiski will cover all the power needs for HEA. That comes out to a little more than 80 megawatts during peak usage in the winter and about 73 megawatts during peak usage in the summer.

This was the first time HEA had opened its doors for a tour to the public. After all the tours, Board of Director election results were announced at the annual meeting. Dan Chay of Kenai won the seat for District one, Ed Oberts of Soldotna will represent District two and Bill Fry of Homer remains in the seat for District three.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Correction: We misidentified Brad Zubeck as HEA’s Director of Power Production and Transmission. His official title is Independent Light Project Manager. -Ed.


“We Survived”: Kenai Man Recounts Family’s Encounter With Brown Bear

A weekend encounter with a brown bear on the Kasilof River left a Kenai man with just minor scrapes and bruises and his family unharmed, but the encounter was a scary one.
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As a wildlife technician at the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Toby Burke has spent plenty of time out where the bears are, knows all the rules. But he admits he was lucky this past weekend when he was with his wife and three children near the mouth of the Kasilof River.
He was out doing some surveys on shorebirds. They first saw the bear from about a quarter mile away. Burke says he hoped a nearby ATV would shoo it out of the area. They watched it walk into some sand dunes.

“We’re looking, didn’t see it. At that point, we’re wondering ‘should we move toward our van or just go back north?’ And we’re turning back north when the bear popped up over the dunes immediately near us, 50 or 60 feet away.  My daughter said ‘Dad, the bear’s right here’,” Burke said.

“We immediately stopped and I said ‘well, I guess we’re not going down to the mouth. We’re going to just stop right here, let’s watch and see what the bear does. See if the bear avoids us.”

It did not.

“We got into a relatively tight group, arms length, to try to make us look like one big animal, waving arms, clapping, hollering at the bear, and then at one moment it kind of clicked with the bear and it started to bound toward us.”

At that point, Burke put himself between the bear and his family and deployed the only
weapon he had: a tripod with a scope for viewing birds.

“So I shoved the tripod, used it almost like a jousting or a punji stick, and I remember the scope (was) actually shoved into the bears mouth, so I remember the bear actually clamping down on the scope and it wasn’t very long before the bear just swiped and severed the scope from the tripod. But what that did was leave was a very sharp piece of metal, so then I was literally stabbing the bear with that jagged piece of metal.”

That kept the bear at away for awhile, but eventually…

“As the scope was collapsing, it was getting closer to me and then it swatted the tripod out of my hands, then it was (me) putting an arm up and just trying to keep it off my body.”

It was a pretty chilly day, so Burke was wearing a think coat and long
sleeves. And the bear turned out to be relatively old, maybe in its 20’s, so its teeth were a little worn down.

“I can remember the crushing sensation of its vice-like jaws on my arm. And I do remember… at the time, you know, stupid thoughts go through your head; ‘I think this bear’s going to break my arm.’ But it eventually released. And people say how did  (end)? Just by the grace of god. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the bear at bay for much longer.”

After the standoff, Burke immediately called the Wildlife Troopers.
“Mostly they wanted to make sure they contacted people in the area, let them know what had transpired, to warn them to keep an eye out.  And while one of the troopers was talking to people and warning them about it, the other two troopers had their own encounter with the bear. The bear had come out of the tree line and was moving towards them and both the troopers fired upon the bear,” said Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters.
Burke says the bear had been acting somewhat erratically.
Jeff Selinger is the area biologist for Fish and Game who got the first look at the animal after Troopers put it down. He says that behavior could be explained by a number of things, including its age.
“(It’s) hard to tell all the details. More and more information is coming out on this animal as time goes on. There’s indications, I’m not saying it occurred, but there’s indications that this bear may have been chased around by an individual in a truck prior to this. So, we don’t have all the answers as to why the bear behaved the way it did, but it definitely is not normal behavior you would expect out of a brown bear,” Selinger said.

“Somone was watching over us and the bear did not engage us and turned back north and headed away from us. And when it was about 300 meters away I said ‘okay, it’s not coming back.’ Let’s start making our way back to the van,” Burke said.

“Like a lot of Alaska families, we go hiking and do trips in the mountains, and backpacking, so the kids kind of know the drill, if a bear does this, we do this, so it was the first time they really had to put it into practice. We survived. That’s what counts,” said Burke.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-