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.