Elwood Brehmer

Wind power storage generating heat, displacing diesel

President Barack Obama has long touted an “all of the above” energy strategy for America. In Western Alaska, a small group of villages is putting the rhetoric to work. By implementing a complex power management system in four Kuskokwim Bay-area communities, the team at Intelligent Energy Systems has started to employ wind power for heat, expanding the use of a renewable energy source typically limited to electric generation. “With respect to villages in Western Alaska, renewables is not a luxury. It’s a necessity that has to be harnessed to make those villages sustainable,” said Dennis Meiners, a project manager for Anchorage-based Intelligent Energy Systems. “We’ve invested in infrastructure and this is a way to support it.” Meiners’ team has been working to integrate wind energy into diesel-supported grids in Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Kipnuk and Tuntutuliak — a collective population of about 1,700 residents. The village governments formed the Chaninik Wind Group in 2005 as a way to pool resources and develop affordable energy solutions, Meiners said. In Kwigillingok, five remanufactured 95-kilowatt Windmatic turbines not only offset the burning of diesel for Kwig Power Co., they also heat homes when the wind blows hard, as it often does in the flat, treeless region. Common peak load from Kwig Power’s 100 customers is about 250 kilowatts, according to Kwig Power Manager William Igkurak, meaning the five turbines can supply the community’s power demand when they’re generating at peak capacity. Currently, about 25 homes in “Kwig” have been outfitted with electric thermal storage units, Igkurak said. The thermal storage units are metal, wall-mounted boxes filled with ceramic bricks that are heated by an electric coil. Rather than dump excess power generated by the turbines when the wind is really whipping, the electricity is diverted from the traditional grid to heat the storage units, ultimately reducing the diesel, or fuel oil, burned for heating in Kwig as well. “This project is still in its infancy,” Igkurak said. The hope is to grow the number of thermal storage units in the village to further maximize peak production of power, he said. Even still, the project displaced about 25 percent of Kwig Power’s historic diesel consumption in its first year, he said. Surplus electric heat costs about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, or kwh, for residents with the storage units, according to Igkurak. He said the current price of diesel-generated electricity from Kwig Power is more than 60 cents per kwh. For further efficiency, the “micro grid” is getting wind power storage in between the wind turbines and the thermal electric storage units thanks to Detroit, Meiners said. The storage should allow the utility to shut down its fossil fuel power system when wind production meets demand. By installing eight Chevrolet Volt lithium-ion battery packs, Kwig power will have enough storage to meet peak demand for 15 minutes, he said, enough time to fire up the diesel generators. Thus, when the wind provides excess power it will go to the batteries first, and on to the thermal storage units only when the batteries are charged. Lithium-ion batteries can be charged and discharged quickly and have a life many times longer than traditional lead-acid batteries when cycled properly, Meiners said. Together, the eight battery packs take up about as much space as two refrigerators, he said, while the same amount of lead-acid storage would fill a small room. A Chevy Volt battery pack typically sells for $4,000 to $6,000 without the add-ons to adapt it to a vehicle. The exact impact the batteries will have on ratepayers won’t be known for another six months, Meiners said, after the system has been tuned and in place some time. However, he expects it to eventually displace upwards of 50 percent of the utility’s diesel need, he said. The wind system is down as the storage is integrated, Igkurak said, but it should be back up and running by the end of June. Igkurak and Meiners emphasized that the wind-diesel system is a demonstration project. “We would like to prove that the system works in our small community,” Igkurak said. Purchasing, transporting and installing the batteries cost about $600,000, Meiners said. The Chaninik Wind Group received a $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy in 2010 to help fund $2 million worth of energy improvements in the four villages. Contributions from numerous other sources rounded out project payment.  A classic example of the challenges of infrastructure work in rural Alaska, the batteries were shipped last August and arrived in Kwig in October, but were not able to be moved into place until late January when the region’s marshy ground finally froze, Meiners said. Only about half of the project’s costs are in materials, Meiners said. The rest have gone to construction and transport costs to the remote area. The turbines being used in the communities were originally used in small wind farms in California, Meiners said. Using the remanufactured mid-sized turbines was a way to save money, he said. “Nobody’s making stuff for villages. It’s about adapting available technology to the situation. It’s not a market; it’s not something (General Electric) is going to invest in,” he said. Despite being an experiment of sorts, Meiners said similar projects with larger turbines will likely be “pretty common” in rural areas like Western Alaska with good wind resources. He estimates a 1-megawatt system could be installed for about $5 million. Such a system would displace about 100,000 gallons of diesel and be able to pay for itself within 10 years — a target timeline — he said. The initial operating life of a multi-use wind power system is about 25 years, he said. Bigger turbines that push wind power capacity well past peak demand will be vital to fully realizing the benefits of wind in rural Alaska, according to Meiners. “It’s a matter of gaining confidence that the technology is going to solve the problem and when the willingness to invest in it because we should be moving towards ways to install larger turbines in smaller villages, just like you install a hydro project,” He said. “You look at the whole community energy need. That’s the economic way to do it.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Pebble sues EPA over attempt to veto mine

The Pebble Limited Partnership took the Environmental Protection Agency to court May 21 and claimed the agency is illegally overstepping its bounds by attempting to block a mine before the permitting process begins. In a statement released in conjunction with Pebble’s complaint filed in U.S. Alaska District Court, company CEO Tom Collier said the plea to the court to stop EPA’s actions is not an attempt to strip the agency of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Rather, he said, it is an attempt to ensure guidelines set by Congress are followed. “Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska, and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” Collier said. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant, long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country. Litigation is necessary in order to get the agency’s attention and bring some rational perspective back to the U.S. permitting process.” In February, the EPA said it would initiate a seldom-used Clean Water Act process to block large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region to protect the region’s robust salmon fishery. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy referenced the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay watershed assessment released a month before as reason to block Pebble, stating a large, open-pit mine in the region would cause “irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.” If developed, an Iliamna-area Pebble copper and gold mine would likely be one of the largest of its kind in the world. All of the company’s mineral claims are on state land. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since the inception of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted, as is the case currently with Pebble. The regional Army Corps of Engineers handles wetlands permit applications under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. Subsection 404(c) states that the EPA can prohibit the use “of any defined area as a (material) disposal site” when the agency administrator deems the placement of fill material “into such an area will have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or water supplies. Pebble’s complaint states that Congress limited the EPA’s authority in the permitting process to reviewing applications after they have been evaluated by the Corps of Engineers. Additionally, Pebble claims the mine’s impact on such areas cannot be judged because it has not released a formal mine plan or applied for wetlands permits. “If the EPA veto proceeding is allowed to upend the permitting process, the entire administrative process will be eviscerated,” the complaint states. “There will be no concrete proposal, no specification of ‘such materials’ or ‘such area,’ no consideration of alternatives, no conditions imposed by a permitting agency, and no mitigation requirement. Neither the Corps nor the state will be able to bring their expertise to bear.” By working to prevent development on state land in the region, Pebble also argues the EPA is also violating the intent of the Cook Inlet Land Exchange, a 1976 agreement between Cook Inlet Region Inc., and the state and federal governments. Under the acreage swap, the State of Alaska was awarded ownership of federal lands with high mineral potential — the same lands where Pebble’s copper and gold claims exist today. According to Pebble, the mineral value of the land was “one of the driving factors in the state’s selection.” In return, the state turned over property that was ultimately be conveyed to CIRI through the federal government. CIRI subsequently gave up its Lake Clark-area holdings north of Iliamna to complete the federal Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. “Both the Statehood Act and the Cook Inlet (Land) Exchange legislation explicitly provide Alaska with the right to manage its lands for economic development purposes,” the complaint states. Mine opponents have countered Pebble’s claims that a mine would ignite Bristol Bay’s economy by contending it would put thousands of fishing jobs in the region in jeopardy. The annual ex-vessel value of Bristol Bay salmon has been between $140 million and $185 million since 2009. The EPA Inspector General’s office notified the agency May 2 that it would review the information gathering and science behind the watershed assessment at the request of Pebble, the State of Alaska, and members of Congress. Pebble has claimed intra-EPA communications prove the three-year assessment process was biased against mine development from the get-go. Region 10 EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader has said the agency followed all prescribed public involvement guidelines in forming the assessment and that the 404(c) process, which usually takes about a year, will continue during the Inspector General’s review. Trout Unlimited responded to Pebble’s litigation May 22 by demanding the group release a complete mine plan. The national coldwater fisheries nonprofit has been at the forefront of the fight against Bristol Bay mine development for years. “Clearly, this is a last ditch effort from a company which now has no major mining experience on its team and has lost at every step of the way. It’s ridiculous that PLP is using resources to file a lawsuit but continues to refuse to apply for official permits after promising to do so for nearly a decade,” TU Alaska Executive Director Tim Bristol said in a formal statement. “The fact is, (Pebble Limited Partnership) can apply for a permit today, but they refuse to do so because they will have to reveal to the public once again that they will build a colossal open pit mine, impact wetlands and waterways, destroy salmon habitat and threaten thousands of jobs and unique way of life.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Hecla CEO: Bright future for Greens Creek

Prospects are strong at the Greens Creek silver mine near Juneau, according to senior leadership at the mine’s operating company. Hecla Mining Co. President and CEO Phil Baker said in a May 22 interview with the Journal that the 2013 drill results at the mine are some of the best he’s seen in his 13 years with the company. “We have a mine plan that’s 10 years but we fully expect that it will go well past that,” Baker said. A 24-year-old underground silver, zinc, lead and gold operation, Greens Creek is the largest silver mine in the United States and among a handful of the largest in the world, Baker said. The mine has been run on a seven to 12-year plan for most of its life. Baker said if a new tailings facility — currently in the final stages of state and federal permitting — can be constructed, it could push Greens Creek’s future out 15 years or more. Baker made his comments after Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Hecla’s shareholder meeting held May 22 in Anchorage. Further longevity at Greens Creek would mean steady, but not significantly increased production because of footprint limitations, he said. The total Greens Creek property is 27 square miles. It’s location near the center of Admiralty Island, southwest of Juneau, surrounded by Tongass National Forest and Admiralty Island National Monument-Kootznoowoo Wilderness land makes expanding difficult, community relations manager for Hecla Mike Satre said. Hecla purchased Greens Creek in 2008 from Kennecott, a subsidiary of industry giant Rio Tinto. The company is also the longtime operator of the Lucky Friday silver mine in Idaho and the Casa Berardi gold mine in Quebec, which it purchased last year. Baker said Greens Creek has driven the company’s revenue since the purchase, contributing nearly 75 percent of Hecla’s $800 million of overall cash flow in the past four years. “Greens Creek is one of the few mines that have the sort of cash flow generation that it does in the world,” he said. “There are dozens of them, but it’s one of those dozens.” As Baker noted, first quarter silver production at Greens Creek was nearly identical to 2013 at 1.78 million ounces — up less than half a percent year-over-year. The Southeast mine accounted for 72 percent of Hecla’s total first quarter silver production. For the year, the company expects to produce between 6.5 million and 7 million ounces of silver and about 55,000 ounces of gold at Greens Creek, according to its quarterly report. The mine mill processed an average of 2,252 tons of ore per day during the quarter. Recent drilling in Greens Creek’s Deep 200 South mineralization area intersected a 28-foot area with 27.3 ounces per ton of silver; 0.46 ounces per ton of gold; 13.7 percent zinc; and 6.7 percent lead. Additionally, a five-foot intersection in the same area was found to contain 52.1 ounces per ton of silver. Baker said the collection of metals at Greens Creek are “extraordinarily important” to its strong economics. As of the beginning of the year, Greens Creek had proven and probable reserves of 92.5 million ounces of silver at 11.9 ounces per ton; 713,000 ounces of gold at 0.09 ounces per ton; 678,000 tons of zinc and 256,000 tons of lead. Current silver prices at about $20 per ounce are off more than 30 percent from 2011 when the precious metal went for nearly $30 per ounce, but are still much improved over a decade ago when silver went for less than $4 per ounce. “Long-term the (silver) outlook is extraordinary,” Baker said. New technological applications have doubled global demand for silver over the past 30 years to about 1 billion ounces per year and he said that market could double again in the next 30 years as Asian economies grow. “As people get wealthier, they consume more of those things that have silver in them,” he said. While silver markets track closely with gold currently, Baker said he thinks a divergence between the two is likely as silver demand grows. Low silver prices in prior decades limited exploration and has led to few new mines, he added, a factor that could tighten the market and mean strong silver prices long-term. To do its part in meeting projected silver demand with Greens Creek, Hecla has started a list of programs to get Southeast’s youth thinking about careers in mining, part of an emphasis the company has to hire locally, according to Baker. He said mines offer career opportunities for a wider range of skill sets than some might recognize. “There’s 400 employees (at Greens Creek) and you’ve got engineers and chemists and accountants and miners and mechanics and nurses and janitors — you’ve got everything,” he said. Two diesel mechanics that were hired in May became the first Greens Creek employees who visited the mine as eighth graders on class tours that began in 2008, went through the company’s Pathways to Mining Careers high school partnership program with the University of Alaska, and began work at the mine. “I’m convinced that over the course of the next 10 years we will have class after class of new employees that are from Juneau — that’s where they want to live,” Baker said. Most Juneau residents that work at Greens Creek commute by boat, but to retain and attract workers from other regions of Alaska and Outside, new camp and housing facilities were built at the mine in the last two years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Corps of Engineers gains flexibility for Alaska projects

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has more leeway to develop and maintain marine infrastructure in Alaska under the latest version of legislation that governs the Corps’ authority. Under the proposed Water Resources Reform and Development Act unveiled by a congressional conference committee May 15, ports and harbors in many of Alaska’s outlying communities would be included in the remote and subsistence harbors program that prioritized projects for funding in Hawaii and the U.S. territories but left Alaska out in the 2007 version of the bill. Currently, Alaska Corps of Engineers Program Manager David Martinson said small, remote port and harbor projects must be at least 70 miles from another mode of transportation and a majority of goods brought into the nearest community must be consumed there, among other requirements to climb the funding ladder. Instead of having to meet a list of  “ands,” in-state development would qualify through the addition of “or Alaska” in the new bill, he said. “That really helps with harbors that may be close to a system but are still a small or remote harbor,” Martinson said. Port Lions on Kodiak Island, for example, could qualify for funding prioritization because it is an isolated community even though it is less than 30 miles from the City of Kodiak. According to Sen. Mark Begich’s office, such projects would be eligible for up to $10 million in dedicated funding. The latest bill also requires such small and remote harbor projects be prioritized based on their environmental, social, and regional benefits with large projects, not just how they fit the Corps of Engineers’ national economic development program, Martinson said. Projects will be compared based on which is the “best buy,” he said, and a project’s local benefits will be viewed as equal to the national benefit if the legislation passes.  “What remains to be seen is how we’re going to work through the implementation to show how all the projects are prioritized nationwide to compete for funding,” Martinson said. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed the House last October by a vote of 417-3, and the Senate’s version passed 83-14. The bipartisan legislation passed the House May 20 and passage is expected in the Senate before heading to the president’s desk. Alaska’s congressional delegation has supported the bill. “I worked hard to secure millions of dollars that will now be coming home to Alaska for our ports and harbors. (This) bipartisan progress will translate into more jobs for Alaskan’s, the elimination of bureaucratic red tape, and investment that will be an economic boost for local communities,” Begich said in a May 13 release from his office. An amendment in the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski would allow the Corps of Engineers to partner with non-federal public entities on a deep-draft Arctic port. Currently, the Corps of Engineers can only use its engineering and construction know-how for other federal agencies or departments. Results from a Corps of Engineers study recommending an Arctic port plan utilizing one or more locations on the Seward Peninsula near Nome is expected in the coming months. The language in the new bill would permit work with the State of Alaska or a local government to possibly expand on what, if any, port plan the Corps approves, Martinson said. The Corps would not be able to partner with a private group for Arctic port development. In the recently wrapped-up session, the Alaska Legislature increased the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s reach to cover Arctic infrastructure development. The state financing corporation in the past has often partnered with private business either as a financer or owner in projects, with the private sector as a builder and operator. “As this administration seems to ‘lead from behind’ when it comes to Arctic investment and vision, my amendment to allow for partnerships with non-federal public entities could be a game-changer in terms of getting an Arctic deep-draft port closer to becoming a reality in the state,” Murkowski said in a formal statement. She and Begich both lauded language in the bill lifting federal “navigational servitude” over uplands adjacent to the City of Seward small boat harbor, potentially opening them up for development. Additionally, what had been a directive from Corps of Engineers leadership to trim the cost and length of study-time would become law under WRRDA. With few exceptions for large projects, the bill mandates that infrastructure development studies be completed in three years and for less than $3 million, something Arctic port study program manager Lorraine Cordova has said her team worked to accomplish. While the bill approves roughly $10 billion in port, flood control, lock and dam and environmental across the country, it also defunds $18 billion worth of old or inactive work approved prior to the 2007 Water Resources and Development Act. Defunded projects either haven’t begun construction or have not been funded, federally or otherwise within the last six years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pebble sues EPA over attempt to veto mine

The Pebble Limited Partnership took the Environmental Protection Agency to court May 21 and claimed the agency is illegally overstepping its bounds by attempting to block a mine before the permitting process begins. In a statement released in conjunction with Pebble’s complaint filed in U.S. Alaska District Court, company CEO Tom Collier said the suit is not an intent to strip EPA of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act, but rather an attempt to ensure guidelines set by Congress are followed. “Simply put, EPA has repeatedly ignored detailed comments that we, the State of Alaska, and others have made about this massive federal overreach and continues to advance an unprecedented pre-emptive regulatory action against the Pebble project that vastly exceeds its Clean Water Act authority,” Collier said. “If EPA ultimately vetoes Pebble before a development plan is proposed or evaluated through the comprehensive federal and state permitting processes, the precedent established will have significant, long-term effects on business investment in this state and throughout the country. Litigation is necessary in order to get the agency’s attention and bring some rational perspective back to the U.S. permitting process.” In February, the EPA said it would initiate a seldom-used Clean Water Act process to block large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region to protect the region’s robust salmon fishery. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy referenced the 1,000-plus page Bristol Bay watershed assessment released a month before as reason to block Pebble, stating a large, open-pit mine in the region would cause “irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.” If developed, an Iliamna-area Pebble copper and gold mine would likely be one of the largest of its kind in the world. All of the company’s mineral claims are on state land. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since the inception of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted, as is the case currently with Pebble. The regional Army Corps of Engineers handles wetlands permit applications under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. Subsection 404(c) of the act gives the EPA the power to deny permits to projects that will use a defined area as a material disposal site and “have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife, or water supplies. Pebble’s complaint states that Congress limited the EPA’s authority in the permitting process to reviewing applications after they have been evaluated by the Corps of Engineers. Additionally, Pebble claims the mine’s impact on such areas cannot be judged because it has not released a formal mine plan or applied for wetlands permits. The EPA Inspector General’s office notified the agency May 2 that it would review the information gathering and science behind the watershed assessment at the request of Pebble, the State of Alaska, and members of Congress. Pebble has claimed intra-EPA communications prove the three-year assessment process was biased against mine development from the get-go. Region 10 EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader has said the agency followed all prescribed public involvement guidelines in forming the assessment and that the 404(c) process, which usually takes about a year, will continue during the Inspector General’s review. Early May 22, Trout Unlimited responded to Pebble’s litigation by demanding the group release a complete mine plan. The national coldwater fisheries nonprofit has been at the forefront of the fight against Bristol Bay mine development for years. “Clearly, this is a last ditch effort from a company which now has no major mining experience on its team and has lost at every step of the way. It’s ridiculous that PLP is using resources to file a lawsuit but continues to refuse to apply for official permits after promising to do so for nearly a decade,” TU Alaska Executive Director Tim Bristol said in a formal statement. “The fact is, (Pebble Limited Partnership) can apply for a permit today, but they refuse to do so because they will have to reveal to the public once again that they will build a colossal open pit mine, impact wetlands and waterways, destroy salmon habitat and threaten thousands of jobs and unique way of life.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Commerce Dept. focusing on addressing energy problems

Alaska Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell highlighted the wide-ranging work her department is involved in across the state in a May 19 speech to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Bell said dealing with the ever-present energy issues the state faces are “central” to the mission of many of the 13 agencies in the broad Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. “When we’re thinking about our economic foundations something we all need to do is think about how we use the energy resources we’re blessed with and how we bring down the cost of energy across the state,” she said. Through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and its sister agency the Alaska Energy Authority, both under the Commerce umbrella, the department is involved in major projects to lower the cost of living in the state. Bell serves on the board of directors for both state groups, as well as the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board. AIDEA’s Interior Energy Project includes more than $260 million of work to develop an area-wide natural gas storage and distribution network in Fairbanks and North Pole. While gas will initially be supplied via trucks hauling it from the North Slope, Bell said the distribution system is a long-term investment. “Whether we have a large (gas) pipeline or a medium-sized pipeline it will be critical that we have a market in place and ready to use that gas when it comes.” Bell said. Getting natural gas to the Interior could cut heating bills in half for the region’s residents that currently rely on fuel oil, economic impact studies have indicated. Lowering energy costs is one of the single most important things the state can do to spur job creation, Bell said. As AIDEA works to lower heating costs, AEA is focused on meeting the Legislature’s goal of generating at least 50 percent of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2025. Bell said a little more than 20 percent of Alaska’s power comes from such sources — primarily hydro — now. She stressed that the impetus behind the work is to reduce cost. “We’re not just developing renewables for renewables’ sake,” she said. Alaska’s biggest renewable energy project, which will be one of the tallest dams in the country if it’s built and would get the state to the 50 percent goal, is the Susitna-Watana dam. In the state’s 2014 fiscal year about to end June 30, AEA had a $95 million budget for “very detailed” environmental, engineering and technical work to get the project to FERC licensing, Bell said. There is $20 million to continue Susitna-Watana study in the 2015 capital budget on Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk now. With AEA as a catalyst, the Legislature has appropriated $227.5 million since in 251 renewable energy projects large and small across Alaska through the Renewable Energy Fund since its inception in 2008, she said. The Legislature put $22.8 million towards the fund in the pending capital budget. Bell called the 50-plus mile long Red Dog mine road and port system in Northwest Alaska a “template” for future resource development. Owned by AIDEA, the transportation infrastructure to the zinc mine is considered by some one the authority’s greatest success story. “Our department has been working to increase the visibility of our resources as well as the tools that we have from permitting to financing entities like AIDEA that can partner with the private sector, with our banking community,” Bell said. AIDEA is in the midst of a several years-long environmental impact statement process to ultimately build another industrial road in the region, a 220-mile road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler mining district. The authority is finalizing a route and working with local communities to answer key questions about the project, she said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Kenai company leading the way on unmanned aircraft radar

With a little hard work, Kenai’s John Parker might just be able to answer the biggest question facing the Federal Aviation Administration: Can manned and unmanned aircraft coexist? Parker, founder of Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems Ltd., acquired exclusive patent rights to a prototype “sense and avoid” radar for unmanned aerial vehicles in early April from a University of Denver research team. “My phone’s kind of been ringing off the hook since it went public that I’ve got this thing,” Parker said. While in Alaska for the opening of the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, headquartered in Fairbanks, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace is the biggest challenge the emerging technology presents. An unmanned aerial vehicle becomes an unmanned aerial system, or UAS, when outfitted with a camera, radar, or other equipment to perform a specific task, Parker explained. “(UAS) flights in VFR (visual flight rules) airspace, where there is no air traffic control, that raises one set of issues and the kind of questions we need to understand is who else is using that VFR airspace and can they see this aircraft because VFR airspace relies on ‘see and avoid,’” Huerta said. For UAS, the FAA mantra is transformed to “sense and avoid,” according to Parker. The “sense” part of the equation has seemingly been worked out. The radar can detect small aircraft and their altitude, speed and direction up to a mile away, he said. During tests at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Parker said it correctly identified planes and their routes with 99.99 percent accuracy while the takeoff and landing frequency was as high as one every 39 seconds. As far as he is aware, Parker’s radar is the most advanced unmanned aircraft sense and avoid system in the country, he said. Parker’s curiosity in unmanned aerial vehicles grew in 2011 when using the craft to monitor debris washing up on Alaska’s shore from the Japanese earthquake was considered. Parker incorporated Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems in November 2012 and began assembling engineering talent and industry expertise, he said. “In my research I actually stumbled across this white paper on radar-based detection and it piqued my interest because I knew being an aircraft (accident) investigator for a lot of years — the key to UAVs in the national airspace is collision avoidance,” he said. “That’s the key to the whole thing.” The Integrated Robotics team currently consists of five people across the U.S. and Canada and is headquartered in Kenai. His team will soon be centralized on the Peninsula, he said. When placed under a protective dome, the 12-ounce radar with a roughly four-inch square antenna will be tested on the Infotron IT180, a French-made, dual-rotor unmanned platform at Pan-Pacific Range sites, Parker said. The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, had its Pan-Pacific Range, which includes test sites in Oregon and Hawaii, chosen by the FAA in December as one of six UAS testing operations nationwide. The ranges are a major step in the FAA’s attempt to develop guidelines for melding commercial UAS operations into the national airspace, something Congress has dictated be done by the end of 2015. At 31 pounds and with a 71-inch rotor diameter, the IT180 can carry the radar and classifies as a small craft. It is significantly larger than other unmanned aircraft in production — which are often less than 10 pounds — meaning the radar will have to be downsized to make it truly universal. Parker said phased array antennas of about an inch-square are available and doesn’t foresee downsizing the radar to be an issue. The next big hurdle, he said is developing a software program to handle the “avoid” part of the equation. If the radar detects an aircraft flying a potentially dangerous route nearby, the software needs to take over if the pilot on the ground doesn’t respond appropriately, or in time, Parker stressed. “The real-time capability of this equipment is key and that autonomous timing situation to make sure that if we have to we take the pilot out of the scenario and the aircraft avoids a target and we’re talking about very little time,” he said. “That envelope is going to be very small.” Exactly how short the timeframe needs to be will be determined during testing, but Parker said he believes it will be in the “tenths of seconds.” Parker’s plan is for his team to have software ready to test and fly in six to 10 months, he said. Once the bugs are worked out, it’s a matter of designing a universal plug adapting the radar to other UAVs, he said. Ultimately, Parker sees Integrated Robotics as about 18 months away from manufacturing its first commercial sense and avoid radar system, a timeline that fits with FAA’s. He already has a 3,000 square-foot building in South Kenai waiting to be the Integrated Robotics manufacturing facility when the time comes. Putting each unit together will take an additional five-person crew “a couple days” once a system is in place, Parker estimates. Then, it’s on to the sale. With much work left to do a price point for the early radar systems has not been set, but when considering the technology and the fact that radars for small general aviation are often $15,000, a $7,000 to $10,000 tag would not be unreasonable, he said. “If we produce a quality product, we won’t have any problem selling it,” he said. For Parker, getting the equipment in the hands of those that need it is the most important thing. “Because it’s a one-off and there’s no comparative you’ve got to look at the value to the client, and it fulfills two issues,” he said. “One, it allows companies to meet the requirements FAA is going to put on all of us, and two, by meeting those requirements it will drive revenue to their company. We see there’s an additional spin-off on that for us because as it drives revenue to their company they’re going to be needing more so it will create follow-on revenue for us.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Sealaska posts $35M loss

Sealaska Corp. reported a $35 million net loss for 2013 in its annual report released May 14. The Southeast Alaska Native corporation attributed much of the bad year to a $26 million operating loss from one of its construction subsidiaries that offset profits in other businesses in a corporate release. “Despite posting losses, Sealaska is a stable institution that continues to protect its Native land, support education and shareholder opportunities, while growing our investments and operations,” Sealaska President and CEO Chris McNeil Jr. said in a formal statement. “Sealaska has strong cash flow and access to financing and we are well positioned to make new acquisitions.” Overall, the financial report indicates operational losses of $52.2 million in 2013. Sealaska made up $21.9 million of that in net natural resources revenue sharing from other Native corporations as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. A spokesman for a collection of Sealaska board candidates known as the Sealaska 4 said in a group statement that the prospect of “huge losses” motivated the four candidates to run for board seats, and that the losses turned out to be greater than first feared. “The shareholders of Sealaska deserve a full explanation of these losses, and the reported accounting adjustments as well,” Randy Wanamaker said. The corporate release states the company realized $24.6 million in accounting adjustments for the year. In April, Sealaska announced spring shareholder distributions totaling $11.8 million that were reportedly paid out April 11. The company’s annual shareholder meeting will be held June 28 in Seattle. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pebble cites EPA emails were biased

Pebble mine developers claim they have proof Environmental Protection Agency officials acted with bias and a pre-determined mindset when examining the potential risks a mine could pose to Bristol Bay fisheries. Documents and email chain records from as far back as 2010, obtained by Pebble Limited Partnership through the Freedom of Information Act, show EPA Region 10 staff in lengthy communications about the prospect of preemptively banning large mines in the Bristol Bay watershed. These communications occurred between staff within the EPA and with agency staff and conservation group members. In an email dated Sept. 14, 2010, EPA Aquatic Ecologist for Bristol Bay Phil North wrote to current EPA Region 10 Office of Ecology, Tribal and Public Affairs Manager Michael Szerlog and program manager Richard Parkin that the land in the Nushagak and Kvichak drainages — where Pebble’s copper and gold claims are located — is owned almost entirely by the State of Alaska and private parties, making it susceptible for development, and because of that, action should be taken to prioritize its protection. The email predates by months the EPA’s Feb. 7, 2011, announcement it would undertake a yearlong risk assessment of the impacts of mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. Most other Bristol Bay land is federally protected as wildlife refuge or national park land. “A big project like Pebble would be a big blow by itself (not to mention seven more Pebbles), but it is the accumulation of mines and highways and all the associated residential and commercial development enabled by the larger scale developments, that will ultimately cause the demise of the (salmon) resources we are targeting,” North wrote. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Feb. 28 that the agency would move forward with the early stages of a process to use authority granted it under subsection 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block the large mineral project from getting a required U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands dredge and fill permit. The regional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handles Section 404 permit applications for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. McCarthy said at the time the decision was based on the agency’s final assessment, released in January, of potential impacts a mine could have on salmon stocks in the Bristol Bay region. More than half of the Bristol Bay region is considered wetlands under the Clean Water Act. If developed, the Iliamna-area mine would likely be one of the largest surface copper and gold mines in the world in the middle of the region that returns roughly half of the world’s sockeye salmon every year. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted, as is the case currently with Pebble. North continued in the September 2010 email: “So a 404(c) that targets the primary habitat of the resource we are trying to protect, salmon, is a logical approach. First at the specific habitat level by prohibiting discharge in stream channels and the riparian (or adjacent) wetlands that most directly support them. Second by initially addressing Bristol Bay as a whole then narrowing to those watersheds that are at risk.” Subsection 404(c) of the Clean Water Act states that the EPA can prohibit the use “of any defined area as a (material) disposal site” when the agency administrator deems the placement of fill material “into such an area will have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or water supplies. The question remains whether that language gives the agency the authority to veto an activity such as mining across a broad area, rather than just in a specific location. On May 2, the Office of Inspector General for the EPA announced it would review the agency’s actions in developing the Bristol Bay watershed assessment at the request of Pebble, the State of Alaska and several members of Congress. EPA Region 10 spokeswoman Hanady Kader wrote in an email to the Journal that the agency received requests from nine Tribal governments in 2010 to use the Clean Water Act authority to protect the watershed and fisheries from a proposed Pebble Mine. “EPA made transparency and public engagement a priority from day one of the Bristol Bay Watershed assessment. It is a strong scientific document based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. The agency considered thousands of comments and scientific data submitted during two separate public comment periods and eight public meetings. EPA met with many stakeholders over the course of its assessment, including multiple meetings Pebble Limited Partnership,” she wrote May 13. A memo from consulting Anchorage attorney Geoffrey Parker to EPA’s Parkin dated Feb. 14, 2012, suggested the agency change its course of action at the time to speed up the Pebble veto. “This recommends that EPA shift from a ‘linear’ to an ‘overlapping’ schedule for its watershed assessment and 404(c) process. Doing so can maintain and improve quality, and should result in a more legally defensible final decision,” Parker wrote. Pebble claims additionally that the peer reviews of drafts of the watershed assessment call its scientific validity into question. “Not only does EPA not have the statutory authority to undertake pre-emptive action at Pebble, they are threatening to do so based on a flawed study that is now the subject of an investigation by their own agency,” said Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns the Pebble project, in a formal statement May 6. Pebble has said the EPA could still veto its project after a wetlands permit application is submitted to the Corps of Engineers if it does not meet regulatory standards. While Pebble says the mine would generate up to 1,000 full-time jobs over 25 years, Kader said the economic value of the commercial salmon fishery in Bristol Bay has been overlooked in recent media reports covering the controversy. An April 2013 study from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research commissioned by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association found that the 2010 Bristol Bay commercial sockeye harvest generated $1.5 billion of final sales value across the U.S. The ex-vessel value of the 29 million sockeyes harvest from the region that year was $165 million, 31 percent of the total Alaska salmon harvest value, and helped support 12,000 seasonal fishing and processing jobs nationwide, according to the report. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Coast Guard to move slowly into the Arctic

The U.S. Coast Guard unveiled its draft plan for increased Arctic operations over the next decade at open houses held across Alaska May 12-16. The preferred alternative action in the draft environmental assessment of USCG Arctic Operations and Training Exercises matches the growth in maritime Arctic activity expected in the coming years with an appropriate USCG presence, 17th District Arctic Planner James Robinson said at an Anchorage open house May 13. Doing so would mean responding to the “seasonal surge” in Arctic activity, primarily mid-March through mid-November, with a shore, air and sea presence, the report states. Further, the Coast Guard’s plan is a response to Arctic strategies laid out by the White House and Defense Department among other federal agencies over the last two years, Robinson said. Outside of responding to specific missions, the Coast Guard has not historically emphasized being in the usually quiet Arctic. The USCG cutter Healy, typically used in support of scientific missions, has been its only consistent presence in the region, according to the assessment. Robinson said when Shell was exploring its Beaufort Sea oil and gas leases in 2012, the Coast Guard positioned a forward operating base in Barrow. Last summer, with no Arctic Outer Continental Shelf drilling occurring, a forward operating base was stationed in Kotzebue to generally learn more about operating in the Bering Strait, he said.  “We look at our operations and analyze our risk picture,” when determining where to deploy resources, Robinson said. With no drilling this year, he said the Coast Guard would likely split resources between the North Slope and Western Alaska, working to advance logistical knowledge for future operations. According to the assessment, the risk picture in the Bering Strait is growing. Maritime traffic transiting the strait increased from 220 vessels in 2008 to 480 in 2012, as summer sea ice continues its general retreat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected in the coming months to release a deep-draft port proposal for the Seward Peninsula, another federal response to a busier Arctic. A deep-draft port in the Nome area could serve as an operations center for Arctic emergency responders, including the Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers Alaska officials have said. Robinson said the Coast Guard is reevaluating plans to rid itself of its small former base and airstrip at Port Clarence as a result. With deep water, Port Clarence, northeast of Nome, is cited by the Corps of Engineers as a possible place for civilian or military infrastructure development. It could help Coast Guard missions mitigate “the tyranny of distance and time” that makes seasonal Arctic operations so expensive, Robinson said. The Coast Guard is looking for partners of all types, from the military to Alaska Native corporations, to mitigate those costs and maximize efficiency, he said. USCG C-130 aircraft positioned at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks can fulfill a myriad of Arctic missions, according to Robinson. While the Coast Guard is often welcomed in rural Alaska, he noted that an emphasis must be placed on reaching out to residents in the villages of Northwest Alaska to assure them the Coast Guard will take steps to minimize its impact on wildlife, marine or otherwise, and will do its best to make sure others do as well. Keeping a distance from wildlife will be of high priority in the Arctic going forward. All vessels and aircraft will avoid areas of active or anticipated subsistence hunts by contacting those in area villages to determine a proper course of action, according to the assessment. Additionally, when weather allows, Coast Guard planes will not fly below 1,500 feet and less than a half-mile from polar bears and they won’t be below 2,000 feet when within a half-mile of walruses. The draft assessment is available for review online at www.uscg.mil/D17. A public comment period on the report is open until May 28. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Inspector General to investigate EPA Bristol Bay process

The Office of Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency asked EPA Region 10 officials for a list of names, documents, dates and spending associated with developing the Bristol Bay watershed assessment when it notified the office May 2 that a review of the assessment process would be conducted at the request of Pebble Limited Partnership and members of Congress. In February, the EPA said it intended to initiate a seldom-used process to block large-scale surface mining in the Bristol Bay region to protect the region’s robust salmon fishery, using the 1,000-plus page watershed assessment as a basis for its decision. Questions have been raised by Pebble and media reports about the EPA’s objectives while conducting the assessment. Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Pebble owner Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., said in a May 6 formal statement the mining company is “thankful” the IG’s office plans to investigate the agency’s Bristol Bay actions. “While the documents we’ve received to date through Freedom of Information Act requests have been sparse and heavily redacted, they paint the picture of an agency launching a watershed assessment to justify a predetermined outcome,” Thiessen said. If developed, it is believed the Iliamna-area Pebble mine would be one of the largest surface copper and gold mines in the world. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young sent a letter to the EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. in February requesting an inquiry into the science behind the watershed assessment. Spokesmen for Murkowski and Young both said they are in “wait and see” mode until the IG issues a final report. Sen. Mark Begich took a stance opposing the mine after release of the Bristol Bay assessment in January. Begich spokeswoman Heather Handyside wrote in an email to the Journal that the senator welcomes the review if it can resolve lingering uncertainty about the assessment that “was subject to two peer reviews and an extensive public process involving tens of thousands of comments, the vast majority of which support the science in the Bristol Bay assessment.” Young and Murkowski have officially said they remain neutral on the mine project.  According to an April 30 Washington Times report, EPA officials were discussing how the Clean Water Act could be used to stop a mine in 2010, before the official three-year assessment process began. United Tribes of Bristol Bay spokeswoman Alannah Hurley said area Tribes asked about how EPA could use its Clean Water Act power to stop the mine prior to the assessment and the group that has long opposed Pebble is confident the EPA has met all its public responsibilities. Trout Unlimited’s Tim Bristol, who is Alaska executive director of the nonprofit leading the fight against the proposed mine, said Pebble’s request for a review of the assessment is nothing more than a sign of desperation and that he doesn’t know how a government agency having discussions with the public could be considered scandalous. “It’s clearly just another unsettling act by Pebble Partnership to try and delay the Clean Water Act process,” Bristol said. In a detailed and blunt 60-page document dated April 29, the Pebble Limited Partnership laid out five claims describing how it believes the EPA overstepped its authority and damaged the federal environmental permitting process when it announced its intent to begin work to preemptively veto a wetlands permit for a mine plan that has yet to be filed. The letter is addressed to EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran and is signed by Pebble CEO Tom Collier. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Feb. 28 that the agency would move forward with the early stages of a process to use authority granted it under subsection 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block the large mineral project from getting a required U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands dredge and fill permit. It’s unclear if the EPA will be able to move forward with its work while the Inspector General investigation is underway. The agency has said the full Clean Water Act process would likely take about a year. The Region 10 EPA office did not respond to a request for comment in time for this story. The regional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handles Section 404 permit applications for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. McCarthy said at the time the decision was based on the agency’s final assessment, released in January, of potential impacts a mine could have on salmon stocks in the Bristol Bay region. More than half of the Bristol Bay region is considered wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The first and most repeated claim in Pebble’s response to the EPA is that the agency overstepped its Clean Water Act authority by issuing an intent to begin the 404(c) permit veto process before the group has submitted a wetlands application to the Corps of Engineers or released a formal mine plan. In a formal statement issued by Pebble to coincide with the letter submittal, Collier said, “The actions EPA is contemplating today go well beyond Pebble. It is a precedent that will be leveraged by environmental activist groups and will have a chilling effect on future investment and job creation throughout the country. Congress never intended to grant EPA the authority to undertake proactive watershed zoning over broad areas of state and private lands when it passed the Clean Water Act, yet that is exactly what is happening here.” While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted. In documents obtained by the Washington Times, a decision “matrix” rating the pros and cons of the tradition National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process versus a preemptive veto were weighed. Among the “cons” listed for the traditional NEPA process was that the EPA would only be able to veto one project at a time as opposed to vetoing all activities in a large area. Listed as “cons” under the preemptive veto decision were “litigation risk” and the fact that the action has never been taken in the agency’s history. In 2011, when the EPA formally announced it was initiating the assessment process, the Journal reported on a 2008 document from the Region 10 EPA Environmental Justice unit that listed protecting subsistence fishing on the Colville River and addressing impacts of hard rock mining in Bristol Bay as examples of successful long-term outcomes. The EPA succeeded temporarily in halting the ConocoPhillips CD-5 project that included a bridge crossing the Colville River in 2010 and is now moving to block Pebble as well. The Environmental Justice unit at Region 10 is led by Rick Parkin, who Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran tapped to lead the Bristol Bay assessment. Subsection 404(c) states that the EPA can prohibit the use “of any defined area as a (material) disposal site” when the agency administrator deems the placement of fill material “into such an area will have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or water supplies. Additionally, Pebble claims the agency cannot meet its burden of “finding that the Pebble project will have an ‘unacceptable adverse effect’ because a permit application has not yet been submitted.” Collier also noted in his statement that the EPA could still veto the wetlands application if the group fails to submit an environmentally safe plan, as the agency has done with other projects. Alaska Attorney General Michael Gerhaghty, in an April 29 letter to regional EPA chief McLerran, called the agency’s actions “premature, speculative, without precedent, illegal in terms of both process and substance, and unnecessary.” April 29 was the final day of a 45-day period for stakeholder response to the EPA on the final assessment, a period extended from the minimum 15-day period at the request of the state and Pebble. EPA has said the veto process usually takes about a year to complete. Further, Geraghty wrote that a “cloud of uncertainty” hangs over lands owned by all parties in the region as a result and that the EPA would deny the state its right to develop lands conveyed to it under the Alaska Statehood Act and other federal agreements that were chosen specifically for their mineral potential, a stance echoed by Pebble. The Pebble copper and gold claims are entirely on state land. Finally, Geraghty stated that there is no risk to the environment by working through the current federal and state statutes including the National Environmental Policy Act, which offers the public significant comment on proposed development, and the Clean Water Act. The February announcement by McCarthy was praised by commercial fishing and conservation groups steadfastly opposed the proposed mine and lambasted by Young and Murkowski, who have said repeatedly Pebble should be allowed to go through the same review process as any other project. Murkowski has remained neutral on the project, but has pushed the Pebble Partnership to unveil a mine plan so it can be judged and speculation about the project can be put to rest. When former 50 percent-share Pebble investor London-based Anglo American Plc pulled out of the project in September, remaining investor Northern Dynasty Minerals said it would hold off on issuing a formal plan until a new investor could be secured. Pebble says the mine would generate about 1,000 full-time jobs for up to 25 years in a region with high unemployment. Mine opponents say it is too risky of a project in the middle of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Bristol, of Trout Unlimited, said in a formal statement that Pebble’s response to the EPA doesn’t change that a large mine could damage a fishery that supports thousands of jobs every year. “The EPA has legal, policy and scientific backing to protect Bristol Bay and its economy from Pebble mine.” Bristol said. “It also has the backing of 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents, a majority of Alaskans and vast numbers of Americans across the political spectrum who have spoken out on this issue. The agency should work to complete the 404(c) process as quickly as possible and apply the much-needed Clean Water Act protections to the headwaters of Bristol Bay.” The 2013 ex-vessel value for all commercial salmon harvested in Bristol Bay was $140.5 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. United Tribes of Bristol Bay President Robert Heyano said in a release the mine threatens “salmon-based” livelihoods and cultures in the region. “The Pebble Limited Partnership’s response to the 404(c) process does nothing to ease our concerns about its plans in Bristol Bay,” Heyano said. “The fact remains that the Pebble deposit is massive in scope, sits in a sensitive location, and poses severe impacts to the sustainable salmon resource in Bristol Bay.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Fairbanks flight opens unmanned aircraft test site

A small and unassuming unmanned aircraft made a short flight Monday in Fairbanks that signified a big step in aviation, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said. The quad-rotor Aeryon Scout’s flight of less than five minutes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station officially made the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration the second operational unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, test site in the country. “Alaska is positioned to make great contributions to our research of unmanned aircraft,” Huerta said from Anchorage. The FAA recently approved a two-year certificate of authorization, or COA, for the Unmanned Aircraft Center for Scout flights at the research station. In late December, the center’s Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, which also includes sites in Oregon and Hawaii, was sanctioned by the FAA as one of six UAS testing grounds across the country. “This is absolutely a special day for our program and for our people who have worked so hard to make this happen — make it a reality,” center director Marty Rogers said in Fairbanks. “We have and have had for a long time a very active and science and research unmanned aircraft program with over a decade of successful flight operations across Alaska, the Lower 48, and internationally, but this, the very first flight at any of the UAS test sites is groundbreaking for us because it is a visible and tangible event that moves us collectively one step closer to safe integration of unmanned aircraft into our national airspace.” The test sites are the result of a 2012 congressional mandate to the FAA to develop operating procedures to meld UAS and traditional aviation by 2015. Rogers said the center would work with UAF scientists to determine the feasibility of using the Scout and other UAS to do what Huerta called often “tedious” large animal studies in the wild. While also symbolic, Monday’s flight at the Large Animal Research Station was also used to see how musk ox at the station responded to the Scout, Pan-Pacific Range Director Ro Bailey said. Huerta said the Pan-Pacific Range and other sites would be used in coming years to determine safe flight conditions, proper operator qualifications, support systems and, most importantly, effective “sense and avoid” technology for flying among traditional aircraft. “I think we need to think about this as an evolutionary process,” he said. While initial UAS guidelines will likely be implemented in 2015, they will continue to morph as new technologies arise, Huerta said. UAF Geophysical Institute researchers counted Steller sea lions with an infrared camera affixed to a UAS in the Aleutian Islands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2012 — a low-altitude mission that would be dangerous and largely ineffective for a manned aircraft.  Additionally, the UAF crew has used the little fliers to monitor oil spill response drills run by Chevron in at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The experience of the UAF staff was a “major factor” in selecting the Alaska Center as a test site operator, according to Huerta. “They came to us with a very tight and well-developed research program that addressed a very broad scope of the research objectives we identified for the program in its entirety,” Huerta said. That work was done as government research, before the test site program was in place. The FAA is not currently issuing COA’s for commercial UAS operations and the only legal commercial unmanned flight in the country’s history took place last September when ConocoPhillips used a UAS to survey its offshore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pebble to EPA: mine veto would overstep authority

The group working to develop the Pebble copper-gold deposits in Southwest Alaska responded April 29 to the Environmental Protection Agency’s possible move to preemptively block the mine. In a detailed and blunt 60-page document, the Pebble Limited Partnership laid out five claims describing how it believes the EPA overstepped its authority and damaged the federal environmental permitting process when it announced its intent to begin work to preemptively veto a wetlands permit for a mine plan that has yet to be filed. The letter is addressed to EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran and is signed by Pebble CEO Tom Collier. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Feb. 28 that the agency would move forward with the early stages of a process to use authority granted it under subsection 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block the large mineral project from getting a required U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands dredge and fill permit. The regional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handles Section 404 permit applications for all projects, public or private, that could impact wetlands. McCarthy said at the time the decision was based on the agency’s final assessment, released in January, of potential impacts a mine could have on salmon stocks in the Bristol Bay region. More than half of the Bristol Bay region is considered wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The first and most repeated claim in Pebble’s response to the EPA is that the agency overstepped its Clean Water Act authority by issuing an intent to begin the 404(c) permit veto process before the group has submitted a wetlands application to the Corps of Engineers or released a formal mine plan. In a formal statement issued by Pebble to coincide with the letter submittal, Collier said, “The actions EPA is contemplating today go well beyond Pebble. It is a precedent that will be leveraged by environmental activist groups and will have a chilling effect on future investment and job creation throughout the country. Congress never intended to grant EPA the authority to undertake proactive watershed zoning over broad areas of state and private lands when it passed the Clean Water Act, yet that is exactly what is happening here.” If developed, it is believed the Iliamna-area mine would be one of the largest surface copper and gold mines in the world. While the EPA has vetoed wetlands permit applications 13 times since 1972, it has never used the power to deny a permit before an application was submitted. Subsection 404(c) states that the EPA can prohibit the use “of any defined area as a (material) disposal site” when the agency administrator deems the placement of fill material “into such an area will have an unacceptable adverse effect” on fish, wildlife or water supplies. Additionally, Pebble claims the agency cannot meet its burden of “finding that the Pebble project will have an ‘unacceptable adverse effect’ because a permit application has not yet been submitted.” Collier also noted in his statement that the EPA could still veto the wetlands application if the group fails to submit an environmentally safe plan, as the agency has done with other projects. Alaska Attorney General Michael Gerhaghty, in an April 29 letter to regional EPA chief McLerran, called the agency’s actions “premature, speculative, without precedent, illegal in terms of both process and substance, and unnecessary.” April 29 was the final day of a 45-day period for stakeholder response to the EPA on the final assessment, a period extended from the minimum 15-day period at the request of the state and Pebble. EPA has said the veto process usually takes about a year to complete. Further, Geraghty wrote that a “cloud of uncertainty” hangs over lands owned by all parties in the region as a result and that the EPA would deny the state its right to develop lands conveyed to it under the Alaska Statehood Act and other federal agreements that were chosen specifically for their mineral potential, a stance echoed by Pebble. The Pebble copper and gold claims are entirely on state land. Finally, Geraghty stated that there is no risk to the environment by working through the current federal and state statutes including the National Environmental Policy Act, which offers the public significant comment on proposed development, and the Clean Water Act. The February announcement by McCarthy was praised by commercial fishing and conservation groups steadfastly opposed the proposed mine and lambasted by Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who have said repeatedly Pebble should be allowed to go through the same review process as any other project. Murkowski has remained neutral on the project, but has pushed the Pebble Partnership to unveil a mine plan so it can be judged and speculation about the project can be put to rest. When former 50 percent-share Pebble investor London-based Anglo American Plc pulled out of the project in September, remaining investor Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. said it would hold off on issuing a formal plan until a new investor could be secured. Sen. Mark Begich took a stance opposing the mine after release of the Bristol Bay assessment in January. Pebble says the mine would generate about 1,000 full-time jobs for up to 25 years in a region with high unemployment. Mine opponents say it is too risky of a project in the middle of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Trout Unlimited’s Tim Bristol, who is Alaska executive director of the nonprofit leading the fight against the proposed mine, said in a formal statement that Pebble’s response to the EPA doesn’t change that a large mine could damage a fishery that supports thousands of jobs every year. “The EPA has legal, policy and scientific backing to protect Bristol Bay and its economy from Pebble mine.” Bristol said. “It also has the backing of 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents, a majority of Alaskans and vast numbers of Americans across the political spectrum who have spoken out on this issue. The agency should work to complete the 404(c) process as quickly as possible and apply the much-needed Clean Water Act protections to the headwaters of Bristol Bay.” The 2013 ex-vessel value for all commercial salmon harvested in Bristol Bay was $140.5 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. United Tribes of Bristol Bay President Robert Heyano said in a release the mine threatens “salmon-based” livelihoods and cultures in the region. “The Pebble Limited Partnership’s response to the 404(c) process does nothing to ease our concerns about its plans in Bristol Bay,” Heyano said. “The fact remains that the Pebble deposit is massive in scope, sits in a sensitive location, and poses severe impacts to the sustainable salmon resource in Bristol Bay.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Skagway ferry dock still salvageable, service suspended

Ferry service has been suspended to Skagway through May 9 after the town’s ferry terminal dock sank without warning; however, it appears the dock is salvageable. Skagway Borough Manager Scott Hahn said early April 30 that he was told the floating dock would be operational in about a week. Workers from a local marine contractor were able to refloat the dock April 29, according to an Alaska Marine Highway System update on the project. The dock will immediately receive an intense inspection to determine what parts need to be replaced and why it sank in the first place. AMHS contracted with Western Marine Construction Inc., which has facilities in Seattle and Juneau, on an emergency basis over the weekend of April 26-27 to float, inspect and hopefully repair the dock as quickly as possible, system spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said. Estimating the fixes would be complete might be “a bit optimistic,” Woodrow said, but he confirmed the dock does not need to be replaced. “Once the inspection is complete the (Transportation) Department will have a better handle on the necessary repairs and how long it will take to get the dock back in operation,” Woodrow said. The submerged hydraulic and electrical parts will undoubtedly need to be swapped out, he said. A temporary fix to the hydraulics that move the vehicle ramp will likely be sought to make the dock operational while a permanent solution is found, he said. The 160-foot by 120-foot dock is comprised of 24 individual, airtight concrete chambers, each 12 feet deep. The 24 chambers are supposed to provide a redundancy backup, he said, meaning if one fails, the other airtight boxes keep the dock afloat. “To have the dock submerged like this, there has to be multiple failures or some other issue,” he said. People on their way to work saw the partially submerged floating dock about 6 a.m., April 24, and the dock was completely under water within 90 minutes. Every individual chamber has been inspected by the state in the last two years, Woodrow told the Associated Press. There was “no visible sign of wear or indication that would lead to this submersion,” he said. The state has ferry service scheduled to Skagway about three times a week during the winter and six days a week during the summer. Hahn said the interruption in ferry service caused a “hassle” for some business owners preparing to greet the season’s first cruise ship scheduled to arrive in Skagway May 1, but that it appears major logistical problems have been avoided if the dock is back in operation soon. Businesses in many coastal Alaska communities use the ferry service to transport merchandise and supplies, along with employees. “It would’ve caused quite a stir for us” if the dock needed replacing, he said. “It would’ve been a big cost to the city.” Hahn said he heard of a few tourists who planned on using the ferry to visit the area before the cruise ships arrived and were subsequently inconvenienced, but understood the situation and found other ways to get to Skagway. If it turns out the dock has to be out of commission for an extended period he said city leaders would sit down with business owners and the Skagway Chamber of Commerce to quantify the impact of no ferry service to the community, as well as try to facilitate another vessel operator to transport goods and vehicles. The community about 15 miles from the Canadian border is not cut off, however. It’s connected to the Yukon by the Klondike Highway, and is a couple hours away from Whitehorse, in Yukon Territory. It’s also about a six-hour drive to Haines, Alaska, a distance that takes about 45 minutes on a ferry. Jan Wrentmore, owner of the Red Onion Saloon, said she was dismayed when she saw the dock underwater. “It was pretty unbelievable,” she said. “It’s something that you rely on and take for granted, and suddenly it’s gone.” Several local entities combined to help drag to shore parts of the dock that were still accessible above the water line. Also removed from the water was a forklift that had been on the dock. It’s not the first time a dock in Skagway fell into the ocean. In 1994, the city’s railroad dock sank. The cause was never determined. AMHS is asking parties interested in updated Skagway sailing information to call 907-465-3941 or 800-642-0066. Updates on the Skagway ferry terminal dock can also be found at www.ferryalaska.com. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected] The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

Alaska Air Group starts 2014 with another record profit

Alaska Air Group Inc. is on a major roll. The airline company announced it earned $94 million of first quarter net income in its earnings report April 25. The quarterly profit more than doubled the $37 million of net earnings from quarter-one of 2013 — also a record at the time — and marks the company’s 20th consecutive money-making quarter, and it’s seventh record quarterly return over the eight quarters. Seattle-based Alaska Air Group is the parent to Alaska Airlines and regional carrier Horizon Air. The company’s adjusted first quarter net income was $89 million after a $5 million fuel-hedge hit to its $94 million generally accepted accounting principle, or GAAP, profit. Broken down, the $94 million profit is $1.35 per share. Alaska Air Group shares traded at $93.37 on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of business April 28, up more than 27 percent for the year. The profit spike was on the back of $249 million of operating cash flow generated during the quarter, up 17.4 percent from $212 million year-over-year. Alaska Air Group President and CEO Brad Tilden said in a conference call with investors that the first quarter result would be strong for any quarter and is particularly remarkable because of when it came. “It wasn’t that many years ago that we created an objective of simply not losing money in the first quarter,” Tilden said. “Our business, like a lot of other airlines, (has) been very seasonal and, unfortunately, we have become used to digging the hole in the first quarter that we would have to dig our way out of in the second and third quarters.” The record first quarter comes on the heels of a record $383 million full-year 2013, which followed a record-breaking profitable 2012 for Alaska Air Group. It’s 12-month trailing return on invested capital, or ROIC, was a strong 14.8 percent at the end of March and a 1.4 percent improvement over the previous running year, said Brandon Pederson, company vice president of finance and chief financial officer. Alaska Air Group ended the quarter with $1.4 billion in cash and near-term investments, Pederson said. Total revenue grew by 8 percent on a 4.6 percent increase in capacity. The company’s non-fuel operating expenses grew 5 percent, while adjusted fuel expenditures were about flat, he said. At the end of quarter-one Alaska Air Group had an adjusted debt-to-capitalization ratio of 32 percent, down from 35 percent at the start of the year, and $400 million in net cash, according to Pederson. The debt reduction is the continuation of a philosophy company executives have pushed since early 2009 when its “debt-to-cap” ratio was 81 percent, Pederson has told the Journal. Tilden said to investors that Standard and Poor’s, which recently increased the company’s credit rating to BB+, also recently commented that Alaska Airlines, which drives Air Group financials, has the “strongest financial profile of any U.S. airline.” Alaska Air Group repurchased about 350,000 shares of stock totaling about $30 million during the first quarter, Pederson said. The company expects to return about $350 million to shareholders this year through dividends and stock repurchase plans, he added. Alaska Air Group began paying 20-cent per share quarterly dividends to shareholders last August; that amount has since been increased to 25 cents per share. With quarter-one giving the company a strong financial start to the year, Pederson said capital expenditures should be in the range of $530 million to $545 million in 2014. The company spent $93 million on capital projects in the first quarter, resulting in $156 million of free cash flow, he said. “Even though our mainline fleet will only increase by three units this year, we are actually taking 10 very efficient (Boeing) 373-900ERs and retiring seven older and smaller aircraft, further improving our fleet’s efficiency,” he said. Alaska Airlines operates Boeing 737s exclusively and Horizon Air flies only Bombardier Q400 turboprops. Near-term business will focus on retaining Alaska Airlines’ hold on Pacific Northwest market, specifically Seattle, Tilden said. To that end, new capacity will be reallocated to new seasonal routes originating from Seattle including Tampa, Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore, he said. The airline will pull out of “underperforming markets,” such as Portland, Ore.-Atlanta and Los Angeles-San Jose, Cali., according to Tilden. “We are mindful of the growing capacity in Seattle, specifically from one large carrier,” he said. “We believe our competitors’ actions are creating a surplus of capacity in many of the markets we serve, which we will be dealing with until supply and demand come back into balance, which is something we do believe will happen.” Delta Airlines has added Seattle routes in recent months, including some to Alaska destinations, moves that have strained what had been a seemingly healthy partnership between Alaska Airlines and Delta in the past. Pederson said the company expects competitive capacity in Alaska Airlines’ markets to grow between 7-8 percent for the year. On the internal business side, Tilden said Alaska Air Group has a strong foundation with all of its union employees except Alaska Airlines flight attendants under contract through 2018. The large carrier flight attendants recently rejected a tentative contract agreement earlier this year. “I want to thank our flight attendants for being very professional and for continuing to provide great service to our customers as we proceed through the negotiating process,” Tilden said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

AIDEA, AEA approve $75 million-plus for statewide energy

More than $75 million in financing for energy projects from the North Slope to Prince of Wales Island in far Southeast was approved Thursday by the joint Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and Alaska Energy Authority board. A $50 million direct investment by AIDEA into the North Slope Mustang Field processing facility highlighted the nearly eight-hour board meeting. With the investment, AIDEA entered into an agreement with CES Oil Services Pte. Ltd. to form Mustang Operations Center 1 LLC. The $200 million-plus facility will be operated by independent Brooks Range Petroleum and owned by AIDEA and CES Oil. The Mustang Field has 24 million barrels of potential resources and production at the field could peak at about 15,000 barrels per day, Brooks Range has said. AIDEA already had $20 million invested in late 2012 in a well pad and road to the field that was completed this spring. AIDEA estimates its investments could help spur more than half a billion dollars of private investment in the Mustang Field and help generate up to 525 jobs through design, construction and operation of the processing facility. On the Interior Energy Project, the state’s push to truck liquefied Slope gas to the Fairbanks area, AIDEA spent $6.3 million. Of that, $1.8 million is to purchase Spectrum Alaska LLC, the North Slope holdings of Oklahoma-based Spectrum LNG. In acquiring Spectrum Alaska, AIDEA secured a pad site for its North Slope gas liquefaction plant. Spectrum previously submitted a bid to AIDEA to partner with the state authority on its Slope LNG plant, a contract that was awarded to the Colorado-based engineering and technical firm MWH Global Inc. in January. AIDEA also approved $4.5 million for early works contracts with Northern Lights Energy LLC, the venture formed to control the North Slope gas that will be trucked to utilities and potentially other users in the Interior. That money will go towards arriving at a cost estimate for the 9 billion cubic feet per year LNG plant and contracting to place gravel on the formerly Spectrum pad. A wetlands permit for a 10-acre pad had been approved by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the AIDEA-MWH plan will require a modified permit for a 17-acre pad. In its role to lead the Alaska Energy Authority, the seven-member board approved a $20 million loan for Haida Energy to finance construction of a five-megawatt hydropower plant on Prince of Wales Island. Haida Energy is a joint venture between Alaska Power and Telephone and the Haida Corp. Alaska Native village corporation. The loan was approved with a 4.6 percent fixed interest rate, a term Haida Energy officials objected to because it does not match what AEA had previously agreed to. In January 2013, AEA staff and Haida energy agreed to a term sheet with a variable interest rate loan to protect the utility and its current ratepayers from high initial costs associated with Reynolds Creek hydropower. Under those terms, the loan would be interest free until production from the 5-megawatt plant hit 7,300-megawatt hours annually. From there, the interest rate would scale up to 4.84 percent when about 20,000 megawatt hours of power was produced. The resolution that approved the loan included a late amendment by board member and Department of Revenue Deputy Commissioner Mike Pawlowski that allows Haida Energy to reject the terms and requires AEA to reenter negotiations with the utility over more agreeable loan terms within the next 30 days. The board members emphasized their understanding about the impact high energy costs continue to have on the region, where the burning diesel fuel is often the primary means of generating power. “The board’s push is to make something work and come back to us,” board member and Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell said. Grimm told the board that the fixed loan terms could push the cost of Reynolds Creek power above the cost of diesel-generated electricity and because of that a purchase agreement for the hydropower would likely not be approved by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. The board also moved its next meeting to Wednesday, June 4; it was originally scheduled for Monday, June 2. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FAA approves GPS device to improve emergency response

The Federal Aviation Administration has expanded options for pilots wishing to participate in an Alaska-specific emergency response program. Mapping company DeLorme’s inReach GPS is now an approved device for use in the Enhanced Special Reporting Service, according to FAA’s Alaska Flight Services office. Along with the SPOT Global Phone and Spidertracks devices, pilots with an inReach can sign up for the service, which allows them to contact emergency responders outside of cell phone and radar range — most of Alaska. The Enhanced Special Reporting Service, or eSRS, was launched in February 2013 with the SPOT and Spidertracks as approved GPS units, Alaska Airmen Association spokesman Adam White said. White sat on a working group formed by the FAA in 2011 to develop the service. It allows the FAA to expound on the flight plan-radio program, he said. Traditionally, pilots file a flight plan and radio to an airport when they reached a designated checkpoint. “If you missed a check-in point the assumption was something bad has happened and we need to scramble search and rescue,” White said. “The thing with radio — same thing as radar coverage — radio coverage is not always the best here.” Pilots that sign up for the voluntary program are forwarded an FAA email address and text message phone number to add to their contacts for their GPS devices. In the event that a checkpoint is missed or a flight plan isn’t closed, the service can call someone in the pilot’s emergency contact list to reach the hopefully safe pilot. “Once you (sign up) the first time, you’re good to go. I know a lot of folks who have mentioned to me the peace of mind the program gives them,” White said. The Enhanced Special Reporting Service vets the flight plan. White said the working group really wanted to cut down on “false alarms.” He emphasized that the FAA does not actively follow aircraft with the devices. “The FAA does not want access to your tracking points. The whole problem with security and keeping your information on the secure side of their computer system, they just don’t want to deal with that, which I appreciate,” he said. “I don’t want big brother tracking me anymore than the next guy.” As of April 22, White said Alaska Flight Services officials told him more than 1,000 flights had been flown utilizing the service and one “S.O.S.” had been issued with a GPS. FAA Alaska Region spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the agency preferred to not comment for this story. “Pilots and aircraft owners are encouraged to participate in this program while operating within the state of Alaska,” Alaska Flight Services Manager James M. Miller said in a March 27 DeLorme release. “Once an alert is generated, the position of the aircraft is transmitted to Flight Service either directly or through the International Emergency Response Coordination Center.” The service allows rescue operations to go directly to the potentially downed aircraft’s location, rather than searching the entire route when a flight is overdue, according to Miller. The Enhanced Special Reporting Service is exclusive to Alaska because the Lower 48 has the necessary radar coverage. While the GPS technology service helps rescue crews locate an aircraft after a flight plan has expired, it’s extremely helpful for those flying to a remote cabin or hunting or fishing camp when a flight plan can’t be closed, White said. If a pilot flying to such a location files a 14-day flight “round robin” plan and crashes, White said he or she may be stranded for days because there is no indication to responders that an emergency is ongoing. “Let’s say I crash 30 minutes after takeoff…good luck,” he said. The inReach is a “game changer” for the service because it allows for two-way, 160-character text messages with 100 percent coverage, White said. The most the other devices are capable of is short, outgoing texts. They also have had coverage issues in some extremely far north locations where satellite signals can be affected by the curvature of the earth. NextGen ADS-B recently completed The FAA announced April 14 completion of the nationwide Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast radio network, or ADS-B. Completion of the network will enable air traffic controllers to better track aircraft and give pilots more information as well, according to an agency release. “This upgrade is an important step in laying the foundation for the (next generation) system, which provides controllers a much more precise view of the airspace, gives pilots much more awareness and information, and as a result strengthens the safety and efficiency of our system. This state-of-the-art satellite system is already providing controllers with visibility in places not previously covered by radar,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement. The broadcast network, or ADS-B supports a satellite system that tracks aircraft with the aide of GPS more accurately than radar. Of 230 air traffic facilities in the country, 100 are currently using ADS-B to sort air traffic. The FAA plans to have all facilities using ADS-B by 2019, the agency has said. Jane Dale, a government and regulatory affairs representative for the Alaska Air Carriers Association said ADS-B ground stations have been installed across Western Alaska and the North Slope, but areas of the Interior near the Canadian border lack coverage. If infrastructure installation is complete, Dale said she wonders if those areas will receive coverage. All aircraft operating in controlled airspace will be required to have ADS-B Out technology by Jan. 1, 2020, in accordance with FAA requirements. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Employee training caters to tour travelers with disabilities

A group in Juneau is doing what it can to make sure everyone gets a chance enjoy the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska. Southeast Alaska Independent Living Inc., or SAIL, is offering training, equipment and other assistance to tour business owners hoping to make their shops or services more disability friendly with its Accessible Tourism Program. “Whether a business wants to make a change to the layout of their gift shop to make it more user friendly for someone in a wheelchair, or if they want to train their staff on how to guide someone who’s blind on a hike, we’re happy to help,” SAIL’s Outdoor Recreation and Community Access Program Director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo said. SAIL began the Accessible Tourism Program with two training sessions in early 2013. About a dozen businesses, museums and public facilities were represented at the first sessions, Knutson-Lombardo said. This year, the number of training workshops has grown and each of the sessions focuses on a different sector of tourism customer service. “We’ve kind of catered them to different industry niches,” he said. In all, six training sessions for guides and outfitters; customer service and “front-line” staff; and lodging and dining businesses are scheduled for late April and early May. The training is geared towards helping individuals with mobility, vision and hearing impairments, Knutson-Lombardo said, but SAIL will do what it can to help anyone with a request.  “We really want to continue to work with businesses to cater training to their needs — that’s when the training becomes the most successful,” he said. Principally, the training is the “dos and don’ts” of working with customers with disabilities, but it comes down to simply meeting the needs of a customer with safety in mind, he said, something businesses try to do every day. The training is part one of a three-pronged approach to making Southeast more accessible to tour consumers with disabilities. Knutson-Lombardo said SAIL also has a separate website for the accessibility program and an information line for visitors or those living in Southeast who want to get out and see the Inside Passage. Third, SAIL can usually offer equipment ideas and planning for businesses hoping to expand their services to potential customers with disabilities, he said. Answering a request from one proactive business several years ago helped jumpstart the larger program. About 15 years ago Allen Marine Tours, which operates charter and tour boats out of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, decided to make its vessels more accessible, company vice president John Dunlap said. Allen Marine builds its own vessels, and currently about three-quarters of its 25-vessel fleet is “as accessible as we can make them,” Dunlap said — nearly all of Allen Marine’s 100-plus passenger capacity vessels. The tour boats have wider aisles and doorways and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. “For many years we had been very dissatisfied with accessibility on passenger boats and we said, ‘Let’s do better; let’s build a better boat.’ There still is no (American’s with Disabilities Act) code as to how a passenger vessel should be built, so we were kind of on our own with that,” he said. “Kind of hand-in-hand with trying to build a better boat, we said, ‘Let’s try and have a better trained crew to handle folks with disabilities.’” So, Allen Marine reached out so SAIL for assistance in developing service etiquette and proper techniques for serving a customer with a disability, and SAIL responded, he said. Now, with the help of SAIL, Allen Marine trains about 150 of its shoreside and on-vessel customer service employees every spring on how to best serve customers with disabilities. Dunlap said the employees learn safe practices on how to best assist a passenger boarding a vessel down a steep ramp to a dock and on the boat, for example. Other common lessons are to sit at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair, ask questions about their preferences, and never assume. “A lot of our crew are young folks and some of them have only had a couple job experiences — certainly not anything like this — it’s not all intuitive,” Dunlap said. Once the training is complete every spring, Allen Marine operates a sightseeing tour at each of its three ports set up specifically for the consumers of SAIL, Dunlap said. SAIL sells tickets to Southeast residents and uses the tours as a fundraising opportunity while Allen Marine employees get a chance to put their fresh training to work, he said. More than 100 people turn out for the tour in Juneau, he said, with slightly smaller groups in Sitka and Ketchikan. “We’ve had a very good symbiotic relationship (with SAIL),” Dunlap said. In addition to the modified vessels, he said Allen Marine keeps wheelchairs at all of its dock facilities to meet the needs of customers who might only need the assistance for a short time. Knutson-Lombardo said increased requests from travelers with disabilities combined with the work with Allen Marine spawned the idea for the Accessible Tourism Program. Knutson-Lombardo said he hopes to organize a directory of businesses this summer with their specific offerings and capabilities for disabled tour customers. Eventually, he plans on developing a smart phone app as well, something similar organizations in California and New York have done successfully to reach a larger audience. Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Nancy Woizeschke said she is very excited about the program. “SAIL does such great work; we’re hoping it will eventually spread to more ports in Southeast,” she said. As far as he knows, Knutson-Lombardo said SAIL’s training program is unique in Alaska. Because most of the funding for the program comes from passenger vessel fees in Juneau the program will stick to that city for now he said, but he reiterated that SAIL is eager to help anyone across the state improve their access or that of their customers. Dunlap said he has been asked to speak about Allen Marine’s vessels and disability training at industry meetings across the country as word has gotten out about what they’re doing in Southeast Alaska. He also said the cruise operators Allen Marine works with have become aware of the company’s ability to accommodate travelers with special needs and have started sending more business their way. “Every year there are more people traveling with disabilities,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where doing the right thing and good business intersect.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

University of Alaska items top $2.1B budget

The University of Alaska was a big winner when the Senate passed its $2.1 billion version of the state capital budget. In the Senate, $195 million was added to Gov. Sean Parnell’s 2015 fiscal year budget proposal to fully fund an overhaul of the combined heat and power plant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Another $35.6 million was added to complete the UA Anchorage campus engineering building and associated parking garage.  The 17-megawatt plant has a $245 million price tag, but fuel savings from new high-efficiency boilers will allow the UAF to finance the remaining $50 million, according to the Board of Regents. General fund money makes up $37.5 million of the $195 million approval, with much of the rest being bonded. While funding the power plant in one lump sum was unexpected, university system leaders for years have emphasized the need to overhaul the 50-year old, coal-fired plant at Fairbanks and prioritized that project over the funds needed to finish their own engineering building now under construction. With $547.9 million in unrestricted general funds, the Senate added more than $132 million of such money to the governor’s budget proposal. More than $1.1 billion of the capital budget is federal funds. As of press time April 16, there was no reason to believe the university add-ons to the governor’s budget would not pass the House. Parnell had appropriated $10 million to the UAA engineering building, but the Senate’s total $45.6 million appropriation should finish the $123.2 million, 75,000-square foot building and 500-space parking garage, the latter of which is required by Municipality of Anchorage zoning laws because of the parking eliminated by the building construction. When he released his budget in December, Parnell said the state would focus on completing existing work in the midst of a budget shortfall projected to be in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion. The Senate followed the governor’s lead. “Our main objective is to show continued restraint in capital spending while maintaining current assets, finishing what we started and focusing on critical needs within our communities,” Senate Finance co-chair Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said in a formal statement after passing the budget. The budget passed with a 19-1 vote; Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski was the only dissenter. During debate Wielechowski said the budget disproportionately doles out funding. “Anchorage is 42 percent of the population of the state and by my calculation we’re getting about 20 (percent) to 21 percent,” he said. “I think there needs to be better regional balance.” Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said the UAA funding would come as a “great relief” to university faculty and students. Meyer said he felt good about the capital budget because of the cooperation between the Republican majority and the Democrats on the bill. Anchorage Democrat Sen. Hollis French called the budget “defensible” but added, “Had the minority written this bill it would have been smaller.” A $10 million appropriation for the UAF engineering building in Parnell’s budget stayed in the Senate version. UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said the money would allow the university to enclose the structure and finish it when the power plant is done. Finishing the 119,000-square foot engineering building will mean putting $23.3 million towards it in future years. Grimes said in an interview that the university is ready to get to work on the power plant so it can be up and running for the winter of 2018-19. “We’ve received an air quality permit and there’s an RFP (request for proposal) for boiler designs on the street now,” she said. The new boilers would decrease most particulate and gas emissions by more than 50 percent, according to UAF. Along with the plant funding, the Senate added language to the budget stating the university system should implement a utility surcharge or increase tuition up to $2 million annually to offset revenue bond debt service for the plant. Wielechowski’s amendment to remove the surcharge language was voted down 5-15. The Anchorage Democratic caucus voted for the failed amendment. “I can just imagine what the (UAA) students will think when the hand of government goes into their pockets to help the students at UAF,” French said. Other projects One day before passing a complex financing plan for the Knik Arm Crossing, the Senate approved $55 million for the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority. That money will be used for remaining bridge design, contract procurement and permitting needed before formal construction begins among other things. The KABATA appropriation matches the governor’s recommendation. The Alaska Railroad Corp. got $15 million in the Senate’s version of the budget to continue installing the federally-mandated Positive Train Control safety system. Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan wrote in a statement to the Journal that the $15 million is a “good start” but won’t cover all the expenses incurred from the system meant to remotely slow or stop a train before an accident occurs and will soon be necessary for the railroad to avoid federal fines and continue passenger service. An additional $5.2 million request has been sent to the House along with the budget, Sullivan wrote. Before the legislative session began, railroad officials requested $20.2 million in fiscal 2015 and $20.6 million in 2016 for Positive Train Control. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough-led, 32-mile Point MacKenzie Rail Extension from Houston to Port MacKenzie got $11 million. If the figure holds in the House it will leave the quarter-billion dollar project about $90 million short of completion, which has been hoped for late 2016. With the added expense of the university projects, the state cannot afford the KABATA or rail extension money, French said. He was one of four senators to vote against the Knik Arm Crossing Financing plan April 12. The State Museum in Juneau, which closed in February for more than two years of renovation and will reopen as the State Library, Archives and Museum, received $37.5 million from the general fund. The Anchorage Museum was appropriated $5 million for a gallery redesign in the Senate budget as well. Statewide village water and wastewater projects received $51.5 million, of which $42.7 million is federal money. An additional $14.5 million went to municipal water and waste facilities grants — all general fund money. The Alaska Energy Authority got $10 million for continued Susitna-Watana dam reconnaissance work and $22.8 million for its popular Renewable Energy Fund, slightly more than Parnell’s recommendation. If the controversial emergency access road from King Cove to Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula championed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski is ever approved by the federal government, the state will be ready to build it with a designation of $21 million from the federal State Transportation Improvement Program. Port work in Seward, where the city is looking to complete its breakwater and develop additional marine infrastructure was awarded $3.9 million. The Senate approved $3 million for similar work in Nome. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

CIRI seeks customers for Fire Island phase two expansion

Cook Inlet Region Inc. wants to double the size of its Fire Island wind farm, but first it needs someone to buy the extra power. Suzanne Gibson, vice president of the wholly owned CIRI subsidiary Fire Island Wind LLC, said the company must secure a power purchase agreement with a Railbelt utility “as soon as possible” in order to fit its construction window. Phase two of the Fire Island project offshore from Anchorage is in line for a 30 percent federal energy tax credit on the $50 million of work if it’s completed by the end of 2015, Gibson explained during a Renewable Energy Alaska Project presentation April 10 in Anchorage. Once a purchase agreement is reached it must go to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which has six months to approve the contract. If an agreement can be reached before May, that would give the RCA until October to rule; and it’s only after that approval that CIRI will be able to secure financing for the 11 wind turbines and associated work, Gibson said. That timeline would have the turbines being commissioned in September 2015. “We really need to be closing financing by the end of the year so we can be ready to construct in the spring of next year,” Gibson said. CIRI will cover about 30 percent of the cost with equity and finance the remainder of the project, she said. Gibson called the power purchase agreement the “anchor contract that gets everything going” and said that several utilities were showing significant interest in contracting with the project. She said because essential infrastructure such as transmission lines, an operations and maintenance building, and spare turbine parts are in place from phase one, lower capital costs associated with phase two — and the $15 million tax credit — will allow Fire Island to sell its power about 20 percent cheaper than the 9.7 cents per kilowatt that Anchorage-based Chugach Electric Association is paying for phase one power as part of a 25-year purchase agreement. “(Phase two) Fire Island winds will compete with the cost of natural gas now,” Gibson said. The original 11-turbine phase of the wind farm went online September 2012. CIRI has said it eventually hopes to have a 33-turbine wind farm on Fire Island. “Whoever buys power from phase two will get all the benefits from what’s happened before it,” she said. While a power purchase agreement is before the RCA, Gibson said Fire Island will move quickly to secure the wind turbines and a construction contracts. The construction request for proposal, or RFP, will likely include design and engineering for roads and turbine foundations and procuring and mobilizing equipment to the island, including the turbines themselves. During the first round of construction the large Pasadena, Calif.-based engineering firm Tetra Tech Inc. led work and used local subcontractors extensively, Gibson said, a model that worked well for Fire Island Wind. In its first year, Fire Island Wind generated 51,800 megawatt hours of electrical power, just more than what was modeled before construction.  Phase two is projected to generate slightly less, about 48,000 megawatt hours per year, because of a less productive wind resource on the east side of the 4,300-acre island. The phase one turbines run from the spit on the southern tip of the island generally up the middle of the island. At about 100,000 megawatts combined, Fire Island Wind should provide enough power to supply more than 12,000 Railbelt homes, according to Gibson. The second round of 1.6-megawattt General Electric turbines should run at about 31 percent net capacity overall, she said. Wind farms rarely produce more than a third of the electricity the turbines are capable of generating over a lengthy period because of variances in wind resources. Fire Island Wind began general work on phase two last fall in order to meet a December 2013 tax credit deadline for project initiation. Gibson said fall 2013 work included clearing trees for access roads to the turbine pads, excavating and grading for of the pads and drilling three wells to supply future construction with water. With other ventures in Wyoming, Texas and Nebraska, she said CIRI has an interest in 535 megawatts of wind capacity across the country. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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