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Last-ditch attempt to return Alaska teacher, public employee pensions fails on Senate floor

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Last-ditch attempt to return Alaska teacher, public employee pensions fails on Senate floor



Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, speaks on a pension amendment Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A late-session attempt to salvage a proposal that would revive public employee pensions in Alaska died on Tuesday. A simple bill aimed at attracting and retaining more teachers briefly became a vehicle to get the Senate-approved pension program to the House floor.

The Senate approved a pension bill in January that didn’t advance in the House, and there hasn’t been a public sign that the House majority has had a change of heart.

Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and the pension bill’s sponsor, introduced the bill’s language as a 52-page amendment to the education bill. The Senate narrowly approved the addition, but Giessel rescinded the amendment after a break.

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“It didn’t seem that it was going to make for a productive end to the session,” she said on Tuesday evening after the Senate gaveled out for the day.

Her proposal for a “defined benefit” retirement system has long been a priority of unions and many lawmakers who see it as a means to address high vacancy rates for state jobs.

She said the chance that the pension reboot becomes law this year is “probably zero — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a critical issue, especially for our workforce.”

The reversal came after pushback from the Senate’s pension bill opponents.

Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, opposed the amendment because he thought it threatened the education bill, which he supports. “The only thing it achieves is crushing the underlying bill,” he said.

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House Bill 230 would allow teachers interested in Alaska careers to be compensated for more of their previous experience by eliminating a cap on how many years of out-of-state teaching would be considered when setting salaries.

Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, proposed the bill. She said the cap is a potential barrier to attracting teaching talent to the state.

Members of the Senate added language that allows an increase in the number of consecutive days a retired teacher may work as a substitute, a change Senate Education Committee Chair Löki Tobin said is crucial to dealing with the state’s teacher shortage because it would allow districts to use qualified teachers while they find permanent hires. There were more than 500 vacant teaching positions at the beginning of this school year.

Lawmakers also approved incentives for teachers with national board certification, an amendment that mirrors a proposal from Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski.

Töbin urged support for the bill. “It empowers school districts to compete for teachers who are coming from out of state. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that good and experienced teachers increase student achievement,” she said.

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Senators passed the bill with unanimous support; it returns to the House for agreement on the changes.


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Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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Alaska

Alaska's Pristine Waterways Are Turning a Shocking Orange

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Alaska's Pristine Waterways Are Turning a Shocking Orange


Some of Alaska’s clear, icy blue waterways are turning a startling rust orange – so intense it’s visible from Earth’s orbit.

“The stained rivers are so big we can see them from space,” says University of California (UC) Davis environmental toxicologist Brett Poulin. “These have to be stained a lot to pick them up from space.”

After first noticing the problem in 2018 from river banks and fly-overs, National Park Service ecologist Jon O’Donnell, Poulin and their colleagues used satellite imagery and public reports to identify over 75 remote streams recently tainted this unusual orange color, across almost 1,000 kilometers (1,610 miles) of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

“There are certain sites that look almost like a milky orange juice,” describes O’Donnell. “Those orange streams can be problematic both in terms of being toxic but might also prevent migration of fish to spawning areas.”

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Samples from some of these waterways collected between June and September 2022 contained high concentrations of iron and other toxic metals, including zinc, copper, nickel, and lead, when compared to nearby healthy streams. In some cases, these pollutants ramped up the water’s acidity from the usual pH of 8 to 2.3.

An aerial view of the rust-colored Kutuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. (Ken Hill/National Park Service)

The results look similar to acidic mining runoff, Poulin says, yet there are no mines anywhere near these locations.

Instead, by examining satellite imagery from 1985 to 2022, O’Donnell, Poulin and their colleagues determined this strange phenomenon has only been occurring during the last decade, and it coincides with warmer weather and increased snowfall.

“Our working hypothesis is that the thawing of permafrost soil is allowing water to infiltrate deeper and interact with minerals that have been locked away for thousands of years,” explains Poulin.

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The Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of our planet. That extra heat melts frozen ground, increases microbial activity, and causes ‘shrubification’ – with those new roots further disturbing the soil. Together these processes are exposing the previously protected minerals to weathering and displacing them into watersheds.

Climate change and associated permafrost thaw appear to be the primary drivers of stream impairment,” the researchers conclude. “Stream discoloration was associated with dramatic declines in macroinvertebrate diversity and fish abundance.”

This change in water chemistry due to acid rock drainage threatens not only wildlife but local people who rely on these streams for drinking water and subsistence fishing.

O’Donnell and the team are continuing their investigation in the hopes of understanding the broader ecological impacts for the region and working out when and where the toxic orange taint will strike again.

“There’s a lot of implications,” explains O’Donnell. “As the climate continues to warm, we would expect permafrost to continue to thaw and so wherever there are these types of minerals, there’s potential for streams to be turning orange and becoming degraded in terms of water quality.”

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Their research was published in Communications Earth & Environment.



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FAA reauthorization bill addresses aviation issues important to Alaska

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FAA reauthorization bill addresses aviation issues  important to Alaska


The business of rulemaking does not come up often with travelers. That is, until something goes wrong.

Lately, there’s been lots of attention on companies like Boeing, especially since the panel blew off an Alaska Airlines jet after taking off in Portland. Investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Department of Justice focus on rules and Boeing’s safety procedures designed to keep travelers safe.

For a long time, though, air carriers in Alaska have struggled with aviation rules designed around safety. Some of these rules are better suited for jet carriers flying between big airports. By contrast, Alaska’s aviation infrastructure is scattered across more than 100 airports, serving communities that are off the road system. For these communities, having reliable aviation service is crucial. Many of the rules address how aviators fly in bad weather.

One of the biggest aviation rule-making events is the FAA reauthorization bill, which is mandated every five years. There are specific statutes in the bill that should help Alaska communities and the air carriers that fly there.

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The big parts of the bill include a mandate to the FAA to hire and train more air traffic controllers to fill up to 3,000 vacancies.

Another important part of the bill backs up recent DOT rules which mandate airlines must automatically refund tickets in cash instead of vouchers.

Other parts of the FAA bill are important for Alaskans, particularly those living off the road system in remote communities.

“The new bill addresses basic, fundamental issues that need to get fixed,” said Colleen Mondor, an Alaska aviation author and journalist.

The new bill includes dedicated funding for the installation and upkeep of weather monitoring systems to give pilots the “certified weather” they need to fly under instrument flight rules or IFR. Using IFR approaches, pilots generally can operate with lower minimums than visual flight rules (VFR).

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“The (FAA) bill requires systematic improvements to the upgrade and maintenance of weather observing systems owned by both the FAA and the National Weather Service that experience frequent service outages, disrupting aviation operations throughout our state,” according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office. Sullivan was instrumental in adding Alaska-centric provisions in the bill.

“The automated weather observation system (AWOS) is a $100,000 piece of equipment that measures fog, wind, snow, pressure and temperature,” said Mondor. “It’s updated every few minutes.”

The quest for better aviation safety in Alaska goes back decades. The effort always gets renewed attention after there’s a fatal crash or an accident.

“We absolutely support it,” said Rob Kelley, head of Grant Aviation, referring to the push for better weather aids and instrument flight rules.

Grant Aviation flies to dozens of communities in Western Alaska on small planes. “We’ve got a lot of money tied up in IFR avionics,” said Kelley. “But we can’t use IFR because the weather reporting system is broken.”

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Grant’s routes include dozens of daily flights in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. “The weather there is consistently marginal. So we can’t fly there. But we could fly on IFR,” said Kelley.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates every aviation accident. Since the 1990s, the NTSB has recommended air carriers to fly under IFR regulations.

“Since Jan 1, 1990 there have been 385 fatalities & 231 serious injuries in accidents involving Part 135 operators in Alaska,” wrote Mondor on X. “The cost has been high and it has been paid in blood. Alaska deserves what the Lower 48 has enjoyed for so long and I hope it finally happens.”

Part 135 refers to commuter carriers limited to nine passengers on a single flight. Part 135 carriers are the crucial “last mile” for Alaskans who live off the road system and are dependent on reliable air service more than urban dwellers. Often, Bush Alaskans depend on Part 135 carriers to go to work, to school or to the doctor. Further, these small air carriers provide a vital link by delivering mail and freight.

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Two federal programs, by-pass mail and essential air service, subsidize air carriers to provide better, more affordable service to Alaska’s rural residents.

The new FAA bill “strengthens the Essential Air Service (EAS) program and triples its funding to ensure small and rural communities remain connected to the national airspace system. The EAS program benefits approximately 60 communities in Alaska,” according to Sen. Sullivan’s office.

The DOT rules and new FAA statutes can make for some tedious reading. But these new rules, when applied, can save lives. The new weather monitoring system by itself will not solve all the issues. There are many more components in the quest for better aviation safety in Alaska. But this latest round with the FAA reauthorization covers some crucial steps.





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Alaskans get ready for Memorial Day weekend plans

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Alaskans get ready for Memorial Day weekend plans


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Come rain or shine, Memorial Day weekend must go on in the Last Frontier.

Among the many plans put into action for the extra long weekend, one thing no one in Alaska planned for is to let a little rain slow them down. Despite some cloudy weather in the weekend’s forecast, lots of people made plans to take full advantage of everything the state has to offer.

Folks like Charles Fualaau from Seattle don’t just tolerate the rain — they thrive in it.

“I’m born and raised in Washington so we love the rain where I’m from … a vest keeps me just fine,” Fualaau said. “We didn’t think there was going to be a lot to do in Alaska, but there are — surprisingly — there are quite a few things, at least sightseeing, and it’s free, right? So, it’s lovely.”

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Fualaau came up from the Lower 48 with his wife and six children just for one day Friday, flying in early in the morning and flying out late at night. He said though their time was limited, they made sure to soak up every second they were here, even going so far as to let the children weigh in on scenic destinations.

From Beluga Point to Bird Creek Campground, Alaska has no shortage of scenic destinations. Whether it’s whale-watching, sightseeing, or even just packing up the car and hitting the open road, for many, Memorial Day weekend is often the first chance of the year to soak in the great outdoors.

Corbin and Ruby Fraizer and their 17-month-old daughter Ivy are spending the weekend at Thumb Cove. For the longtime Alaska couple, making it a point to get outside for adventures isn’t just important for their own wellbeing, it’s an Alaskan right of passage they now enjoy passing down to their daughter.

The Fraizers said with Anchorage winters being particularly long, Memorial Day weekend is often their first chance to do so.

“We’ve been pretty cooped up over this winter and this is the first chance that most of us can get out and get wild,” Corbin said.

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“Yeah, everybody’s been cheering us on at the grocery store, seeing us unload the vehicle and stuff,” Ruby added. “We’ve had a couple people be like [thumps up].”

Scott Comeaux, along with his wife and daughter, have made a yearly tradition of spending time together at Bird Creek Campground every Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s our family time,” Comeaux said. “When you’re at home, you get distracted by all the electronics and the TV, but you come out here and none of that stuff is here. It’s just nature and us, and it helps us to kind of grow as a family.”

No matter how residents and visitors choose to spend the holiday weekend, the underlining theme from those all throughout Southcentral Alaska is to spend it with family, and as anyone in Anchorage will say, there’s no better place to do so than in the great state of Alaska.

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