Alaska Digest

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2006

Building firm cited for wetlands violation

JUNEAU - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it has cited Duran Construction Co. for violating the Clean Water Act by filling wetlands without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The violation allegedly occurred at Duran Construction's Spruce Corners property in Juneau. The order requires the company to submit a plan to restore damaged wetlands functions.

"Wetlands serve important functions such as purifying water and providing habitat for fish and wildlife," said Marcia Combes, director of EPA's Alaska Operations Office in Anchorage. "We take protecting wetlands seriously. One way we do this is by ensuring that the proper permits are in place before work begins."

The company's Josette Duran argued that the compliance order is factually incorrect. She said EPA's and the Corps' jurisdictions are contingent upon a property's hydrological connection to a waterway - in this case Duck Creek, which she said is not connected. Federal agencies have not provided any documentation to establish jurisdiction, she said.

Jackie Timothy, Juneau-area manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Office of Habitat Management and Permitting, said the company made an honest mistake and did not deserve the order.

"They did not know they bought a subdivision that is a forested wetlands," Timothy said. "I and others worked with them to enhance the area."

The citation marks Duran Construction's second Clean Water Act violation, according to the EPA. In 2001 the company placed fill material on about 3.2 acres of Juneau wetlands, the agency reported. EPA recently approved the company's wetlands restoration plan for that violation.

Crude oil spills from Prudhoe transit line

ANCHORAGE - An unknown quantity of crude oil spilled Thursday from a 34-inch diameter pipe transit line at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, and dangerous fumes stalled inspection and cleanup efforts for hours.

Crude oil could be seen on snow-covered tundra along the pipe more than 200 miles east of Barrow.

Crews on Thursday afternoon began using a vacuum truck to recover some of the oil that had pooled on the frozen ground, said BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., spokesman Daren Beaudo. The amount of crude spilled will be determined in the cleanup.

Officials with BP, which operates the transit line, still did not know the cause.

"It's taken us awhile to get closer and closer to the actual scene to try to evaluate exactly where the leak is," Beaudo said.

The spill was discovered early Thursday morning by BP operators visually inspecting lines, Beaudo said. He was not sure how long it took to respond but said the line was quickly blocked and depressurized.

Bill to tighten rules on absentee ballots

JUNEAU - A measure designed to tighten the confidentiality of absentee ballot applications passed a conference committee on Thursday over one lawmaker's objections.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she was concerned about a provision that addresses how applicants choose their primary election ballots.

A House amendment required voters be sent the primary election ballot with the widest range of candidates if they failed to check which ballot they wanted from the three choices: a combined party ballot, a Republican party ballot or ballot measures only ballot.

But the Senate and the conference committee agreed the Division of Elections should not be in the position of deciding which ballot to send.

Gardner, however, said voters who may be worried about revealing their political leanings could end up not receiving any ballot at all. She said they should at least receive the measures only ballot.

The committee asked the division to modify the application form to make it clear they must make a choice in order to receive a ballot.

Elections officials say they will also follow up with phone calls if a box has not been checked.

The bill's primary purpose was to address privacy concerns raised when the Alaska Democratic Party had 2004 absentee ballot applications routed through party headquarters before being forwarded onto the Division of Elections.

The measure requires applications be returned directly to the division.

Oil tax hearings slow legislative business

JUNEAU - Lengthy and complex discussions of changing oil production taxes are consuming a lot of time at the state Capitol, but Alaska lawmakers say there is little choice.

Gov. Frank Murkowski introduced a plan two weeks ago to tax 20 percent of oil companies' net profits. Passage of the bill has been linked to finalizing a deal with BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips to build a $25 billion pipeline.

Since the bill was introduced, there has been little else talked about.

Senate majority leader Gary Stevens of Kodiak says the oil hearings are eating up time that would normally be spent on the budget.

"That will be pretty slow until this is over. And once it is over we'll have to move full steam ahead into the process," he said. "But all concentration has to be on this and that's what we're doing."

The stakes are high when it comes to oil, by far the state's largest revenue source. Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, says it's hard to focus on anything else.

"It would it be nice if we could stop everything and just work on the oil tax because it's probably the most important thing we will do as a legislature for decades," she said. "It could potentially result in this state being set for generations."

But other legislation and constituent work is still getting done, she says.

Gun that killed teen was reported stolen

ANCHORAGE - The gun involved in the killing this week of a 14-year-old boy during a pot party was reported stolen, according to police.

Court documents say that half a dozen people were present in the bedroom of the mobile home where Cody Gonzalez died instantly after being shot in the head. Three handguns were being passed around and repeatedly dry-fired at the time.

Antonio Cerda, 19, aimed a Glock 9 mm at Gonzalez, remarked "We don't need this fool," and pulled the trigger, according to charging documents. The gun went off and killed the boy instantly.

Cerda, who is being held on a second-degree murder charge, was arraigned Wednesday.

A dozen of Gonzalez's teenage friends appeared at Cerda's court proceeding.

"I don't want him released," said Amber Hoelscher, who fought back tears and pleaded with the courts to keep Cerda in jail. "I don't want him out on bail."

Cerda said very little and looked straight at District Judge Sigurd Murphy as the judge summarized the charge against him and told him his bail would remain at $150,000. Cerda has no prior convictions in Alaska.

Anchorage police officer John Daily said police were still investigating the stolen gun report when the shooting occurred. Inaccurate information about the location of the mobile home where the guns supposedly were and the last names of the people who allegedly had them hampered police response, he said Wednesday.

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