State officials delay disaster declaration

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

A disaster declaration for Juneau won't be coming any time soon, but state officials are still looking for ways to bail Juneau out of a deepening power crisis.

Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

"This is going to have a devastating impact on Juneau if nothing is done, we all know that," said Gen. Craig Campbell, commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs for the state of Alaska.

Campbell chairs Gov. Sarah Palin's Disaster Policy Cabinet, which met Wednesday in Anchorage to look for ways of coping with the high power prices brought on by an avalanche and landslide that cut transmission lines from the Snettisham Hydropower Project.

Alaska Electric Light & Power is running mostly on backup diesel generators, at many times the cost of hydro.

Juneau's mayor and legislative delegation have requested a disaster declaration from Palin.

The Disaster Policy Cabinet, chaired by Campbell and made up of the commissioners of the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Administration and Public Safety discussed the issue Wednesday, but took no action, Campbell said. They'll meet again next week.

"From what I'm hearing, I don't give it a real strong chance," said Tim McLeod, AEL&P's president and general manager.

Campbell said AEL&P is already moving aggressively to reconnect power lines, and a disaster declaration will not speed that process.

"As far as the work is going, a disaster declaration won't do anything to speed it up," Campbell said.

The avalanche itself doesn't appear to meet disaster criteria, he said. It's in a desolate, isolated area where there are no health or safety concerns.

Ironically, because AEL&P was prepared for the disaster, with adequate backup power available, Juneau is less likely to qualify for assistance, he said.

The backup generators burning fuel oil are going to be running more heavily than ever before, but they appear to be well maintained and capable of meeting the demand, Campbell said.

"We believe the generators will be able to support that load," he said. "It's not perfect, but I think we'll be OK."

Before the next Cabinet meeting, they'll explore whether there is a possibility of a disaster declaration solely based on the price of electricity, or if there are other ways to mitigate that. Campbell said that it initially appears unlikely, but experts with the Department of Law and others will try to look for a way to qualify.

"The cost of power is spiking due to the price being paid for diesel fuel spiking; nobody in the Cabinet disputed that," he said. Some of them had homes in Juneau, he noted.

They're now looking for funds that might be available to mitigate the cost, similar to the state's Power Cost Equalization program that subsidizes some rural electricity costs.

"We're looking for any mechanism we can to reduce that impact," Campbell said.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said a disaster declaration from the governor is an important step in getting state or federal help with power costs, but it's not the only option.

Campbell and Kerttula both said they've notified U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and other congressional offices that they're seeking federal help.

Stevens did not respond to calls to his Washington, D.C., office Monday and Wednesday.

Campbell said state law did not allow a state disaster declaration based solely on economics.

After a fisheries disaster declaration in Western Alaska a decade ago, in which state aid was provided, the rules were changed to disallow economic disasters, Campbell said.

"The Legislature changed the rules on us after that," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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