State Briefs

Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Beluga count low this summer in Cook Inlet

ANCHORAGE - Biologists have recorded the lowest count ever of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, but that doesn't necessarily mean the population is down, said the scientists who conducted the annual summer airborne survey.

The 174 whales seen by biologists in June were the beginning of a five-month calculation needed to produce the 2003 population estimate.

The data were reported last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The counting is not an easy task. Adults can dive from a few beats to 45 seconds at a time, while youngsters are almost impossible to detect. Up to two-thirds of the whales in any given group can be missed.

As a result, it's not clear yet what the apparent low count of 174 means, said beluga management biologist Barbara Mahoney, with the agency in Anchorage. In 2002, a count of 192 produced a population estimate of 313, while the 2000 count of 184 produced an estimate of 435.

VA plans Alaska tour

ANCHORAGE - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staff will tour Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes this month to determine what must be changed to allow federal reimbursement to the state for military veterans' care.

At a press conference Monday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, also said VA officials also will tour the Palmer Pioneers' and Veterans' Home to determine whether it could be converted to the state's first facility devoted only to veterans.

Murkowski's father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, said last week the Palmer home is the best choice to become Alaska's first real veterans home.

He said the state would face "very significant" costs if it were to build, operate and maintain a new, stand-alone veterans home.

Lisa Murkowski did not directly embrace the proposal to convert the Palmer home but said the federal government should offset some of the $1.5 million cost of care for 90 veterans in state-funded senior citizen facilities.

"I am ready to back whatever is going to work," Murkowski said.

Alaska is one of two states without a designated veterans home. Hawaii is the other.

Air Force bases, park get environmental kudos

ANCHORAGE - Three Alaska facilities have received a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognition award for their earth-friendly efforts.

Elmendorf and Eielson air force bases and Denali National Park received recognition through the EPA's Region 10 Champion for Environmental and Green Government Innovation award, said Michele Wright, regional federal facilities coordinator.

Elmendorf was recognized for a compressed natural gas station that provides a relatively clean-burning alternative fuel source. The EPA also credited Elmendorf for its hazardous-waste recycling program.

Eielson was recognized for turning paper and other waste into pellets that can be burned in coal-based power plants, Wright said.

Denali was recognized for converting a diesel-powered generator into a hybrid power generator that's less noisy and uses much less diesel.

Palmer balks at request for hospital land

WASILLA - Plans to build a new $75 million hospital in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have hit a snag with the city of Palmer.

At issue is a city land use restriction on five acres in downtown Palmer where Valley Hospital currently is. The city originally owned the land but gave it to the hospital in 1983 with a restriction that it be used only for a "public purpose ... such as a hospital, or other related medical purpose."

Valley Hospital officials have asked the city to remove that restriction, arguing it's a necessary part of the deal being worked out with Texas-based Triad Hospitals Inc. to build a new hospital.

But Palmer City Council members say lifting the restriction amounts to giving away public land to a private corporation. Triad, a for-profit hospital company with revenues of more than $3 billion a year, could then turn around and sell the property to the highest bidder, Councilman John Combs said.

Members of Valley Hospital, a nonprofit, voted last year to approve a joint venture with Triad to build the new hospital.

BP, Doyon enter new drilling contract

FAIRBANKS - Doyon Drilling Inc. has entered into a five-year contract with BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. for work at Milne Point and other BP fields such as Prudhoe Bay.

The deal is a rare move for an existing oil rig, according to Ron Wilson, Doyon Drilling general manager. He said contracts of that length are usually reserved for new oil rigs.

Doyon, owned by Fairbanks-based Native corporation Doyon LTD, held a previous contract with BP for use of the rig.

BP and Doyon have not disclosed the size of the contract.

The drilling rig was built in 1987 and is one of five owned by Doyon Drilling. Three are in operation, including the Milne Point rig and two under contract with ConocoPhillips.

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