Pipeline spill, paintball shootings, development plans mark Alaska in 2001

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2001

ANCHORAGE - The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks increased security efforts in Alaska, as well as attempts to increase national security with a missile defense system partially based in the state.

The U.S. Department of Defense in August awarded a contract worth nearly $5 million to a Point Hope Native corporation subsidiary to prepare Fort Greely in Alaska's Interior to become a national missile defense test site.

A defense spending bill approved by Congress this month included $7.9 billion for missile defense, with future appropriations holding the promise of a building boom in parts of the state.

Post-Sept. 11 security improvements included airport guards, a road checkpoint on the Dalton Highway to Alaska's North Slope and increased monitoring of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The effort, however, didn't prevent a pipeline spill caused by what officials characterized more as vandalism than terrorism.

Starting Oct. 4, 285,600 gallons of crude oil sprayed out of a bullet hole in the pipeline 75 miles north of Fairbanks, near Livengood. Daniel Carson Lewis, 37, was charged with firing a .338-caliber rifle at the pipeline. His trial is scheduled for early 2002.

Also in 2001, promoters of a natural gas line ended the year with less optimism as three major oil companies said the project does not make economic sense now. And while the U.S. House approved an energy bill that included a go-ahead to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Senate took no action.

The year had no shortage of tragedy.

On April 2, the 92-foot Arctic Rose sank suddenly in the Bering Sea 775 miles southwest of Anchorage. All 15 men on board died.

Alaska's deadliest aircraft accident in 14 years killed 10. A PenAir Cessna 208 Caravan took off from Dillingham Oct. 10 and nose-dived about a half-mile from the runway's end, killing all on board.

Three Eagle River teen-agers assaulted Alaska Natives with a paintball gun Jan. 14. Anchorage police used their videotape to prosecute them.

Alaska Native leaders said the incident reflected ongoing racism and called for an investigation of racial disparities in the state. Gov. Tony Knowles responded by appointing a Commission on Tolerance that prepared recommendations for countering racism.

Alaska legislators delayed implementing exit exams for two years, bumped up education spending and lowered the threshold for drunken driving.

Knowles' decision not to appeal the Katie John case, involving an Athabascan elder who sued to ensure federal enforcement of a rural subsistence priority, led to bitter denunciations from some Republicans.

Knowles held a summit on subsistence, at which a majority said the state's constitution should be changed to conform to federal law. The governor then formed a committee to draft the proposed constitutional amendment. It came up with the innovation of allowing the Legislature to create a secondary priority that could apply to urban residents with a traditional use of fish and game for subsistence.

The governor has said he will submit the plan to the Legislature in the 2002 session, but Senate leaders said it had little chance of approval.

Still in the state Superior Court is a challenge to the state's new redistricting plan. Republicans called the plan partisan because it would force many GOP lawmakers to run against each other.

On fiscal issues, state officials found out it's later than they think.

The Constitutional Budget Reserve, the account used to plug deficits in the state general fund, is now projected to run out in July 2004. That means a billion-dollar-plus hole in the budget.

Even in advance of that news, a bipartisan group of legislators had formed the Fiscal Policy Caucus in an effort to identify revenues and budget efficiencies that could be part of a long-range budget-balancing plan. The group held meetings in the fall and announced its intention to study a variety of options, including small income and statewide sales taxes, and capping permanent fund dividends at $1,250 to free up use of fund earnings for government operations.

In the Senate, though, key Republicans say they won't pass major new taxes or tap fund earnings until lawmakers demonstrate a commitment for fiscal discipline.

Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this report.

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