Top news stories touched all corners of Alaska

From oil leak in Deadhorse to FBI raid in Juneau, 2006 was a big year for state

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006

ANCHORAGE - You didn't have to actually live in Alaska to know what was news in 2006.

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From spouting volcanoes to listing ships to oil leaks, Alaska was never far from the public's eye.

Two of the most far-reaching stories of the year happened 920 miles apart, from Deadhorse to Juneau.

Deadhorse was the epicenter of two major spills on lines leading to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, while a new governor took up residence in the state capital.

In March, a leak in a transit line between a gathering center and a pump station for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline spilled up to 267,000 gallons of market-ready crude oil onto snow-covered tundra in the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It was the largest oil spill ever in North Slope oil fields.

In August, after Prudhoe operator BP had begun running "smart pigs" through lines looking for signs of corrosion, a tiny leak allowed less than a thousand gallons of oil to spill from another transit line. With data in hand indicating 16 "anomalies," or other possible corrosive spots, BP responded by shutting down part of the massive field. The partial shutdown put an economic chill throughout the state and led former Gov. Frank Murkowski to temporarily freeze hiring until the effects of the interruption on the state budget would be known.

BP executives have acknowledged that the company's corrosion inspection program was flawed. The company has committed to replacing about 16 miles of transit oil pipelines.

But in December, federal regulators ordered the oil giant to submit more details about its plans for replacing corroded pipelines at Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field.

The information sought will "determine the need for additional corrective action," regulators said in a Dec. 7 letter to Sandy Stash, vice president for regulatory compliance and ethics for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

BP responded on Dec. 22 outlining the status of the projects, spokesman Steve Rinehart said.

The scope of work will include replacement or refurbishing the pipelines, pigging facilities, corrosion-inhibitor injection facilities and leak-detection and metering facilities, and affiliated electrical and emergency systems, he said.

Work will begin this winter installing a new crude oil transit line between two gathering centers, he said. The 20-inch diameter steel pipe for the 3.1 mile segment is in Alaska, and fabrication has started. It is expected to be ready for service in early 2008.

"We're basically rebuilding the transit line system. It's a complete re-engineering of the system, and there's a lot that goes into it," Rinehart said. "It's going to take a couple of years."

What also doesn't help is the short construction season - about four to five months - in the arctic, he said.

"We're staging the work carefully, we're going to do it right," he said. "We want this system to be in place for decades, and that's why we're rebuilding it."

The work is estimated to cost up to $200 million.

BP told federal regulators in its letter that three other transit line segments will be replaced over a two-year period, between 2007 and 2008.

Meanwhile, there's a new air of bipartisanship in Juneau these days, seemingly led by self-described "hockey mom" Sarah Palin, who rose from relative obscurity to the governor's office in less than a year.

Palin has promised a transparent government, and her first days in office bore that out. She reopened negotiations for the proposed natural gas pipeline, which would take gas from the North Slope to Midwestern markets.

Her predecessor, Murkowski, limited his negotiations to the Big 3: Exxon Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips for a contract, which the legislature never approved. Not only did Murkowski - whom Palin trounced in the Republican gubernatorial primary - only deal with those three companies, he did it in secret.

Palin handily beat former Democratic two-term Gov. Tony Knowles in the general election, and took office Dec. 4. She reopened pipeline negotiations the following day, meeting with the first of 12 groups or companies interested in building the pipeline. Although the talks were held behind closed doors, Palin - unlike Murkowski - immediately made all documents presented at those meetings public.

Palin spent much of her first month in office undoing other Murkowski missteps did in four years.

In her proposed budget, she wants to reinstate the longevity bonus, a state system of cash payments to Alaska senior citizens.

Murkowski ended the bonus program, which was already being phased out almost three years ago as eligible recipients died. Palin said that amounted to a broken promise to the remaining seniors. The state estimates about 13,000 seniors would be eligible for the assistance.

Palin also canceled a contract to build a one-lane 11-mile gravel road out of Juneau, saying the project was not practical and the process was not transparent.

And in the biggest snub to her predecessor, Palin immediately ordered that the state jet Murkowski bought for $2.7 million be offered for sale on eBay.

Murkowski ordered the purchase of the 1984 Westwind II over the objection of minority Democratic legislators and many Alaskans. The jet became a high-profile campaign issue.

The bipartisan spirit is not limited to the executive branch. Democrats gained one extra Senate seat, changing the body's makeup to 11 Republicans and nine Democrats.

Soon after the election, the state Senate announced it had formed a bipartisan caucus, which now consists of six Republicans and nine Democrats - or 15 of the 20 state senators. Wasilla Republican Lyda Green was elected Senate President and leader of a new Senate coalition. Green said the message she heard from voters - particularly with Palin's win - was a call to "put partisanship aside."

The House makeup remains in Republican hands, with the GOP holding 23 of the 40 seats. However, the Democrats did gain three seats in the November election.

Other top Alaska stories for 2006, in no particular order, include:


BRIBERY: State Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, was arrested and accused of getting thousands of dollars out of a corrections-company consultant in exchange for his help in the Legislature. He faces a Feb. 12 trial on charges of extortion, conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. He's pleaded not guilty. Before his early December indictment, he had decided not to seek re-election, and will leave office in January.

FBI RAIDS: Federal officials remain tightlipped about the raids in late August and early September on the offices of at least six Alaska lawmakers, including state Senate President Ben Stevens, son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. At least one of the warrants issued at the time said it was looking for any connection between lawmakers and VECO Corp., and Anchorage-based oil services company. Later, federal authorities served grand jury subpoenas throughout the North Pacific fishing industry seeking documents connected to two men: Ben Stevens and Anchorage attorney Trevor McCabe, a former fisheries aide to Ben Stevens' father, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News reported in late December. Also sought are documents in connection with seven other law firms or fishing industry organizations, the newspaper reported.


IRAQ: Some of the 3,800 members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade stationed at Fort Wainwright had already returned home and "Welcome Home" parties were planned after their yearlong deployment to Iraq. But then the Defense Department ordered that they be moved from Mosul to Baghdad for up to 120 days to quell escalating violence. The extension caused a huge outcry in Fairbanks, where the borough assembly fell one vote short of calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. He later resigned after the disastrous November election for congressional Republicans. Seven brigade soldiers died during the extension, following the deaths of 19 brigade soldiers during the original deployment. The last of the brigade soldiers returned home in December. In late September, 3,500 members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division at Fort Richardson in Anchorage were deployed to Iraq; nine paratroopers have been killed there as of Dec. 28. Hundreds of Alaskan soldiers were sent to Iraq in October in the state's largest deployment of National Guard troops since World War II. The unit consists of nearly 600 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, representing 81 different communities and more than a half dozen cultures - Eskimos, Tlingits, Haidas, Aleuts, Athabascans and others. The unit has suffered two deaths, in a car accident while the troop was training in Mississippi for their mission. Another four members of the Alaska Army National Guard were killed Jan. 7 when their Black Hawk helicopter went down in Iraq.


MAYORS-GLOBAL WARMING: Mayors from 32 U.S. cities were urged in September to be leaders in slowing global warming by taking steps in their communities. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich hosted the conference for leaders from 17 states. Mayors spent three days discussing how to reduce their cities' contributions to warming and how cities can adjust to changes scientists predict will spread to other states.

BIRD FLU: The United States' $29 million bird flu surveillance program has focused heavily on migratory birds flying from Asia to Alaska, where researchers this year collected tens of thousands of samples from wild birds nesting on frozen tundra before making their way south. So far, there have been no signs of the deadly H5N1 virus.

POLAR BEARS: Polar bears are in jeopardy and need stronger government protection because of melting Arctic sea ice related to global warming, the Bush administration said in late December. The Interior Department cites thinning sea ice as the big problem. Greenland and Norway have the most polar bears, while a quarter of the world's population - between 20,000 to 25,000 - of the bears live mainly in Alaska and travel to Canada and Russia. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed listing polar bears as a "threatened" species on the government list of imperiled species. The "endangered" category is reserved for species more likely to become extinct. A final decision on whether to add the polar bears to the list is a year away, after the government completes more studies.

UP, UP AND AWAY: Bill Oefelein, 41, went where no other Alaskan has before. The man who calls Anchorage home successfully piloted the space shuttle Discovery during a 13-day mission to the international space station in December.


FLOODING: Flooding last August damaged homes, roads and bridges in the Matanuska-Susistna Borough. President Bush declared the area a disaster area, allowing for federal aid. Damage estimated to state roads and bridges exceeded $15 million. In October, damage from mudslides and flooding prompted officials to close a 66-mile stretch of the Richardson Highway, effectively cutting off Valdez from the rest of the state. At least one home, a trailer, disappeared under a mudslide when no one was home. About a hundred people fled their homes when a river breached a nearby levee and flooded a nearby subdivision.

HOOPER BAY FIRE: A new school opened Dec. 11 in Hooper Bay, replacing the old structure that burned down in a sprawling fire in August. Construction on the 73,000-square-foot building was under way when the fire broke out Aug. 3, spreading quickly to surrounding buildings, including homes. About 250 residents fled the massive fire that burned a 15-acre swath. The blaze burned 35 structures and came within 300 feet from fuel tanks before being knocked down by residents and firefighters from around Alaska. No one was injured but 12 homes were destroyed, leaving more than 70 people homeless in the western Alaska village.

THAR SHE BLOWS: Augustine Volcano dusted small communities in south-central Alaska with extremely light ashfall during two series of eruptions in January. Alaska Airlines, the state's largest carrier, grounded dozens of flights during one day of ash explosions before the volcano quieted down again.


TANKER AGROUND: The 600-foot tanker Seabulk Pride, buffeted by ice floes, broke free of its moorings at Kenai Pipeline's berth at Nikiski, in February. The partially loaded ship drifted a half mile to the north before grounding along the Cook Inlet shore. The tanker, which was carrying nearly 5 million gallons of petroleum, spilled up to 210 gallons into the inlet. The ship was safely refloated.

LISTING SHIP: Mazda Motor Co. scrapped the 4,700 cars on a ship that severely listed on its side south of Alaska's Aleutian Islands last summer. The Cougar Ace was transferring ballast in the Pacific Ocean on July 23 when it listed 60 degrees onto its port side. The ship was hauling the cars from Japan to three ports on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. It took more than a month to right the ship, which keeled over so far onto its side that its propeller was out of the water. The ship, which traveled under the Singapore flag, was towed into Portland, Ore., in September for repairs.


POT: A judge in July struck down part of a new Alaska law criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying it conflicts with past decisions by the Alaska Supreme Court. Under the ruling, people could legally possess less than an ounce of marijuana in their homes. Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins said a lower court can't reverse the high court's 1975 decision that said the right to privacy in one's home included the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Collins granted a summary judgment to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which sued when the law took effect in June. She limited her decision to possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, even though the new law increases penalties for other amounts. Before the law took effect in June, it had been legal in Alaska to possess up to 4 ounces of the drug. The state has appealed the ruling.

SAME-SEX BENEFITS: Gov. Sarah Palin said the state would abide by an Alaska Supreme Court order to provide benefits to same-sex partners of state employees as of Jan. 1. Palin's decision in December came a day after the Alaska Supreme Court told the state to stop dragging its feet and implement benefits for their same-sex partners, first ordered in October 2005. However, Palin also ordered an April 3 advisory election, asking voters whether they would later support a constitutional amendment outlawing the benefits. If there is overwhelming public support, editorial writers have argued, Palin could use that leverage against state lawmakers, who have not been able to muster a two-thirds majority in both houses to call for such a constitutional amendment question.

SCHOOL PLOT: Five of six boys accused of planning a school massacre in North Pole last spring have admitted their involvement, said Jeff Jacobson, a North Pole Middle School teacher and the former mayor said in September. The boys, 13- and 14 years old, were seventh-graders at the 500-pupil school when they were arrested April 22 after a student told a parent about the alleged plot to take guns and knives on campus and kill specific targets. According to authorities, the boys were scheming to kill students they felt picked on them and teachers they didn't like. Police said the boys also planned to knock out the school's power and phone systems, giving them time the carry out the plot, then escape from the town 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks. No weapons were found in the boys' bedrooms at the time of their arrests, but they were found elsewhere in their homes. The boys accused of the plot had faced charges of first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. Because of their age, prosecutors will not release their names or discuss their standing in the legal system.


IDITAROD: Jeff King won his fourth Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with what he called the best dog team ever, completing the 2006 edition of the annual 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome in nine days, 11 hours and 11 minutes.

BUTCHER: Four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, who in 1986 became the race's second female winner and brought increased national attention to the grueling competition, died Aug. 5. She was 51. Butcher died in a Seattle hospital of a recurrence of leukemia after a recent stem-cell transplant, her doctor said. She added victories in 1987, '88 and '90.

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