Kivalina unlikely center for odd Alaska news year

ANCHORAGE — For Janet Mitchell, odd is becoming a way of life.


Mitchell is the city administrator in Kivalina, a community that could be considered the epicenter for the anomalous in Alaska in 2011.

A mysterious orange goo in August settled on the Inupiat Eskimo village, located on a barrier island between the Chukchi Sea and Kivalina River to the north and the Wulik River to the south. 

Then it was one of many western Alaska communities battered by one of the worst storms in decades nearly three months later.

“Oh man, it seems to be the norm now, odd occurrences,” Mitchell said this week.

The mysterious orange substance just appeared one day sitting on the village’s harbor. Then it began to wash ashore. The next day, it rained, and the substance was found sitting on top of rain buckets.

By the next day, it was gone.

Samples were collected, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initially said the substance was millions of microscopic eggs filled with fatty droplets.

Then they said it wasn’t.

Further tests with more advanced equipment showed the substance is consistent with spores from fungi that create “rust,” a plant disease that accounts for the color, NOAA officials said 10 days later.

Mitchell and other residents said they were worried about longterm effects, but she said this week they haven’t heard from anyone about the spores since August.

“Unless something new pops up, we’re still baffled,” she said, adding that townspeople are just chalking it up to climate change.

Kivalina only got the tail end of the massive winter storm in early November that caused damage in 35 Alaska communities. 

The storm was one of the strongest to hit western Alaska in nearly 40 years, with winds of nearly 90 mph and storm surge that battered beaches and sea walls. The estimated cost for responding to and recovering from the storm is nearly $30 million, and President Barack Obama has declared a federal disaster for the area. Gov. Sean Parnell’s office has put damage estimates at $30 million.

The storm also prevented a delivery of fuel and home heating oil for the Nome area. The harbor has since been iced in, preventing normal delivery. Officials are preparing for an early January delivery of supplies thanks to a Russian ice tanker and the Coast Guard’s only functioning icebreaker in what authorities are calling the first-ever winter delivery by boat to western Alaska.


Petroleum development:

Obama in May called for additional petroleum development in Alaska. He pledged to streamline permitting and said he will direct the Interior Department to conduct annual lease sales in the vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The president in July signed an executive order creating an interagency working group to coordinate energy development.

The Army Corps of Engineers granted ConocoPhillips a permit to build the first bridge across the Colville River, giving the company access to leases within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, but one of the big Arctic stories of 2011 was what didn’t happen.

Spending by Royal Dutch Shell for Arctic Ocean petroleum development crossed the $4 billion mark but no exploratory drilling took place and prospects remained uncertain for 2012.

Offshore Arctic drilling was held up by an appeal of Shell’s air permit. The Obama administration said it would proceed with utmost caution in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, a region with far more resources to deal with cleanup than the Chukchi or Beaufort seas.

Shell in December received conditional approval of its exploration plan for Chukchi Sea drilling, but with a significant caveat — a requirement to halt drilling into hydrocarbon zones by Sept. 24 so the company would have sufficient time to clean up a wellhead blowout before winter ice moved in. A Shell spokesman said lopping off a third of the short drilling season could severely affect its ability to deliver a complete Chukchi program.


Alaska Corruption

The 2006 high profile investigation of corruption in Alaska politics came to an end last October when two former lawmakers pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

The charges against Pete Kott and Vic Kohring ended what U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffer called the largest and most successful corruption investigation ever in Alaska. 

The charges stemmed from maneuverings surrounding a 2006 oil tax vote in the state Legislature. The government’s star witness, former VECO Corp. president, Bill Allen, completed his own prison sentence, convicted of bribing the lawmakers.

Loeffler said there have been 10 convictions stemming from the federal investigation, including six former state lawmakers.  


Other top stories:

In other top stories last year in Alaska:

— The Coast Guard seized the Bangun Perkasa about 2,600 miles off Alaska coast. The stateless ship was found to have 54 shark carcasses and more than 30 tons of squid on board. The crew members of the pirate fishing vessel were returned to their home countries.

— University of Alaska Anchorage runner Marko Cheseto had both legs amputated above the ankles after suffering severe frostbite when he disappeared for three days in early November.

— Three killer whales died after swimming up the Nushagak River. NOAA says it is the first time that killer whales were reported in fresh water in Alaska.

— John Baker, 48, of Kotzebue, won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He became the first Alaska Native musher to win the world’s longest sled dog race since Jerry Riley did it in 1976. 

— Arne Fuglvog, the former fisheries aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, will be sentenced in February after pleading guilty to falsely reporting where he caught sablefish, earning him an extra $100,000. 

— Four out-of-state teenagers were injured in a grizzly mauling in the Talkeetna Mountains last July. It happened as they neared the end of a 30-day survival course when they suddenly came upon the bear near a river crossing. “I thought: ‘I’m going to die,”’ Sam Gottsegen of Denver said shortly after the mauling. “I thought, ‘This just can’t be happening to me.”’ Authorities believe the bear was aggressive because it was with its cub. Gottsegen said no one ever saw a cub. 

— Three Fairbanks area men, all part of a militia, were accused of conspiring to buy illegal firearms to have on hand for overthrowing the government. Francis Schaefer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to possess illegal firearms and face trial in 2012. State charges of plotting to kill Alaska State Troopers and court officials were dropped after a judge determined that audio and video recordings were obtained without a search warrant.