U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski spent Friday on a whirlwind tour of the central Kenai Peninsula, taking time to talk with a variety of local government, community and business leaders.
It was the first trip to the peninsula for Murkowski since last April, when she helped celebrate the peninsula's successful bid to host the 2006 Arctic Winter Games. This time around, Murkowski who faces a stiff challenge from former Gov. Tony Knowles for her Senate seat in November said she simply wanted to take some time to learn about the variety of issues facing peninsula residents.
"I just hadn't been back for a while and since (Congress is) in a week break for Presidents Day, wanted to come back," she said during a break in her busy Friday schedule.
Murkowski started her day by touring Agrium's nitrogen products plant in North Kenai, where she got the chance to see firsthand the need for a natural gas pipeline to bring new sources of gas to the area.
Agrium has been operating below its capacity recently and has had to lay off a number of employees at its plant because of dwindling gas reserves in the Cook Inlet basin.
Murkowski said the pipeline issue is something she's fighting for in Washington, D.C., and by visiting Agrium, she was able to get a unique perspective on just how critical the gas situation is in Southcentral.
"With all that is going on with the natural gas pipeline and the situation with the energy bill, the more information I can get here about what's happening in Alaska, the more information I can relate to my colleagues back in Washington, D.C.," she said.
"We're in a situation where we have incredible natural gas reserves and yet we have a manufacturing plant that is facing a very uncertain future because of a lack of reliable natural gas."
She said the Agrium situation simply underscores the need to get a proposed North Slope gas pipeline off the ground.
"Getting access to Alaska's gas for Alaskans this is a huge issue for us," she said.
Following her stop at Agrium, Murkowski returned to Kenai, where she attended a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Prescription Drug Forum, a local group working to combat the problem of prescription drug abuse in the area.
The forum gave the senator an opportunity to learn how prescription drugs namely, OxyContin have become a major problem in the area during the past decade.
She was shown a Power Point presentation detailing the facts of the peninsula's drug problem, including a slide that noted that in 2001, the peninsula had the highest per capita use of OxyContin in the United States. Although that number has since declined a bit, Pastor John Walters, a member of the forum, told Murkowski the issue certainly hasn't gone away.
"Our goal is to reduce abuse, create awareness of the problem and limit access to the drugs," Walters said.
Murkowski said measures have been taken by Congress to limit access to OxyContin, and that she would like to see the manufacturer of the drug, Perdue Pharma, do more to limit the addictive properties of the powerful painkiller.
"That is just one civically responsible thing they ought to be able to do, and I want to find out why they haven't," she said.
Members of the forum told Murkowski there's a fine line when it comes to prescription painkillers, because there are legitimate users who need the drugs to deal with debilitating pain.
"The problem of chronic pain is a real dilemma," Dr. Marguerite McIntosh told the senator.
Murkowski agreed with the group that steps need to be taken to ensure legitimate users of drugs like OxyContin are able to get the medicine they need, while the drug is kept out of the hands of drug addicts.
She said that in addition to whatever legislative measures may be taken to accomplish this goal, education of young people is the most important way to curb substance abuse.
"I don't think we can do enough from the prevention end," she said.
Murkowski encouraged the group to continue its work and promised to keep in touch with the issue. She also told the group that if there are any education programs she can help out with from the funding side of things in Washington, the forum should let her know.
"If you get good programs that need to come to the attention of the federal level, let us know," she said.
As a parting shot, she encouraged the group to continue its work to reduce prescription drug abuse in the area.
"I hope you work yourselves out of a job," she said.
Following her stop at the forum, Murkowski headed back north to British Petroleum's Gas to Liquids plant, where she toured BP's experimental facility and spoke with project leaders. She also was on hand to help present BP with a safety award for achieving more than 1 million work hours without a day lost because of injury.
GTL Project Manager Paul Richards told Murkowski the safety award is an achievement the company is very proud of, especially because of the fact that BP's workers are helping to foster an environment of safety in the general community.
"Safe practices on site are now becoming ingrained in the community as a whole," Richards said.
Following her tour of the facility, which converts natural gas into clean liquid fuels, Murkowski said she was impressed with the level of sophistication at the plant, which is at the cutting edge of petroleum technology.
"It's phenomenal," she said.
Murkowski said touring BP's facility gives her some ammunition to use when she debates her fellow lawmakers on the merits of natural resource development.
"(The LNG facility) shows you can be tucked back into a neighborhood and coexist while producing a product that is highly desirable as a fuel," she said.
Technological and safety advances taking place in Alaska, she said, need to be held up as examples to the rest of the nation of how natural resource development can now take place in an environmentally friendly way.
"It is all because of the technology," she said.
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