Congress may double Denali Commission budget next year

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Denali Commission could have millions more to spend in the coming year.

Measures before Congress propose to give the panel $48 million for rural Alaska projects, more than double the amount of the past two years.

The Denali Commission was created by Congress at Sen. Ted Stevens' urging to deliver basic utilities to rural Alaska, including affordable power and other infrastructure.

The commission will probably use the money for fuel storage improvements and health clinics, according to Al Ewing, the Denali Commission's chief of staff.

The money is in addition to about $70 million tentatively scheduled to be spent by other federal agencies on rural water and sewer projects in Alaska.

The Senate last week approved the annual energy and water appropria-tions bill, which included $30 million for the Denali Commission. The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to work out a final version.

An additional $10 million for the Denali Commission to use for health clinics could come through the labor-health and human services budget bill, which passed both the House and Senate this summer and is also in conference.

In addition, about $8 million in interest from a federal account will go to the Denali Commission in the coming fiscal year.

Stevens is a member of the conference committees considering the bills that have the commission money.

''I think we will hold substantially what we sought,'' he said.

Ewing said the commission has decided for the moment to focus first on fixing problems with bulk fuel tanks in Alaska's rural regions. The tanks, often along rivers and coasts, are old and don't meet current standards for spill protection.

Communities are under pressure from regulatory agencies to fix the tanks, but few have money to do so.

The commission's second priority, Ewing said, is to build primary health care facilities in villages.

The commissioners have also set aside 10 percent of the money for training people in villages to run the facilities under construction. They have reserved another 10 percent to promote economic development.

Economic development is essential to the long-term success of the commission's work, Ewing said. ''Once you build something, you need something to support it.''

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