2000: Year of drama, disasters, distress

Sliding into the new millennium

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

A year ago, the world was on edge with millennial jitters and fears of a "Y2K" computer failure. Those did not materialize, but as we approach 2001 and look forward to the new era, we can look back on an eventful year 2000 on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Winter adventures

Technicians spent last New Year's Eve on alert here as elsewhere. But the Kenai Peninsula Borough saw few turn-of-the-century glitches, despite fears that the double-aught decade would confuse computers, crashing everything from cash registers to power plants.

"Apocalypse Not," said John Alcantra, then borough emergency management coordinator.

Mother Nature topped technology in generating disruptions. Snowstorms at the end of January and early February made 2000 the year of the big avalanches. On Feb. 1, after a slide killed a road worker, the state closed mountainous areas of the Seward and Sterling highways. Seward faced grocery shortages, and Hope ran out of fuel and power. Moose Pass and Girdwood also were cut off for several days. Deliveries of groceries, mail, fuel and electricity were delayed around the Kenai Peninsula. The federal government declared Southcentral Alaska a disaster area and released funds to repair the millions of dollars in damages to roadways and power lines.

The peninsula made national news again in February as a search for a lost musher dragged on to a happy ending after six days. Rod Boyce, a rookie musher from Two Rivers, got lost in a storm while competing in the annual Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.

His plight overshadowed a snowy and highly competitive race, which saw three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King outduel the peninsula's own Paul Gebhardt for the title.

Gebhardt followed with another second-place finish in March, this time in the Iditarod. The Kasilof musher led the race for most of the first half before being overtaken by eventual winner Doug Swingley of Montana, who claimed his third victory in the Last Great Race.

Schooling gets serious

The Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam, commonly called the exit exam, debuted in high schools. The Legislature mandated that students, beginning with the Class of 2002, must pass the three-part test to earn diplomas. Students took the test for the first time in March as sophomores. Only about one third passed all parts. Others can retake the test several times and, in October, took it for the second time.

Scores for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are slightly above state averages, but peninsula school officials worry that hundreds of students may fail the mathematics section. They have joined with educators statewide in calling for delays in implementing the tests.

In the fall, the district also marked the opening of its 40th school. The unique alternative school for inmates runs inside the Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward.

Building for the future

The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska officially launched -- in stages. The $4.2 million Kenai space science education facility began simulated missions for students in April. The official grand opening was July 7, when guests of honor, including two widows from the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster and Sen. Ted Stevens, christened the state-of-the-art building the Ted and Catherine Stevens Center for Science and Technology.

The same week, the new Kenai River Center on Funny River Road opened. Dignitaries praised the Kenai Peninsula Borough facility as a model of cooperation and efficiency and honored former borough Mayor Don Gilman and others for advocating the project.

Though it opened just a few days before the year 2000, the city of Kenai's Multipurpose Facility, better known as the ice rink, got into full swing with the new year. It enjoys heavy use, so much so that the partnership that helped build it recently asked the city to help subsidize the ice resurfacing.

Ground was broken on the long-awaited Kenai Public Health Center on Sept. 1 in downtown Kenai. The building is a joint project of the city of Kenai, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the State of Alaska.

Highway upgrades continued, thanks in large part to increased federal funding. Work on the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and the Seward Highway junction disrupted tourist traffic but, after the summer completion, trimmed travel time. On the central peninsula, crews finished an upgrade of Kalifornsky Beach Road between Kenai and Soldotna. City projects included work on East Redoubt in Soldotna and on Forest and Redoubt in Kenai.

Those who don't drive also got a smoother ride. After two years of planning, the Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS) began offering low-cost public transit service Oct. 2. Early use exceeded expectations, with 1,000 rides given in the first quarter, and organizers plan to expand in 2001.

Disasters, distress and dramas in court

In March, a grand jury indicted Zeb Nudson of Nikiski on murder charges following a shooting that left Justin Meireis dead and three other young men injured. The trial is due to begin in three months.

A March 31 fire killed three members of a Nikiski family. Richard Downie and his two young sons, Daniel and Robert, died after a fire broke out at their trailer house.

A jury exonerated David B. Cameron, Seth I. Oehler and Ronald L. Williams of assault, burglary, kidnapping and conspiracy charges in April. The case was based on a November 1998 "bounty hunting" incident in Nikiski.

No one was hurt, but a July 21 fire at the Anchor Plaza strip mall in Soldotna caused about $1 million damage and displaced six businesses. The remnants have been torn down and rebuilding begun.

Also in July, the state's largest documented outbreak of E. coli infections was traced to a Sterling eatery.

Eleven people tested positive for the bacteria at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

An early-morning house fire Sept. 13 claimed the life of Kenai resident William Bujan. A Kenai Fire Department investigation revealed the blaze was accidental and related to smoking. No smoke detectors were in the home, which was a total loss.

Water problems led parents and the state to test hundreds of children at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in November for potential lead poisoning. Results showed no toxicity.

A Kodiak jury in November found Rocky Seaman of Nikiski guilty of two charges -- conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder -- stemming from the 1996 disappearance of Kenai resident Loreese "Loree" Hennagin. The judge declared a mistrial on a murder charge.

Her body was never found. The district attorney chose not to pursue a retrial. Seaman is already in prison from another case and will be sentenced in April.

The year ended on a sad note, when well-known aviators Jim Munson of North Kenai and Fletcher Machen of Soldotna died in an Everts Air Fuel crash in the foothills of Mount Redoubt on Dec. 20.

A turbulent year for Cook Inlet fisheries


Gov. Tony Knowles dodges protesters from the commercial fishing industry as he made his way to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Kenai last March. Fish allocations continued to be a hot topic during the year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Federal Subsistence Board in May declared the entire peninsula rural and eligible for the federal subsistence priority. It received a proposal to make all peninsula residents eligible for subsistence harvest of all fish and shellfish. However, it put off discussing those until it reconsiders the rural determination, likely in February.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough declared a disaster following the dismal 2000 return of upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon. The return of 1.3 million fish was only a third of the 20-year average. Gov. Tony Knowles declined to declare a state disaster, but convinced the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans available to fishers and businesses hurt by the fishery failure.

The fish forecast is unclear and suggests 2001 will be worse than average but better than 2000.

Oil sees major shifts


Unocal completed the sale of it's Nikiski fertilizer plant early in the year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Tesoro Petroleum Corp. considered early in 2000 whether to close or sell its Nikiski refinery. By May, it settled instead on measures to make its Alaska business more profitable. In the summer, it chartered a new double-hulled tanker to serve its refineries in Nikiski, Washington and Hawaii.

In June, BP announced plans for an $86 million pilot plant in Nikiski to test technology for turning natural gas to synthetic crude. The plant, meant for research, not commercial production, should open early in 2002. Company officials say there is enough gas for more than one project.

Forcenergy Inc. installed a $35 million exploratory platform in Cook Inlet in June and merged with Forest Oil Corp. on Dec. 8. The new platform, the first installed here since 1986, will convert to production if test wells prove productive.

Unocal sold its agricultural products business, including its Nikiski fertilizer plant, Sept. 30 to Agrium Inc. Unocal retained its Alaska oil and gas business and will supply natural gas to the Nikiski plant.

Meanwhile, Homer Electric Association and Unocal began a $28 million project in March to move the gas-fired Soldotna 1 generator to Nikiski, where waste heat from the generator will make steam for the fertilizer plant. Agrium, which previously generated its own electricity, will buy power from HEA. HEA expects $33 million in benefits over 13 years.

A Kenai Peninsula Borough task force is promoting Nikiski as the terminus for a proposed pipeline to export North Slope natural gas. At Nikiski, the gas could be cooled to a liquid for export on ships. Other municipalities formed a port authority to pursue a competing proposal for a pipeline to Valdez. The industry is studying the options.

New faces in government


Voters line up to cast their ballots in November. This year's elections gave voters a number of issues to consider.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The peninsula's election season was not as exciting as Florida's, but the political landscape saw major changes.

In the Oct. 4 municipal election, voters passed the first school bond since 1995 by more than a two-to-one margin. The $7.4 million measure will pay for major repairs throughout the district.

The same election put two new people each on the borough assembly and the school board. On the assembly, Milli Martin took Drew Scalzi's place, representing the Diamond Ridge and Seldovia areas, and Ron Long filled a spot formerly held by Seward's Pat O'Brien. Veteran school board member Joe Arness replaced retiring Mari-Anne Gross, and newcomer Al Poindexter edged out incumbent Susan Larned. Last but not least, the assembly's presidency passed from Bill Popp to Tim Navarre.

The Legislature will seat three new peninsula Republicans in the House. School board member Mike Chenault upset incumbent Rep. Hal Smalley to represent District 9, while Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster was elected to replace the retiring Rep. Gary Davis in District 8. Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly member Drew Scalzi replaced Rep. Gail Phillips, who also retired, in District 7.

The city of Soldotna added a parks department for the first time. Two leaders of the city of Kenai turned in resignations late in 2000. City Manager Rick Ross announced plans to step down after nearly 27 years of city service. Fire Chief Jason Elson resigned after 24 years of service.

The borough's Project Impact was named one of the top 10 such programs in the nation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2000. The program will end before mid-year 2001, but project coordinator Kathy Scott hopes the work it began will continue.

A good year for area arts

Two cultural events stood out and attracted record crowds.

One was the Kenai Performer's production of "Fiddler on the Roof" in February. The play, at Kenai Central High School Auditorium, featured a cast of 66, plus 12 dancers and a 23-piece orchestra.

The other was "Alaska 2000: A Celebration of Wildlife Art," an exhibition at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. With 70 original paintings by big names such as Fred Machetanz and Robert Bateman, it drew rave reviews from participants and spectators.

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