Alaska Races For Governor, Senator To Hinge On Absentee Ballots

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Alaska independent Bill Walker maintained a slim lead in the governor’s race over incumbent Republican Sean Parnell on Wednesday, while Democratic Sen. Mark Begich trailed Republican challenger Dan Sullivan after a fierce campaign in which Begich sought to distance himself from President Barack Obama.

But with absentee ballots and some early ballots yet to be counted, both races remained too close to call.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Walker had 48 percent of the vote to Parnell’s 46.6 percent — a 3,165-vote lead out of nearly 224,000 cast. Sullivan had 49 percent to Begich’s 45.3 percent, and a lead of 8,149 votes.

Absentee ballots must be received by Nov. 14, and officials have until Nov. 19 to count them.

Begich noted Tuesday night that he had trailed on election night in 2008 too, but eventually defeated incumbent Ted Stevens when all the votes were counted.

“We’ve seen this play before,” Begich told supporters. “It’s gonna be a long night. It might be a long week…. I’ll take a win however it comes.”

Walker, a former Republican running for governor as an independent, said his campaign would send observers to monitor election officials’ count of the absentee ballots and of the remaining early votes.

In a statement Wednesday, Walker said he and his running mate, Democrat Byron Mallott, were “humbled that so many Alaskans have put their trust in us…. We are invigorated by the optimism and dedication of so many Alaskans across party lines to move our state forward.”

Early in the race, Parnell was considered likely to win, but two developments ate away at his chances.

After the primaries in late August, Parnell faced two opponents: Walker and Mallott. But the challengers realized they were destined to lose a three-way race, so they joined forces. Not long after Labor Day, the Walker-Mallott unity ticket was unveiled.

Parnell was also hurt by the daily drumbeat of bad press about a wide sexual abuse scandal in the Alaska National Guard, of which the governor is commander in chief.

Allegations of sexual assault and official stonewalling in the Guard were first reported in the Anchorage Daily News a year ago, when a group of Guard chaplains disclosed that victims of sexual assault had been coming to them for years.

Many of the women said they had been raped by fellow Guard members. Some said they had been drugged and assaulted. The chaplains said they reported the allegations to Parnell in 2010, but nothing resulted from their conversations.

A scathing, 229-page report by the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations released in September found that complaints by some sexual assault victims before 2012 were not properly documented, that victims were not referred to victim advocates, that their confidentiality was breached and that, “in some cases, the victims were ostracized by their leaders, peers and units.”

Parnell spent the last two months of the campaign defending his actions in the spreading scandal.

In the Senate race, Sullivan, a former state attorney general, spent months attacking Begich as a tool of the Obama administration, a senator who voted with the president “97 percent of the time” and who cast the deciding ballot in favor of the Affordable Care Act.

For his part, Begich rarely uttered the president’s name unless prompted by a voter at a campaign event. But he told anyone who would listen that he voted with popular Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, his Republican counterpart, “80 percent of the time.” (Finally, Murkowski sent him a cease-and-desist order after an ad presented the duo as a unified team.)

About that deciding Obamacare vote? Begich had a tart response, telling Republican challengers that “every senator was the 60th” deciding vote if that senator was an incumbent Democrat.

“I was No. 6 in the vote, if you want to be technical about it,” Begich said at a town hall meeting in the waning weeks of the campaign. “Because it’s a role call vote. A. B. C. I was No. 6.”

The race was the most expensive in Alaska history, with more than $40 million in outside spending alone, because it was one of a handful viewed as crucial in deciding control of the U.S. Senate.

Before the polls had closed in the Last Frontier on Tuesday night, however, the Senate had already gone over to Republican hands. As of Wednesday, the GOP had won 52 seats, and three more states — including Alaska — remained to be decided.

Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr

Washington State’s Old Pot Laws Go Up In Smoke

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — The first customer to buy legal pot — for partying, not medicinal reasons — here in Washington’s biggest city was a retired 65-year-old woman who overnighted on a sidewalk to ensure her place in hemp history. Deborah Greene accidentally bought twice as much as she’d planned to Tuesday.

Cannabis City’s second customer was the ACLU attorney who drafted the initiative legalizing weed in Washington state. Alison Holcomb bought two two-gram bags of O.G.’s Pearl, a strain with a particularly high level of THC, after declaring that Washington was “moving marijuana out of the shadows.”

The third customer was the interesting one. Before he opened his wallet at Seattle’s pioneering pot purveyor, City Attorney Pete Holmes said he was “buying the marijuana to use it. Let’s just leave it at that.”

And after his historic transaction had ended? Holmes decried the “failed war on drugs.” By selling marijuana in the open, he said, “we’re going to shift this to a legal, regulated and completely daylight system.”

“This is how we’re going to get away from criminal elements that have profited,” the blue-suited lawyer promised as he watched the festivities inside the steamy little store in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood. “This is how we’ll have better ways for controlling youth access. This is how … the message about the cultural shift, about responsible use by adults, is going to get across.”

Washington and Colorado voted in November 2012 to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older and to create state-licensed systems for growing, selling and taxing it. Colorado simply broadened its medical marijuana system — at least for starters — and began sales Jan. 1.

But Washington’s Initiative 502 created a marijuana economy from scratch, along with a system to regulate it. More than 300 official stores and hundreds of licensed growers and producers are expected statewide when the system is fully operational.

Legal retail sales arrived this week with a whimper, not a bang. Only 25 stores had been licensed by Monday, and only about 30 percent of the expected pot plants had been approved for cultivation. About half a dozen retailers opened their doors Tuesday, with hundreds of people lining up outside — not the thousands who had been expected. Still, the fear of shortages loomed.

“It’s important that we recognize we are in short supply,” Holmes told a thicket of reporters who oozed onto busy 4th Avenue South while documenting the moment. In Seattle, “we’ve got only one store, and there’s going to be other bumps in the road as we veer away from the failed war on drugs toward a regulated system.”

James Lathrop had planned to open Cannabis City at “high noon.” But you know what they say about plans. At 11:40 a.m., he and Holcomb jumped the gun, grabbing a pair of outsized red scissors and snipping the police tape that festooned the store’s low-key entrance.

“I declare this war over,” he said, grinning. “It’s time to free the weed.”

Free the weed, not free weed.

A computer glitch kept the cash registers silent until well after the promised 12 p.m. start, however.

Greene, Lathrop’s first customer, did not seem to mind. She had planned to purchase two bags, one for consumption and one for posterity. But she walked out with four, about $160 poorer. For a woman who says she smokes “about a bowl a month,” her new supply will last a very long time, she said.

“I’m really excited, relieved and happy,” Greene said, her face flushed from the mid-80s heat. What she liked best about legalization, she said, were “the choices. It’s the quality. It’s like a candy store, like chocolates. You can never get enough.”

Although Lathrop didn’t kick off legal sales in Seattle until afternoon, stores in farther-flung parts of the state started selling at 8 a.m., the first moment they possibly could.

Cale Holdsworth got the coveted first spot in line at Top Shelf Cannabis in Bellingham by arriving about 4 a.m. Holdsworth, 29, manages the parts department at an RV dealership and was on vacation Tuesday, visiting relatives in the last city before the Canadian border.

He arrived early because he wanted to show his support for legalized marijuana. Back home in Abilene, Kan., he said, he consumes the illegal kind on a regular basis.

“I feel it’s something people should have the choice to do or not do on their own,” Holdsworth said, adding that marijuana use is “a very serious topic.” “One obviously has to look at one’s finances. It costs money. And we don’t need people driving when high.”

Holdsworth didn’t have to worry much about the money part. As one of Top Shelf’s first 50 customers, he got the door-buster price of $10 a gram plus tax and walked out with 2 grams in neat, child-proof packaging.

“This is a great moment,” he said before heading back to his relatives’ house to puff. “I’m thrilled to be part of this.”

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

Washington State Issues First 24 Licenses For Recreational Pot Stores

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — The emails landed just after 1 a.m. Monday, bearing good news for Washington state’s first round of legal recreational pot proprietors: Your license has been approved.

Actually, the official notices sounded a lot more, well, official than that and a lot less celebratory, as the Evergreen State became the second in America after Colorado to allow pot sales for legal partying.

“Dear Licensee,” read the electronic missive that landed in chiropractor Tim Thompson’s email box at 1:17 a.m. “Effective immediately, your account on the Washington State Liquor Control Board’s Marijuana Traceability System is active on the LIVE system.”

Thompson and his business partner plan to open the doors of Altitude, their eastern Washington retail establishment, at 8 a.m. Tuesday. An additional 23 retail stores were licensed along with Thompson’s, although it is unclear how many of them will actually sell weed on Day One.

Tuesday is the earliest that the retail stores can open, to expected long lines and product shortages as the system groans to life. Once retailers were officially licensed, they were able to order marijuana for their stores.

“Following a 24-hour quarantine period,” the liquor control board said in a written statement Monday, producers “may begin transporting products to retail stores. Marijuana retailers may begin selling marijuana at their discretion following receipt of product and entering it in to the traceability system.”

The two dozen licenses issued Monday represent the first of 334 expected to be granted throughout the state, in an allotment process that takes into account population, geography, and the readiness of an applicant to go into the pot business.

Thompson was asleep when his license landed in the wee hours. But he says he’s “really excited” to get Altitude off the ground.

“We’re putting the finishing touches on everything,” Thompson told the Los Angeles Times . “We got our first order in and hopefully will receive it in the morning. We’re due to open at 8 a.m. We’re expecting not to serve everybody.

“We’re telling everyone, we’re going to limit it to 200” customers a day, he said. “If we didn’t have a product issue, we could see 1,000-plus people a day.”

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

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Federal Judge Overturns Oregon Gay Marriage Ban; Licenses Issued

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — A federal court judge in Oregon has thrown out the state’s same-sex marriage ban, saying it is unconstitutional and discriminatory, placing gays and lesbians “at a disadvantage … without any rationally related government purpose.”

No sooner than the ruling was out, proponents of same-sex marriage said that marriage licenses were issued in Multnomah County, home to Portland.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last summer, not a single federal judge has ruled in favor of state same-sex marriage bans.

“It’s a surreal exciting moment not just for Oregon but for our nation,” said Ben West, one of the plaintiffs in the case, along with his partner, Paul Rummell. “It’s a beautiful moment for all families and all communities. I’m proud to be an Oregonian, Paul’s future husband.”

In February, the state’s Democratic attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, said she would not defend the ban in court.

In Oregon, proponents of same-sex marriage have also gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot to overturn the ban if the courts did not accomplish that first.

“The importance of Judge (Michael) McShane’s decision cannot be overemphasized,” said David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “Our federal Constitution does not allow any state — or its voters — to deny same-sex couples equal protection under the law simply because of who they are and who they love. This type of discrimination is wrong, and it’s also unconstitutional.”

“With this advancement of civil rights, gay and lesbian Oregonians are now equal under the law,” said Lee Ann Easton, an attorney who, with co-counsel Lake Perriguey, filed the Geiger case.

AFP Photo/Joel Saget
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Obama To Visit Site Of Deadly Washington State Landslide

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — One month after the Washington state landslide that killed at least 34, President Barack Obama is planning to survey the destruction firsthand.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that Obama will travel on April 22 to the site of the mammoth slide that closed State Route 530 and destroyed dozens of homes, prompting a major disaster declaration from the White House.

The president is scheduled to meet with families of the dead and missing, first responders and recovery workers, Inslee said.

“From the earliest days following the slide, the president has closely monitored events in the area and shown his concerns for the victims and their families,” Inslee said in a written statement announcing the visit. “He and his team have been important partners in the response effort, and I believe this visit will strengthen those ties as we face the tough work ahead.”

The death toll from the March 22 landslide continues to rise. On Tuesday, the Snohomish County medical examiner’s office said it had received a total of 34 victims, up from 33 a day earlier, and has positively identified 30 of them.

Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, expressed gratitude Tuesday for the president’s upcoming visit — and for the federal government’s support in the form of disaster assistance and an extension of the April 15 tax filing deadline for those affected by the slide.

“We are confident that President Obama will see what we have seen,” the senators wrote in a joint statement, “the tremendous resolve and determination of the people of Oso, Darrington and Arlington in the face of tragedy.”

Among the difficult issues facing Snohomish County and the small towns along the Stillaguamish River is whether it will be possible to rebuild the demolished town of Oso, which had a population of about 200 when the hillside came crashing down on it 2 weeks ago.

There are also questions surrounding how much longer searchers will continue to look for the remains of the 12 people still missing, who range in age from 2-year-old Brooke Spillers to 91-year-old Bonnie J. Gullikson, both of Arlington.

Photo via Marcus Yam/Seattle Times/MCT

Coast Guard Blasts Shell For Ignoring Risks Over Arctic Rig In 2012

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — A Coast Guard investigation into the 2012 grounding of the Kulluk, an offshore drilling rig operated by Royal Dutch Shell in the harsh Arctic, blasted the oil company for legal violations, poor management and taking undue risks, according to the final report released Thursday.

The Kulluk ran aground 15 months ago on New Year’s Eve after breaking free of its tow lines during severe weather and was beached for several days on a remote, rocky shore in southern Alaska.

Although the company has invested an estimated $5 billion in recent years in offshore oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic, the Kulluk’s problems were among the difficulties that kept Shell from offshore drilling in 2013 and forced the company to abandon any renewed drilling efforts this year.

During a lengthy investigation and nine days of hearings, the Coast Guard found that Shell decided to tow the rig out of Alaskan waters and head for Seattle in questionable weather in part to avoid millions of dollars in tax liability.

On Dec. 22, 2012, the day the Kulluk’s troubled journey began, the chief of the vessel that towed the rig e-mailed the Kulluk’s tow master with serious misgivings: “To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking.”

The 152-page report also detailed “a host of mechanical problems that had occurred on previous voyages,” faulted the company for its inadequate towing plans and criticized the route chosen.

“The investigation has revealed that the tow planners did not recognize the risks, nor adequately plan for a towing evolution of such a unique vessel during the height of winter in the Gulf of Alaska,” the report said.

Although the towing plan addressed possible individual problems, the report said, it “did not account for multiple and compounding events. An example of this compounding of events would be the failure of the towing equipment followed by a failure of vessel propulsion.”

Which is precisely what occurred when the Kulluk went aground.

Kelly op de Weegh, Shell’s spokeswoman, said in a brief written statement that company officials are reviewing the lengthy report, “appreciate the U.S. Coast Guard’s thorough investigation” and “will take the findings seriously.”

“Already,” she said, the company has “implemented lessons learned from our internal review of our 2012 operations. Those improvements will be measured against the findings in the USCG report as well as recommendations from the U.S. Department of Interior.”

Critics of offshore drilling in the Arctic pointed to the Coast Guard’s findings as evidence that such industrial activity should not occur in a remote region with harsh conditions and vulnerable wildlife — regardless of its deep oil reserves.

Photo: itmpa via Flickr

EPA Moves To Protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay From Proposed Open-Pit Mine

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first step Friday toward possibly halting construction of the largest open-pit mine in North America, declaring that Alaska’s Bristol Bay — home to the most productive sockeye salmon fishery on Earth — must be protected from what could be irreversible damage.

“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Friday in announcing the agency’s decision.

“It’s why EPA is taking this first step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open-pit mines on earth,” she said. “This process is not something the agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.”

Conservation groups hailed the decision to use provisions of the Clean Water Act to potentially stop Pebble Mine as a victory for the critical ecosystem, for Alaska Natives who depend on the salmon fishery for their survival, and for the commercial fishing industry.

Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, said in a written statement that “it is difficult to overstate the significance” of the EPA announcement. “If the EPA follows the science and follows through on this, it will rank as one of the most significant conservation achievements of the past 50 years.”

Tom Collier, chief executive of the Pebble Limited Partnership, vowed that his company would fight the EPA and prevail.

“I think we’ll drive a stake through this notion that there ought to either be a veto or restrictions placed on this project before we even file our application for a permit,” Collier said. “We don’t think they have the authority to do a veto before a permit has been filed.”

Pebble Mine is a potential source of gold, copper and molybdenum, but the low-grade deposits are located at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery next to a national park.

Whether to allow the mine and its promise of jobs to go forward has been a fraught proposition even for Alaska Republicans, because it pits three of the state’s biggest industries — fishing, mining and tourism — squarely against each other.

Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, could not be reached for comment Friday morning. But he called the EPA’s January scientific assessment of the damage from Pebble Mine “little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state’s permitting process.”

And Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, gave a mixed grade to the EPA’s announcement that it would initiate Clean Water Act protections.

“While I am a strong supporter of responsible resource development — including mining — I have said the Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Begich said in a written statement Friday.

“However, I am skeptical of federal overreach,” he said, “from an administration that has already demonstrated it does not understand Alaska’s unique needs.”

Photo: Todd Radenbaugh via Flickr

EPA Report Blasts Alaska Mine Plan

SEATTLE — The largest open-pit mine in North America, proposed for Alaska’s wild and remote Bristol Bay region, would have a devastating effect on the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery and the Alaska Natives and fishermen who depend on it, according to a federal report released this week.

After completing three years of scientific study, conducting eight hearings and sifting through more than a million public comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded Wednesday that the proposed Pebble Mine could destroy up to 94 miles of streams where salmon spawn and migrate and up to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

Even using the most modern mining technology, the study said, polluted water from the mine site could affect fish in up to 51 miles of streams.

Piles of mining waste “higher than the Washington Monument are likely to be in place for hundreds and thousands of years, long beyond the mine itself,” said Jeff Frithsen, senior scientist with the EPA’s research and development office.

The failure of these so-called tailings dams, which would be used to hold back toxic waste from the mining of copper, gold and molybdenum, “would have major catastrophic impacts on fish and fish habitats impacting large areas for decades,” Frithsen told reporters.

In 2010, tribes and others in Bristol Bay, a region about the size of Ohio with more brown bears than people, asked the EPA to protect the watershed. But the agency said it first needed to study the potential effects of the proposed mine.

Bristol Bay is home to what a University of Alaska Anchorage study described as “the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery,” which “typically supplies almost half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon.” The multiplier effect of harvesting, processing and retailing Bristol Bay salmon, the report said, was worth $1.5 billion across the United States.

Under the Clean Water Act, federal environmental officials have the authority to prohibit, limit or restrict the disposal, discharge or long-term storage of mining waste into waters within the United States.

But Dennis McLerran, who heads the EPA office that oversees the Pacific Northwest, emphasized Wednesday in a call with reporters that the study is just that — a peer-reviewed analysis that will inform his agency’s future actions.

“We have not made any decisions with respect to regulatory actions,” McLerran said. “That comes next, and a response to the tribes is what we’re most concerned about developing next. … We have no set timeline on that.”

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, questions the EPA’s intentions. “This report is little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state’s permitting process,” he said, adding that every permit application “deserves scientific and public scrutiny based on facts, not hypotheticals.”

John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, which is developing the controversial mine, called the EPA’s study a purely “political document” done in haste — one that ignores the modern engineering and mitigation measures the group would need to include to get permits.

“About 90 percent of our tailings are not toxic,” Shively said in an interview. “They’re just dirt. There isn’t a way even under the worst possible circumstance that we could destroy that fishery. It’s just not possible.”

But environmental and Alaska Native groups lauded the study’s conclusions and called on the EPA to act immediately.

“It’s the worst possible place to do this type of mining — the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery next to a national park,” said Melissa Blair, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We can look at this technically and say the risks are too great and (mining) shouldn’t happen. It’s not worth trading the fishery.”

The EPA’s assessment notes that “up to 15 more mines could be developed if Pebble is allowed,” Blair said. “Pebble would be the tip of the iceberg. Next to the national park, an industrial mining district could be developed that’s much larger than just Pebble.”

Shoren Brown, executive director of Bristol Bay United, called the report “a smoking gun for the Pebble Mine.” The group is a coalition of sport and commercial fishing interests and Alaska Native corporations.

“The science that we’ve been waiting for, for three years, is now absolutely in,” Brown said. “The only question is what this agency and administration are going to do now that we have thousands of pages of documentation that says this mine will cause huge impacts to the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.”

Jason Metrokin, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., becomes well nigh poetic when he talks about the region. “God’s country” is how he describes it — home to moose and caribou, mountains and one of the nation’s largest lakes.

Between 40 million and 60 million salmon return to the region every year, he said. Native culture and well-being depend on them, and so does the commercial fishing industry.

“Large-scale hard-rock mining will have adverse impacts,” Metrokin said. “Can there be a future mine in the Bristol Bay region that doesn’t have adverse impacts? We don’t know. All we know is that there is one project proposed.”

Photo via Wikimedia