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Senate Republicans hail new Interior deputy who grew up in Alaska as a ‘voice of reason’

43 min 51 sec ago

Tommy Beaudreau, of Alaska, appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination to be deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 29, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

WASHINGTON - The Senate easily confirmed former Obama administration official Tommy Beaudreau as deputy secretary at the Interior Department on Thursday, a rare bipartisan moment in an increasingly bitter fight over President Joe Biden’s policies on energy production and climate change.

Beaudreau, a lawyer and former Interior chief of staff, is widely seen as a moderate and was selected in April after Biden dropped plans for a more liberal nominee who faced key Senate opposition.

His nomination was approved on an 88-9 vote. Forty-one Republicans supported Beaudreau, along with 47 Democrats.

Beaudreau grew up in Alaska and is politically close to the state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, a former chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who holds great sway over oil drilling, endangered species and other department issues. Murkowski and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who now heads the energy committee, said they were concerned that Biden’s initial choice, Elizabeth Klein, was overly hostile to the oil and gas industry.

[This Biden nominee with Alaska ties has worked for top offshore wind firms. Now he’s poised to help oversee the industry.]

The two lawmakers told the White House that Klein, a progressive who is a favorite of environmental groups, would not be a sufficient counterweight to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico who has criticized the oil and gas industry.

Haaland was confirmed on a narrow 51-40 vote in March, becoming the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, said he has been impressed with Beaudreau, who was the first director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an agency created to oversee offshore drilling following the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“It’s clear Mr. Beaudreau understands America’s need for an all-of-the-above energy strategy,’' Barrasso said, adding that he hopes Beaudreau “can serve as a voice of reason in an administration that is waging a war on American energy workers.’'

Murkowski, who was one of four GOP senators who voted in favor of Haaland, had made no secret of her support for Beaudreau, citing his Alaska background and knowledge of Interior Department issues.

Beaudreau “knows what goes on within the department. He’s grounded in just kind of the management and operation side of things, as well as the policy side,” she told E&E News.

Manchin also praised Beaudreau, saying he understands Interior’s “dual mission of preserving and protecting our national parks and public lands and providing a large part of the energy and mineral resources that we need to power the nation.’'

Interior has emerged as a flashpoint in the early days of the Biden administration, with Republicans frequently complaining that Biden’s policies hurt energy production and jobs. Most Democrats support those same policies as necessary to combat climate change and encourage conservation of public lands.

The conflict came to a head this week as a federal judge blocked Biden’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, a move GOP lawmakers hailed as overdue. Haaland said her department is reviewing the judge’s opinion and consulting with the Justice Department.

Beaudreau’s nomination was widely seen as an attempt by Biden to win favor with Murkowski, Manchin and other moderates who are vital to a host of Biden’s priorities, including his sweeping infrastructure and clean energy package.

The overwhelming vote for Beaudreau comes as Biden’s nominee to oversee federal lands in the West faces Republican pressure to withdraw over her ties to environmental activists convicted of trying to sabotage a national forest timber sale more than 30 years ago.

Tracy Stone-Manning, nominated to lead Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, should be disqualified over her collaboration with “extreme environmental activists,” Barrasso said.

As a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Montana, Stone-Manning sent a letter to federal officials in 1989 saying spikes had been inserted into trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest. The profanity-laced letter warned “a lot of people could get hurt” if logging proceeded, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press from federal archives.

Spiking trees involves inserting metal or ceramic rods into trunks so they can’t be safely cut down, and the tactic has sometimes been used to halt timber sales.

Stone-Manning testified against two friends who were convicted in the case. She was granted immunity and was never charged with any crime.

Stone-Manning did not respond to telephone and text messages last week seeking comment. An administration official who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity said officials knew about the criminal case and Stone-Manning’s testimony prior to her nomination.

___

Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this report.

I’ve gotten bipartisan infrastructure done. Through collaboration and honesty, we can do it again.

55 min 34 sec ago

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, gestures as he talks on Thursday, June 10, 2021 to attendees of a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (James Brooks / ADN)

Holding the distinction of the longest-serving member of Congress is an honor, but I’m more thankful for the experience and knowledge I’ve gained in those years. Through ten U.S. presidents, ten speakerships, and the cyclical flip-flop between majority and minority, I’ve had a front-row seat to the negotiations behind some of the nation’s most transformative legislation. It’s come with no shortage of lessons, but perhaps the most important is an old adage: Where there is a will, there is a way.

There is undoubtedly a will for major national infrastructure investments. Regardless of congressional district or state, Americans across the country have long called for action to address aging, outdated, and unsafe infrastructure. Instead, “Infrastructure Week” has devolved into a punchline, and the country’s hopes for smart, targeted investments in their communities have waned year after year.

It’s long past time for Washington, D.C. to come together and agree on an infrastructure plan that meets the needs of our modern economy, reforms the permitting process, and puts our core transportation programs on sustainable footing. Further delay poses an existential threat to our economy’s long-term strength, and without infrastructure, our global competitiveness is on the line. We must not risk falling behind the rest of the world.

While the momentum behind White House and Republican negotiations seems to change on a daily basis, I firmly believe the path forward is the bipartisan way. That’s why I submitted my own infrastructure framework, which takes a sober look at the situation while steering clear of partisan orthodoxy. Infrastructure is ubiquitous and serves as the foundation for our economy and quality of life. We cannot and should not take a near-term, cycle-to-cycle approach. It’s too important not to receive input from Congress as a whole, making it vital to move a bill through regular order.

As discussions so far have proven, it will not be an easy road, but as former Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have no doubt that it is possible. We must remember that Congress is not a stranger to the definition of infrastructure. As a body, we regularly agree on and pass infrastructure measures, such as Surface Transportation Reauthorization legislation, the Water Resources Development Act, and even in the Farm Bill, proving consensus is within reach.

Knowing this also alleviates the pressure for one legislative package to be a silver bullet for all infrastructure needs, and directs focus to critical physical infrastructure. My colleagues in Congress should reject the notion that there must be one all-encompassing bill or no bill at all. This is a false choice. Instead, they should replace it with a steadfast resolve to put in place tools that keep Americans safe, improve lives, and keep the country competitive for future generations.

If we want to build and sustain a robust national transportation system and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure, we need to commit to a few specific pillars, beginning with an honest funding mechanism. We must also understand that infrastructure investments are not a one-shot deal. Infrastructure investments at every level of government require maintenance and repair. That is why Congress created the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and enacted a federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels, which are the principal contributors to the HTF. The “gas tax,” as it is commonly referred to, has not been raised since 1993, and as a result, has lost 40-45% of its purchasing power. At the same time, federal fuel efficiency standards have resulted in lower gas tax receipts as overall gas consumption has declined.

The HTF was created to fund so-called “core infrastructure.” Core infrastructure, like roads, bridges, safety, transit, and rail, are undoubtedly responsibilities of the federal government. Congress currently funds and routinely updates them through so-called “highway bills.” Over the last 20 years, I believe that much of the controversy over how much to invest and where to invest in our nation’s transportation system will be alleviated by putting the HTF on a stable trajectory to secure long-term solvency.

That is why my framework calls for modernizing the gas tax to account for post-1993 inflation. To stabilize the HTF, my reforms go even further. My plan calls for a phase-out of the gas tax into a user fee, or Vehicle Mileage Tax (VMT), for gasoline and diesel vehicles over at least ten years, and addresses the electric vehicle free-rider problem by phasing in a VMT over five years. Funding for the HTF will be transitioned away from a gas tax and into a user fee-based system. This transition will be justly targeted and fine-tuned, not only to recoup the costs that vehicles impose on the roads, but to ensure that electric vehicle owners, like myself, pay our fair share.

Secondly, if Congress agrees – as I believe it should – to spend additional monies on other forms of infrastructure, such as airports, ports and waterways, clean water infrastructure, electrical generation, grid modernization, and broadband, then I fervently believe that Congress should not engage in budget gimmicks, but must raise the revenues to pay for this spending.

My plan would include a slight increase in the corporate tax rate, excluding small and family-owned businesses, to offset some of the cost of this additional spending. The increase would be limited to no more than a 4% increase to a rate of 25%. Congress should recognize that there is wisdom in the “user pays user benefits” principle. Corporations benefit from and are users of America’s infrastructure. The benefits of a modernized national transportation system will outweigh the costs of a rate increase over the long term.

Doing the hard work of providing long term certainty for transportation funding mechanisms will go a long way toward giving the market clear signals on where we are going as a nation. And thanks to rapid technological advancements, the world looks and operates a whole lot differently than it did when I was first elected. It will continue to evolve, and we need to plan for that reality by harnessing innovative technology to maximize benefits for Americans in every corner of our country. A look at nationwide broadband gaps and recent electric grid failures illustrate the distance the country must go to meet that goal.

For Alaska, the climb is even steeper. Our state’s relative infancy and challenging geography have kept access to even basic infrastructure out of reach for many. More than 80% of Alaska communities are off the road system and only accessible by water or air, presenting unique challenges ranging from energy affordability to the need for strong maritime infrastructure.

Addressing Alaska’s needs and the distinct infrastructure needs of states across the country will provide the nation with a fortified, resilient foundation, both physically and economically. In the short term, we can expect federal spending to spur job creation in all parts of Alaska and the country, particularly as we continue to rebound from the pandemic. In the long term, we’d rebuild the advantages that allowed our country to prosper up to this point, such as connected transportation routes and cost-effective, reliable power. Additionally, we would maintain our competitive edge by boosting America’s self-sufficiency and versatility.

To move Alaska and the country ahead, Republicans and Democrats must find a way forward together on infrastructure. As the Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I understood the importance of reaching across the aisle to forge common ground. I know how to get this done. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed my bill, SAFETEA-LU, into law. At that time, it was the largest surface transportation investment in our nation’s history, and enjoyed the support of then-Sen. Joe Biden. Sixteen years later, I ask now-President Biden to give my proposals a fair hearing so that we may set course for the next century of sound American infrastructure. Through my proposal and continued conversations, I’m committed to the process and seeing a bipartisan infrastructure bill pass through Congress. I call on my friends in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle to make that commitment with me.

Rep. Don Young, a Republican, is Alaska’s sole representative in the U.S. House.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Peplow’s impeachment reminds Alaska union members they have a choice

1 hour 18 min ago

Downtown Anchorage, photographed on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Alaska has always been viewed as a frontier for freedom, where individual liberty is never sacrificed on the altar of collectivism. In Alaska, every voice matters, and that’s why a government union’s attempt to silence Todd Peplow should concern us all.

Public Employees Local 71 of LiUNA (Laborers International Union of North America) has alleged that Peplow, its president, violated the union’s constitution and bylaws – simply because he stated that hundreds of union members (and himself) were backing a political candidate.

He never said that the union was formally endorsing now-mayor-elect Dave Bronson. Nor was his statement accompanied by any of the formalities that are part of an official endorsement, such as a press conference or a letter on official letterhead.

Even so, Peplow has been formally charged and impeached. This is strange, because union presidents are allowed to hold political positions; advocating for them has not been an issue in the past. In fact, President Peplow has previously published opinions in the press and was never rebuked for his actions.

In short, Local 71 LiUNA’s impeachment of its own president seems to be a farce. It’s based on an alleged violation of the bylaws. The charge is that President Peplow offered an endorsement using his official title, because when he was asked his background when endorsing Bronson, Peplow identified himself as “President of Local 71 and a retired combat veteran.”  From the context, however, it was obvious he wasn’t claiming to speak on behalf of the union any more than he was speaking for the armed forces.

So what’s really going on? As a former union official for 16 years, culminating with winning two terms as president of New Haven Fire Fighters, I have witnessed how opinions that diverge from the narrative set by national union bureaucrats are suppressed with threats, attempted removal from office, and other forms of coercion.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the union bureaucracy seems to have come after President Pelow, given his reputation for fighting for his members and his firm belief that labor should transcend politics.

Peplow has been a critic of the union’s business agent’s handling of negotiations on behalf of the membership. He also balked when local unions were pressured to donate $5,000 each for the purchase of a boat for the retiring president of the Alaska AFL-CIO.

Union bigwigs don’t take kindly to this sort of independent thinking. Too often, bureaucrats operating out of Washington, D.C., who are far removed from the work their members perform, try to micromanage even local union matters. They’re well paid for it, too – many hardworking union members would be surprised to learn the General President of the Laborers International Union of North America is paid well more than $500,000 a year.

But as with any bureaucracy, the larger it becomes, the farther away it moves from its core mission. Sadly, sometimes it seems the union bureaucracy is more interested in protecting itself than protecting the rights of its members.

Unions are supposed to stand up for the underdogs, but they have allowed the bigwigs to exploit members for their own political interests — or for their own gain. These hard truths should lead members to take a good, hard look at the impeachment of President Peplow, and decide for themselves: Is it a ruse and retaliation for him having been a proper steward of their dues?

And then union members need to keep another welcome truth in mind. Thanks to the Janus decision by the United States Supreme Court, big labor can’t force public sector union membership as a condition of employment. Now members have a voice that cannot be silenced. They have a First Amendment right that is absolute.

Today, every union member has a choice: they can decide to reform from the inside – or, when the bureaucracy betrays their interests, they can opt out of the union, stop their dues deductions, and hold their leaders accountable for their actions and inactions.

Frank Ricci is a Fellow of Labor and Special Initiatives for Yankee Institute and a retired Union President and Battalion Chief for the New Haven, Connecticut Fire Department.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

St. Louis couple who pointed guns at protesters plead guilty to misdemeanors

1 hour 37 min ago

Patricia McCloskey, left, and her husband Mark McCloskey leave a court in St. Louis, Thursday, June 17, 2021. The St. Louis couple who gained notoriety for pointing guns at social justice demonstrators last year has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. (AP Photo/Jim Salter) (Jim Salter/)

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis couple who gained notoriety for pointing guns at social justice demonstrators last year pleaded guilty Thursday to misdemeanor charges and agreed to give up the weapons they used during the confrontation.

Patricia McCloskey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment and was fined $2,000. Her husband, Mark McCloskey, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fourth-degree assault and was fined $750.

When several hundred demonstrators marched past their home in June of 2020, the couple waved weapons at them. They claimed the protesters were trespassing and that they feared for their safety.

The McCloskeys, both of them lawyers in their 60s, wore blue blazers and spoke calmly in answering questions from Judge David Mason during Thursday’s hearing. Mason asked Mark McCloskey if he acknowledged that his actions put people at risk of personal injury. He replied, “I sure did your honor.”

Mark McCloskey, who announced in May that he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, was unapologetic after the hearing.

“I’d do it again,” he said from the courthouse steps in downtown St. Louis. “Any time the mob approaches me, I’ll do what I can to put them in imminent threat of physical injury because that’s what kept them from destroying my house and my family.”

The McCloskeys’ defense lawyer, Joel Schwartz, said after the hearing the couple had hoped to raise money by donating Mark’s rifle to charity, but acknowledged that it was an unusual request.

Because the charges are misdemeanors, the McCloskeys do not face the possibility of losing their law licenses and can continue to own firearms.

“This particular resolution of these two cases represents my best judgment of an appropriate and fair disposition for the parties involved as well as the public good,” special prosecutor Richard Callahan said after the hearing

The protesters, Callahan said, “were a racially mixed and peaceful group, including women and children, who simply made a wrong turn on their way to protest in front of the mayor’s house. There was no evidence that any of them had a weapon and no one I interviewed realized they had ventured onto a private enclave.”

The June 28, 2020, protests came weeks after George Floyd’s death under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee. Mark McCloskey emerged with an AR-15-style rifle, and Patricia McCloskey waved a semiautomatic pistol, according to the indictment. Cellphone video captured the confrontation. No shots were fired and no one was hurt.

The McCloskeys were indicted by a grand jury in October on felony charges of unlawful use of a weapon and evidence tampering. Callahan later amended the charges to give jurors the alternative of convictions of misdemeanor harassment instead of the weapons charge. Under that alternative, the evidence tampering count would be dropped.

An investigation by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office led to the initial indictments — and harsh backlash from several Republican leaders. Then-President Donald Trump spoke out in defense of the couple, whose newfound celebrity earned them an appearance via video at the Republican National Convention.

Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has said that if the McCloskeys are convicted, he’d pardon them. A spokeswoman for Parson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

Callahan, a longtime judge and former U.S. attorney, was appointed special prosecutor after a judge in December ruled that Gardner created an appearance of impropriety by mentioning the McCloskey case in fundraising emails before the August Democratic primary. Gardner went on to win reelection.

Eagle River man receives rare living-donor liver transplant from his nephew

2 hours 2 min ago

Tim Seafler outside his home in Eagle River on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Seafler, 54, recently became UW Medicine’s first patient from Alaska to receive a living-donor liver transplant. He has had liver disease for 10 years and received a lobe of his nephew Doug Post's liver. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Organ donations from living donors are rare: Only about 5% of transplants fall into this category.

Eagle River resident Tim Seafler, 54, was on the receiving end of one of those rare transplants this spring thanks to an organ donation from his 23-year-old nephew — a gift that the Alaskan’s lead surgeon says likely saved Seafler’s life.

Seafler, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, was diagnosed 10 years ago with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a progressive condition that led to his liver failing in March 2020.

Despite how sick he had become, Seafler said that based on a complicated scoring system that prioritizes the very sickest patients for the liver-transplant waiting list, his chances of receiving a deceased-donor organ were slim. Without his nephew’s donation, Seafler would likely have continued to get even sicker for years before qualifying for a deceased-donor transplant. And living in Alaska made it hard for Seafler to be a last minute standby candidate for a donor organ too.

In a recent interview, Seafler described the way his illness had, for years, made him feel like he was living in a fog.

“At first you don’t notice it, because it starts slowly taking away your energy,” he said. “It’s like, you don’t know how sick you are until you’re better.”

“When your liver is not working well, a lot of the toxin buildup starts to affect your cognitive abilities and how bright and sharp you are, and (Tim) noticed this on a pretty daily basis,” said Dr. Mark Sturdevant, the lead surgeon who oversaw both men’s surgeries, in an interview.

The Seattle-based UW Medicine living donor program serves a large geographic area, including most of the Pacific Northwest, plus Alaska and Hawaii. Many patients end up waiting on the deceased-donor transplant list for years because their score is not high enough to get a good organ offer, which is why the living-donor program is so important, Sturdevant said.

“The 10 patients that we have done (living-donor transplants for) here since August of 2020, essentially only one of them probably would have received a transplant within a year” based on their score, Sturdevant said.

[More Alaskans are being diagnosed with eating disorders, but treatment options in state remain scarce]

Seafler is the program’s first Alaskan to receive a living-donor transplant.

His nephew, Doug Post, lives in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as a data scientist researcher at Georgetown University. Post learned about UW Medicine’s living donor program from his mom — Seafler’s sister — and after weeks of research and doctor appointments, he underwent surgery on March 4 to have a lobe of liver transplanted.

Post said it was difficult to watch his uncle’s illness progress over the years, and that seeing the effects of the illness spurred his decision to become a donor.

His uncle “has always been a witty, funny guy,” Post said. But as Seafler got sicker, “you could tell it was hard to carry a conversation. He would get lost and forget what he’s talking about. He was just constantly groggy.”


Doug Post, left, stands with his uncle Tim Seafler in Seattle, WA, in May 2021. (Photo by Angel Seafler)

All that changed almost immediately after Seafler woke up from surgery.

“As soon as I woke up, everything seemed to be clearer and just much more focused,” Seafler said. “I looked out at the stadium at the University of Washington without my glasses on, and it still seemed clearer. And then when people talked to me, I could grasp what they’re saying much quicker. I could tell the difference right away.”

Post says he noticed the changes in his uncle almost immediately too.

“It was really like a switch had been flipped,” Post said. “It was this huge change that happened immediately. And that was awesome to see.”

Post said he carefully assessed the risks and benefits of the surgery with his doctors before deciding to donate.

A donor’s risk of dying during the type of surgery Post underwent is about 1 in 500 to 600. Post donated the right lobe of his liver, which is associated with a slightly higher risk than surgeries involving the smaller left lobe, Sturdevant said.

There’s a 20% to 30% chance of a minor complication, and about a 1% chance of a more serious one, Sturdevant said. Most healthy, young donors recover well. Healthy livers are able to regenerate quickly.

Despite post-operative complications Post experienced that required a second surgery and longer recovery time, he’s still glad he made the decision he did.

Seafler said that he hadn’t been planning to ask anyone to donate a liver, but he’ll be forever thankful to his nephew.

“I told him thanks, but I don’t know how you can say thanks for something like that,” he said.

“Like, what you can do besides just recognize the person that did it. I don’t have a million dollars or anything, but I’ll make sure he knows I appreciate it,” he said.

Hit-and-run driver struck woman who was lying on Midtown Anchorage street, police say

3 hours 11 min ago

A woman was badly injured early Thursday when a vehicle struck her while she was lying in a roadway in Midtown Anchorage, police said.

The driver left the scene, and it was not immediately clear why the woman was in the road, police said in an online statement.

The driver was believed to be eastbound on West 27th Avenue near Blueberry Street when the vehicle struck the woman, police said.

Officers were called to the area at 2:16 a.m., police wrote.

The woman was brought to the hospital for life-threatening injuries, police said.

Police did not release information about a suspect or the vehicle involved. Police asked anyone with information or surveillance footage from the area to call dispatch at 311 or to submit information at AnchorageCrimeStoppers.com.

Movie review: In Pixar’s utterly charming ‘Luca,’ young life as a stolen adventure

3 hours 38 min ago

This image released by Disney shows characters Alberto, voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, center left, and Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, as they are surrounded by seagulls in a scene from the animated film "Luca." (Disney via AP) (Pixar/)

A brisk and bright sun-dappled fable of above-ground adventure and below-the-surface identity, Enrico Casarosa’s “Luca” — a summery, shimmering fish-out-of-water fairy tale — is one of Pixar’s most pure and condensed enchantments.

Pixar has plunged into the sea before, of course, in the aquatic “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.” Lushly detailed waters have been sprinkled through many of the studio’s films, from the rushing river of “The Good Dinosaur” to the frothy seaside surf of “Piper.” One personal favorite: how, after the frantic Paris chase in “Ratatouille,” the diminutive Chef Skinner bobs furiously in the Seine.

But in “Luca,” we’re in the ocean to look longingly upon another world, which happens to be our own. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a 13-year-old sea monster who lives off the coast of the Italian Riviera. He’s a farm boy, like many protagonists before him, with dreams of another, forbidden realm — only Luca shepherds goatfish, instead of goats, on rolling underwater pastures. To him, the surface is a magical, unknowable place that he’s only heard rumors of from his grandmother (Sandy Martin), who’s quickly shushed by his protective parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan).

But curiosity and the urgings of another, more land-accustomed sea monster, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), compel Luca to swim up to a beach and stride ashore. He watches Alberto do it first. When Luca gets up the nerve, the transformation is immediate. Fin turns to foot. Tail disappears. And a very sea-legged boy steps forward, swiftly falling on his face and flopping on the ground like a fish.

Walking comes quickly enough, though, and through Luca’s eyes we see the wonders of surface-dwelling anew — the blue sky, the swaying trees, the rustling grass. Luca and Alberto (who already has a fort with collected treasures) rush to frolic in all the fun of being human. Luca, feeling guilty, keeps saying he’s about to rush home. But he can’t help himself. In “Luca,” young life is a stolen adventure.

They don’t have everything quite figured out. Alberto, more confident and reckless than Luca, calls a phonograph a “magic singing lady machine” and believes the stars in the night sky are little glittering anchovies. But they are absolutely certain of one thing: the Vespa is the single greatest human invention. That draws them to the nearby town of Portorosso (the name seems a nod to the great and most European of the Studio Ghibli canon, “Porco Rosso”), a quintessential Italian hamlet with a village fountain and a “La Strada” poster on the wall. It’s the late 1950s.

They quickly recognize an unexpected danger. Portorosso is adorned with pictures of slayed and slaughtered sea monsters. The whole town lives in fear of them — a concern mirrored by Luca’s family who quake at the thought of “land monsters.” Revealing their true natures would be suicidal, and all it takes is a water balloon or a bit of rain to ruin their human disguises. Still, that doesn’t stop Luca and Alberto from entering a triathlon with the hope of winning a Vespa, or from befriending a village girl, Giuilia (Emma Berman), with a fearsome fisherman father (Marco Barricelli).

It would be easy to label “Luca,” which arrives Friday on Disney+, “minor Pixar.” Its visuals, while beguiling, don’t push new digital ground the way many Pixar animations have. There isn’t an existential journey into the mind, beyond the grave or into the heavens. It’s a couple of kids coming of age over a sun-kissed summer.

But I think the modesty of “Luca” is part of what makes it great. As much as Pixar’s recent output (“Soul,” “Onward,” “Coco”) has been daringly conceptual, it has sometimes felt as though the studio and its artists are too focused on charting new narrative territory. “Luca,” Pixar’s shortest feature since its first (“Toy Story”), is modest, straightforward and classical. It feels like Pixar’s page out of Italo Calvino’s “Italian Folktales.”

Casarosa’s film comes and goes like a soft summer breeze, but that doesn’t stop it from being utterly charming and, by the time of its magnificent final shot, a little devastating, too. In sweet sea monsters that just want to do what other kids do, “Luca” finds a simple and beautiful metaphor for all those who feel like they need to hide themselves to fit in. It left me, anyway, with a fish-eating grin.

“Luca,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

The quest for a pill to fight viral pandemics gets $3.2 billion boost from Biden administration

3 hours 52 min ago

Rubber stoppers are placed onto filled vials of the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir at a Gilead manufacturing site in the United States. (Gilead Sciences via AP)

Before this pandemic is over, scientists are preparing to fight the next one.

Borrowing from the model used to create drugs that transformed HIV from a death sentence into a manageable disease, the Biden administration announced Thursday a $3.2 billion plan to stock the medicine cabinet with drugs that would be ready to treat future viral threats - whether a hemorrhagic fever, influenza or another coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the administration, and David Kessler, chief science officer for the covid-19 response, began brainstorming the idea late last year. With remarkably effective vaccines rolling out, their initial focus was on drugs that could make the next pandemic less devastating. But as virus variants emerged and it became clear that even a historic vaccination campaign wasn’t likely to eradicate the coronavirus, they accelerated the deadline.

“The focus was to reinvigorate the nation’s antiviral program over the next three to five years. What’s become more clear, as the pandemic has come into focus, is we have to do it this fall,” Kessler said. “We need this set of tools to close out this pandemic. . . . The hard thing is to recognize with all the success, there’s still several hundred deaths a day.”

The $3.2 billion represents a multiyear investment to jump-start basic science research to develop new drugs and test whether existing drugs show promise. The funding will support clinical research and manufacturing. The focus initially is on this coronavirus but will expand into collaborative drug discovery programs focused on viruses that have the potential to spark a pandemic.

At the same time, the government has started placing preorders for antiviral drugs for this pandemic - before they have been shown to work. It’s a strategy similar to the one used to encourage vaccine development.

“The aim of the program is to catalyze the development of new medicines to combat covid-19, but also to provide a structure, a durable structure, to prepare from a therapeutic standpoint against any of the pandemic threats,” Fauci said.

Short memories, vanishing viruses

For months, scientists who work on therapies for viruses have debated whether the pandemic will be a wake-up call, an event that triggers sustained investment in an area increasingly neglected as drug companies seek more lucrative targets. Many have been skeptical much will change, aside from perhaps a temporary surge of drug development against coronaviruses.

“Investors are totally uninterested in antivirals. Even if you can demonstrate you can make a couple billion dollars, nobody cares,” said Ann Kwong, a virologist who played a leading role in developing an antiviral approved against hepatitis C at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, along with an influenza treatment. “What they really want is a chronic treatment. Nobody ever gets cured of high cholesterol.”

Scientists express hope tinged with doubt that the pandemic will trigger permanent change, including coronavirus researchers who learned firsthand how short attention spans can be. After severe acute respiratory syndrome emerged in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012, scientists who study the viruses thought it was only a matter of time before another one threatened - but sometimes had trouble convincing funders of the urgency.

“The lack of antivirals on the shelf has been a really sad part of watching SARS-2 emerge,” said Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Frieman conducted experiments to sift through existing drugs to see whether any could be repurposed against Middle East respiratory syndrome.

“We had been working on developing this - antivirals for future pandemics. It was problematic to get funded,” Frieman said.

Even if money exists, the development path wasn’t always clear when targeting viruses that disappeared - or have yet to appear.

Norbert Bischofberger, one of the inventors of Tamiflu, an oral antiviral pill for influenza, said coronaviruses were on his radar in recent years when he worked at Gilead Sciences.

“We thought about corona, we knew about corona - we just found it almost impossible to do clinical studies. Let’s say you have a drug, and you want to do a clinical study to show it’s safe and effective. Safe, that’s the easy part,” said Bischofberger, who is now president of Kronos Bio, a company focused on cancer. But to show it works outside of lab experiments? “You need for corona to be around.”

Several scientists who have worked on developing antivirals said that appetite for the drug class had decreased, in part because there wasn’t a clear commercial model. The hope is the new government effort, if it succeeds in a way similar to the investment into HIV, could remove much of the uncertainty from the process.

Closing out the pandemic

So far, the quest for antivirals against covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, has been a list, mostly, of failures.

The anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, the HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, and the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin all showed hints of promise and have been touted at various stages of the pandemic as antivirals. None are recommended for use, although trials continue.

Even remdesivir - the only approved covid-19 antiviral, which is delivered by IV - has been the subject of ongoing debate, with conflicting evidence on how well it works.

Beyond investing to produce drugs against future threats, the U.S. government is making bets on drugs that might, finally, help knock back covid-19. As it did with vaccines, the government has begun placing advanced purchase orders for antiviral drugs even before they are shown to work.

Last week, the administration committed $1.2 billion to buy 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir, an antiviral developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, if it is authorized. The drug integrates itself into the virus’s genetic code and interferes with the ability of the coronavirus to multiply, leading to “error catastrophe.”

Daria Hazuda, Merck’s vice president of infectious-disease discovery and chief science officer, said data from the late-stage clinical trial of the drug should be available in the last half of the year.

Even with the success in vaccines, Hazuda said she sees a role for an oral antiviral pill in helping thwart the coronavirus: Many countries have low vaccination rates, and vaccines don’t work for everyone. In the United States, several drugs known as monoclonal antibodies are authorized, but they are clunky to implement, typically requiring a lengthy IV infusion early in people’s illness when they still don’t feel very sick.

In addition, variants have already posed a risk to some monoclonals. In May, government health officials paused shipments of a monoclonal antibody cocktail made by Eli Lilly to eight states because it does not work against virus variants spreading in those states. This week, Rhode Island was added to the list.

Antivirals, on the other hand, could offer a way to target multiple variants, or even an entire family of viruses.

“As we’re seeing, the virus can evolve, and with variants cropping up, how well the vaccines will work against variants in the future is, I think, still an open question,” Hazuda said. Antivirals could be variant-proof and even work broadly against multiple coronaviruses.

A tough scientific target

Developing antiviral drugs, particularly for acute viral infections, comes with challenges, researchers said. The window of opportunity to intervene is short - possibly when people barely realize they are sick. Testing antiviral drugs in hospitalized patients has been common during the pandemic because of the clear need. But by the time someone winds up in the hospital, their condition is driven as much by how their body is responding as it is by the virus itself. That limits the potential impact of an antiviral drug.

Bischofberger said one of the most powerful uses of Tamiflu was as a preventive measure - when flu hits a region or a nursing home, people could be given a prophylactic daily pill.

Identifying people early in their course of illness may not prove as hard with covid-19, because of awareness of testing. Still, Hazuda said that unlike flu, the precise trajectory of the disease and how it varies among people is still not well understood, and that poses another challenge.

Because viruses use the infected person’s cellular machinery to replicate, another approach involves developing antiviral therapies that aim at the host, not the virus. That could be a way to design a broad-acting drug against many viruses, but it adds a new wrinkle: the possibility of side effects.

In the end, the business proposition may be the fundamental problem with developing antivirals for acute diseases that often resolve on their own, said Kara Carter, president of the International Society for Antiviral Research and senior vice president of discovery biology at Dewpoint Therapeutics.

A chronic infection may have the same commercial potential as a drug for diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. But an acute viral infection presents both a scientific challenge and a commercial one.

“You’re probably going to dose those patients for anywhere from five to 10 days, but you require the same amount of expense to develop and discover those drugs,” Carter said.

She and others pointed to the progress of the past year, with drugs in clinical development from Merck, Pfizer, Atea Pharmaceuticals and other companies. Carter cited a widely accepted formula for corralling a pathogen: at least one vaccine plus two antivirals that use different mechanisms to stop a virus.

“There’s going to be money to support it as long as the pain points are still there and being experienced and in people’s memory,” Carter said. “I hope I’m wrong, but as soon as this starts being less of a global health concern, it’s going to be, ‘We dealt with that, it’s done.’”

As coronavirus recedes, colds and common viruses are back - especially among children

4 hours 3 min ago

Rob and Gina Domaoal this week in Decatur, Ga., with their 20-month-old son, Eli, who picked up a virus in day care. (Photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. Schwarz) (Michael A. Schwarz/)

Gina and Rob Domaoal’s infant son was in day care for three months last year before the coronavirus shut it down. By the time Eli returned to a child-care center in early June, he had been all but quarantined for 15 months, so unaccustomed to being around other children that when they took him to a playground earlier this spring, he hung back at the edge and watched.

Eli had been back in day care for five days when the 20-month-old on Saturday suddenly had no interest in playing with his favorite trucks. He spiked a 102-degree fever. “He just wanted to be held,” Gina Domaoal said. “He felt like a baked potato that just came out of the oven.”

Tests showed Eli was infected with two viruses at once: a rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, and parainfluenza, another respiratory illness that can be more serious. Domaoal, who lives in Decatur, Ga., was not surprised. A friend had sent her young twins back to day care a week sooner. By that Friday, both were sick.

Such feverish children in the Atlanta area are part of a pattern of viral infections that pediatricians, infectious-disease specialists and epidemiologists have noticed cropping up this spring in the United States, especially in the South. These common viruses are showing up at a distinctly uncommon time of year - and sometimes with uncommon virulence among children whose immune systems did not begin building up familiarity with them while the pandemic kept people isolated at home.

The comeback of ordinary viruses is widely regarded as a dark underside of a season in which the coronavirus has been receding in much of the nation as vaccinations provide protection. As a result, people are shedding masks and abandoning social distancing - and resuming spreading viral droplets.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory warning that respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, has been detected with increasing frequency since March in 10 Southern states, plus Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. RSV is the most common cause of bronchial infections and pneumonia in children under age 1, with a season that typically runs roughly from November to early spring.

“It’s very unusual to see this volume of sick kids during the summer,” said Sally Goza, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This is the time of year we normally are doing checkups for camp.”

Goza is part of First Georgia Physician Group, which has offices in Fayetteville and Peachtree City. Goza said she and her partners have been seeing babies and children with ear infections and strep throat. And as a member of the pediatrics academy board, she said: “It’s pretty much a consensus across the country that our volume of sick patients is higher” than normal for this time of year.

Maimonides Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn was among the first to notice a surge in RSV cases starting in March. Rabia Agha, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, could not find much information on whether other U.S. hospitals were also having increases, but, aware of similar surges documented in Australia and South Africa during their last summer, she and a colleague began to gather data at their own hospital.

The resulting paper, awaiting publication by the pediatrics academy’s journal, says that 295 children tested positive for RSV at Maimonides from March through early May, with a median age of 6 months. Strikingly, just over half of them required intensive care. Compared with the most recent pre-pandemic RSV season, the patients this spring have been more prone to need ICU treatment and tend to remain in the hospital about a day longer.

Parents can be surprised - and terrified. Charlie Hardin, host of an Amarillo, Texas, radio show, and his wife, Makayla, thought their 11-month-old was having spring allergies when he started coughing with a runny nose in late May. So did their pediatrician, who prescribed allergy medicine and suggested they give their baby boy, Moxxon, infant Tylenol.

Days later, a fever having joined his other symptoms, they took Moxxon to an urgent care clinic, where an X-ray detected bronchial pneumonia. No better the next day, they took their baby to the emergency room, whose doctors tested him for RSV, said the positive result explained his pneumonia and an ear infection - and admitted him hours later when his fever rose to 102 F.

Moxxon was in the hospital for four days, fluids dripping into him through an IV. He was tethered to oxygen tubes as his oxygen levels dipped alarmingly low. The days were especially hard on Makayla, Hardin said, who had gone through a risky pregnancy, prompting them to name the baby Moxxon after joking that their newborn had had a lot of moxie.

After a week, Moxie was breathing better. He returned home Saturday, with a cough still and little appetite. The Hardins postponed a weekend party they’d planned for his first birthday Tuesday, but gave him stuffed animals and a cupcake to smash.

Physicians and researchers say children, especially very young ones, are the patients showing up with viral illnesses most often in doctors’ offices and sometimes hospitals, because common viruses can cause more severe symptoms in them than in adults.

“The more seasons you have under your belt, the better your immune system is in fighting these things off,” said Stephanie Stovall, chief of quality and patient safety at Lee Health System, which includes four acute care hospitals and a children’s hospital in southwest Florida. The system is seeing more cases than usual of respiratory cases among adults, as well as children, Stovall said, but she suspects viral infections among adults may be undercounted.

“Adults with a mild cold almost never see a doctor,” said Aaron E. Glatt, chair of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mt. Sinai South Nassau, a Long Island hospital. “When a kid gets a cold with a fever of 104, the mom is quicker to seek medical care.”

The virus comeback follows a striking suppression of common illness during much of the pandemic, as workplaces, restaurants and other group setting shut down and many Americans followed public health advice to wear masks and keep safe distances from others. “We had the mildest flu season on record,” Glatt said. “It’s one of the few benefits we’ve had from covid. The fact is the same measures we use to stop the spread of covid work extremely well to protect from other viruses.”

Goza said that during an ordinary fall and winter, her practice usually orders box after box of tests for flu and RSV. “We didn’t go through a box of tests,” she said.

Eli’s pediatrician in Decatur, Jennifer Shu, said she saw her first RSV case of the season on March 30. “It was the latest first case of RSV I’d ever seen” in 25 years of practice,” she said.

The out-of-season illnesses are complicating insurance coverage, some physicians are noticing. At St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, the RSV surge began last month, when 35 percent of the rapid tests for the virus came back positive - far above the 10 percent threshold the hospital uses to determine when RSV season has arrived.

John Prpich, a pediatric pulmonologist there, said that, while there is no treatment for it, doctors can provide an antibody therapy called SYNAGIS to prevent the virus from progressing to serious illness in patients such as premature babies and children with congenital heart disease. Prpich said insurers usually cover the treatment, which he said costs between $1,200 to $1,500 per month, during traditional RSV season, but some are resisting now.

Sometimes, he is finding, the best strategy is “siccing an upset and motivated mother on the insurance company.”

Though epidemiologists and infectious disease experts had been expecting a viral surge as people loosened coronavirus defense strategies, “the real issue is, when we go back to our new normal, whatever that happens to be, is (the spread of viruses) going to all of a sudden explode, or is it going to go back to the norm?” said Peter Katona, chair of the infection control working group for the University of California Los Angeles.

Goza said she is concerned that because people have not been interacting that there will be an uptick in illnesses usually concentrated among babies.

“Those patients who had not had a chance to catch these things will catch them at ages we don’t usually see,” she said.

Doctors are wondering, too, whether it makes sense to continue masks and other strategies many people adopted to protect again the coronavirus to slow the spread of other viruses. Glatt is a rabbi at Young Israel of North Woodmere, an orthodox congregation on Long Island, and, after his most recent weekly Sabbath service, he noticed more people wanted to shake his hand once again.

“We as a society need to decide how much of an outlier it will be to be on a subway with a mask,” Glatt said. “The future will tell.”

For now, families are trying to cope with children’s illnesses for the first time in more than a year. The first time he started day care, Eli got sick after two weeks. He didn’t catch anything during the pandemic year when the only child he ever saw was a 6-year-old he followed around in the one other family in his parents’ bubble.

Domoaol discovered that caring for a sick toddler was different than a sick infant. This time, “I thought he’d be more larva-like and accept that we were trying to make him better,” she said. Instead he was toddler-like defiant, rejecting Tylenol in grape and cherry flavors until she resorted to bubble-gum flavor.

At Shu’s office Monday afternoon, Momoaol hugged her toddler and held him down so the pediatrician could examine his mouth and ears.

Domoaol, an equity analyst, and her husband, Rob, a CDC scientist specializing in HIV, have been taking turns caring for Eli while he has been home sick. They think the day care has been careful, taking the 10 children’s temperature every morning and requiring parents to fill out a daily health questionnaire. Once Eli’s fever has been gone for a day, they will send him back.

“I don’t think it’s the day care,” she said. “I think it’s his immune system”

Supreme Court unanimously sides with Catholic agency in foster care dispute with city of Philadelphia

4 hours 47 min ago

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously sided with a Catholic foster care agency that says its religious views prevent it from working with same-sex couples as foster parents. The justices said the city of Philadelphia wrongly limited its relationship with the group as a result of the agency’s policy.

Philadelphia violated the Constitution in limiting its work with the agency, Catholic Social Services, the court said.

“The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

Roberts said that the group “seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”

Catholic Social Services is affiliated with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia learned in 2018 from a newspaper reporter that the agency would not certify same-sex couples to become foster parents. The city has said it requires that the two dozen-plus foster care agencies it works with not to discriminate as part of their contracts. The city asked the Catholic agency to change its policy, but the group declined. As a result, Philadelphia stopped referring additional children to the agency.

Catholic Social Services sued, but lower courts sided with Philadelphia.

There is no record that any same-sex couple has ever asked to work with the agency. In such a case, the couple would be referred to a different group, Catholic Social Services has said. Because of its beliefs, the Catholic agency also does not certify unmarried couples.

A lawyer with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who argued on behalf of Catholic Social Services cheered the ruling.

“It’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them,” Lori Windham said in a statement.

Affordable Care Act survives third challenge in Supreme Court

6 hours 43 min ago

In this June 8, 2021 photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has dismissed a challenge to the Obama era health care law, preserving insurance coverage for millions of Americans.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, left the entire law intact Thursday in ruling that Texas, other Republican-led states and two individuals had no right to bring their lawsuit in federal court.

The law’s major provisions include protections for people with pre-existing health conditions, a range of no-cost preventive services and the expansion of the Medicaid program that insures lower-income people, including those who work in jobs that don’t pay much or provide health insurance.

Also left in place is the law’s now-toothless requirement that people have health insurance or pay a penalty. Congress rendered that provision irrelevant in 2017 when it reduced the penalty to zero.

The elimination of the penalty had become the hook that Texas and other Republican-led states, as well as the Trump administration, used to attack the entire law. They argued that without the mandate, a pillar of the law when it was passed in 2010, the rest of the law should fall, too.

And with a more conservative Supreme Court that includes three Trump appointees, opponents of “Obamacare” hoped a majority of the justices would finally kill off the law they have been fighting against for more than a decade.

But the third major attack on the law at the Supreme Court ended the way the first two did, with a majority of the court rebuffing efforts to gut the law or get rid of it altogether.

Trump’s three appointees to the Supreme Court — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — split their votes. Kavanaugh and Barrett joined the majority. Gorsuch was in dissent, signing on to an opinion from Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court that the states and people who filed a federal lawsuit “have failed to show that they have standing to attack as unconstitutional the Act’s minimum essential coverage provision.”

In dissent, Alito wrote, “Today’s decision is the third installment in our epic Affordable Care Act trilogy, and it follows the same pattern as installments one and two. In all three episodes, with the Affordable Care Act facing a serious threat, the Court has pulled off an improbable rescue.” Alito was a dissenter in the two earlier cases, as well.

Republicans pressed their argument to invalidate the whole law even though congressional efforts to rip out the entire law “root and branch,” in Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s words, have failed. The closest they came was in July 2017 when Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died the following year, delivered a dramatic thumbs-down vote to a repeal effort by fellow Republicans.

Chief Justice John Roberts said during arguments in November that it seemed the law’s foes were asking the court to do work best left to the political branches of government.

The court’s decision preserves benefits that became part of the fabric of the nation’s health care system even as Republicans repeatedly tried to rip out Obamacare — in McConnell’s words — “root and branch.”

Polls show that the 2010 health care law grew in popularity as it endured the heaviest assault. In December 2016, just before Obama left office and Trump swept in calling the ACA a “disaster,” 46% of Americans had an unfavorable view of the law, while 43% approved, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll. Those ratings flipped and by February of this year 54% had a favorable view, while disapproval had fallen to 39% in the same ongoing poll.

The health law is now undergoing an expansion under President Joe Biden, who sees it as the foundation for moving the U.S. to coverage for all. His giant COVID-19 relief bill significantly increased subsidies for private health plans offered through the ACA’s insurance markets, while also dangling higher federal payments before the dozen states that have declined the law’s Medicaid expansion. About 1 million people have signed up with HealthCare.gov since Biden reopened enrollment amid high levels of COVID cases earlier this year.

The administration says an estimated 31 million people are covered because of the law, most through its combination of Medicaid expansion and marketplace plans. But its most popular benefit is protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions. They cannot be turned down for coverage on account of health problems, or charged a higher premium. While those covered under employer plans already had such protections, “Obamacare” guaranteed them for people buying individual policies.

Another hugely popular benefit allowed young adults to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they turn 26. Before the law, going without medical coverage was akin to a rite of passage for people in their 20s getting a start in the world.

Because of the ACA, most privately insured women receive birth control free of charge. It’s considered a preventive benefit covered at no additional cost to the patient. So are routine screenings for cancer and other conditions.

For Medicare recipients, “Obamacare” also improved preventive care, and more importantly, closed a prescription drug coverage gap of several thousand dollars that was known as the “doughnut hole.”

___

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Joint venture tries again to advance Unalaska geothermal energy project

6 hours 50 min ago

Makushin Volcano, west of the town of Unalaska on Unalaska Island in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. (Janet Schaefer / Alaska Volcano Observatory)

Unalaska city leaders, a local Native corporation and a team of renewable energy experts from Fairbanks are working to unlock the energy potential inside a volcano near the Aleutian fishing port.

The geothermal resource in the base of Makushin Volcano — a prominent feature about 15 miles west of the city — is well documented, according to Dave Matthews, a program manager with the Ounalashka Corp. and Chena Power LLC joint venture.

However, the cost and logistical challenges common to rural Alaska projects, along with prior land ownership issues, have precluded development to date.

“Tens of millions of dollars have been spent in the last 40 years on the Makushin resource. There’s actually been 13 plans for development there,” Matthews said during a June 4 video conference presentation hosted by the policy think tank Commonwealth North. “People have written papers and gotten their Ph.D.s based on this resource. It’s well known in the geothermal world.”

Geothermal energy is one of the most consistent forms of renewable energy, whether used for heat, power generation, or both. Wells are drilled into a geothermal reservoir that emits steam that can then be captured and used in multiple ways.

Chena Power currently operates the only geothermal power system in Alaska.

A traditional geothermal power project will utilize the steam to turn a turbine generator, after which the steam is sent through cooling towers before being injected back to the reservoir.

At the Makushin project, the steam will be produced at about 390 degrees Fahrenheit and it will be injected as liquid water of 80 to 100 degrees, according to Matthews.

“The whole concept is to try to extract as much geothermal energy as you can from the geothermal reservoir before you put it back into the ground where it gets reheated again,” he said.

Based on a 1983 test well, the Makushin resource has been “ballparked” to be capable of supplying steam to generate 500 megawatts for 500 years, he added.


Makushin Volcano, west of the town of Unalaska on Unalaska Island in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. (Jacob Whitaker / Alaska Volcano Observatory)

Unalaska, with a population that peaks at nearly 10,000 during the height of fishing activity, needs only a fraction of that, according to City Manager Erin Reinders, and that’s part of the problem.

The city currently relies on diesel power generation and has a peak demand of about 11 megawatts. The seafood processors that help make nearby Dutch Harbor the largest volume fishing port in the country, along with a handful of other isolated power consumers, generate nearly 20 megawatts at peak demand themselves.

Getting the processing companies or others to connect to the city grid is imperative, according to Reinders.

“In order to make this pencil out we’ll need to have more (power) sales,” Reinders said in an interview.

She also noted that the project has the potential to displace more than 2.5 million gallons per year of diesel consumed by the city’s current power generation.

Residential power rates in Unalaska were approximately 28 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2020 after the state Power Cost Equalization subsidy was applied, based on Alaska Energy Authority data. Commercial customers are not eligible for PCE subsidies.

Simply put, the seafood processors — already in a highly volatile industry — don’t want to relinquish control over their all-important power supply, even if doing so would mean forgoing millions of gallons of diesel purchases each year.

Matthews said the fixed development costs, such as that for the 10-mile road to the site, along with the inherent nature of the ostensibly free heat resource, mean developing a larger plant up-front will lead to lower electric rates over the long-term if other customers can be added to Unalaska’s grid.

For that reason, Ounalashka and Chena Power plan to install a net 30-megawatt plant with three individual generation systems. Having three smaller systems is more expensive than one large system but it will allow the plant to better match demand fluctuations, which will be a necessity given the Makushin plant will be Unalaska’s primary power if it is seen through, according to Matthews.

“The thing with geothermal is it’s a high capital cost but once you get it installed your price is pretty much fixed for 30 years,” Matthews said, noting the larger plant provides ample opportunity for grid growth.

The City of Unalaska signed a 30-year power purchase agreement, or PPA, with Ounalashka and Chena Power last August, which calls for fixed payments starting at $16.3 million with a 1 percent annual escalator that puts the 30th year total at $22 million to power the city.

Reinders said the Unalaska City Council approved the deal in part because the processors publicly supported the project even if they aren’t ready to commit to it yet.

“In the past the other showstopper was that the processors weren’t on board,” she said.

Matthews emphasized the benefit to the companies is the consistent cost of the power, adding that the reliability can be proven to them over time.

“The power that we’re providing to the city is pretty close to the diesel cost in the next few years and will become cheaper over time, of course,” he said.

The project is currently on schedule to produce its first power in late 2023 shortly after a 4-mile, redundant subsea power line is laid to connect Unalaska to the Makushin project, according to Matthews.

Finalizing the PPA qualified the development group to seek financing for the full project, Reinders said, noting it is also a step that has never been reached before in other development attempts.

Matthews said the joint-venture, which is aided by Ounalashka owning the land, is self-funding the road and pad construction that started in May.

He declined to disclose the overall price estimate for the project, but said bids are due from two international geothermal plant developers later this month.

“We’ve gone a long ways on getting the details of the cost and logistics plan put together,” Matthews said.

Texas governor puts down $250 million for state’s own border wall and asks for donations

6 hours 58 min ago

Authorities pass a border wall construction site, in Mission, Texas, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay/)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday he was putting a $250 million down payment on a state-led project to build “hundreds of miles” of border wall as part of a security plan he said was made necessary by the federal government’s neglect of communities along the state’s international river boundary with Mexico.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, and more than two dozen cheering Texas lawmakers, Abbott, a Republican, signed documents authorizing several actions to address the “tidal wave” of immigration that is overwhelming border law enforcement and stoking acrimony in some communities.

Abbott, who is seeking a third term in 2022 and was recently endorsed by former president Donald Trump, opened his remarks by crediting the previous administration’s policies for slowing migration and tying his state’s perceived woes to the Biden administration’s dismantling of those programs. Trump announced Tuesday that he had accepted Abbott’s invitation to visit the border this month.

Abbott painted a bleak picture of border cities as victims of an “open border” policy he blames for the large numbers of migrants “wreaking havoc” and “carnage” on both populous and remote communities along the Rio Grande.

“Remember that the border was far more under control under the Trump administration until President Biden came,” Abbott said, drawing a dubious comparison between the 2020 migrant apprehension numbers, which were lower during the coronavirus pandemic, to 2021 figures. “But the biggest difference between the two administrations is a difference in commitment.”

Abbott authorized state officials to begin the search for a program manager for the border wall, opened a donation portal for the project and called on landowners willing to volunteer their properties for construction. He also signed a letter to be sent to President Biden demanding land taken by the federal government for border wall construction under Trump be returned to landowners.

But there were few details about other parts of Abbott’s plan. The governor is encouraging local law enforcement and state troopers to begin arresting and charging migrants with trespassing, vandalism and other misdemeanors. He promised to build jail capacity in small communities, many of which can barely manage to handle the number of inmates they already have, much less the hundreds who cross the Rio Grande every day.

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe issued a disaster declaration for his county on April 21, more than a month before Abbott issued a statewide declaration.

“We were just seeing ungodly numbers of people,” said Coe, whose county has 16 miles of river border. “It’s an invasion. We are to the point to where, what do we do? I’m getting calls every day from the local ranchers whose properties are being destroyed and groups of 15, 20 trespassing across their land. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

Coe worked with his county attorney to devise a plan to start arresting adults caught on private property with criminal trespassing, but was soon out of space in a county jail that holds 14. His six deputies are using discretion to lock up those migrants they deem a priority either because they have violent criminal records or represent an acute danger.

Abbott said he asked the state’s jail standards commission to find more space and determined they have about 1,000 extra beds within the state. But to carry out the governor’s stated goals, border law enforcers interviewed say the state would have to ease capacity restrictions locally and the potential for human rights violations worries them.

Border officials say they welcome the attention and additional state resources to help bolster things such as their 911 communications systems and hire more deputies and attorneys to jail and prosecute offenders. Others wonder whether the effort is worth it.

“I don’t know if it’s practical or feasible, but I know it’s expensive,” said LaSalle County Judge Joel Rodriguez, whose county more than 60 miles north of the river has seen a dramatic uptick in vehicle pursuits and crashes involving human smugglers.

The pandemic has created a budget deficit of more than $1 million as the county awaits state or federal reimbursement for its expenses, Rodriguez said. The county increased the sheriff’s budget by thousands, but Rodriguez worries about his overtaxed officers.

“I don’t know if there is an easy solution. but the governor is trying,” he said.

In Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley where the bulk of river crossings occur, Judge Richard Cortez is as frustrated as many of his neighbors with the federal response to the increasing immigration, but he has questions about Abbott’s plan.

“You don’t put more resources into a policy that’s failed us,” Cortez said. “Arresting people isn’t going to solve the issue of people coming in the first place. All it does is delay the ultimate inevitability of release. You spend six months in jail, now what? We are back to where we were.”

Migrants charged with state crimes would be entitled to a hearing, bond, an attorney and a variety of resources that Cortez said could bog down the judicial systems of large metropolitan areas such as his.

“We all have the same goals, but it’s the how to do it that concerns me,” he said. “What will we accomplish?”

Sheriff Joe Martinez’s Val Verde County hosted a border summit Abbott held last week and the private meetings the governor had with ranchers and landowners, who represent a vocal and influential group of border residents but do not speak for all.

They gave detailed accounts of fences being damaged, burglarized houses, stolen vehicles and general fear of groups of strangers on their property.

“It’s one thing to hear about this on the news, but when you sit in a room and listen to 150 people tell it, that’s something,” said Russell Boening of the Texas Farm Bureau, which has been documenting the experiences of ranchers in border communities. “It’s not really a partisan issue. It’s a safety [issue], it’s a humanitarian issue.”

But when the governor asked which of them would volunteer their land for border fence or wall construction, not one hand went up, according to two people who attended the summit. Abbott said later, during Wednesday’s news conference, that state agencies were already engaged in helping border ranchers fence their properties.

The border wall was not a hugely popular idea among landowners during the Trump era. Many fought in court to negotiate or delay the federal government’s land taking over concerns a wall would cut them off from the river their ranches depend on for water, irrigation and recreation.

Abbott said border barriers “slow the incredible inflow” and create “no-trespass zones” to facilitate a greater number of arrests. State-owned land would be included in the border wall construction.

“It is my belief based upon conversations that I’ve already had is that the combination of state land and volunteer land will yield hundreds of miles to build a border wall in Texas,” he said.

Sheriffs in the borderlands worry that the numbers could increase further once Title 42, which expels most apprehended adults back to Mexico and others countries, is lifted, something Abbott mentioned Wednesday would happen soon based on indications from federal officials.

Martinez said Abbott was right. The border communities need help and it hasn’t come quickly enough from the federal government. The sheriff has asked the state for six additional deputies and a boat to help recover bodies - they have come across nine since Jan. 18 - in a timely manner. He also needs more jail space.

The local magistrate holds hearings for about 30 or 40 people a week during normal times. With 400 to 500 people crossing the border daily in Val Verde County, under the governor’s plan, Martinez estimated that about 100 people a day would have to be processed in court.

“That’s a lot of people,” Martinez said. “Look, I think we are on our own out here to deal with it. Now, the governor is stepping up. We’ll see how that turns out. Something has to be done because we can’t sustain it forever. I don’t know if it’s the right or wrong thing but its something.”

Bipartisan infrastructure push gains ground in Senate as Biden administration joins in negotiations

7 hours 15 min ago

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks with a reporter while arriving for a Senate vote, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin/)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan senators’ group working on a $1 trillion infrastructure compromise more than doubled in size to 21 members Wednesday, a key threshold that gives momentum to their effort as President Joe Biden returns from overseas at a pivotal time for his big legislative priority.

Biden told reporters he had yet to see the emerging proposal from the group but remained hopeful a bipartisan agreement could be reached, despite weeks of on-again, off-again talks over his more robust $1.7 billion American Jobs Plan.

“I’m still hoping we can put together the two bookends here,” Biden said as he prepared to depart Geneva after attending a summit of European leaders.

The administration dispatched top White House advisers for back-to-back meetings on Capitol Hill while the president was away. Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress are proceeding on a two-track strategy — seeking a bipartisan bill while preparing to go it alone if Republicans try to block the investments with a filibuster in the Senate.

The administration officials huddled late Wednesday in the Capitol basement with the Democratic senators in the bipartisan group, grinding through details of the proposal. On Tuesday, the White House team shored up restless House Democrats eager for momentum on a shared domestic priority with the president.

Ahead of Wednesday’s late afternoon session, the 20 senators issued a joint statement backing the emerging bipartisan proposal, doubling their ranks in a show of momentum as Biden is expected to re-engage at home. The list was later updated to 21.

The number is significant: With 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats the group for the first time shows the potential for a bipartisan accord that could theoretically reach the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, which is now evenly split 50-50, that’s needed to advance bills.

“We support this bipartisan framework that provides an historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes,” the senators said. “We look forward to working with our Republican and Democratic colleagues to develop legislation based on this framework to address America’s critical infrastructure challenges.”

“We know that on both sides we’re going to have detractors to this, and so I think it’s going to be important that as we secure support from Republicans, we secure the same from Democrats,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, before signing on to the statement. “So that’s why we’ve been kind of doing the whole Noah’s Ark approach.”

At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer convened a private meeting of the Democratic senators on the Budget Committee to set the groundwork for a process that would allow majority passage of the package, without the need for Republican votes. Initial votes could start in July.

“There was universal agreement we have a lot of things we have to do to help the American people and we have to have unity to do it,” Schumer told reporters afterward. “Good first meeting.”

Biden has proposed a historic investment in U.S. infrastructure, spending that goes beyond roads and bridges to include efforts to fight climate change and to shore up what the White House calls the human infrastructure of everyday life — child care centers, veterans hospitals, community colleges and elder care.

Together, the American Jobs Plan and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan make up a wish-list of Democratic priorities that most Republicans say are investments that go far beyond what they are comfortable spending.

As an alternative, the bipartisan group is eyeing a scaled-back nearly $1 trillion proposal that includes about $579 billion in new spending, including $110 billion on roads and highways, $66 billion on passenger and freight rail and $48 billion on public transit, according a Republican who requested anonymity to discuss the package. There’s another $47 billion on resiliency efforts to fight climate change and money for electric vehicle charging stations.

Biden has proposed raising taxes on corporations, from 21% to 28%, to fund the jobs plan, and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans earning more than $400,000 for the other investments — tax hikes Republicans flatly oppose.

Instead, the bipartisan group suggests tapping $120 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief funds and $315 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program that was designed to help businesses pay workers during the coronavirus lockdowns. They also proposed going after tax dodgers by bolstering the Internal Revenue Service.

One source of contention in the bipartisan group is over a proposal to hike gas taxes by linking future increases to inflation — an idea many other Democrats oppose and that goes against Biden’s vow not to tax Americans earning less than $400,000. The bipartisan group was also eyeing a fee on electric vehicle users.

The bipartisan group includes some of the most watched members of the Senate, some known for reaching across the aisle or bucking their party to strike deals.

The Republicans are Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana.

On the Democratic side are Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Senators appeared upbeat over the prospect that talks on the two tracks could progress — one not precluding the other, as Biden tries to secure a big legislative achievement.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the Budget Committee was unified in putting together a package that “gives us a latitude to do what we need to do — we can shrink it if there’s a bipartisan deal, we could do the broader deal if there isn’t.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is chairman of the Budget Committee, told reporters that lawmakers “have an enormous amount of work in front of us.”

Two ways to make ceviche, the perfect summer seafood dish

11 hours 13 min ago

Scallop ceviche with hearts of palm, lime, and coconut and shrimp ceviche with tomato. (By Kim Sunée)

As the days get warmer and longer, switching out heavier foods for lighter fare is easy with this make-ahead chilled seafood, two ways. Ceviche, raw fish or seafood that’s “cooked” in citrus juices, is easy to serve up for last-minute entertaining, or pack and take camping or fishing. For the shrimp version, a light steam speeds up the marinating process. I love pairing scallops with hearts of palm, as the vegetable mimics the shape and color of the scallop but adds a surprising textural contrast. Hearts of palm in jars or cans are available in most grocery stores.

Make sure to use the freshest possible seafood. High-quality seafood that’s been frozen and thawed properly works well if you don’t have fresh. Best enjoyed the day of, as the citrus will continue to “cook” the seafood and change the texture. Add in as much heat as you like, but keep in mind that chile peppers can surprise from one to the next. If you’re timid, remove all the seeds and ribs where the burn resides. If the final mix proves a tad too hot, add in some avocado or cucumber. Serve with a chilled rosé or a lightly effervescent Portuguese Vinho Verde.

Shrimp with tomato ceviche

Depending on the size of your shrimp, you might need a bit more citrus juice to cover.

Makes 4 to 6 servings, as an appetizer

1 to 1 1/2 pounds raw wild shrimp

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup chopped fresh tomato (or 1/4 cup fresh tomato juice or ketchup)

1/4 cup chopped red or white onion

1 small jalapeño or serrano chile, stems and seeds removed, thinly sliced

Hot sauce, to taste

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Garnishes: Lime wedges and extra-virgin olive oil; fresh cilantro; chopped avocado or cucumber; flake salt

For serving, popcorn or crackers; plantain chips; hot tostones; cabbage or lettuce cups

Peel and de-vein, as needed, fresh raw shrimp. If shrimp are large, cut into pieces. Place into a glass or other non-reactive bowl. Add lime juice and lemon juice. Let marinate in fridge at least 2 hours — shrimp should be pink with a nice sheen — and up to overnight. When ready to serve, stir in tomato (or juice/ketchup), onion, jalapeño, and salt and pepper, to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with lime wedges, and any of the optional serving suggestions.

For a shorter marination time: Prepare a bowl of ice and water. Bring a medium pot of water to a gentle boil. Add shrimp and set timer for two minutes. Drain and add shrimp to ice bath. Let marinate in fridge 30 minutes and up to overnight. When ready to serve, stir in tomato (or juice/ketchup), onion, jalapeño; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and top with fresh cilantro; serve with lime wedges, flake salt and any of the optional serving suggestions.

Scallop ceviche with hearts of palm, lime and coconut

Note: Depending on the size of your scallops, you might need a bit more citrus juice to cover.

Makes 4 to 6 servings, as an appetizer

1 1/2 pounds raw large diver scallops

1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

2-3 Tablespoons coconut cream

1 small Scotch Bonnet, jalapeño or serrano chile, stems and seeds removed, thinly sliced

1 (14-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained

Garnishes: Lime wedges and extra-virgin olive oil; chopped avocado or cucumber; fresh cilantro or chervil; flake salt

For serving: crackers; plantain chips; cabbage or lettuce cups

Slice scallops in half lengthwise or cut into bite-size pieces. Place into a glass or other non-reactive bowl. Add lime juice and lemon juice. Let marinate in fridge 45 minutes to one hour. When ready to serve, stir in coconut cream, jalapeño, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Slice hearts of palm and divide among 4 to 6 serving bowls. Top with scallop ceviche; drizzle with olive oil and top with fresh cilantro; serve with lime wedges, flake salt, and any of the optional serving suggestions.

Alaskans would find a lot in common with Wyoming’s short-season gardeners

11 hours 22 min ago

A mostly vegetable garden located on a Pacific View neighborhood in Anchorage, photographed on July 29, 2012. (JR Ancheta / Anchorage Daily News archive)

I have a confession. I am not in Alaska as I write this. Still, given the unbroken record of columns over 45 years, I submit one, even if I am not home. After 18 months of not seeing The Grandkids in person, our time came, and here I am checking out how much they grew during Isolation.

Fortunately, my daughter and husband chose a location just like Anchorage, with long winters and cool-night summers. In fact, I am in an identical growing zone to Anchorage, judging from the flowers, bushes and trees currently in bloom and the stage of the veggie seedlings in the garden beds around town. I feel at home.

By the time you read this, I will be back, badgering you, but today I am going to walk around town with a granddaughter, who somehow turned into a teenager while I wasn’t looking and is now taller than my daughter. And I am sure there will be some Pokemon shenanigans with our pre-teen grandson who can now navigate and manipulate a computer better than my MIT-trained son. Almost as good is the pleasure of watching my daughter deal with her own kids.

I am not gardening while we are visiting other than a bit of weeding at the plot in their community garden. Instead I get to see what Alaska must look like from a tourist’s point of view when they pile off those ships during normal summers. The huge variety of lilacs along with tartan honeysuckle and Siberian peas are in full flower even while tulips and daffodils are in bloom, just like in Southcentral. Colorful fuchsia and begonias are everywhere. Peonies are starting to open and annuals, particularly petunias abound. Chard, spinach, kales (no tomatoes!), carrots potatoes and Swiss chard — the gardens here look like ours. And, how things develop quickly!

Personally, I like the look of a pioneer yard, that particular set of plants that every short-season area, remote from big nurseries, presents. Young cottonwoods become landscape plants — and, yes, the fluff off them is all over, just like at home. The adventurous gardener here is experimenting with Montmorency cherries and crab apples. I know I have seen young hops vines starting out and I think I saw some kiwi.

When it comes to gardening here, I can see mistakes all short seasoners make. I have to restrain myself — for the sake of my daughter’s reputation — from knocking on random doors to urge the gardener there to use mulch, as almost no one does. Oh, and the smell of dandelion killer along paved walking paths and in the parks shows this is definitely something that this little town needs to address before the second wave of them.

Ouch, I see too many people fertilizing their lawns with weed-be-gone formulas, though beautifully cut on the diagonal, a la Alaska style, complete with weeds. (I’ve actually run into a few ex-readers here and they are spreading the word about the diagonal mow.)

And, don’t get me going on the beets, which last week in this column I pointed out are in pods and always need thinning. There are way too many cottonwoods here, and I think I saw some chokecherries being used as landscape plants, too, which is a big no-no if these folks want to protect their riparian banks.

We have been here eight days and wow, just like in Alaska. You turn your back and the carrots are an inch taller, the snap peas have leaped up their supports and the potatoes need hilling again. Nothing, however, grows faster or gives more satisfaction than the grandkids.

Jeff’s Alaska — or Wyoming — garden calendar

Tomato and cucumbers and peppers: Greenhouse plants need to be pollinated. Open the door and let in the bugs or do it yourself with a small paint brush.

Potatoes: Hill all but the top 3 inches or so

Thin: Beets, carrots, lettuces.

Mulch: Keep weeds at bay. Use mulches. Green for annuals, brown for perennials.

Radish: Time to eat some, pull the rest and plant some new ones? They are not supposed to get to the size of golf balls.

Lettuces: Harvest leaves, carefully cutting leaves above ground with scissors instead of pulling the plants. New leaves will grow back for future harvests.

Butter and eggs: Get at this pernicious weed now while these invasive are small and before they can produce seeds.

Alaska Botanical Garden: Make a habit to review their offerings each week by checking alaskabg.org. And you can also see what is in bloom.

Palmer hiker injured but alive after 2-day ordeal along Pioneer Ridge Trail

Wed, 2021-06-16 21:43

An Alaska Air National Guard HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron searches for a missing hiker on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

A Palmer woman who was chased off the Pioneer Ridge Trail near Butte by bears was found injured but alive Wednesday after deteriorating weather had ended a second day of search efforts, officials said.

Around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, a search and rescue volunteer driving on Knik River Road reported seeing the hiker — identified as 55-year-old Fina Kiefer — walking out of the woods about a mile from the trailhead, Alaska State Troopers said in an online report. She flagged him down for assistance, according to the Alaska Air National Guard.

Kiefer was taken to the hospital for evaluation of her injuries.

Troopers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were notified just before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday that a solo hiker on the trail needed help. She had contacted her husband for assistance, saying that multiple bears charged her and she deployed bear spray, troopers said.

“She was chased off the trail by bears and couldn’t find it again,” Master Sgt. Evan Budd, superintendent of the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center and a full-time member of the Alaska Air National Guard, said in a statement Wednesday night. “She had waterproof matches and was able to start a fire last night.”

Kiefer stopped responding to calls and texts shortly after reaching out to her husband, kicking off an aerial and ground search involving troopers, the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, the Alaska Air National Guard, MAT+SAR, Anchorage Nordic Ski Patrol and Solstice Search and Rescue Dogs.

On Tuesday, the first full day of the search, volunteers continued ground searches until about 10:30 p.m. and the Guard searched the area by air throughout the night, according to troopers.

Kiefer could see the helicopters but searchers couldn’t see her, said Budd, describing dense vegetation in the area.

“It’s easy to see and hear an aircraft in the sky, but can be very challenging to spot a person at night under canopy,” Budd said.


From left, Bill Laxson with Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Tom Plawman of the Alaska Incident Management Team, and Alaska State Trooper Lt. Brent Johnson talk at the search base in parking lot of Pioneer Ridge Trail on Wednesday as the search continued for a missing hiker who reportedly encountered bears early Tuesday. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

The search continued by ground and air Wednesday with teams combing the area — on and off trail — for any sign of Kiefer. At least 18 people divided into multiple teams had been searching for her, said Bill Laxson, a senior member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and part of the Alaska Incident Management Team for search and rescue.

“There are folks that are searchers starting up at the ridgeline and working their way down and they also have searchers on the ground at the bottom working their way up,” troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel said earlier Wednesday. “So they’re kind of hitting it from both ends.”

Heavy rain Wednesday afternoon placed an added burden on search and rescue teams, and the poor weather ultimately put an end to the day’s search with no evidence of the missing hiker.

About an hour after the halt to Wednesday’s search effort was announced, an injured Kiefer was spotted emerging from the woods, according to troopers.

Budd, with the Guard, recommended that hikers carry bear spray, matches, a satellite communication device, bright clothing and a personal locator beacon.

“Being prepared for the unexpected is critical in the Alaskan outdoors,” he said. “What you plan as a day hike can quickly turn into a multi-day ordeal.”


Search base in the Pioneer Ridge Trail parking lot on Wednesday. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

After tumultuous year, can Portland make a comeback?

Wed, 2021-06-16 21:07

Carlos, a homeless man stands in front of his tent in Portland, Ore., on Friday, June 4, 2021. City officials insist Portland is resilient as they launch a revitalization plan — in the form of citywide cleanups of protest damage, aggressive encampment removals, increased homeless services and police reform — to repair its reputation. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein) (Paula Bronstein/)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The smell of fresh empanadas wafted through the stands at Portland’s Saturday Market. People talked through their masks with artists as others sifted through fork windchimes, crystal necklaces, tie dye dresses and clay mugs.

The weekly event was smaller than in years past, but longtime attendees say it was a sign of life being breathed back into downtown.

Nine blocks away, past businesses still shuttered with plywood boards — the names of Black people killed by police painted onto them — a panhandler leaned against a fence outside the federal courthouse in an area that was choked with tear gas last summer as thousands of protesters seized the streets. It’s now overwhelmed by a makeshift homeless camp.

The scenes are from a city trying to emerge from one of its most wrenching periods, one that saw its reputation go from quirky “Portlandia” to violent dystopia in the minds of many on the outside looking in.

The Pacific Northwest city had best been known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and nature-loving hipsters.

But last year, as a portion of its downtown was consumed by nightly protests that often turned violent and resulted in clashes with federal agents, former President Donald Trump and his administration labeled Portland an “anarchist jurisdiction.”

“It does feel kind of like someone dropped a bomb in some areas (of Portland), but I think they’re very contained areas,” said Ocean Howell, a professor at the University of Portland who teaches urban history and planning. “I think there’s likely some businesses that are gone and aren’t coming back. And there are just some people, generally, who are kind of spooked from everything.”

City officials insist Portland is resilient as they launch a revitalization plan — in the form of citywide cleanups of protest damage, aggressive encampment removals, increased homeless services and police reform — to repair its reputation.


A woman enjoys a scooter with friends while traveling in downtown Portland, Ore., June 3, 2021. Until a year ago, the city was best known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and “Portlandia” hipsters. Now, months-long protests following the killing of George Floyd, a surge in deadly gun violence, and an increasingly visible homeless population have many questioning whether Oregon’s largest city can recover. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein) (Paula Bronstein/)

But even the city’s famously liberal locals grew weary of months of racial justice protests, increased shootings, a more noticeable homeless population and strict COVID-19 restrictions.

When the pandemic reached Portland in March 2020, businesses boarded up, turned off neon “open” signs and sent employees home.

“A year ago, when we were at the end of the longest economic expansion in post World War history in this country. We had 100,000-plus individuals coming in and out of downtown daily,” said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance. “And then, overnight, they disappeared.”

Portland’s signature events, such as its Rose Festival, brew fests and drag shows, were canceled, postponed or held virtually. Tourists shied away. No other part of the city was so obviously altered as downtown, which saw an 80% decrease in foot traffic, based on a study conducted by the Portland Business Alliance.

A year later there are still “pockets” in the city that seem frozen in a scene from six months ago. However, officials say there is hope and already noticeable signs of recovery.


FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2020, file photos, a man is attended to after being fatally shot during a protest in Portland, Ore. Until a year ago, the city was best known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and “Portlandia” hipsters. Now, months-long protests following the killing of George Floyd, a surge in deadly gun violence, and an increasingly visible homeless population have many questioning whether Oregon’s largest city can recover. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein) (Paula Bronstein/)

Gov. Kate Brown has begun to lift some of the country’s strictest COVID-19 restrictions, and restaurants and bars have expanded capacity. The state has set a goal to completely reopen the economy by the end of June or early July.

“We’re in a virtuous cycle now, where one element feeds the other,” Hoan said, noting customers are again lining up outside the famous Powell’s Books and fans are returning to Timbers’ soccer games.

“Office workers start to breathe life into the retail scene and hospitality scene, and that sends a signal to other retailers and hospitality owners,” he said.

While all cities have dealt with the impact of COVID, Portland faced additional challenges over the past year — from a large homeless population, to nearby “once-in-generation” wildfires, to winter ice storms that left tens of thousands without power. But the events that challenged the city’s reputation the most was political violence on top of racial awakening.

The Rose City was thrust into the national spotlight over the summer as people attended nightly racial justice protests. Photos of thousands of people laying on the historic Burnside Bridge for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of George Floyd captivated the nation.

But as time passed, scenes of chaos emerged: violent clashes between protesters and federal agents sent by Trump. In late August, a Trump supporter was shot and killed downtown when a large caravan of Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed in the streets.

Even with most protests taking place within a few blocks, news of the mayhem stretched across the country.

Hoan said participants who were violent or damaged businesses negatively affected the city’s reputation.

“And we’re dealing with the consequences now,” he said.

Protests continue in the city and sometimes turn violent, but that activity is concentrated in small areas.

“I get the impression that some people from outside the area, from some of the news coverage, get the impression that the whole city is just a warzone between antifa and Proud Boys, and that’s really not the case,” Howell said.

Based on a survey conducted by the city last month, 68% of people said their top reason for not visiting was due to riots and protests.

In recent months, Portland officials have committed millions of dollars to cleaning up downtown — removing graffiti, clearing large homeless encampments and restoring damaged buildings.

In addition, the mayor’s office has launched a reputation and rebranding effort.

“We’re doggedly determined to recover,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in his State of the City address this year. “Our community has what it takes to move forward to a much greater future.”

Royal Caribbean delays Odyssey of the Seas sailing after crew members test COVID-19 positive

Wed, 2021-06-16 20:55

FILE - In this March 14, 2020 file photo, Royal Caribbean International cruise ship docked at PortMiami, among other cruise ships, as the world deals with the coronavirus outbreak in Miami. Royal Caribbean is postponing the initial voyages by one of its cruise ships after eight crew members tested positive for COVID-19. The company said Wednesday, June 16, 2021, that the Odyssey of the Seas' first trip is being pushed back from July 3 to July 31. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File) (Brynn Anderson/)

MIAMI — Royal Caribbean International has postponed the inaugural sailing of its Odyssey of the Seas cruise ship “out of an abundance of caution” after eight crew members tested positive for COVID-19, the company’s CEO said.

Odyssey of the Seas, one of the world’s biggest cruise ships, was scheduled to cruise from Fort Lauderdale on July 3 and make stops in the Caribbean after conducting a test cruise with volunteers in late June. Its first cruise is now postponed until July 31.

Its test cruise, required for ships that don’t have 95% of passengers vaccinated — a threshold set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — before revenue cruises can begin, will also be rescheduled.

Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley announced the changes late Tuesday in a statement posted on Facebook.

“During routine testing, eight crew members received a positive test result for COVID-19. All 1,400 crew onboard Odyssey of the Seas were vaccinated on June 4th and will be considered fully vaccinated on June 18. The positive cases were identified after the vaccination was given and before they were fully effective,” Bayley said.

Of the eight crew members who tested positive, six are asymptomatic, he said. Two have mild symptoms. They are all quarantined and are being monitored by the cruise line’s medical team.

“To protect the remaining crew and prevent any further cases, we will have all crew quarantined for 14 days and continue with our routine testing. ... While disappointing, this is the right decision for the health and well-being of our crew and guests,” Bayley said.

Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International’s sister company under Royal Caribbean Group, is moving forward with the June 26 cruise of its Celebrity Edge ship, the first from a U.S. port since March 2020.

Bayley’s transparency about the crew members’ test results presents a sharp contrast to the way Royal Caribbean International and other cruise companies handled the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, the company often declined to comment on virus outbreaks among shipboard crew.

The newfound transparency is a welcome change, said Rockford Weitz, director of the Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

“How they’re handling it this time shows that the industry has learned from the mistakes of last year and knows that the population has much greater familiarity with COVID than it did a year ago,” he said.

The positive cases are expected given the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic is still wreaking on much of the world. The climbing vaccination rate in the U.S. has brought a dramatic decline in cases and deaths, but the virus is still spreading freely in many countries where doses remain scarce.

Earlier this month, two passengers aboard the Celebrity Millennium ship, the first cruise from Caribbean port in seven months, tested positive for COVID-19. Like almost all passengers aboard, the cabin mates were vaccinated and reportedly asymptomatic. Celebrity Cruises, owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Group, required all crew and passengers 16 years old or older to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Ships sailing from Florida waters may have fewer vaccinated passengers due to a recently passed Florida law that bans vaccination requirements aboard cruise ships leaving from Florida ports. While most cruise lines are following CDC recommendations and requiring vaccinations for all adult passengers on cruises from other states, in Florida they have implemented additional health protocols at the expense of unvaccinated passengers.

Royal Caribbean International’s decision to delay the first Odyssey of the Seas cruise will bolster consumer confidence, said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, who was a passenger on the Celebrity Millennium.

“People are encouraged that businesses are looking out for them, and that applies to the cruise lines,” she said. “They know they’ve been working on the protocols for a long time, they are putting their faith on the fact that when something happens, they are able to keep everyone safe.”

After passing incomplete budget, Alaska lawmakers approve their own expense payments

Wed, 2021-06-16 19:47

JUNEAU — Each Alaska lawmaker may now apply for as much as $8,790 in expense payments for the special legislative session that ends Friday.

In a 9-1 vote Wednesday afternoon, a joint House-Senate committee agreed to allow retroactive payments following the passage of the state budget by both House and Senate.

Legislators can request $293 per day for each of the 30 days of the special session. Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, voted against the retroactive payments and unsuccessfully tried to limit them so they apply only to days that a particular lawmaker was in Juneau.

“We have a good honor system. It has worked well in the past,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who said that lawmakers usually only ask for per diem expense payments on days they actually work in the Capitol.

Alaska lawmakers are paid $50,400 per year, but lawmakers who live outside the capital city also receive daily payments to compensate for the cost of housing and food while they are in Juneau.

[Alaska Senate narrowly passes budget but fails to fully fund Permanent Fund dividend and other items]

In 2018, lawmakers passed an ethics bill ending those expense payments after the 121st day of the legislative session unless lawmakers had passed a state budget.

The next year, lawmakers worked after that deadline and into a special session on the budget. On June 12, after the budget passed the House and Senate, the joint House-Senate Legislative Council voted to retroactively pay per diem to lawmakers under the belief that since the budget had passed, they were again eligible for per diem.

The 2020 budget was finished early, but this year’s budget is even later than it was in 2019, leading to Wednesday’s vote.

Jessica Geary, director of the agency that oversees the payments, said lawmakers were unable to apply for the payments before Wednesday, and she has not seen any requests.

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