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Begich pushes Alaska port upgrades

Naomi KloudaHomer Tribune
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska Loren Holmes photo

Climate change conditions mean new opportunities for shipping and a need to develop ports and harbors around Alaska, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told a Homer group on Sunday.

“Oil and gas development means we will need a fleet of ships to service supplies. Our ports are undersized to handle it,” he said. Equipment like icebreakers and a greater Coast Guard presence further north are needed.

“I will work to ensure the Coast Guard and NOAA have the personnel, ships, icebreakers and infrastructure they need to accomplish their missions which are critical to our nation’s commerce and security,” he said.

Begich came for a Homer afternoon visit at the Kachemak Bay Campus to talk about his work in the Senate. In foreseeing the impacts of a changing environment, he believes Alaska’s ports are woefully unprepared.

Support industries currently located in Seattle will need to “move up” or Alaska businesses need to step up -- good news for job creation. “There are 100 ships in Seattle and we need them here,” he said.

Homer’s Port and Harbor projects are getting a closer look from Begich as he advocates on behalf of gaining more infrastructure funding. While here, he took a tour of the harbor and the Endeavour jack-up rig. He is also launching a war against genetically engineered salmon known as “Frankenfish,” a term he coined. Genetically engineered salmon would be banned under legislation introduced by Begich, who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard.

He introduced two pieces of legislation. The first would make it illegal to produce, sell or ship genetically engineered salmon in the U.S., unless NOAA finds it would have no significant impact. He is the lead sponsor of the bill, called the Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States.

His second bill would require any genetically engineered salmon product to be labeled as such, a proposal the FDA has rebuffed.

“Alaska has been supplying the world with nutritious salmon for decades,” Begich said. “We cannot afford to experiment with the world’s largest wild salmon stocks without the certainty that these fake fish won’t pose a serious environmental risk, especially to wild salmon and their habitat."

His work educating Washington D.C. colleagues involves discussions on what a changing climate means. “A lot of them don’t realize America owns an ocean (off Alaska) and that ocean is changing,” he said.

Challenges like the tsunami debris hitting Alaska’s beaches is another matter that he has had to educate Washington about – funding for clean-up was voted down.

“Marine debris is a slow devastation. If we wait five, six or seven years, it will be beyond our ability to handle it. We need to highlight that on a national level,” he said.

People have a tendency to “think today about today,” but planning Alaska’s changes economically 20 years ahead is what policy makers should be discussing. Limiting discussions to oil and gas development and tax policies, and the state’s dependence on federal jobs, leaves the state vulnerable, he said.

Begich was asked about the Environmental Protection Agency’s report on Pebble Mine. “It’s a huge challenge for them. They have a huge EPA challenge ahead of them. I have no problem with the EPA doing its job. What’s wrong with the EPA telling them ahead of time, ‘Here are the problems you have,'” he said.

Usually, a company finds out after-the-fact what the EPA objections are, after the money has already been spent. “This is one time you will see the list ahead of time.”

Begich also came out against any legislation that seeks to require additional voter identification. “Anytime you have that, it suppresses the ability to vote,” he said. He will be talking to Gov. Sean Parnell and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell about their lawsuit against the Justice Department. Alaska continues to have its elections monitored by the Justice Department because of past discrimination, such as continuing to refuse to supply translators for Alaska Native language-speakers.

Naomi Klouda is a reporter at the Homer Tribune. Used with permission.