Begich urges Seward to think big
Submitted by Senator Begich’s Office
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, along with Louie Bencardino, look over the facilities of Seward’s port. The senator was in town to discuss development of Seward Marine Industrial Center, meet with City of Seward officials and constituents.
Seward should “think big,” and create a long-term phased approach to developing its harbor expansion and improvement plans for the Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC) and keep in mind the national and global shipping picture, said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, (D) Anchorage, on a visit to Seward July 5.
After touring SMIC and the small boat harbor along with four representatives of the Coastal Villages Region Fund, and visiting AVTEC, he fielded questions at a public reception held by the city on subjects including the proposed growth for SMIC, national plans for the shore-bound Japanese tsunami debris, the future of the J-1 Visa program and Alaska seafood industry, the proposed military draw-down in Alaska, and the expectation of reduced halibut allocations for commercial and sports fishermen.
The biggest challenge ahead for Seward will be to convince the rest of Alaska, and other legislators to understand the global picture and the project’s importance to the state to help fuel economic growth in Alaska through the opening of new Arctic Ocean shipping lanes, (due to climate change-driven sea ice melt), and the need for greatly expanded growth in the maritime support and supply industries for ships that will use those new lanes. As Alaska’s northern-most ice-free, deep water port, Seward’s failure to make the needed growth happen at SMIC would negatively impact all of the other ports and harbors in Alaska, all of who must play a role in providing the needed maritime infrastructure, he said. But getting people to understand this is the challenge.
”If you’re in Seward, you see what’s happening with Coastal Villages coming here, but if you’re from somewhere else you say, they’re in Seattle, why would they come back to Alaska?” Begich said.
Unfortunately, many Americans, even Alaska residents, still doubt some of the big changes already occurring here, he said. “People still ask me, is Shell (Oil) really going to go up and explore in the Arctic this year? We get this on a regular basis!” Shell’s fleet of vessels are there right now, and Conoco, Standard Oil, and other oil companies are waiting to drill there in the coming years, Begich said. “It’s going to be huge for the oil companies. But I think we’re still in a stage in Alaska where we doubt these things.”
On another issue, the federal government, states and communities with coastal shoreline in Alaska, and along the entire West Coast are woefully ill prepared for the massive amounts of tsunami debris from Japan that is already arriving on, or heading for our beaches, Begich said. The problem is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is set up to respond to emergencies that have already occurred, rather than ones that they can see coming. “There’s 3 billion pounds of debris, mostly plastic, which will flood into our inter-tidal ecosystems, and the leading edge of this tide is already here,” Begich said. This summer so far fishing floats and Styrofoam insulation have washed up in Alaska including on Middleton, Kayak and Montague islands. A derelict Japanese squid boat appeared off the coast of Southeast Alaska and was sunk by the Coast Guard as a hazard to navigation. A Harley Davidson motorcycle washed up in British Columbia. Currently, NOAA agency officials have agreed to monitor the debris, but believe it will be too expensive to clean up at the federal level he said. They argue the debris is a local and state concern, and expect them to deal with the debris on their own, he said.
The senator chaired a subcommittee hearing with NOAA and the Coast Guard on the issue a month ago, and will soon release a report on its findings that he hopes will convince lawmakers to support his call for the federal government to set aside $45 million over two years for its clean-up, not just for monitoring efforts, he said.
Seward Mayor David Seaward asked about the military base draw-down in Alaska, and whether the Seward Air Force Military Recreation Center (which draws thousands of active duty military and veterans to Seward every year) really would be closing down after the summer, and why the government felt it would help save the military money.
The Pentagon decided to try to save money through cuts to and closures of military bases and facilities across the U.S ., but did not do their homework, said Begich, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. When questioned further, they were unable to justify many of those cuts in economic terms. Any potential change in the force structure at Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, or bases across the country, were put on hold for at least a year, pending enactment into law of a bill he has sponsored to prevent it, he said. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act in the Department of Defense (DOD) budget now includes a one-year moratorium on implementing any action that would reduce the number of civilian personnel at a base to less than 300 — like the relocation of the F16s from Eielson — to achieve savings by drawing down the civilian work force. Installations with less than 300 civilians can be closed without congressional notification or a BRAC Commission. The bill also requires the General Accounting Office to develop objective criteria to be used by DOD for making decisions related to realignments of units to ensure decisions are not biased and are appropriately analyzed. If plans were really about moving U.S. military forces to the Pacific Rim, he said, “That’s here. That’s Alaska, as well as Hawaii and parts of California. None of this makes sense.”
The J-1 Visa program, which supplies additional temporary workforces to Alaska’s seafood processing sector during the fishing seasons, was allowed to continue through November of this year, and was not included in the program’s reform package due to Begichs’ efforts and those of the rest of the Alaska delegation. The fishing-industry work was never the problem that required reforming, he said, it was places like Hershey Food Corporation in Pennsylvania, that exploited the foreign workforce. He has been working behind the scenes with the Alaska fishing industry, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to create a new “H20 Visa” program that will apply to foreign workers for industries that involve the U.S. waterways, a temporary work visa program such as exists for agriculture and certain other sectors. He plans to introduce legislation once all of the details are worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, Begich said. The priority is assuring a strong fishing industry, while assuring that local and American workers will be hired first to fill those processing jobs, and will not be displaced, he said. But these days American college students don’t seem to want those jobs like they used to.
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich speaks to an audience at a reception July 5 at Seward City Hall.
Finally, Rhonda Hubbard, who comes from a commercial fishing family and background, stated her concerns over the proposed reductions in the commercial halibut allocation by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. She emphasized that she did not personally want to take sides in the battle over whom should have their allocations reduced, the commercial, or charter boat industry, nor for The City of Seward or Seward Chamber of Commerce to do so. But she feels that Alaska’s commercial fishermen have taken the brunt of halibut allocation reductions thus far. Begich, who chairs the Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, assured Hubbard that he won’t meddle in the decision-making process either, but would let it play itself out. The senator has however initiated meetings to discuss the issue with experts in the field, gathering opinions from both sides.