KTNA Studio – Dave Totten, artist

Photo by Deb Wessler

Photo by Dora Miller

KTNA Studio

KTNA On Air Studio, Jan 2013

Photo by Deb Wessler

Photo by James Trump

Winter Black-capped Chickadee

winter chickadee

Photo by Robin Song

Fish Lake morning

Fish Lake morning

photo: Robin Song


Borough one step closer to selling MV Susitna

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The U.S. State Department has given the Mat-Su Borough the green light to proceed with the sale of the ill-fated MV Susitna. The sale was initially announced in September, but was subject to federal approval.

The borough plans to sell the former naval prototype to the Philippine Red Cross for $1.75 million. Because the buyer is located outside of the United States, federal clearance is required. According to Borough Attorney Nicholas Spiropoulos, the State Department informed the borough that the sale is not subject to Department of Defense controls, but export provisions from the Department of Commerce will apply. That means that the final agreement between the borough and the Philippine Red Cross will contain resale restrictions.


After Tuesday vote, Halter holds lead in Mat-Su mayoral race

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

After hours of counting and waiting for results after Talkeetna’s AccuVote machine failed, the preliminary results of the Mat-Su Borough election came in just after 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday.


The most-watched race is for Mat-Su Borough Mayor. Incumbent Larry DeVilbiss trailed challenger Vern Halter by 179 votes out of nearly 9,000 total votes cast as of Tuesday night. Halter’s lead was padded by over 100 votes after Talkeetna’s ballots were counted.


Three borough assembly seats are up for grabs as well, including District 7, which represents the Upper Valley. Doyle Holmes currently holds a lead of fifty-two votes, despite Talkeetna’s delayed ballots giving opponent Randall Kowalke a significant boost.


Debby Retherford and Sarah Welton both ran unopposed for Mat-Su School Board seats A and B, respectively, and late write-in campaigns fell well short of defeating them. Seat E was contested, with Kelsey Trimmer holding more than a 300 vote lead on opponent Wade Long after Tuesday’s votes were counted.


Proposition B-1, which would change school board seats to geographic regions as opposed to at-large positions is very likely to pass, with the ‘yes’ votes holding more than a two-to-one advantage as of Tuesday night.


Proposition B-2 would change the Mat-Su Borough’s general election date from October to November. After Tuesday, the ‘no’ votes held a lead of over 750 votes.


The final ballot question was posed only to residents of Downtown and East Talkeetna, and asked whether East Talkeetna and the river subdivision should be added to the existing Talkeetna Flood Service area. Both areas voted separately, and both votes have to pass for the annexation to take place. Tuesday’s results make it very likely that the question will pass.


Over 2,000 absentee and questioned ballots remain to be counted, and the official results will be announced after they are certified by the Mat-Su Borough Assembly on October 20th.

Efforts at Talkeetna sewer lagoon improve at least one problem area, says borough

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Talkeetna sewer lagoon has had its share of difficulty this year. In July and August, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the treated water was too low, and the amount of fecal coliform bacteria was too high. Now, efforts are underway to try to get the system back into balance.

Terry Dolan, Director of Public Works for the Mat-Su Borough, says that fecal coliform measurements for September are not complete, yet, but that dissolved oxygen is back within compliance. Oxygen is part of the natural process that the lagoon uses to breakdown unwanted bacteria in the treated water. Last month, borough staff began using pumps to introduce more air into the mix in the hopes that the system would come back into compliance. (more…)

Dispute between locals, borough leaves power vacuum at Talkeetna Fire Department

Friday, September 4, 2015

Earlier this year, the Upper Valley lost its Alaska State Trooper post. Now, a rift between local fire responders and the Mat-Su Borough has disrupted the Talkeetna Fire Department. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:



A disagreement between local and borough fire officials has left the Talkeetna Fire Department without either of its senior officers, and with residents wondering what the response capability of the department is.


The dispute centers on when responders are subject to the chain of command. After a trailer rolled over on the Parks Highway with no injuries, Talkeetna Fire Captain Eric Chappel went to the scene. In his mind, Chappel was not acting as a borough responder but a private citizen. He says he offered to use his own vehicle and equipment to right the trailer, but was denied by Deputy Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley, who was also at the scene. Barkley believes that Chappel was acting as a borough responder, since he said over the radio that he was on his way to the scene. Ultimately, another motorist used his truck to set the trailer upright with Chappel’s assistance. Afterwards, Barkley told Chappel that he could not respond to future calls until they had a meeting to discuss the issue.


That meeting never happened, and Chappel went public, posting his version of events on Facebook. That led to the dispute being the main focus of Thurday’s meeting of the Susitna Community Council. (more…)

Borough takes additional measures as Talkeetna sewer lagoon remains out of compliance

Thursday, September 3, 2015
Pumps installed at the Talkeetna sewer lagoon to introduce more oxygen into the system.  Photo:  Terry Dolan - Mat-Su Borough

Pumps installed at the Talkeetna sewer lagoon to introduce more oxygen into the system. Photo: Mark Cowley – Mat-Su Borough

Citing test results for August that continue to be out of compliance, officials in charge of the Talkeetna sewer system are taking additional steps they hope will improve treatment. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:


Last month, KTNA reported that the water flowing out of Talkeetna’s sewage treatment lagoon was outside of compliance for its permit for the amount of fecal coliform present. In August, fecal coliform remains out of compliance, at about five times the allowed level. While high, that number is down from July’s results, which were nearly seven times the permitted limit.


Terry Dolan is the Director of Public Works for the Mat-Su Borough, which oversees the system. He says that, while there has been measurable progress, it hasn’t been enough.


“So what that means is the repairs and the additional work that we’ve done previously this summer are insufficient, at least insufficient to help the lagoons recover fast enough to satisfy me.”


Now, what the borough has begun doing to try to improve the situation is aeration. Dolan says that pumps have been installed in the lagoons that circulate wastewater, and then spray it through the air back into the lagoon. He says that introducing more air into the mix can help break down unwanted bacteria.


“Spraying through the air and the splashing action of the water as it mixes back into the lagoon helps mix additional oxygen into the water. That oxygen helps encourage the growth of bacteria that’s aerobic, and it displaces the bad bacteria that we’re trying to get out of the water in the treatment system.”


What Terry Dolan and his staff do not know yet is whether the aeration will be made permanent. He says the system is designed so that it shouldn’t need artificial means to introduce oxygen, and that it’s possible that the system could stabilize again. They will be waiting on this month’s test results to see what needs to happen next.


“If the September numbers and we’re not satisfied with the progress we’re making, we’re going to more than likely add additional aeration at that point.”


Dolan says it’s clear that, in its current state, the sewer treatment system cannot handle the volume that it receives in the busy summer months. If the system cannot be re-stabilized, then a more permanent solution will be necessary. Funding then becomes the major obstacle if that is the case.


“We haven’t made a decision on that, a long term decision, at this point. Of course, the big challenge with these lagoons is funding. The revenue stream from sewer and water subscribers isn’t really sufficient to do any capital improvements on this.”


The borough has applied for state funds to address the Talkeetna lagoon, but Terry Dolan says the state’s budget woes prevented that. He says there are other options, such as the Alaska Clean Water Fund, and that those options are being explored in case permanent fixes are necessary. Until then, borough staff is hoping that the current measures will make it so that the system can function on its own again.



Talkeetna sewer system exceeds permit limits in July, but borough says progress is being made

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When the Mat-Su Borough submits July’s fecal coliform measurements for the Talkeetna sewer lagoon, they will be out of compliance with their permit, but the head of the Borough’s Public Works Division says that progress is being made toward bringing that number down.

Back in May, the Mat-Su Borough was issued a notice of violation from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for missing records for the Talkeetna sewer lagoon. According to both the borough and ADEC, the records were being kept, but were not on the correct form, meaning that some data was not making it into the state’s database. As a result, it appeared as if the records were missing. Now, both the borough and state say that the correct forms have been submitted, and the paperwork violations have been resolved.

Where there are still struggles for Talkeetna’s sewer lagoon is in the treatment of the sewage itself. According to Terry Dolan, Public Works Director for the Mat-Su Borough, the lagoon’s fecal coliform numbers came back at more than seven times the allowed amount when tested last month. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, while fecal coliform is not particularly hazardous on its own, high levels could indicate contamination by other pathogens associated with human waste.

Terry Dolan says that, while the amount of fecal coliform is higher than permit requirements, there has been progress. July’s numbers are close to measurements taken in September of last year.

Terry Dolan says the problems the sewer lagoon is experiencing are the result of a number of issues over time. He says the borough has taken steps this summer to help get the lagoon back into compliance. Those steps include skimming duckweed and grease off of the lagoon’s surface and replanting the wetlands that act as part of the treatment process. Dolan says that duckweed and oils can prevent oxygen transfer, part of the natural process that the lagoon uses to break down fecal coliform and other bacteria. Vegetation can also prevent penetration by ultraviolet light, which is also part of the treatment process.

The Talkeetna sewer lagoon is on a self-reporting system. Samples are taken and tested where the water flows into a slough leading to the Talkeetna River. The results are then sent to ADEC, who control’s the lagoon’s permit. Now that the sampling data is complete and in the correct format, the state is assessing the information, according to ADEC Enforcement Officer Kara Kusche, who wrote the notice of violation to the borough in May. Kusche says that ADEC has a system of escalating enforcement that begins with letters, and then moves to notices of violation. In cases where problems persist, she says further escalation could mean fines or monitored action plans. As of right now, the Talkeetna sewer lagoon has not moved into the more escalated forms of enforcement.

Terry Dolan says the borough is prepared to take more drastic measures to bring the fecal coliform measurements into compliance, potentially including temporary artificial aeration using borrowed equipment from the City of Palmer. He says the ultimate goal is to get the lagoon back to compliance levels in the hope that the system will be able to sustain itself once again once the high levels of bacteria are diminished. Whether or not that step is taken will depend on the measurements taken this month.

Mat-Su Borough election field begins to take shape

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

This October, voters in the Mat-Su Borough will choose their mayor, three school board members, and three assembly members, including the seat that represents the Upper Valley. Thus far, four candidates have registered with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to run for borough office, which allows their campaigns to both receive and spend funds.

Two candidates have registered with the state as candidates for Mayor of the Mat-Su Borough. Larry DeVilbiss, the current mayor, has registered to seek re-election.   Vern Halter, who currently sits on the Mat-Su Borough Assembly representing District 7, has also registered with APOC to run for mayor. Halter is not eligible to run to retain his assembly seat due to term limits.

Willow resident Randall Kowalke has registered to run for the Borough Assembly seat that Halter is vacating. Wasilla resident Robert Doyle has also registered to run for the assembly, although for a different seat.

Three individuals have filed letters of intent with the state, which allows them to receive campaign donations, but not to spend them, and the state does not officially consider them candidates, yet.

Sarah Welton of Wasilla has filed a letter of intent to seek re-election to the Mat-Su School Board. The other two letters of intent, one filed by Erick Giorgiana of Palmer and one with the candidate name “Exploratory,” but filed by Roger Purcell of Houston, do not specify the office they might eventually run for.

While all candidates may currently, the borough’s candidate registration will take place from July 20th through the 31st.  The Mat-Su Borough election will be held on October 6th.

Borough Updates Talkeetna Council on FEMA Funding

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On Monday night, the Talkeetna Community Council board of directors heard that funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is likely to be approved soon for repairs to the Yoder Road bridge at Montana Creek and the Talkeetna dike after they were damaged by flooding in September of 2012.

Casey Cook, Emergency Manager for the borough, says that, while FEMA has not officially signed the project worksheets for the two repair projects, that prospects are good.

“Once they get back to their offices and can sign the paperwork and project worksheet, that’ll come back to the state.  The state will say ‘OK’; that’ll come to us, and then we’ll be able to start doing work on that.”

Estimates of the repair costs are over two-million dollars for the training dike downstream from the Talkeetna River railroad bridge and one-point-seven million dollars for Yoder Road.  Casey Cook says those estimates only include returning the structures to their pre-flood state.

“We’ve had an engineer study come in and say how much to repair it, so that’s just the repair.   If FEMA comes in and adds mitigation on to that, it could be in the tens of [millions of dollars] to do that.”

Flood mitigation is a separate funding process.  The Mat-Su Borough will only conduct mitigation work in areas designated as a flood control service area.  Downtown Talkeetna west of the railroad tracks is currently covered by a service area, but East Talkeetna and the River Subdivision are not.  Last fall, the Talkeetna Community Council conducted an advisory vote on pursuing the addition of those areas to the flood control service area.  The vote passed with a margin of forty-eight for and ten against.  Casey Cook says a measure for the Mat-Su Borough Assembly to put the issue on October’s ballot is in the works, when Talkeetna residents will vote again.

“That opens up the door for mitigation, and flood and erosion protection, measures taken via the borough on that side of the railroad tracks, so we’re still moving forward in that regard to be able to protect East Talkeetna, the railroad tracks, and the big, open bowl that is West Talkeetna.”

While it’s not clear exactly when work can begin on the repairs to the Talkeetna dike and Yoder Road bridge, it could be as early as this fall.

Rain Damages MV Susitna’s Engines

Monday, May 18, 2015

KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer provided portions of the audio and script for this piece.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s would-be ferry, MV Susitna, has suffered expensive damage, and now the Borough estimates repairs could cost as much as one million dollars.  The Borough has been trying to sell the vessel for years, and is negotiating with the Federal Transit Administration on the repayment of a twelve million dollar grant.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:

According to the Mat-Su Borough’s Port Director, Marc Van Dongen, rainwater has damaged three of the ferry Susitna’s four engines where it is currently being stored in Ketchikan.   The damage was discovered in February, and seems to have occurred during particularly heavy rains in late January.

“It was over 51/2 inches in one day. And apparently some of that rain went into the exhaust, manifold of the vessel. It went through the exhaust stack down into the manifold, and water went into the cylinders and into three of the four engines.”

When the crew tried to start the Susitna for the regular exercising of the vessel in February, those three engines failed.

The ship has been docked in Ketchikan since 2011, at a cost of 30 thousand dollars a month.  Van Dongen was not specific as to why water was able to seep into the engines.  Borough Manager John Moosey says the vessel has been operating for five years without covers on its vertical smoke stacks without issue, and that it’s not clear why the problem showed up this year.  What is certain is that the insurance estimate on repairs will not be cheap.

“We are working on the estimate.  It’s going to be significant; it’s anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 is what we’re guessing.”

The borough’s policy carries a hefty deductible — 250 thousand dollars.  Marc Van Dongen says tarps now cover the smoke stacks.   He says plans to sell the vessel are proceeding, despite the new chapter in the long saga of the Susitna.

“And we’re still attempting to dispose of the vessel either by transfer or by selling it as is.  We could still claim the insurance money to do the repairs, but that won’t happen until we have a buyer.”

John Moosey says there is no rush for determining what to do next with the MV Susitna.  He says once more information is available, he will take it to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly.

“We’re still in kind of wait and see mode and just examining the situation.  Once that is concluded, I’ll report back to the assembly, because this has sucked up a lot of energy and time.  I know my assembly, as is, has a deep level of frustration.”

Meanwhile, the borough is negotiating with the Federal Transit Administration on twelve million dollars in grants the government agency wants back, because the ferry never went into service.  The assembly held a closed-door executive session on the Susitna earlier this month, and has scheduled another.  For now, Marc Van Dongen says the borough does not have plans to repair the boat.

“It appears that we’re not going to until we have a buyer.  Then, we would negotiate with that buyer on the deductible portion, based on what their offer might be for the vessel.”

Van Dongen says ship brokers in Florida and in Hawaii have contacted the Borough about the ship, as has an individual in Texas.  According to Van Dongern, another individual, a foreign national, has made an offer, but Borough Manager Moosey says there are no offers in writing at this time. The borough would need federal approval to sell the Susitna outside the country.