Daily Archives: December 15, 2010

Gases to gases — Meeting EPA fuel toxin reductions comes at a cost

By Jenny Neyman

Photo courtesy of Erik Massey, Tesoro Alaska. A new, 200-foot tower used to reduce the amount of benzene in gasoline stands above the Tesoro Alaska refinery in Nikiski. Tesoro invested $70 million to upgrade its Nikiski facility in order to meet new EPA regulations limiting the percentage of benzene in gasoline.

Redoubt Reporter

Any time the price at the pump takes a hike skyward, the decibel level of motorists’ grumbling tends to trend upward, as well, as consumers pay a penny or more increase for each gallon they slosh into their tanks.

Oil-refining companies like Tesoro Corp., occasionally the target of some of that grumbling, aren’t as unsympathetic to being subject to uncontrollable hikes in costs as motorists may think.

Drivers might find their gasoline or diesel bill fives or tens of dollars more costly, depending on fuel prices. About three years ago, Tesoro’s refinery in Nikiski found it $45 million more expensive to refine diesel fuel. And, due to new regulations going into effect Jan. 1, 2011, it became $70 million more expensive to produce gasoline, with more costs yet to come as the refinery finishes another phase of upgrades.

“That’s just to remain in the gasoline business,” said Kip Knudson, manager of external affairs for Tesoro Alaska.

“A lot of people in Alaska are just completely befuddled when I say this, but the refining sector has been in exceptional doldrums since 2008. Capital money is extremely tight. All you have to do is look up our stock ticker on a stock-tracking mechanism, TSO. The stock price will give you an indication of how well we’re doing. We haven’t been doing well,” Knudson said.

Regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency have necessitated expensive upgrades at the facility so it can produce fuels that meet stricter requirements limiting harmful toxins in fuel. In 2007, Tesoro Alaska estimated spending $45 million to install a Distillation Desulfurization Unit to produce ultralow-sulfur diesel to be in line with EPA regulations that started phasing into effect that year.

In February 2007, EPA regulations were passed that require a reduction in the amount of cancer-causing benzene in gasoline, with the first lower benchmark going into effect in 2011. By Jan. 1, refining companies must produce gasoline with no more than 0.62 percent benzene as a companywide average, meaning one refinery may produce gasoline that’s over the 0.62 percent cap, as long as the gasoline output of the company from all its refineries averages out to be under the new limit. In 2013 the next benchmark goes into effect, requiring all individual refineries to produce gas with no more than 1.3 percent benzene.

Benzene occurs naturally in crude oil and is increased through the refining process to boost gasoline’s octane level. Among air pollutants, benzene poses the second-biggest cancer risk to Americans, after diesel emissions, according to the EPA.

The stricter diesel sulfur dioxide and benzene in gasoline restrictions are meant to benefit health and safety through reducing exposure to cancer-causing toxins. Those benefits come at a cost to the financial health of refineries like Tesoro.

“EPA has regulated the sulfur dioxide emissions coming off automotive and other vehicles and they’ve looked at benzene content. So these benefit the health and safety of our citizens. But in terms of its economic benefit, it’s a cost just to stay in business,” said Vern Miller, manager of technical services at the Kenai Tesoro Alaska refinery. Continue reading


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Once upon a long walk home — GPS cautionary tale, by way of Michigan, Tustumena Lake

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Dr. David Wartinbee. Phil Banycky and Mike Zwack got momentarily lost in the area around Nikolai Creek on the south shore of Tustumena Lake this fall during a moose hunt. Without properly functioning navigational aides, this area of marshy, wooded backcountry can become disorienting.

Redoubt Reporter

As the night wore on, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that Phil Banycky and his hunting buddy were lost.

There was the time. They’d left their hunting camp on the southern shore of Tustumena Lake around dusk, about 8 p.m. Sept. 20, and hiked for about an hour and a half south before turning around to return to camp. They’d since been walking “back to camp” for two and a half hours.

There was the terrain. Especially in the deepening darkness, it all seemed maddeningly similar, yet not similar enough to indicate they were retracing their route back to camp.

“We’re going up and down through these hills, through these swamps, and I went, ‘We did not go through this stuff, I’m telling you right now,’” Banycky said.

There was the directional discrepancy. Banycky, who had just moved to Kasilof from Michigan with his wife and son, had brought a compass and map of the Tustumena Lake area for his first excursion into “wild country,” he said. In Michigan, he lived about 35 miles north of Detroit.

“Our ‘big woods’ is 80 acres around there,” he said.

He was tagging along on a moose-hunting trip with Mike Zwack, another Michigan resident who previously moved to Kasilof and convinced the Banycky family to come up, as well. Zwack was navigating with a GPS unit. Banycky, being new to Alaska, much less the Tustumena Lake area, wasn’t going to gainsay Zwack’s directions. But something seemed amiss.

“I believe in my compass. A friend in Michigan, he’s a military man, and he always relied on his compass,” Banycky said. “I was sitting on a hill and it was plain as day on the map. I knew what direction we came from. You could definitely see the contour of the land with the map. I lay my compass down, it’s got a little glow-in-the-dark thing, where if I kept them things lined up, I’d be going in the right direction. But he keeps dragging me that a-way, dragging me that a-way.”

The final straw was when Zwack started shaking the GPS unit and gave it a few smacks with his hand.

“He goes, ‘Man, I don’t know about this thing.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well, you picked a hell of a time to say something, after a couple hours of walking,’” Banycky said. Continue reading


Filed under hunting, outdoors, technology

Cheers to season’s spirit of giving — Local bar owner, patrons dig deep to help kids

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Pat Vinson, owner of the Albatross Restaurant and Lounge on Kalifornsky Beach Road, sorts through piles of clothes, outdoors gear and toys Monday to be donated to area children in support of school Christmas drives.

Redoubt Reporter

The dining section of the Albatross Restaurant and Lounge on Kalifornsky Beach Road sports the typical trophies of the Alaska outdoors for décor — fish mounts, a bear hide, strips of baleen and a king crab.

On Monday, however, even the gleaming silver of the salmon affixed to the wall couldn’t draw attention away from the other items decorating the space, stacked in overflowing yet orderly mounds throughout the room  — clothes, bedding, shoes, LEGO kits, art supplies, sports gear, movies, electronics, a guitar and enough toys to set up a minidepartment store. All are trophies of a different sort, demonstrating the triumph of the holiday spirit over the challenges of economic hardship.

The spirit of giving is a common thread that connects people during the holidays, and it winds especially close around the owners and patrons of this tiny tavern just outside of Kenai.

For 20 years Pat Vinson, owner of the Albatross Restaurant and Lounge — known to locals as the Alby — has been devoted to making sure that the children of families facing financial difficulties still receive holiday gifts and a hearty meal.

This year, the Alby’s sponsorship of a Christmas drive conducted by Mountain View Elementary and Kenai Middle schools will provide for about 50 children.

“Sometimes I think I get more pleasure out of it than they do,” Vinson said. Continue reading

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High lights of winter — Photographers in for long exposure to aurora

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Mark Pierson, http://www.kenaiimages.com. Kenai photographer Mark Pierson took this shot of the aurora reflecting in the Kenai River from the Kalifornsky Beach Road side of the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge, facing Kenai. This was taken with about a 45-second exposure, around 4 a.m. Cars were passing to illuminate the bridge. The glow to the left is the city of Kenai. The yellow glow to the right is from Soldotna city lights.

Redoubt Reporter

Looking for a bright spot in the dark, cold run-up to winter solstice, Dec. 21? Try looking up. The northern lights are back.

“This should be a good year for them,” said Andy Veh, professor of astronomy and physics at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.

Aurora displays are caused by sunspots — magnetic storms on the sun. Sunspots produce particles called solar wind, mostly consisting of electrons and protons, that shoot out toward Earth. When solar wind particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, it can cause light emissions as the particles slam into the atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

Sunspot activity runs on an average 11-year cycle, with some years being active, and some not so much. Sunspot activity was low in 2006 through 2008, and the winter of 2010-11 should be active again, Veh said, building to a peak in 2013. So far this fall and winter, there have been plenty of clear nights in which to see the aurora.

The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks generates a daily aurora forecast ranking activity on a scale from zero to nine. There were two times in November when activity was forecasted to reach a moderate three level — Nov. 2 and 3 and Nov. 29 —producing displays visible low on the northern horizon as far south as a curving swath from Bethel to Soldotna to Southeast Alaska. So far in December, aurora activity reached a moderate forecast on Sunday, coinciding with a crisp, clear night sky — perfect for viewing northern lights.

Some may reach for fuzzy slippers and electric blankets on nights like Sunday, when temperatures dip below zero. Others, like Mark Pierson, grab their camera equipment.

“When the sun sets a lot of people put their cameras away and really miss out on some opportunities,” said Pierson, of Kenai. “I always kind of liked that low-light photography. It can add a lot of drama and mystery to a photograph when you take it at night, rather than day.” Continue reading

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Tree brings shot of holiday spirit — Couple gets creative in sprucing up neighborhood

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. The log cabin owned by Andy and Sandra Fox pales in comparison to the size of the roadside Christmas tree they illuminate off of Cohoe Loop Road in Kasilof every year for the holiday season.

Redoubt Reporter

Once the streetlamps of Kenai and Soldotna are left behind, the drive to Kasilof in the winter can be a dark one. But those living in the Cohoe Loop area get a little extra light during the holiday season due to a 60-foot roadside Christmas tree decorated by Andy and Sandra Fox.

“It’s a beacon to people driving home,” Andy said. “We usually light it up right after Thanksgiving and we have people who honk as they go by, or sometimes stop in to say thanks for lighting it up.”

The illumination on the tree started in 2006, just after the Foxes bought a tiny log cabin at the corner of Cohoe Loop Road and Larry Avenue. They said it was partially a way to celebrate, not just the holiday season, but also a move to modern utilities.

“Sandra and I hadn’t had electricity most of our lives up here, which was since ’86 for me and ’85 for her,” Andy said. “It had been awhile, so when we finally got electricity, it was fun to use, and we decided we should share the joy and light with the world.”

Decorating a huge outdoor tree proved much more difficult than hanging lights and tinsel on a tree indoors. The Foxes have a dirt driveway and the terrain around the tree is quite uneven for standing on a ladder, not that most household ladders would reach the top anyway.

“It was a lot of trial and error to get it decorated,” Andy said, but added that folks living outside city limits are pretty used to rigging up their own solutions, rather than driving all the way to town for the exact thing they need.

“What worked best was we used a slingshot with a socket with string tied to it,” he said. “We’d launch the socket and string, then tie lights to it and pull them up and over the tree, and wrap them around, but even this took several tries. Sometimes they’d get hung up or not go.” Continue reading

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Almanac: Santa Vern — St. Nick has an image to protect

By Clark Fair

Photo by Clark Fair. Vern Gehrke played Santa locally for more than 20 years. Here, he reviews a youngster’s Christmas list during a 1983 stop at D&A Grocery in Soldotna.

Redoubt Reporter

Vern Gehrke, who portray1ed Santa Claus for decades, understood the need to protect that image, which is why he purchased a top-notch Santa suit, why he played the part for so many years, and why he simply had to say no during the incident with the dogs.

Arriving in Alaska in the late 1960s — with an off-and-on history as a seasonal Santa dating back nearly a decade in Washington state — Gehrke became the most widely requested local Saint Nick until he hung up the red cap in about 1990, when he was in his late 70s. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 83.

During the incident with the dogs, Gehrke, who also was once transported into Soldotna on a shiny red fire engine, was on this occasion being hauled into town via dog team. The team had been patched together with “borrowed dogs from who knows who,” according to Gehrke’s widow, Allouise, and they were trotting irritably along the Spur Highway toward the center of town.

“The driver was having a little bit of a problem with them,” Allouise said. “They had stopped and were having a little squabble, so he had a broom that he was carrying with him, and he handed the broom to Vern and said, ‘Go break up that dogfight.’

“And Vern handed the broom back to him and said, ‘I don’t think it would look very good for Santa to be beating on the dogs.’” Continue reading

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Science of the Seasons: Slow way to go — Lake ice takes variable time to form, sink, rise again

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Dr. David Wartinbee. Snag Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge appears frozen over Nov. 20. There’s a public-use cabin on this lake. Anyone walking, skiing, skating or driving on lake ice is advised to drill test holes to ensure the ice is stable and safe to be on.

As we shivered through this past week’s zero degree (and less) temperatures, there was really a silver lining for some of us. That is, if you are interested in ice fishing or skating on some of our local lakes.

Several weeks back I flew over a number of local lakes and some were completely covered with ice, while others were completely open. This time of year reminds me of the changes taking place within the lakes, as well as the physical properties of water that put ice where it is.

In order for a lake to form ice, the entire lake must first reach 4 degrees Celsius, or 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The way this happens is quite interesting. As water cools and gets closer to the magical 4 degrees C, it becomes more dense and sinks to the bottom of the lake. Continue reading

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