- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - As Alaska’s Mount Redoubt sends a steady stream of ash skyward, the state’s Republican senator is calling for a national volcano monitoring system to ensure early warnings of volcanic activity.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Mount Redoubt eruptions, which have forced flight cancellations at Anchorage International Airport 100 miles away, underscore the need for more and better volcano observation.

She also took a shot at fellow Republicans, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who have criticized President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill for spending $140 million on volcano monitoring.

“Recently there were some comments made about federal spending for volcano monitoring being wasteful,” Murkowski said in a Senate speech. “I can assure you that monitoring volcanoes is critically important to the nation and especially to my home state of Alaska.”

In giving the Republican response to Obama’s Feb. 24 address to Congress, Jindal said parts of the federal stimulus package were “larded with wasteful spending.” He cited $140 million “for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

As the governor of a hurricane-prone state that benefits from extensive federal spending on weather monitoring and other programs, Jindal was widely derided for his comments. Weeks later, Redoubt began to erupt.

McCain listed volcano monitoring as an example of questionable spending in a lengthy critique of the stimulus bill, which authorized money to help rebuild and repair facilities run by the U.S. Geological Survey, including “seismic and volcano monitoring systems.”

Jindal’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, said Tuesday that the governor wasn’t criticizing volcano monitoring in his speech but cited it as an example of stimulus spending that was not about creating jobs.

“Whether or not money for volcano monitoring is important, and if so how much, is a legitimate issue for Congress to debate,” she said. “But it has nothing to do with a stimulus bill. Failure to understand this is exactly what is wrong with Washington.”

The U.S. Geological Survey and its university and state partners operate five volcanic observatories, including the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The others are in Washington state, Hawaii, Yellowstone National Park and California.

Murkowski’s legislation would establish a nationwide early warning system within USGS to monitor, warn and protect people from volcanic activity. The legislation would authorize $15 million a year to fund the system.

Murkowski said the Alaska observatory has been consistently underfunded since it opened in 1988, after an eruption of Alaska’s Mount Augustine. The site monitors more than 30 active volcanoes, by far the busiest observatory in the world.

Even so, its modest annual budget is supplemented by earmarks obtained by Alaska lawmakers. Former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, secured about $5 million for the observatory in recent years, but future funding is not guaranteed.

Murkowski said her legislation would set up a dedicated funding source for all five volcano observatories and better coordinate volcano monitoring nationally. She plans to introduce it this week.

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Associated Press writer Ben Evans contributed to this report.

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