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Jindal may not like volcano monitoring, but this Republican does

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Monday she'll introduce legislation this week to establish regular funding for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, just one month after fellow Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized the stimulus bill pushed by President Barack Obama for containing spending for volcano monitoring.

The mutliple eruptions of Alaksa's Mount Redoubt, which on Monday force the cacnellation for several hours of all air service in and out of Anchorage, underscores the need for a reliable and steady budget for volcano observation at the five volcanic observatories run by the U.S. Geological Survey, Murkowski said. She is proposing a $15 million annual budget for the USGS to run a national early warning and monitoring system.

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

In the nationally televised Republican response to Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress in February, Jindal criticized the money in the stimulus legislation for volcano monitoring.

As the governor of a hurricane-prone state that benefits from extensive federal weather monitoring each storm season, Jindal was widely derided for his comments on the observatory -- even as Redoubt simmered and the observatory warned it was close to exploding.

The $787 billion economic stimulus bill includes $140 million for "repair, construction and restoration" of USGS facilities, including "seismic and volcano monitoring systems" and "other critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects" under the agency's purview.

Since the Alaska Volcano Observatory's founding in 1988 after the eruption of Mount Augustine, Murkowski said, funding for the monitoring system has always been uncertain. It had a modest baseline budget within the USGS budget, but was supplemented by earmarks obtained by former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

In recent years, Stevens earmarked an estimated $2 million to $3 million to the USGS and another $2.5 million to the Federal Aviation Administration; the two agencies were directed to spend the earmarked money directly on the volcano observatory.

But since the money came in the form of an earmark, the observatory didn't have guaranteed funding, even though it monitors 30 active volcanoes within the state.

Murkowski said her legislation will stabilize the funding for the observatory by increasing the overall amount the federal government spends on the USGS volcano observation network to $15 million. It will ensure sure the Alaska Volcano Observatory isn't dependent on earmarks, especially at a time that the practice is losing favor in Washington.

The Interior Department, which oversees the USGS, is "just starting to evaluate" Murkowski's proposal, said Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But Barkoff added that, in general, Salazar "thinks that volcano monitoring is extremely important, especially given Redoubt."