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Feds overreach in Unalaska

Posted: July 23, 2011 - 11:21pm

The federal government’s omnipresence in Alaska is a double-edged sword. While the benefits of federal dollars, when available, have been tremendous over the years since Alaska achieved statehood, the federal government also manifests itself in onerous and thoroughly unpleasant ways. As the president and Congress debate raising the legal limit to incur debt and generate revenues, the issue of how much money has been spent in the far-flung reaches of the land becomes even clearer.

Some say that Alaska has received too much federal money over time, an unfair assertion. Alaska provides more uniquely valuable things, some tangible and some intangible, to the rest of the country than almost any other state. It is only fair that we at times received what might otherwise appear to be more than our share of collective national wealth.

Regardless of how one feels about the propriety of past federal appropriations on the Last Frontier, there is near unanimity that the future is going to be different. With the very real need to reduce federal spending, close deficits, and ultimately retire an unsustainable national debt, we must accept that in the future we’ll get less federal money here than in the past. Less doesn’t mean none, but it does mean we’ll have to find ways to take care of our own needs more and more with the passage of time.

But just because federal dollars are becoming scarcer doesn’t mean that federal laws, regulations, and the agencies that enforce them will start going away in the same proportion as the money. While the state of Alaska has made great strides in enforcing many laws on behalf of the federal government, there are some glaring omissions to this success story.

Half a decade ago I served as legislative liaison for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The greatest priority with which I was tasked was passage of a bill through the Alaska Legislature allowing for the transfer of legal authority to issue National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to DEC. While the bill handily passed, it took several more years for Alaska to assume what is known as “primacy” over NPDES, which only a handful of states have left to the federal government.

NPDES permits are needed for activities involving the release of potentially harmful substances into water in a manner that poses environmental and health risks. Local governments operating wastewater secondary-treatment facilities require NPDES permits to operate, from here in Juneau to the North Slope and all the way out the Aleutian chain to Unalaska. Smaller rural communities are currently exempted from mandatory secondary-treatment systems and operate much less expensive and, to be fair, effective, primary-treatment and disposal systems.

When DEC was given primacy over NPDES, the EPA held on to one pending permit, that of the City of Unalaska wastewater treatment facility. Before this happened, DEC had made some sort of a mistake in drafting the documents setting the amount of organic material that must be purged in Unalaska’s wastewater-treatment process: it was more than twice as high as it needed to be, which mistake that has never been corrected by federal regulators despite repeated requests from DEC. The interplay between operations at the wastewater treatment facility and the Unalaska landfill also contributes mightily to the problem, as it is also subjected to EPA scrutiny. The treatment facility is out of compliance with an unobtainable standard, water that flows through the landfill and becomes laden with heavy metals must be treated as wastewater, and these heavy metals prevent the wastewater-treatment technology from working.

Unalaska had tried tirelessly to work with the EPA to bring itself into compliance, and is looking at a cost of up to a quarter of a million dollars to build a plant that would do the job as well as the EPA insists that it be done. Unalaska is also looking at expensive landfill upgrades and improvements. Apart from these significant hurdles, the EPA has arbitrarily sued Unalaska for what could be $150 million for technical non-compliance with unreasonable standards that ought never to have been set where they are. The EPA has recently refused to negotiate with Unalaska and things are looking bleak for this small Alaskan community whose realistic options for solving the problem are slim to non-existent.

The situation in Unalaska is an intolerable direct example of arrogant federal overreach wreaking havoc on Alaskans. There have been calls for years to create a new region for the EPA that would govern only Alaska and not an amalgamation of states in the Pacific Northwest in addition to the Great Land. Given the current budgetary trends in our nation’s capital this is unlikely to happen.

The reasons why the EPA retained permitting authority over Unalaska’s sewage facility remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, as does its possible basis for bringing a heavy-handed enforcement lawsuit that is guaranteed not to solve the real, underlying factual problem with ensuring that wastewater is clean before it is discharged into the ocean. We can only hope that the state of Alaska and our congressional delegation can come to the aid of Unalaska and prevent the federal government from doing untold harm under the guise of trying to protect Alaskans and Americans from environmental harm.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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