JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell has introduced legislation aimed at improving the permitting process in Alaska, but critics fear it will hurt the public’s ability to participate in permitting decisions.
SB26 seeks to build upon efforts in recent years to eat into a backlog of permits and authorizations and to make the process more efficient. It is one of at least three permitting-related bills introduced by the governor this year. One of the others, SB27, which would allow the state to evaluate and take steps to assume primacy from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the dredge and fill permitting program, was heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
SB26 is extensive, touching on things like land exchanges and permitting procedures. The bill would allow the Natural Resources commissioner to issue general permits if the activity is unlikely to cause “significant and irreparable harm” to state land or resources. The department, in a briefing paper, said that while there is arguably already the authority in law to do general permits, “it is not explicitly called out.” General permits would not be applicable to lands designated for game refuges, forestry, state parks and coal mining, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Some of the more controversial provisions of the bill would limit administrative appeals to people “substantially and adversely affected” by a decision, who “meaningfully participated” in the public comment process, and not those who just disagree with an action. The bill would also remove the ability of individuals or groups to apply for water reservations, to maintain or protect certain water levels for purposes such as protecting fish habitat, recreation and water quality.
Parnell, in his transmittal letter, said the measure “encourages responsible development of our State land and water resources. An efficient permitting process with clear rules contributes to Alaskan economic growth and creates more Alaskan business opportunities.”
“I think that this is a piece of legislation that has a lot to do with blocking opposition to specific projects in Alaska, and I think Chuitna and Pebble are probably what it’s all about,” said Lindsey Bloom, an organizer with Trout Unlimited. Chuitna refers to a proposed coal-mining project in south-central Alaska and Pebble, to the proposed gold and copper mine near the headwaters of one of the world’s premier salmon fisheries.
Of the 35 pending water reservation applicants from individuals or groups, most — 22 — are in the vicinity of or could impact Pebble, including 11 from Trout Unlimited, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Three applications could impact the coal project. Applications date back to 1992 though most are from the past several years, from around 2007 on.
As of Dec. 31, there were about 370 total water reservation applications pending, including from federal or state agencies or political subdivisions, according to the department.
The granting of water reservations are relatively rare, a function largely of workload, said Wyn Menefee, chief of operations for the state Division of Mining, Land and Water. Menefee said he thought about 60 water reservations had been granted since Alaska became a state in 1959, and roughly half of those were approved in recent years due to additional funding and staffing.
The state has never granted a water reservation to an individual or group, and many of the applications from them haven’t been vetted by agencies to know how they might fit with agency priorities, he said.
The bill, as proposed, would have the department return pending applications and application fees for individuals and groups no longer be allowed to reserve water. It would not refund money invested by groups in gathering data to support an application, a concern raised by critics. The commissioner could still refer those applications to other state agencies for review and consideration by those agencies of submitting similar applications.
The bill, as amended on the House side in HB77, has different transition language that would allow for the transfer of pending applications.
Ralph Andersen, president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Association, in a letter dated Monday, said the Alaska Native corporation had worked to secure more than $500,000 to support water reservation applications for member tribes and non-governmental groups. He labeled as “extremely troublesome” the section that would eliminate the ability of organizations to apply for reservations.
Supporters of the bill include the Resource Development Council and Council of Alaska Producers. Michael Satre, executive director of the Council of Alaska Producers, in a support letter that while the resource development industry is certain to be affected by the measure, “it is important to keep in mind that these provisions benefit everyone in Alaska, including cabin owners, aquatic farmers, home developers and any individual who seeks to do business on state land or water.”