Governor floats plan for wastewater permits

Murkowski proposes state take over feds' oversight of discharges in Alaska waters

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2005

The state should issue permits to discharge industrial wastewater into Alaska waters rather than have the federal government do it because the process takes too long now, the governor said Thursday.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed that state regulators begin the process to take responsibility for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.

Under the current system, with the permits issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska applicants must sometimes wait nearly three years, Murkowski said Thursday.

Alaska is one of five states that does not have control over the NPDES permits, he said. The permits cover timber and mining projects and other industries regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. The EPA continues oversight when states issue the permits.

"Without primacy we are stuck with a cumbersome federal permitting program run out of Seattle that does not serve Alaska's conditions or needs, and over which we have little control," Murkowski said in a statement.

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed, said giving the state permitting authority would result in fewer regulators looking at proposed projects.

According to a Feb. 8 report by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and entities with wastewater discharge permits, eight federal regulators would drop out of the review process, leaving the work to the 43 state regulators. That would mean less scrutiny of projects, Shavelson said.

"We would support the state's assumption of primacy if we had faith this administration could do a decent job," Shavelson said.

He said the DEC has been holding meetings on the topic since November with industry representatives and city officials but Native tribal governments and the public were excluded.

Kurt Fredriksson, DEC's acting commissioner, said the work group meetings were intended to give the state a chance to meet with entities required to apply for the permits. He said the application for regulatory control would be subject to a public review process and that the application to assume permitting authority requires EPA approval.

"I don't think the EPA will approve an application that doesn't pass the muster of capability," Fredriksson said.

He added that Murkowski's bill would also be subjected to public review in the Legislature.

Lois Epstein, senior engineer with Cook Inlet Keeper, contends the reduction in regulators would result in the state relying more on industry for information. Epstein says the state would not have to conduct formal consultations with agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a state-controlled program.

Steven Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said state primacy would mean regulators would be in the state, giving applicants firsthand expertise on projects. EPA regulators from Seattle often are not able to visit the project sites before considering the permits, he said.

Borell said permits also would not be held up by partial appeals of projects if the state takes control. It would allow the project to move forward while state regulators review such appeals, he said. The current permitting arrangement puts the entire project on hold, he said.

It would also prevent developers from having to fly to Seattle to meet with EPA officials.

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