My Turn: Alaska not ready to run wastewater permitting

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2005

Before she left government service for the private sector, former Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation head Ernesta Ballard set in motion a process for the state, rather than the U.S. EPA, to issue wastewater discharge permits.

In contrast with most Murkowski administration water quality initiatives, the conservation community could support this proposal as long as the state has the resources and the necessary tribal and public involvement processes in place to ensure it can do the job well. So far, however, the state has shown every intention of doing the job poorly.

This past fall, DEC established a work group to examine the issues associated with the state managing the wastewater discharge permit program. The work group included only industry and wastewater treatment plant representatives, however, denying tribes and public-interest representatives seats at the table.

This Moscow-on-Cook Inlet work group, which did not want to hear or address dissident views, issued its report on Clean Water Act state "primacy," with accompanying state legislation, this week. Missing from the work group's report are solutions to the following key concerns:

1.) The Legislature will need to appropriate at least $1.5 million each year to support the bigger state government required to manage this complex program. Because work group members insisted on a strict limit to permit fees, the increased costs will come from other state initiatives such as education or road maintenance. If the Legislature fails to provide adequate appropriations, Alaska's waters, including our salmon streams, will suffer.

2.) Proposed DEC staffing levels are inadequate to implement the program. Currently, a total of 51 full-time equivalent employees (FTE) from U.S. EPA and DEC carry out this program in Alaska. DEC would reduce this number to 43 FTE, an overall reduction of 16 percent that includes a 38 percent reduction in program development staff (e.g., water quality standards staff), a 28 percent reduction in permitting staff, and a 16 percent reduction in compliance and enforcement staff. The state has produced virtually no evidence on how it can maintain an adequate discharge permitting program with these severe staff reductions.

3.) There no longer will be formal tribal government-to-government consultations with regulators who issue wastewater discharge permits. Such consultations have numerous benefits, including allowing tribes to raise their concerns early in the permitting process; helping tribes learn about the implications of toxic and other discharges on subsistence resources and users; and enabling tribes to impact discharge permit conditions using traditional ecological knowledge.

4.) Public participation and expert involvement will be greatly reduced, resulting in inadequate environmental protection. State primacy will eliminate various reviews required by federal statutes that protect, among other things, essential fish habitat. The work group concluded that by eliminating these requirements, "a more efficient process under primacy should actually improve the environmental result," though, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, it provided no evidence to support such a statement.

5.) Alaska's resource agencies historically have been cozier with industry than their federal counterparts, so a state-managed discharge-permit program likely will result in less scrutiny for toxic and other discharges to Alaska's waters. For example, in the past two years, EPA initiated three significant Clean Water Act enforcement actions against oil and gas companies that violated water-quality protections for Cook Inlet. During the first year of the Murkowski administration, in contrast, the state did not penalize those responsible for any of the top 10 oil and hazardous-substance spills; five of these spills were from oil production and three were from mining.

The next step in the state primacy process is for the Legislature to scrutinize the work group's analysis. If they look carefully, legislators will see increased costs to the state and to municipalities through new permit fees, fewer opportunities for tribes and other Alaskans to participate in governmental decisions, and less protection for Alaska's magnificent waters.

Though the Moscow-on-Cook Inlet work group refused to address these concerns, the Legislature can do so. If not, the U.S. EPA can reject DEC's application for primacy, which is what it should do if the state does not resolve these important concerns.

• Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and an oil and gas industry specialist with Cook Inlet Keeper, a watershed protection organization with offices in Homer and Anchorage.

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