Defining responsible development in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Our elected and business leaders are always quick to point out that they support responsible development that also protects the environment. This is the case whether the development project is oil, mining or timber.

Gov. Sean Parnell not only touts "responsible development" but goes further when asked about the Pebble mine project. "We're never going to allow a mine that trades the future of one resource for another," he said. While I have no intent of challenging this claim for all the permitted projects and I'm fully aware that the permit process for the Pebble mine has yet to begin, I do want to point out that our state leaders recently declined an easy opportunity to walk their talk and put a capital R in "responsible development." Allow me to explain.

For many years, the state of Alaska protected salmon streams by not allowing mixing zones in salmon spawning areas. A mixing zone is an area where it is OK to conditionally exceed water quality standards and pollute the receiving waters.

Instead of continuing the year-round requirement to keep spawning grounds off limits to pollution, former Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration decided it was OK to pollute when the adult salmon were not physically present. This policy ignored the salmon eggs living in the spawning areas through the fall and winter, and the fry that reside there for one to two years. At the time when the Murkowski administration made this change, there was no known development project being held up by the ban on mixing zones in salmon streams. Rather, the rationale appeared to be wrapped up in the zeal to push back on environmentalists. This was done about the same time as other anti-environmental policy shifts, such as when Murkowski kicked the Habitat Division out of Fish and Game and severely decreased local control under the Alaska Coastal Management Program.

The administrations of former Gov. Sarah Palin and Gov. Sean Parnell came next. The Palin administration did restore the Division of Habitat back to Fish and Game, a positive change for responsible development. However, they continued Murkowski's policy on allowing mixing zones in salmon streams. Dismayed by this, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, introduced a bill to close the mixing zone loophole. His bill garnered significant support across the state including, former Fish and Game Commissioner Carl Rosier and United Fishermen of Alaska. But the Palin administration stood with mine operators who opposed the bill, and the bill subsequently died in committee.

Undaunted, Seaton submitted a similar but improved bill for consideration in this legislative session - House Bill 46. Seaton's sponsor statement of HB 46 explains, "Current regulations allow freshwater spawning areas to be designated as mixing zones if salmon are not actively spawning at the time of wastewater discharge. HB 46 would change that regulation to prevent discharge of pollutants into any freshwater spawning area. HB 46 is also a public right-to-know bill. It seeks to create accountability by allowing the public to have clear and easy access to information regarding the amount and nature of pollutants that are discharged under permit into Alaska water."

As an Alaskan, I ask, "Isn't protecting salmon spawning areas from pollution and giving the public useful information" essential to "responsible development?" If these fish protection measures worked for developers (including large mines) under the Tony Knowles administration, why can't they work now, particularly when HB 46 makes new accommodations for placer mining?

If Parnell is serious when he says he is "never going to allow a mine that trades the future of one resource for another," why not support HB 46? Instead, lack of support from the Parnell administration recently gave four members of the House Fisheries Committee all the cover they needed to table HB 46. And it will remain so unless the Parnell administration signals otherwise.

In my many years of dealing with a wide array of resource issues, I've never seen an easier opportunity - i.e. restoring protections that previously worked - for state and business leaders to walk their talk about responsible development. Alaskans have a proud history of protection and conservation of salmon. We are known around the world as having some of the healthiest and best managed fisheries. Why then do we take the small, short-sighted view of allowing pollution in freshwater spawning habitat? Our fish, our fisheries and our pride as responsible stewards is diminished by such policies.

• Kate Troll recently served as the executive director for Alaska Conservation Alliance and Alaska Conservation Voters. Her column appears twice a month.

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