Tougher mixing zone legislation fizzles

House Resources co-chairman: Bill could harm miners

Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2006

A bill to toughen up the state's rules for pollution in fish-spawning areas fizzled Wednesday in the House Resources Committee.

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Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, the House Resources co-chairman, said he is setting aside House Bill 328 because it could harm placer miners in his Interior district.

The decision came as a disappointment to fishermen and environmentalists, as well as some legislators.

"I thought they had worked with the placer miners to address their concerns ... . This (bill) is what Alaskans wanted," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Given time constraints at this point in the session, the bill is unlikely to make it through the Legislature this year, Kerttula said.

That's too bad, Kerttula said, given that hundreds of Alaskans had testified in support of the legislation.

"This bill was strongly supported by fishermen and the vast majority of Alaskans because it provides better protection for our wild salmon," said Jeff Brubaker, a legislative coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

There is some disagreement between fishermen and organizations about whether the state's regulations for pollution-dilution "mixing zones" in spawning areas are good enough.

Some fishermen have complained that the bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, doesn't even go far enough to protect fish from pollution.

The United Fishermen of Alaska, a statewide group, was satisfied by the state's decision last year to retain its ban on mixing zones in spawning areas, after its initial bid to lift the ban.

Mixing zones are areas in a stream where excess levels of pollution are allowed to dilute down to state water quality standards.

"We asked the Murkowski administration to continue the existing protections for salmon and we were pleased the administration listened, and continued with the same protections that we had before," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.

Seaton, however, said the state law had loopholes, such as not giving as much protection to resident fish as to salmon.

Seaton's bill would exempt placer miners and village water systems from an outright ban on mixing zones in some circumstances. But it would require placer miners to meet new rules for mixing zones when their permits come up for renewal.

The bill extends the state's ban on mixing zones in spawning areas beyond migratory salmon to resident fish species, such as Arctic char and lake trout.

The bill has faced serious opposition from the Alaska Mining Association, the state's trade association for miners. Last week, the group's executive director, Steve Borell, told the Resources Committee that the bill would devastate the livelihood of placer miners.

Ramras said he wouldn't move the bill unless Seaton came up with an adequate solution. Ramras declined to take up an amendment offered by Seaton addressing the placer miners Tuesday. It isn't the Resources Committee's job to come up with a compromise, Ramras said.

"It's hard to get fishermen and miners to get along," Ramras added.

Seaton declined to comment Wednesday.

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