ANCHORAGE - Gov. Tony Knowles signed a bill Wednesday that environmentalists claim rolls back a court decision about what "best available technology" means in regulating how oil companies clean up spills.
The state Supreme Court two months ago ruled that Alaska environmental regulators were not using a clear definition to enforce a law that requires companies to use the "best" technology in oil spill response plans.
Knowles, lawmakers and the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the new law clarifies the definition.
"This law is not a rollback, as some are calling it," said Michele Brown, DEC commissioner. "What the Legislature has said is that, 'We agree with the Supreme Court that we were not explicit in the original statute, and we've corrected that.' "
Since 1980, Alaska oil companies have been required to file plans for cleaning up oil spills. They must use the "best available technology." The standard changes as technology and know-how changes, and in recent years has meant oil shippers in Prince William Sound have had to deploy specially equipped tug boat escorts, among other requirements.
Lawmakers tightened the law in 1990 as part of a revision to Alaska's oil spill prevention program following the Exxon Valdez spill. DEC regulations then deemed companies are using the best technology if they demonstrate they can clean up a spill in a certain time.
Tom Lakosh, an oil watchdog since the Exxon Valdez spill, disagreed and sued DEC in 1997. He lost in Superior Court but prevailed in February, when the Supreme Court sided with him.
"There are technologies that can work in Alaska conditions better than what we have," Lakosh said Wednesday. "We have to develop these technologies because we are so helpless to spills."
DEC officials responded to the court decision by lobbying to revise the law. The bill signed Wednesday adopts the standard DEC has been using to define best technology, guidelines that DEC and Knowles officials said were developed under the direction of government, industry, environmentalists and others.