Several dozen people from all over the state protested the use of aerial pesticides in a Tuesday evening hearing sponsored by Democratic legislators. The session was called after the Department of Environmental Conservation refused to hold hearings on its new draft pesticide regulations codifying standards for aerial pesticide use, which has been legal for 30 years.
The state requires permits for aerial pesticide use and for pesticide use over water or on state land. The new regulations put in writing existing permitting procedures and requirements, said Kristin Ryan, director of DEC's environmental health division.
Ryan said aerial spraying has occurred only three times in Alaska: twice for a potato blight in the Mat-Su Valley and once in Windy Bay to kill off alder trees and make way for "money trees."
She said the only new practice in the draft regulations is a required 35-foot "pesticide free" zone around water bodies. The buffer zone within which pesticide spraying is not allowed would be greater than 35 feet. It would be determined in such a way that the pesticide would not drift or leach into land 35 feet around the water, Ryan said.
Bob Loescher, president of the Juneau Tlingit-Haida Community Council and former president and CEO of Sealaska, said that DEC's actions violate the agreement reached by formulators of the Forest Practices Act a dozen years ago.
"We had worked a couple years to develop those draft laws and regulations, and in the course of that we had an agreement among all interest groups that this issue of pesticides and herbicides would be deferred and developed over time by (the Department of Natural Resources) and DEC," Loescher said.
He added that the groups also had come to the agreement that public hearings would be part of the process when the regulations were developed.
"The DEC people are trying to rush a regulation through without public input and they're basically violating that agreement," he said.
Clay Frick, a Port Alexander fisherman, said the use of pesticides would jeopardize efforts to boost the salmon industry.
"The state is spending millions of dollars to promote our salmon as coming from a pure, clean environment as a key element in the marketing endeavor," he said.
Frick also questioned the need to use pesticides to kill alder trees, which he said help the regeneration of a forest and its "money trees."
But most testimony at the hearing centered on opposition to any aerial spraying, rather than on the specifics of the draft regulations, and outrage at DEC's refusal to hold any public hearings. Many based their testimonies on the assumption that aerial spraying is illegal and that the regulations would change that.
Many who testified brought up comments by Ryan, who had justified the lack of a public hearing by saying opinions on the topic were too wide-ranging and the issue was too controversial.
Ryan said hearings are at the department's discretion.
"What we find during public hearings is that people haven't read the regulations, and especially in a situation as emotionally charged as this they're not giving us meaningful input on how to make it safer," she said. "If someone wants to make the decision that enough people don't feel we should do (aerial spraying), that belongs in the Legislature."
Ryan also said the department doesn't want to ban aerial spraying because it's not used frequently.
"It's an important tool in our public health toolbox. If we ever get a disease up here like West Nile Virus, we need to have the capacity to spray for it," she said.
But Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat who organized the hearing, said its possible one of the nine lawmakers - eight Democrats and one Republican - in attendance at the hearing might propose a bill to ban spraying.
He called DEC's refusal to hold a hearing "arrogant."
The public comment period ends at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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