My Turn: Public is heard at the DEC

Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2003

There has been recent discussion in the press of the opportunity for public participation in Department of Environmental Conservation rule making. Some have questioned our interest in public comment. The facts of our recent activities testify to our commitment to seek and listen to those with an interest in our regulations.

Six months ago DEC undertook revisions to regulations that implement, in part, the state's Forest Practices Act. The revisions propose stricter conditions for aerial application of herbicides and pesticides, which is already authorized under Alaska law and regulation. Aerial spraying is rare. DEC has issued three permits in the past 30 years. Application by hand is more frequent, and generally allowed under regulation without a permit. In all cases application must follow the specific label directions set by EPA, the agency charged by Congress with responsibility to assess the effect of herbicides and pesticides on the environment and public health.

I know many Alaskans are interested in these regulations. That is why DEC exceeded the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act to encourage public participation and seek public comment. I believe that public participation is essential to effective regulation. Through this well-tested procedure, administrative agencies receive substantial and often technically complex, scientific and economic input from affected parties. Valuable site-specific information and local knowledge also are gained. We went to significant effort to gain public comment on these proposed regulations even though the revisions themselves are not sweeping changes to existing regulations.

In November 2002, DEC solicited public input and accepted comments through Jan. 13, 2003, on a preliminary draft of the aerial-spraying regulations. We did this through a mailing to 1,500 interested parties, including all legislators, pesticides users, permit holders, Alaska tribes, environmental organizations, local governments, fishing groups, and citizens whose concerns were known to us. We posted the proposed regulations on our Web site and placed newspaper ads in the state's largest newspapers. We addressed the Board of Forestry in an open meeting about the intent and potential effect of the regulations. We received many comments and incorporated some of the suggested changes, including monitoring provisions and adding a pesticide free zone beyond the buffer required to protect adjacent water. We issued a new draft in March and accepted public comments until May 1. We returned again to the Board of Forestry and mailed announcements to 1,500 interested parties.

We invested our limited resources to engage all Alaskans rather than a few at certain locations. DEC will continue to rely on public hearings, as we always have, for the review of permits. Site specific applications demand input from impacted residents. DEC will develop methods to explain our efforts during future regulation revisions.

DEC is in the process of reviewing the 330 comments we have received on the second draft. We may make changes to the proposed regulations based on those comments. A summary of comments and our responses will be posted online. There are no permit applications pending now, and we expect our current review to be completed by the end of the summer.

Ernesta Ballard is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

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