House passes bill on drilling permits, firing ranges

Measure was filed in response to lawsuits by environmentalists

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The House passed a bill Tuesday that would undo a unanimous Alaska Supreme Court decision on permitting requirements for oil drilling wastes in Cook Inlet. The bill also would exempt firing ranges from state waste disposal permitting requirements.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, was a response to two lawsuits filed by environmental groups. It passed the House by a 34-3 vote.

The bill, which passed the Senate Friday, now goes to Gov. Tony Knowles.

"The governor wants a full review of this bill from his agencies before deciding what action he'll take," Knowles' spokesman Bob King said.

The action on permits for drilling wastes was in response to a Supreme Court decision handed down May 3.

The court ruled unanimously that state regulators erred when they decided to allow the discharge of drilling mud and rock cuttings from Forest Oil's Osprey Platform in Cook Inlet under a general discharge permit issued by the federal government.

The high court ruled that the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Act required a project-specific review.

Therriault had argued that the court decision added another layer of review to the permitting process and puts into doubt the validity of an unknown number of oil and gas projects now operating within the Alaska Coastal Management Program. The bill would make no change to the way permitting laws have been interpreted by the Knowles administration, Therriault said.

The lawsuit challenging the state's action on the Osprey platform was filed by the environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper. The group decried the lack of public notice on the drilling measure, which was tacked onto the firing range bill in the waning days of the session.

"The oil industry came to Juneau with a 'sky-is-falling' appeal after losing its case before the state's highest court," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper.

In addition to undoing the court decision, the bill would undercut a lawsuit filed by Cook Inlet Keeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Military Toxics Project and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.

The federal lawsuit sought to have the military stop using the 2,500-acre Eagle River Flats firing range at Fort Richardson and clean up unexploded munitions on the range.

The bill, introduced at the request of the military, would exempt all active firing ranges - both military and nonmilitary - from state requirements for a waste disposal permit.

Environmentalists have argued that lead and other chemicals from ordnance fired at Eagle River flats can cause serious health problems in wildlife and people.

"Each of those munitions is a toxic time bomb," said Pam Miller, of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

But those favoring the bill said the state Department of Environmental Conservation retains the authority to require cleanup of firing ranges should it become necessary.

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