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My Turn: Don't worry: Alaska's still safe

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon report that over 500 million pounds of toxic chemicals are being released to the environment. Alarmists will say that Alaska is one of, if not the most, polluted places to live. Before you decide to pack up and move elsewhere, please take a closer look at EPA's data and decide for yourself if Alaska is truly at risk.

Every June the federal EPA issues a "Toxics Release Inventory," a list of the estimated weight of toxic chemicals that have been "released" to the nation's air, land and water. The Report compares the total weight in each state, and then ranks the states from highest to lowest. This year's Report will list Alaska as having the greatest weight of toxic "releases" in the nation.

You may want to consider how EPA defines a "release," how a person or the environment is exposed to a "release," and ultimately, the risk from the "release." EPA's definition of "release" does not distinguish between permitted "routine releases" and uncontrolled "accidental releases." Most of Alaska's "releases" are "routine" discharges or contained disposals that are regulated under state and federal laws to ensure no harm to human health or the environment.

EPA's Report does not explain that before a "routine release" is allowed, a permit application must be made available for public comment and reviewed to determine appropriate protective controls. The permit spells out how pollution will be controlled and the requirements for regular monitoring. Inspections by state and federal agencies ensure compliance with the permit requirements.

Last year's federal data for Alaska show that of the 522 million pounds of "released" toxic chemicals, 99 percent is from Alaska's five largest mines. Virtually all of these "releases" were in the form of mining waste rock. Waste rock contains minute quantities of reportable substances, such as lead and zinc, naturally occurring minerals that remain in the rock after it is mined. The Red Dog zinc and lead mine in northwest Alaska is the largest zinc mine in the world and has the largest volume of waste rock. All of Alaska's mining waste rock piles have been studied, engineered, and permitted by state and federal agencies to protect public health and the environment.

Before 1998, EPA did not consider waste rock a "toxic release." Then, Alaska was ranked 46th. In 1998, EPA decided to include waste rock in the national reporting requirements. Overnight Alaska jumped from 46th to fourth in the nation for toxic "releases." This leap is due to a change in federal reporting requirements, not a change in what was being released, how "releases" are regulated or overall risk.

EPA admits that their toxic release inventory doesn't explain the associated risk to public health and the environment. To determine the risk you must have site-specific information, know the material's toxicity, its persistence in the environment, and the amount and duration of human or environmental exposure. Fortunately, all of this information is taken into account during the permitting process. Activities that pose unacceptable impacts are not permitted.

It is critical that people receive accurate information about materials discharged and disposed of in the environment and how those "releases" are controlled by State and federal permits. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Guide to EPA's Toxics Release Inventory will be available online June 25 at www.state.ak.us/dec/TRI/.

Alaska's environment is clean, healthy, and productive. We have strong environmental laws that agencies enforce to control pollution using protective standards that ensure releases are well managed and regulated. Take a hard look at the data in the federal Report, ask questions, and decide for yourself. I'm confident you'll find that there isn't a safer place to live than in Alaska.

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



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