Permit avoided: Alaska's commercial boats given reprieve

Posted: Friday, August 06, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

A looming federal permit requirement for small commercial boats and fishing vessels hasn't received much attention in Interior Alaska, but it's a major pending problem for Alaska's coastal communities. They deserve some sympathy and support from their more landlocked neighbors.

Fortunately, a bipartisan effort in Congress has delayed the permit requirement for another three years. The permit rules still could be coming, though, and they could be expensive and difficult to meet.

In 2006, a federal judge decided virtually all motorized boat operators had to get discharge permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The decision overturned decades of EPA policy. The policy up to that point allowed discharges that were "incidental" to the operation of a boat.

Environmental groups sued to overturn that policy because they wanted to stop the incidental discharge of untreated ballast water, which often carries invasive species. That wasn't a bad goal, but the court decision in their favor wasn't limited to ballast water. Virtually every boat in the nation would have needed a discharge permit, regardless of whether the boat carried ballast water, under the court's interpretation of the Clean Water Act.

After the court decision, Congress modified the act to exempt recreational boats. But exempting commercial vessels was controversial. Instead, Congress approved a two-year moratorium on the permit requirement for boats less than 79 feet long and for commercial fishing boats. The moratorium did not apply to any boat that carries ballast water - the original source of the problem and a serious issue.

The moratorium was about to expire July 31. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sponsored a three-year extension. Congress passed it and the president signed it.

Murkowski estimated that about 10,000 Alaska boats would have needed to comply with the permit conditions had the moratorium expired at the end of last month.

The EPA, to its credit, has created a "general" permit so individual boats don't have to go through a lengthy public comment process to obtain clearance to operate. However, getting authorized even under the terms of a general permit can be cumbersome.

In the past two years, the EPA has conducted a congressionally mandated study of normal boat discharges. This is what the agency concluded: "the study vessels' discharges would not, in themselves, exceed the aquatic life or human health (National Recommended Water Quality Criteria)." However, in busy harbors, some pollutants could cause problems, the agency said, and "targeted reduction" of these "may result in important significant environmental benefits to those waters."

It's hard to say what the agency might have in mind at this point. At the least, Congress and federal agencies should continue to work on devising a rational system that targets specific problems, avoiding a broad layer of permitting that does not.

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