Pollution proposal gets chilly reception

No one speaks in favor of increasing pollution in spawning areas

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

Two Alaska legislators and proponents of Alaska's wild fisheries lambasted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Thursday for its proposal to allow increased pollution in the state's spawning areas.

Not one person at a public hearing in Juneau spoke in favor of the proposal. The critics also included a former DEC regulator and two former directors of the Alaska Seafood Marking Institute (ASMI).

Alaska environmental regulators want to lift the 1997 ban on mixing zones in fish spawning and rearing areas. Mixing zones are used by industries and sewage plants to dump elevated amounts of pollution in waterbodies. The pollution is blended and diluted with uncontaminated water.

Among the criticism voiced during the hearing:

• Two former ASMI directors cited the potential waste of tens of millions of dollars already spent marketing Alaska's pristine aquatic habitat and fish stocks if word gets out that Alaska dumps pollutants in its spawning areas.

"We can't give (competitors in the fish farming industry) the opportunity to attack," said state Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, formerly with ASMI.

• All of the speakers at the meeting petitioned for either a 60- to 90-day extension of the agency's comment period for the proposal, in order to get input from fishermen and conduct additional hearings in fishing villages. DEC's comment period began during the commercial fishing season and runs out Sept. 10, long before the season ends.

• Environmentalists and former DEC official Dick Farnell complained the agency's proposal is "vague" on how regulators would determine if a wastewater discharge would harm to a spawning area. The DEC proposal prohibits "adverse" effects to spawning and rearing areas but doesn't define what "adverse" means, Farnell said. That leaves any decision on the matter "up for grabs," he said.

• Former Gov. Tony Knowles chief of staff Jim Ayers charged DEC with bowing to special interests and the Murkowski administration to loosen environmental rules.

Other speakers at the meeting questioned why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division was not included in discussions on the proposal.

"They didn't know about it," said Paula Terrel, with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, who was echoed by Dale Kelley of the Alaska Trollers Association. Both women spoke to officials in the commercial fisheries division who were unaware of the proposal within the last few weeks.

Terrel and Kelley also said if there is a legitimate reason to allow certain companies to discharge certain pollutants that won't harm spawning fish, DEC should issue a specific exemption rather than a broad rule change.

"We would like a compromise," Kelley said.

Environmentalists also decried the proposal. "It's a giant leap in the wrong direction," said Susan Murray, of the Pacific chapter of Oceana, based in Juneau.

Nancy Sonafrank, a DEC section chief for water quality standards, said her agency has received a large number of requests for extending the comment period and will make a decision on it next week.

Sonafrank did not seek to contradict any of the speakers during the meeting. She did note, however, that the agency is dealing with one wastewater facility in Valdez that would have to spend more than $1 million on unnecessary treatment due to the current prohibition on mixing zones in spawning areas.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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