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State misses deadline but plans to forge ahead with mixing zones

Posted: Friday, September 02, 2005

The state missed a deadline Thursday to adopt a rule that would allow industries to discharge more pollution into fish spawning streams, but compliance with the deadline wasn't mandatory, regulators said Thursday.

The state may take final action on the so-called mixing zones - areas in a water body where pollution is discharged and diluted in order to meet water quality standards - within a month, said Nancy Sonafrank, water quality standards section manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

While the state plans to push forward with the rule, high-level officials within the agencies involved are discussing additional measures to protect fish, Sonafrank said.

"There seemed to be a consensus among the agencies that we needed to explore further with some further protections," she said.

Mixing zones are commonly used by industries in Alaska but are not allowed in fish spawning or rearing areas under current law.

In recent weeks, Sonafrank said, some confusion has arisen about whether the state would have to start over again with a new public comment period on the rule if the Sept. 1 deadline passed.

The deadline is an informal one, she explained.

The state Department of Law, as a matter of policy, asks that state agencies adopt proposed rules within a year of their publication for public comment. "It's not a regulation," Sonafrank said Thursday.

The proposed mixing zone regulation has been a controversial and drawn-out process since first proposed by the Murkowski administration in 2004. Approximately 600 people commented on the proposal and a majority worried about it, Sonafrank said.

Environmentalists and fishing organizations fear that allowing mixing zones in spawning streams would damage the reputation of Alaska salmon and potentially the state's productive fish streams.

"A lot of jobs in Alaska depend on clean water," said Kat Hall, water quality and mining coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.

But various industries, including mining and timber, support the rule because they feel it will open up new opportunities for them.

State officials said they would not allow companies to use mixing zones in streams where there would be harmful effects.

But some fishermen and environmentalists said the state should just grant waivers in certain cases for industries rather than change the law.

"Everything they want to do, they can do, without going to this extreme," said Paula Terrel, a Juneau representative for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

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



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