Groups protest agencies' policy to speak with one voice

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Environmental groups and open government advocates are protesting a new policy by three Alaska state agencies that bans separate written opinions about resource issues.

A six-sentence memo, signed by the commissioners of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources, and Fish and Game, spells out the new policy.

Instead of each agency commenting in writing about a particular topic, such as pollution in salmon streams, they will "work cooperatively" to ensure that "we all benefit from each other's expertise and authority," the memo states.

The public often relies on agency comments to develop informed opinions about proposed government actions.

The commissioners say internal cooperative discussion instead of written documentation, available to the public, is good policy and makes sense because it will promote efficiency and trim red tape.

"The public has the right to expect that the government can reasonably resolve internal differences," Ernesta Ballard, Environmental Conservation chief, told the Anchorage Daily News.

Critics say it's another example of the Murkowski administration's agenda to stifle any voices, particularly those of biologists, that could hamper business activity and industrial development.

"This is a really dangerous change," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage attorney who specializes in natural resources. "They're going to wipe out the written record of dispute."

"They want all the agencies to fall into lockstep with the governor's position and they will not tolerate any dissent," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based pollution watchdog group.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has made regulatory reform, often called "streamlining," a cornerstone of his administration. One of his first acts as governor was to abolish the Habitat Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and extinguish much of the department's authority, granted at statehood, to police activities affecting fish-bearing waters. Murkowski transferred the power, and some of the habitat biologists, to the Department of Natural Resources, a move that prompted criticism at legislative hearings in Juneau last year.

The administration's latest streamlining effort emerged when Ballard sought to lift a ban on allowing mixing zones in streams and rivers where salmon and other fish lay their eggs. Mixing zones dilute pollution from utilities, fish processors, mines and other sources by flushing it with clean water.

Critics say mixing zones should be illegal because they can poison marine life. Business people often argue they are safe and essential for industrial operations.

The mixing-zone proposal would affect salmon and other species and the Department of Fish and Game normally would draft a detailed memo spelling out the agency's position. However, under the new policy, the agency will not do so.

"An interagency cooperative approach will be used for all future resource agency projects," according to the Aug. 31 memo.

The model calls for staff at the three agencies to confer among themselves about their concerns and whatever issues the public has raised. Although the strategy is still being developed, there are no plans to open the process to the public, to record it or to make minutes available, Ballard said.

"I know these are very important issues, and Fish and Game will be actively involved," Fish and Game commissioner Kevin Duffy said. "I'm comfortable with the process."

"I expect people to trust that we'll be responsible stewards of the resources," said Doug Vincent-Lang, state deputy director of sport fishing.

Some Alaskans back the new approach.

"Every time you have a disagreement between the agencies, it's the company trying to get the permit that suffers," said Steve Borell, head of the Alaska Miners Association.

Brian Crewdson, assistant to the general manager at Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility, said his organization supports the new mixing-zone regulations. He had not read the agencies memo.

"It could be a good approach if it's used right. But if it's all behind closed doors, there's the possibility that it could be abused," he said.

"It's a means of cutting the public out of the debate," said David Driesen, a law professor at Syracuse University who specializes in environmental issues.

If there's no written record of agency concerns about development matters, successful court challenges to stop harmful projects will be tougher, he said.

"If the likely impacts ... aren't disclosed publicly, it'll be harder for citizens to influence decisions," Driesen said.

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