The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said it would hand off wastewater discharge permitting authority and enforcement in Alaska to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Alaska joins 45 other states that will oversee their own National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems, and they all have to follow Clean Water Act rules. States can write their own standards, but they can't be any less strict than federal standards.
As of Friday, DEC takes control over wastewater discharge permits for timber harvesting, seafood processing and domestic dischargers, such as municipalities. Existing permits from the EPA will turn into state permits.
Over the next three years, in phases, the state will take over permitting of federal facilities in Alaska, stormwater, mining, and finally oil and gas permits, cooling water and everything else.
A gradual transition was requested by industry representatives, said Water Division director Lynn Kent. It also gives DEC a chance to learn the program.
Gov. Sarah Palin said in a statement the transition would give Alaska more control over its natural resources.
Yet the EPA hasn't given up any of its authority. In the first few years, EPA will be reviewing Alaska's permits to make sure they're written well.
"We don't anticipate any reductions in our level of effort. In fact quite the contrary for the first few years," said Seattle EPA official Christine Psyk.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Legislature gave the DEC extra funding in 2006 when it directed the department to apply for the new powers. Wastewater permitting staffing grew 67 percent, from 29 positions to 43.
One of the advantages of moving the program to the states, said Psyk, is that states can devote more resources if they choose.
Another is that unlike the EPA, states can charge user fees to support their programs.
Permit applications cost anywhere from a couple of hundred to several thousands of dollars. DEC estimated rates would go up 1.8 times to cover the state's additional workload.
Nonetheless, potential dischargers favor the move.
"The early cost savings are to the permittees, because they only have to talk to one of us," Kent said.
Among those in Juneau expecting more attention from DEC in a couple of years is Coeur Alaska Inc., operator of the Kensington gold mine, 45 miles north-northwest of Juneau.
"When you're working with a state agency, they're obviously much closer to Alaska issues. They understand the industry and the state's water-related issues," said Clyde Gillespie, environmental and regulatory manager for Coeur Alaska. "I think it's great that the state is getting primacy from EPA."
Environmental groups said they worried the transition will put clean water at risk.
"We haven't seen a lot of enforcement from DEC on their own permits. If there are dischargers out there that are violating their permits, is there going to be a robust enforcement?" said Vicki Clark, legal director of Trustees for Alaska, a public interest legal firm representing 23 environmental and Alaska Native groups.
Clark also said accountability may suffer because Alaska, unlike federal courts and other states, can force public-interest litigants who lose to pay their opponents' legal fees, Clark said.
"There will be a deterrent effect on groups who are concerned about water quality bringing lawsuits, which could ultimately result in more lax permitting," Clark said.
Kent said the courts addressed that problem already: Alaska rule 82 of civil procedures says judges may decrease awards that would have a chilling effect on similar litigants.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org.