Environmental regulators have begun plowing through more than 500 public comments on their controversial proposal to lift the ban on mixing zones in the state's spawning streams.
"It was pretty overwhelming," said Nancy Sonafrank, water quality standards section manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The comments were due Nov. 1 and a decision could be reached within several months, Sonafrank said.
Lifting the ban would allow industries and utilities to dilute their pollution discharges in fish-spawning and rearing stream habitat throughout Alaska. Except in the banned areas, mixing zones are widely used by wastewater plants to discharge wastewater into the state's streams and rivers.
Juneau, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Homer, Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough are among the local governments opposed to lifting the ban. Other opponents include the United Fishermen of Alaska, the Alaska Trollers Association, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the North Pacific Fishermen's Association.
The Alaska Mining Association supports lifting the ban, which could make it easier for placer miners to obtain water pollution discharge permits.
While the Alaska Forestry Association does not have an official position, executive director Owen Graham said lifting the ban "makes sense to me. I'm supportive of it," he said.
Sonafrank said she has not yet tallied the number of comments for and against her agency's proposal.
The commissioners of the state Department of Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources are standing by their Aug. 31 memorandum with the Department of Environmental Conservation prohibiting them from issuing separate opinions on the proposal.
The two other agencies must concur with the proposal and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve the new regulation before it can be adopted.
Sarah Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fish and Game, said it would be premature for her agency to comment to the Empire during the review process.
Nonetheless, several months before the Aug. 31 memorandum was signed, then-Fish and Game sport fishing division assistant director Doug Vincent-Lang stated in a May 14 letter to Sonafrank that while he was pleased with some elements of the new mixing zone regulations, the draft language provided "wide unspecified discretionary authority" to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
"This causes confusion and the potential for litigation," Vincent-Lang said.
He has since retired. His letter was used by the Trustees for Alaska as an exhibit in its comments on the proposal. The nonprofit Anchorage law firm obtained it and other internal documents with a public information request.
Some of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own comments on the proposal bore some resemblance to Vincent-Lang's concerns.
While EPA isn't sending a "disapproval flag," "We are asking for more information about how they would apply it," said Paula VanHaagen, manager of EPA's Standards and Planning Unit in Seattle. An example: The Department of Environmental Conservation plans to move large sections of its mixing zone rules - such as what types of pollutants would be allowed - into its discretionary authority.
Pollutants that VanHaagen said should be specifically prohibited in mixing zone regulations are habitat-clogging sediment or persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals.
"EPA and the courts have made clear that we have to go by what's written in the regulation. The guidance is helpful but what matters is the regulation," VanHaagen said in her official letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sonafrank noted EPA's extensive comments but said, "I don't think any of them are major impediments." She added, "We are going to take the time to do it right."
Vicki Clark, a staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, disagreed.
"We don't think (the proposal) complies with the Clean Water Act and we don't think EPA can approve it, the way it's written."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.