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Alaska regulators want authority to grant own water discharge permits

If EPA agrees, fees will increase; pollution rules may become flexible

Posted: Friday, December 24, 2004

Proposed sliding scale for permit fees

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation proposes to collect increased fees from water polluters if it establishes its own program. (The Environmental Protection Agency does not currently charge a permit fee but the state charges a fee to certify federal water discharge permits.)

The department has proposed a sliding scale for permit fees, based on the relative difficulty of preparing a discharge permit.

• Fees for easy permits, like those for a small domestic wastewater plant, would increase 20 percent, from $550 to $660 annually.

• Fees for medium-difficult permits would increase 80 percent. For instance, permits for some seafood processing plants would go from $390 to $702.

• Fees for difficult permits, like those for ballast water treatment for oil and gas, would increase 140 percent, from $4,300 to $10,320.

• Figures provided by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Mining and timber interests say they will likely throw their weight behind Alaska regulators who want to gain the authority from federal regulators to grant their own water pollution discharge permits.

Alaska is one of five states that doesn't have a primary role in regulating water pollution from its municipalities and industries - from seafood plants, mines and oil platforms to fish hatcheries and sewer plants.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees to cede that authority to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, water discharge permit fees will increase significantly and pollution rules may become more flexible.

The department would need to hire an estimated 14 new employees and increase its budget by $1.7 million.

Industry may be willing to swallow increased fees because many companies feel they can have a better working relationship with the state of Alaska than they've had so far with federal regulators, who are mostly based in Seattle, said Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

"I've encouraged (the state) to do it," said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group.

But environmentalists are wary of the Department of Environmental Conservation's bid for water permitting authority, due to the Murkowski administration's perceived environmental rollbacks and budget cuts.

"In the past two years, we've seen so many rollbacks and state secrecy that have hurt water quality," said Bob Shavelson, the Cook Inlet Riverkeeper. He criticized the department for slashing funds for citizen groups monitoring water quality and proposing a rule revision that allows dilution of pollution discharges in fish spawning and rearing streams.

State regulators contend that their current authority over state water resources is fragmented. "We only have primary jurisdiction over groundwater but not over surface water and it results in a disjointed system," said Denise Koch, a water division official with the Department of Environmental Conservation.

She said a state-run water permitting program would avoid the "really long and really costly process" required under federal statutes like the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act for water discharge permits in Alaska, regardless of whether they are on state or federal land.

But to environmentalists, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "(Industry) thinks EPA kowtows to the tribes and the other agencies who get involved ... but to us that's a good thing because there's a lot of input and public comment that goes into a permit," said Vicki Clark, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska.

Alaska companies scored a victory with legislation several years ago that capped their future liability for water permit costs. Though the fees would escalate, under Alaska law, companies would pay only for the direct costs of permitting.

According to a January report, the new program would require a contribution of $330,000 in permitting fees. Potentially, $1.3 million in federal grants could be allocated on an annual basis but the rest of the funding would come from Alaska's general fund.

Borell said if industries decide to support the department's initiative, they'll campaign for its budget as well.

A work group composed of Alaska industry leaders, including Borell and Graham, is wrapping up a series of public meetings with state regulators in Anchorage this winter to discuss how the new program would work and how much it would cost.

The work group has not decided whether to support the state's proposal but will reach a decision by Jan. 17.

That decision will likely influence whether the Department of Environmental Conservation pitches the proposal to the Alaska Legislature in 2005.

Borell said he will likely support the proposal.

Work group member Kris Warren, an Anchorage water treatment plant division manager, said he's not thrilled about the proposed fee increases but he's more worried that the fees don't come close to adding enough money to run the program.

"So the Legislature says (the state) can only charge direct costs. Does that protect against raising fees in the future? I don't think so," Warren

Work group member Stephanie Madsen, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, said she sees two benefits to the program.

First, Madsen said, companies would have less paperwork to fill out because they would no longer have to acquire both a federal water discharge permit and a state certification of that permit. Second, permit approval would no longer rely on federal officials' interpretation of Alaska's water quality standards.

Whether the work group votes in favor of the initiative "is going to be a process of weighing the benefits and the costs," Madsen said.

For its part, the EPA supports the state's effort to run its own permitting program, said Cindi Godsey, the agency's Anchorage-based Alaska mining coordinator.

But before the state gets approval from EPA, it will have to compile a report on how it will run the program, which could include as many as 71 major permits and 2,000 minor permits throughout the state, Godsey said.

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



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