Report: Big issues loom over Alaska

Transition team notes problems in oil-spill monitoring

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006

FAIRBANKS - State environmental regulators are facing increasing costs and shrinking federal funding and a fund set up to help prevent oil spills could be unsustainable by 2009, according to a report by a transition team for Gov. Sarah Palin.

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The report notes areas within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation needing immediate attention as well as long-term trends. It says, for example, that 40 percent of the department's employees will be up for retirement in the next five years.

The report was compiled by a team of 10 volunteers after a review of transition documents from former Gov. Frank Murkowski and meetings with department heads.

"They hit most things on the nose," said Deputy Commissioner Dan Easton, who served under Murkowski and stayed on under Palin.

According to the report, the DEC sometimes is "unable to fully engage its mission" because of a lack of qualified personnel. To attract and keep necessary personnel, the department must offer competitive wages and benefits, the report says.

Declining federal funding, which accounts for about a third of department funding, will have a "significant" impact on the department's ability to do its job, the report says. The reductions would have the greatest impact on the divisions of water and environmental health.

According to the report, federal funding agencies refuse to accept the higher overhead costs the department needs to cover retirement benefits.

In light of shrinking federal support and the need for competitive wages, the report says, "the potential for dramatically increased fees is imminent."

Easton said such challenges as the retirement obligation and the aging workforce, are not unique to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Specific to the department, however, is the Oil and Hazardous Substance Release Prevention and Response Fund, which is funded by a surcharge on oil production and divided into accounts for spill prevention and emergency response. Despite a recent increase to the surcharge for spill prevention, the department expects expenses to top revenues by fiscal year 2009, the report says.

Needing immediate attention, according to the report, is the cruise ship tax passed in August. Beside imposing a $50 head tax on each cruise ship passenger, the new law calls for the department to place an "ocean ranger" on all large cruise vessels starting next summer.

Ocean rangers will be certified marine engineers who are also knowledgeable of state wastewater discharge programs, public health and sanitation.

"It's kind of this multicolored person that you're not going to find," said Charlie Boddy, one of two transition team leaders for the department.

The report estimates that implementing the new law will lead to a shortfall of at least $2 million. It recommends that the department work with state lawmakers, industry representatives and the ballot measure sponsors to find a solution.

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