Public testimony pushes against ‘politicizing’ water protection decisions

The Chilkat River in 2009. The river is one of the four bodies of water nominated for Tier 3 protection. (Creative Commons photo by Dave Bezaire)
The Chilkat River in 2009. The river is one of the four bodies of water nominated for Tier 3 protection. (Creative Commons photo by Dave Bezaire)

Should the decision to grant a body of water the highest level of protection be up to the Alaska Legislature? Bills working their way through committees in the House and Senate would give lawmakers that power. But in public testimony this week, Alaskans spoke against ‘politicizing’ decisions on Outstanding National Resource Water nominations.

The Federal Clean Water Act requires states have a process to evaluate Outstanding Resource or Tier 3 nominations. Tier 3 waters are protected from new pollutants unless they are temporary and limited.

“We ask not for us, but for the ones to come. Our grandchildren and their grandchildren,” Yakutat Tlingit Tribal Council member Raymond Sensmeier testified to the Senate Resources Committee Monday.

The council recently nominated the Yakutat Forelands for Tier 3 status. The other pending Alaska nominations are for the Chilkat River, the Koktuli River and the Bristol Bay Watershed. Those nominations are stuck in limbo until the state decides who should evaluate them.

Governor Bill Walker introduced Senate Bill 163 and its companion House Bill 283 to give the legislature the power to decide on Tier 3 nominations.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig told the House Fisheries Committee Tuesday about the possible impacts of the water protection.

“Since you can’t put any additional pollution in there from a source that we regulate under the Clean Water Act, you couldn’t have for instance a fish processing plant that would produce fish waste, you couldn’t have a public wastewater treatment plant that would have treated wastewater that would go in there, you certainly couldn’t have a mine that would have treated wastewater. Anything that has a wastewater stream, you couldn’t allow that.”

Hartig said because of the potentially wide-ranging impacts of Tier 3 status, the decisions should be up to the legislature. But most of the people who testified to Senate Resources Monday and House Fisheries Tuesday did not agree.

“The primary problem that we see with having the legislature call the final shot on Tier 3 designations is that it creates a white-hot political debate instead of a stakeholder discussion,” said Louie Flora, from the Alaska Center for the Environment and Alaska Conservation Voters.

Flora said Tier 3 decisions should go to DEC, to be made based on science and public input. Heidi Kritz of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Debra Schnabel from the Haines Chamber of Commerce advocated for the same thing.

“This process cannot be subjected to politics,” Kritz said. “It needs to be guided by science to determine which of the waters in Alaska warrant these designations.”

“Because the citizenry is very aware that votes on issues affecting local economies can easily be traded among legislators with different constituent loyalties,” Schnabel said.

Some of the lawmakers argued with that logic, saying they’re able to make nonpartisan decisions. Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche said the DEC Commissioner also has the potential to base decisions on politics.

“You really have the potential for dramatic swings in the administration,” Micciche said. “You have no idea who the next governor is going to be, it may be this one it may be another one. It may just be some right wing guy that decides it’s not gonna happen on his watch.”

Bethel Republican Representative Bob Herron also said leaving the decisions to the legislature could make the process less political than if they went to DEC.

“If it was housed in DEC alone, sometime in the future we might get an unfriendly DEC group,” Herron said. “And don’t you think we need a backstop or the peoples’ representatives will make the final call, either up or down?”

The only person who testified in favor of giving legislators decision-making power was Deantha Crockett from the Alaska Miners Association. But Crockett said, her group would prefer Alaska be exempt from the provision in the Clean Water Act mandating a process for Tier 3 nominations.

“AMA believes the process of any designation could be used by anti-development individuals or organizations to stop responsible development projects,” Crockett said.

The Senate Resources Committee took more public testimony Wednesday afternoon. The House Fisheries Committee will revisit the Tier 3 nomination bill at a future date to be determined.

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