Web posted Thursday, April 4, 2002

Point of View Legislation could weaken environmental gains

by Tom Atkinson

The Legislature has fast-tracked a package of bills that hands regulation to industry and undermines the Knowles administration's commitment to "Doing it Right." Alaska Conservation Voters, representing 34 member organizations, met with Governor Knowles March 26, seeking his help regarding these measures that pose a threat to Alaska's clean air, clean water and other environmental resources.

Almost 13 years ago, the Exxon Valdez grounded at Bligh Reef, spewing 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound and across more than 1,000 miles of beach in Southcentral Alaska. Prior to this disaster, a sense of complacency had developed in both the operation and oversight of the oil industry. However, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaskans demanded better environmental safeguards to ensure that Alaska's environment would not continually be put at risk.

Nevertheless, the Legislature is reverting to the complacency of the pre-spill days, as they are trying to rescind many of these environmental safeguards. Unfortunately, the Knowles administration is acquiescing to this anti-environmental effort by supporting these bills, as was clarified for conservation leaders during a meeting with resource agency directors on March 18.

Some of the "Doing it Wrong" bills moving quickly through the Legislature include:

* Senate Bill 343: which overturns a recent Alaska Supreme Court decision and allows the oil industry to use less than best available technology for cleaning up and preventing oil spills,

* House Bill 420: which removes the 1 year sunset provision of HB 185, a bill that passed last session that allows the Department of Natural Resources to issue temporary water use permits for millions of gallons of water without informing the public, without allowing the public to comment on the permits, or without undergoing a thorough criteria analysis required by the Water Use Act to ensure that water removal will not harm wildlife & fish, public health or other water users,

* SB 326/HB 503: which begins the implementation-planning process to turn over the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, an important permitting program to protect our water quality from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the underfunded, understaffed Department of Environmental Conservation,

* HB 439: which further limits the ability of citizens to comment upon development projects they believe may harm coastal resources and watersheds,

* SB 140: which proposes to turn over the permitting and monitoring of small hydropower projects to an unspecified state agency that is unlikely to have the financial resources to properly implement the program and to fully protect Southeast Alaskais coastal resources.

Representative Sharon Cissna and Senator Johnny Ellis have introduced positive bills that would advance our knowledge about the use of harmful pesticides in our state. These bills, HB 66 and SB 14, would establish a tracking system for pesticides, many of which are persistent organic pollutants used in Alaska and would strengthen our ability to protect water quality, enhance community right to know, protect public health and safeguard our childrenis future. However, the Knowles administration has not provided any public support for either of these bills.

We urged Governor Knowles to speak out against legislation that undermines his principles of "Doing It Right:" sound science, prudent management based upon resource conservation and responsive public process. Alaska Conservation Voters asked the governor to send a strong message to the Legislature that he will stand behind the state's commitment to environmental protection. We invite all Alaskans to do the same.

<> Tom Atkinson is executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Alaskais environment through public education and advocacy.