Alaska House passes Parnell’s permitting bill

JUNEAU — The Alaska House has passed a measure critics say could hurt public participation in state permitting decisions.

The 23-14 vote Monday followed debate on water rights and whether to amend the bill to allow Native entities to apply for water reservations, along with federal or state agencies and political subdivisions.

The vote on that amendment was tied 18-18, with Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, seemingly agonizing over how to cast her vote. The House took a short break, and when the vote was held on the amendment again, Wilson was no longer a deciding vote but part of the majority voting against the amendment.

House Bill 77, from Gov. Sean Parnell, aims at improving the state’s permitting process and seeks to build upon efforts in recent years to make the process more efficient. The measure is extensive, dealing with issues such as land exchanges and permitting procedures.

The more controversial provisions include limiting administrative appeals to those “substantially and adversely affected” by a decision and who “meaningfully participated” in the public comment process. The measure also would remove the ability of individuals or groups to apply for water reservations, to maintain or protect certain water levels for purposes like fish habitat protection, recreation and water quality.

Parnell, in his transmittal letter, said an efficient permitting process with clear rules “contributes to Alaskan economic growth and creates more Alaskan business opportunities.”

Critics fear the measure is geared toward blocking opposition to projects like the proposed Pebble Mine or the proposed Chuitna coal-mining project.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, pointed to a document from the Department of Natural Resources showing that of the 35 pending water reservation applicants from individuals or groups, 22 are in the vicinity of or could affect the Pebble project. Three applications could affect the coal project. Applications date to 1992, though most are more recent.

He said it would be “sort of silly” for the department to not think the proposal would raise concerns about the intent.

Wyn Menefee, chief of operations for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, has said the state has never granted a water reservation to an individual or group and that many of applications from them haven’t been vetted by agencies to know how they might fit with priorities.

The department has hundreds of pending water applications in the state.

The bill includes language that would allow for the transfer of a water reservation application from individual or groups to an entity authorized to reserve water for consideration. If the reservation isn’t pursued, the individual or group’s application fee would be refunded.

Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, who carried the bill on the floor, said the overall theme of the measure “is to bring some more efficiency, bring better service to the public and to streamline our permitting system. This goes a long ways to making us more competitive in the world and to help move the resource industry in this state forward. That, of course, means jobs and progress for the state.”