Alaska Senate passes permitting proposal

JUNEAU — The state could move toward taking responsibility for dredge-and-fill permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under a bill passed by the Alaska Senate on Monday.

SB27, one of several bills related to permitting that have been proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell, passed 15-2. It now goes to the House.

Parnell has billed SB27 as a way to limit “federal overreach” in Alaska.

The bill would allow the state to evaluate the costs and consequences of assuming primacy for the dredge-and-fill permitting program. It also would allow the departments of Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources to take “reasonable steps” to assume primacy.

The benefits, according to a briefing paper from the departments, would include involvement of fewer agencies, state management of water and land-use priorities and funding stability. The paper says the Corps has seen a recent cut in staff and is facing additional cuts when it will need to prepare large environmental reviews and permit “many state projects” from large state capital budgets the last few years.

Critics worry about the protection of state wetlands and say administering the program could be expensive. Legislative leaders have already been looking at ways to limit the growth of state government, amid declining oil production and concerns the current track of state spending isn’t sustainable.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig, in a letter to the co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee last month, said the Corps’ regulatory program in Alaska currently has 49 full-time positions and an annual budget of $7.9 million. But he said until the state conducts a detailed evaluation of the so-called “404 program,” it is impossible to forecast the size or cost of a state program.

Hartig has said the departments should have a better understanding about what’s needed and be at a decision point on whether to move forward with the effort in a couple years.

A fiscal note attached to the bill calls for up to eight new positions by 2015, as the state evaluates whether to move ahead with seeking primacy.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who carried the bill on the floor, said the federal Clean Water Act intends that states assume primacy, with oversight by the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So far, just two states have assumed primacy, New Jersey and Michigan, though other states are considering it, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s wetlands are in Alaska. According to the department, most major projects in the state “and a very large number of minor projects,” such as housing pads, or dry bases on which to build homes in some areas, require permitting under the program.

Giessel said any state program would have to be at least as stringent as the current program.

“Alaska should be in charge of our own development and economic destiny,” she said in a floor speech. “SB27 is a step in the right direction toward a streamlined, yet conscientious, permitting regime performed by Alaskans, and accountable to Alaskans.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said the state would be spending millions of dollars a year on the program, if it assumes primacy, but would still have to meet federal requirements.

He said he also has heard concerns that the bill is a backdoor attempt to permit projects, like the proposed Pebble mine near the headwaters of a world premier salmon fishery.

Giessel said the bill isn’t aimed at more lax permitting process but rather at one that’s performed more expeditiously.

Wielechowski voted against the bill, along with Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.