One of RDC’s top legislative priorities is to “Encourage the state to promote and defend the integrity of Alaska’s permitting process and advocate for predictable, timely, and efficient state and federal permitting processes based on sound science and economic feasibility.”
Lately, defending the integrity of permitting process has been front and center. Two ongoing departures from our normal permitting processes, one proposed by legislation in Juneau and one at the federal level, both revolve around a large and controversial mining prospect in Western Alaska: Pebble. Irrespective of the Pebble project, both these approaches are highlighting the risk that our permitting systems and processes are being inappropriately politicized. This trend does not bode well for any of other resource, community, or infrastructure development projects in Alaska.
Our permitting systems, while not perfect, are structured under the premise that to protect public, social, economic and environmental interests, we need to make informed permitting decisions. Such decisions are to be based on sound science and rational pubic policy, as well as project specific proposals for activities advanced by permit applicants.
In the Alaska legislature, SB152, sponsored by Senator Hollis French, turns decades of permitting processes and the clear division of power between the legislature and the executive branch on its ear. This bill calls for the legislature to approve authorizations, licenses, permits, (Pebble). It is hard to imagine the legislature has the time, resources, and capacity to adjudicate on complex permitting issues. And exactly where does that leave our permitting agencies – the departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Game, and Environmental Conservation with their trained professional staffs and objective evaluation of permit applications on the merits, absent political interference?
While annoying, SB152 is unlikely to become law. Of bigger concern is the EPA embarking on a study of the Bristol Bay watershed, citing its 404(c) authority, to make broad land use determinations for State and private lands in advance of permit applications. Details of this federal overreach and its implications for other projects in Alaska have been well articulated in a letter from Alaska Attorney General, Michael Geraghty, to EPA Region X administrator Dennis McLerran. A full article in this issue of Resource Review highlights the state’s concerns with the 404(c) effort.
Proposed departures from decades of permitting processes may seem restricted in applicability to the Pebble project, but the precedents these efforts would establish could directly impact other projects and erode the integrity of our permitting processes. Whether it’s a community wastewater treatment facility, a fish processing plant, a wind farm, you name it, eroding the foundation of objective project- based permitting is a dangerous and slippery slope, and Alaskans should be wary.
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