Legislature considers whether state should take over wetlands permitting

JUNEAU (AP) — Alaska lawmakers are considering a request by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration that the state take over part of a federal environmental permitting program for development in wetlands, though some members of the Senate's budget-writing committee have expressed concerns with the potential costs.

Administration officials have said the idea behind the proposal is to speed the construction of roads, bridges, mines and drilling projects.

While the state would have to follow federal standards, critics of the proposal say the state has traditionally favored development and underfunded oversight capabilities. Industry groups say the current permitting process is too slow.

The House included a $4.9 million increase to the budget of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which would use the money to hire 28 new staff members. The funding was part of the House version of the state operating budget, which passed last month; senators currently are working on their version.

If the proposed increase is approved, department officials plan a two-year process to take over part of the federal Clean Water Act known as Section 404.

Permits issued under that section determine whether a developer can fill wetlands, rivers or other bodies of water during construction. It also determines whether a developer must take compensatory steps for wetlands destroyed by construction.

Such a wetlands-fill permit will be required for the Wrangell borough to proceed with its plans to develop the former Wrangell Institute property for residential lots.

Federal law allows for states to take over permitting if they meet federal standards.

Alaska lawmakers authorized a takeover in 2013 but the push was abandoned after oil prices fell and money ran short. With higher oil prices and rosier revenue projections this year, the idea was resurrected.

“We believe that we can develop this appropriately, get this submitted to the EPA ... and ask them to make a good decision for us, with the implementation in 2024,” Jason Brune, the department’s commissioner, said, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which typically administers the permitting, has been neutral during legislative hearings.

Brune said if the state were to take over, he expects “similar timelines or quicker, especially for general permits” compared to the Army Corps. He also said he’s committed to seeking more resources if those are needed.

The corps in Alaska has a regulatory team of about 50 people and an annual budget of about $8.5 million for wetlands permitting, said John Budnik, a corps spokesperson.

Alaska wouldn’t be able to take over all wetlands permits; those affecting the ocean, tidally influenced wetlands and navigable rivers or lakes still must go through a federal process.

The Senate Finance Committee removed funding for the proposal from the draft of the state budget it is working on. The budget bill still needs to go the Senate floor for debate and possible amendments.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget are generally hashed out in a conference committee.

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, Senate Finance Committee co-chair, said in addition to costs associated with the proposal, he’s concerned about starting a major new project in the last year of a gubernatorial term. Dunleavy is seeking reelection this year.

“I think there’s a timing issue, there’s a budget growth issue, and there’s a lot of concern amongst my district as far as just DEC and EPA growth and involvement in the overall economy. I’m a little cautious,” Stedman said.


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