JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Gov. Sean Parnell has introduced legislation aimed at improving the permitting process in Alaska, but critics fear it will hurt the public's ability to participate in permitting decisions.
SB26 seeks to build upon efforts in recent years to eat into a backlog of permits and authorizations and to make the process more efficient. It is one of at least three permitting-related bills introduced by the governor this year. One of the others, SB27, which would allow the state to evaluate and take steps to assume primacy from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the dredge and fill permitting program, was heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
SB26 is extensive, touching on things like land exchanges and permitting procedures. The bill would allow the Natural Resources commissioner to issue general permits if the activity is unlikely to cause "significant and irreparable harm" to state land or resources. The department, in a briefing paper, said that while there is arguably already the authority in law to do general permits, "it is not explicitly called out." General permits would not be applicable to lands designated for game refuges, forestry, state parks and coal mining, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Some of the more controversial provisions of the bill would limit administrative appeals to people "substantially and adversely affected" by a decision, who "meaningfully participated" in the public comment process, and not those who just disagree with an action. The bill would also remove the ability of individuals or groups to apply for water reservations, to maintain or protect certain water levels for purposes such as protecting fish habitat, recreation and water quality.
Parnell, in his transmittal letter, said the measure "encourages responsible development of our State land and water resources. An efficient permitting process with clear rules contributes to Alaskan economic growth and creates more Alaskan business opportunities."
"I think that this is a piece of legislation that has a lot to do with blocking opposition to specific projects in Alaska, and I think Chuitna and Pebble are probably what it's all about," said Lindsey Bloom, an organizer with Trout Unlimited. Chuitna refers to a proposed coal-mining project in south-central Alaska and Pebble, to the proposed gold and copper mine near the headwaters of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries.
Of the 35 pending water reservation applicants from individuals or groups, most — 22 — are in the vicinity of or could impact Pebble, including 11 from Trout Unlimited, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Three applications could impact the coal project. Applications date back to 1992 though most are from the past several years, from around 2007 on.