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1409_Sustainer-Tiffany

Controversial Permitting Bill Back For Consideration

By | March 7, 2014 - 5:35 pm

After sitting in limbo for nearly a year, a controversial permitting bill is on the move again. House Bill 77 has been sent back to the Senate Resources Committee, and it’s scheduled for hearings next week.

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Joe Balash, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Photo courtesy State of Alaska.

Joe Balash, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Photo courtesy State of Alaska.

Gov. Sean Parnell introduced the bill last session, and he pitched it as a way of reducing the permitting backlog. But tribal organizations, fishing groups, and environmental outfits came out strongly against it. They argued it would limit public involvement in land management decisions and give the natural resources commissioner blanket authority to issue general permits.

Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash says a new version of the bill will be released on Monday and public testimony will be taken Wednesday. He says some of the more contentious provisions have been removed.

“What we did was sit down and figure out how it is we could still achieve our objectives and be responsive to those criticisms,” Balash said.

Balash says DNR will still be allowed to issue general permits for a wide variety of human activity, but those permits will get public notice and there will be an opportunity to appeal the initial permit. Language allowing DNR to override other state laws has been stripped. The commissioner will also have to consider “significant” or “irreparable” harm to habitat when issuing a permit. The previous version of the bill required environmental damage to hit both of those thresholds before it was sufficient to block a permit.

Balash says the new draft also allows individuals to apply for water reservations, which are usually used to protect fish habitat.

“We sat down and we really mapped out, ‘Okay, what’s our problem?’ Our problem isn’t that individuals are applying for reservations,” he said. “That’s not the problem. The real problem is those applications are being turned around and used a reason to stop all other permitting.”

Balash says that the process surrounding water reservations will be changed. He says if the bill passes, water right applications would no longer block other permits and temporary uses of water.

The bill has already passed the House, and but was unable to get enough votes in the Senate in its current form.

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