State now controls mining wastewater discharge permits

Elizabeth Bluemink

The state is quietly taking over a key pollution-prevention program that the federal government has been running for decades.

As of Sunday, the state took control of the wastewater discharge permits for mining projects -- meaning that it will be in charge of regulating discharges from the massive Pebble copper and gold deposit in Southwest Alaska if it is ever developed into a mine.

Next year, same date, the state will take over wastewater permits for oil and gas projects.

The changes are under way because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2008 turned over its Clean Water Act authority for wastewater permitting and enforcement to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The state agency began taking over its duties in phases -- it already oversees wastewater from seafood processors, fish hatcheries and many sewage plants, for example.

Alaska is one of the last states to take over wastewater permitting from the federal government. The idea was originally studied during the Knowles administration. In 2005, during the administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Legislature authorized the DEC to apply to the EPA to take control. Then-Gov. Sarah Palin formally applied for the transfer of authority and the EPA approved the request in 2008. The Legislature boosted the DEC budget so the agency could add 13 positions to handle its new duties.

Though they didn't try to legally block the state from running the program, some environmental groups and Native organizations sued in 2008 to overturn the federal agency's decision. That case is still pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a ruling is expected any day, a state attorney said Monday.

Environmentalists involved in the case say the state is too lax on polluters. Some Native organizations are involved because they are concerned about major mining projects such as Pebble. Tribes are also upset because the state doesn't formally consult with tribal organizations on a government-to-government basis.

The DEC said it has designated an employee to do tribal outreach, letting villages and Native organizations know ahead of time about permits the agency is working on.

The groups appealing the EPA decision include tribal governments in Dillingham, Nondalton and Akiak; a coalition of Bristol Bay Native village corporations; and several environmental nonprofits, including Homer-based Cook Inletkeeper and the national Center for Biological Diversity.

So far, the EPA is pleased with how the DEC has handled its wastewater permitting duties, said Mike Bussell, who runs the agency's regional Office of Water and Watersheds in Seattle.

The agency still plans to play a major role in mining projects, he said, noting that the EPA's proposed wastewater permit for the Red Dog zinc and lead mine near Kotzebue -- the subject of a pending environmental lawsuit -- will remain under EPA control until that case is resolved. On the other hand, the DEC is expected to take over wastewater permits that will need to be renewed soon for the Greens Creek silver mine and Kensington gold mine near Juneau.

Bussell said his agency can block a state-issued wastewater permit if it doesn't meet Clean Water Act requirements. That permit would not go forward until the state fixed it, Bussell said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.