Changes to controversial development bill said to be "quite likely"

Zaz Hollander

PALMER -- A wide-ranging and contentious development bill is expected to get an overhaul this legislative session.

Amendments to House Bill 77 are "quite likely on some of the topics we're discussing here tonight," Brent Goodrum, director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water, said as a lively public forum got underway in Palmer Tuesday night.

The 24-page legislation includes the elimination of public notice and comment on certain permits and a ban on private citizens or nonprofit groups filing for water rights to protect salmon or recreation, giving that authority solely to federal, state and local governments.

The bill passed the House last session but stalled in the Senate, where it lacked the votes to pass. Over the interim, the bill took a beating in public meetings in Anchorage, Kenai and Homer, as well as at Palmer Tuesday. A key Republican senator, Peter Micciche of Soldotna, said he would only support an overhauled version.

With the legislative session getting underway this week, several members of the Senate Majority said Wednesday they planned to move the bill out of the Rules Committee where it stalled last session and into Senate Resources. Resources chair Sen. Cathy Giessel said she plans to hold hearings on the bill and review possible amendments before sending it back to Rules.

Wyn Menefee, the mining division's operations chief, predicted at Tuesday's forum that parts of the bill that "garnered the most discussion" during the interim could see some tinkering.

Among them: a provision that gives the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner authority to sign a general permit "notwithstanding" any other law.

That language is meant to target only one statute that references the permits, Menefee said. But outraged members of the public and legislators from both parties see it more broadly as giving the commissioner the ability to trump all laws.

"That wasn't our intent," he said. "We are working on trying to find another way to say it."

Also drawing fire from the public: the general permit provision itself, which gives the commissioner the power to issue a blanket permit for certain activities -- commercial storage, a public-use cabin -- provided they're unlikely to result in "significant and irreparable harm" to state land or resources. That cuts out public notice and comment as the activity proceeds over time, critics say. Another section of the bill limits appeals of agency decisions to participants in the official public comment period.

Valley residents at the Palmer forum castigated that language, calling the bill top-down government that "trades the voice of the people for faster permitting" and whittles away at public process instead of establishing better standards.

Several referenced local controversies that diminished their trust in DNR, including problems with law enforcement at the state-managed Knik River Public Use Area and concerns about coal mining proposals sharpened by the West Virginia coal-washing chemical spill that tainted drinking water for more than 300,000 people.

"This piece of legislation works against the people of Alaska," said Alice Ciostek, who lives on Buffalo Mine Road within a mile of a proposed Usibelli Coal mine. "It only removes us from the process of being an obstacle to fast-tracking development."

The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council asked state officials to come to Palmer, said Lisa Wade, a council member and health and social services director. An ongoing council salmon restoration project on Moose Creek near Sutton could be jeopardized by the bill's water rights changes, the council says.

"Whatever the intent is here, it's the interpretation that is causing us concern," Wade said as the forum wrapped up Tuesday night.

A backlog of permits, appeals and water rights applications motivated legislators to request changes, officials said Tuesday.

Three years ago, the Legislature told DNR to streamline permitting with an eye toward "legally defensible decisions in a timely manner," Goodrum said. Legislative appropriations allowed DNR to hire 34 additional staff, Menefee said after the forum ended. Lawmakers in 2012 also passed House Bill 361, which reduced permitting time.

Numerous questions at Tuesday's forum centered on the need for -- and beneficiaries of -- the permitting bill. It's widely assumed the bill came at least in part in response to permitting challenges facing the massive Chuitna coal mine across Cook Inlet near Tyonek.

The state's water resource section chief, Dave Schade, said after the forum that he supported the change to the water rights policy that's proposed in the permitting bill. He said he had legal concerns with the current law that allows private citizens to control a public resource like water.

The state officials also said that, while disgruntled permit applicants haven't filled public meetings, they make their concerns known.

Complaints from a company installing a fiber-optic cable along the coast of Western Alaska that it was losing $10,000 a day over paperwork delays also caught the attention of former DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan, Menefee said.

"That he deemed was quite unacceptable, which I would agree," he said.

Reporter Richard Mauer contributed from Juneau. Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.