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Alaska's senators look to overturn last-minute Obama administration regulations

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: December 19, 2016
  • Published December 19, 2016

WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators are preparing to fight off last-minute regulations that the Obama administration is rolling out at the end of the president's term, including two new environmental provisions released in recent days.

Late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency released a regulation placing limits on burning waste, as is done in some small rural Alaska communities.

Then, on Monday, the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement released a "stream buffer" rule eight years in the making that limits large-scale mining near streams and tributaries. It will go into effect on Jan. 19, one day before Donald Trump's inauguration.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the Interior Department, said she "can assure Alaskans that Congress will work to overturn this rule, and we will urge the new administration to follow the law as it considers next steps."

The so-called "stream buffer" rule could be retracted by the Senate using the Congressional Review Act, which allows legislators to retract a federal rule within 60 legislative days of its release. In the two-decade history of the law, only one rule (on workplace ergonomics) has actually been overturned by a CRA vote, even though it only requires a simple majority to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, pledged Monday to "introduce a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to overturn this egregious regulation and work with my colleagues to use every tool available to turn back this regulatory assault on coal country."

The rule released Monday is a less-stringent version than one proposed in July 2015, but it is still tighter than regulations finalized (and later undone) by the George W. Bush administration in 2008.

Both Murkowski and Republican Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan argued that the federal agency did little to substantively work with state governments and other groups that wanted to provide insight on the rule.

Murkowski said the rule was "yet another example of this administration's unilateral efforts to bypass Congress and the states to impose rules that will have severe impacts on the economic well-being of our country — in this case by shutting down coal mining in several regions of the U.S., including Alaska."

"I hope that my colleagues in Congress and the incoming administration can work swiftly to kill this last gasp of bureaucratic overreach," Sullivan said Monday in response to the new Interior Department rule. "We need to reduce and modernize regulatory requirements, not create a maze of duplicative, conflicting, and industry killing regulations."

Sullivan said the rule was part of an Obama administration legacy that includes "pushing its ideologically driven eight-year war on coal."

"This rule was written behind closed doors, ignores nearly all input from state regulators, and is specifically intended to put coal miners out of work," Murkowski said.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, argue that the rule would prevent mining companies from depositing toxic mining byproducts, such as mercury and arsenic, into waterways.

The regulation revises a rule that has remained unchanged — but for a brief, retracted regulation issued in 2008 — to set new requirements for testing and monitoring streams that could be impacted by nearby mining, and sets standards for protection and restoration of those waterways.

In an interview earlier this month, Sullivan listed the stream rule as one that he hoped to overturn in the next Congress. When a reporter noted that a final rule had not been released despite years of discussion, he predicted Monday's result: "But they're gonna," he said.

On Friday, Murkowski also issued a statement decrying a new proposed — but not final — EPA plan for regulating "commercial and industrial solid waste incineration units," which are used to burn trash in remote areas where traditional methods of disposing of trash are unavailable.

"I am extremely disappointed that the EPA has chosen to push forward with a proposal that appears to do nothing to improve Alaskans' ability to dispose of waste in a safe and responsible manner," Murkowski said. "We have asked for cooperation on small remote incinerators, a uniquely Alaskan dilemma, for years and have yet to receive any assurances from the EPA that they have a workable solution," she said.

Murkowski said she would continue to review the proposal and seek "relief" for Alaskans.

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