A pair of bills filed by members of the Kenai Peninsula legislative contingent would prohibit mixing zones in Alaska’s freshwater spawning areas, countering regulatory changes being considered by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, filed his measure, Senate Bill 255, on Monday. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, pre-filed his Dec. 30.
For more than a year, the ADEC has been trying to develop less-restrictive regulations that would permit mixing zones in rivers and streams where current law forbids them. Mixing zones are stretches of flowing water where high concentrations of pollutants could be discharged on the theory that, beyond a certain distance from an effluent pipe, those pollutants would dilute to safe levels.
The ADEC’s proposals have been met with vocal protest by fishing groups and environmental organizations as well as municipal and state lawmakers who have expressed concern that allowing mixing zones in currently clean water would not only endanger fish stocks unnecessarily, but also serve to thwart costly ongoing programs to promote Alaska’s wild salmon on the world market as coming from pristine waters.
The companion bills would specifically bar the department from authorizing mixing zones in lakes, streams, rivers or other flowing fresh water where there is anadromous fish spawning, or in resident fish “redds” (spawning nests made by a fish, especially salmon or trout) for a dozen species of fish. They are: Arctic char, Arctic grayling, brook trout, burbot, cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden, lake trout, landlocked coho, king and sockeye salmon, northern pike, rainbow trout, sheefish or whitefish.
Some mixing zone activity in marine waters and certain fresh waters is allowed under current regulations.
The Soldotna Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facility, for instance, has a mixing zone permit covering discharge of certain pollutants. Soldotna’s zone is an area extending downstream from the diffuser a distance of 47 meters with a width of five meters and provides a dilution factor of 30 to 1, according to ADEC.
While current regulations allow mixing zones in streams and rivers containing salmon, they do not allow the activity in spawning areas for salmon and specified resident fish.
New regulations under consideration would make that possible, and Stevens and Seaton want to nip that in the bud, leaving current regulations in place.
“This is something to be very careful about,” Stevens said Monday. “I think the current law is good, solid and strong.”
“Over the last year, we have made a lot of headway in marketing Alaska’s wild salmon,” he said. “Fishermen have worked hard to improve the quality.”
Awareness by potential buyers that salmon or other species had been hatched and reared where pollutants were purposely discharged would be counterproductive to that marketing effort, he said.
“It would be going backwards,” he said. “This (the bill) would make sure this wouldn’t happen.”
Stevens said pressure on ADEC to relax mixing zone restrictions is likely coming from several directions, including Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration, but also mining interests.
“I suspect there are probably others out there encouraging it that we don’t know about,” he added.
Stevens said he believes the chances of passage of his or Seaton’s version is very good.
“We had lots of support from legislators around the state last year. I don’t think we have lost that support,” he said.
He also noted municipal support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the cities of Homer, Kodiak and Seward for not expanding the use of mixing zones
“Our plan is to introduce this in both houses and move it through as soon as we can so that if we have to deal with a veto we would have time to do that,” Stevens said.
DEC officials have said that while treated wastewater does not have to meet the strictest water quality standards inside permitted mixing zones, qualifying for a permit currently requires that “discharges first be treated to high standards and pass a multiple-part test to ensure there are no impacts to fish, other aquatic life, humans and other water users.”
Water Division Director Lynn Kent said in a recent press release that, “mixing zones are not granted as favors to industry as some have claimed.”
Mixing zones, she said, are common throughout the nation.
The comment period on the new regulations ended in December.
ADEC Environmental Protection Specialist Nancy Sonafrank said the next step would be to analyze the comments, make adjustments to the regulations accordingly, and turn them over to ADEC Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson for adoption.
The regulations would then be reviewed by the Department of Law and any necessary changes made before re-adoption by the commissioner. They would then be filed with the lieutenant governor’s office, making them official. They would go into effect 30 days after that, Sonafrank said.
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