The commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation stressed last week that no matter what cuts are made to state government, DEC remains committed to protecting Cook Inlet from harmful oil spills.
"I disagree with those who say we cannot afford to invest limited state funds in protecting Alaska's environment," Ernesta Ballard said at the annual meeting of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council on Friday.
Ballard said DEC has been asked to submit two budgets to Gov. Frank Murkowski one that reflects a 19 percent cut and one that would continue the current level of funding. She said that in both budgets, protections will remain in place in Cook Inlet and statewide.
"At the Department of Environ-mental Conservation, we made our contribution to the so-called "B" budget by preserving only air and water pollution control and sanitary regulations to protect public health," she said.
She said the state remains committed to carrying out the responsibilities it has under the federal Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. As such, she said the Murkowski administration is seeking to increase the level of state involvement in spill prevention in order to ensure disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill are avoided.
"Gov. Frank Murkowski retains his commitment to protecting Alaska's environment from spilled oil," she said.
DEC is doing that, she said, by increasing the amount of spill prevention exercises across Alaska. She pointed to the fact that the 2004 budget calls for an increase by 45 percent in the amount of spill drills and exercises it conducts.
She also said DEC has in-creased the number of inspections it conducts to oil vessels and facilities statewide by more than 60 percent.
Ballard also said the state is making an effort to further its involvement in water quality issues by introducing House Bill 524 before the Legislature, which would expand DEC's pollution control abilities.
The increase in DEC involvement, Ballard said, is the state's way of taking the lead role in water protection as laid out in the Clean Water Act.
"We will continue to expand and streamline our permitting process until we have assumed full responsibility for the important state role envisioned in the Act," she said.
However, Ballard said, no amount of state oversight can replace local advisory groups like CIRCAC. She stressed that she believes such boards are crucial to protecting the state's water resources from catastrophic spills and encouraged CIRCAC to continue working to protect the Cook Inlet basin.
"Local knowledge of local resources is an important component of the state's spill response strategy," Ballard said. "... CIRCAC is a valued state partner."
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