JUNEAU (AP) -- The Environmental Protection Agency will allow timber companies to operate log transfer sites in Alaska waters, although it will take more public comment on new rules that govern the sites.
Concerns have been raised that heavy deposits of bark at the log transfer sites harm marine life, but timber companies say new rules for government permits protect the environment.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided last month that the Environmental Protection Agency should give people more time to comment on new rules governing wood waste at log transfer facilities in Alaska.
EPA attorney Lori Cora said the appeals court didn't vacate the permits, so they're still in effect. The agency will begin accepting public comment soon, said Bob Robichaud of the EPA's Seattle office.
''We'll re-advertise the public notice for the permit and take comment,'' he said. ''We have the responsibility to address the comments when they come in.''
Most of the state's 103 log-transfer facilities are in Southeast Alaska, with a few in Prince William Sound.
At a log transfer facility, logs are moved into the water and bundled into rafts for shipment. In the process, bark and other wood debris can pile up on the ocean floor.
The piles can ''smother'' clams, mussels, some seaweed, kelp and grasses, said Buck Lindekugel, an attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. The piles can hurt subsistence harvests, he said.
In the past, logging companies were allowed to cover one acre of the ocean floor with about four inches of waste. Under new EPA general permits and state guidelines, operators are allowed one acre of continuous coverage, plus additional deposits in the project area. If bark and debris exceed both one acre in size and four inches in thickness, an operator must submit a remediation plan.
SEACC and other groups sued over the changes in July 2000. The court last month remanded the permits back to the EPA to take comment on the ''project area'' definition.
Sealaska attorney Jon Tillinghast said discussions at the state level about discharge guidelines have helped resolve many environmental questions.
''It's fairly clear that we don't release harmful chemicals or have adverse effects on subsistence,'' Tillinghast said. ''We're not poisoning the water or killing fish.''
The Native corporation doesn't expect the ruling to affect its operations this year, he said, since most Sealaska sites have already gone through the process under the new permits.
Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, said the ruling shouldn't affect Southeast's five larger sawmills this year. The companies plan to transfer logs with barges, he said.
''In the future it could affect us because we do have some timber sales that transfer logs. But for the most part, we're looking at barging logs,'' he said.
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