ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles signed a bill Wednesday that environmentalists claim rolls back a court decision about what ''best available technology'' means in regulating how oil companies clean up spills.
The state Supreme Court two months ago ruled that Alaska environmental regulators were not using a clear definition to enforce a law that requires companies to use the ''best'' technology in oil spill response plans.
Knowles, lawmakers and the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the new law clarifies the definition.
''This law is not a rollback as some are calling it,'' said Michele Brown, DEC commissioner. ''What the Legislature has said is that, 'We agree with the Supreme Court that we were not explicit in the original statute, and we've corrected that.'''
Since 1980, Alaska oil companies have been required to file plans for cleaning up oil spills. They must use the ''best available technology.'' The standard changes as technology and know-how changes and in recent years has meant oil shippers in Prince William Sound have had to deploy specially equipped tug boat escorts, among other requirements.
Lawmakers tightened the law in 1990 as part of a revision to Alaska's oil spill prevention program following the Exxon Valdez spill. DEC regulations then deemed companies are using the best technology if they demonstrate they can clean up a spill in a certain time.
Tom Lakosh, an oil watchdog since the Exxon Valdez spill, disagreed and sued DEC in 1997. He lost in Superior Court but prevailed in February, when the Supreme Court sided with him.
''There are technologies that can work in Alaska conditions better than what we have,'' Lakosh said Wednesday. ''We have to develop these technologies because we are so helpless to spills.''
DEC officials responded to the court decision by lobbying to revise the law. The bill signed Wednesday adopts the standard DEC has been using to define best technology, guidelines that DEC and Knowles officials said were developed under the direction of government, industry, environmentalists and others.
A citizens' watchdog group set up after the Exxon spill said the law may give DEC too much discretion in deciding what qualifies as best available technology.
''We didn't come out in opposition against this bill, but we didn't like it,'' said Stan Jones of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.
On the eve of the U.S. Senate vote on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with promises that the refuge could be developed safely, the state is rolling back its response requirement for spills, said Randy Virgin, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.
''Alaska is talking out of both sides of its mouth,'' he said.
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