Senate passes bill aimed at environmental suits on drilling, munitions

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state Senate took action Friday to undo an Alaska Supreme Court decision on permitting requirements for the discharge of oil drilling wastes in Cook Inlet.

The measure was tacked on as a last-minute amendment to a bill exempting military bases from state waste disposal permitting requirements. Both measures, sponsored by Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, take aim at lawsuits filed by environmental groups. The bill passed by a vote of 15-3.

Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, called the lawsuits ''one more example of paralysis by analysis.''

The action on permitting for drilling wastes was in response to a Supreme Court decision handed down May 3.

The court ruled unanimously that state regulators erred when they decided to allow the discharge of drilling mud and rock cuttings from Forest Oil's Osprey Platform in Cook Inlet under a general discharge permit issued by the federal government.

The high court ruled that the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Act required a project-specific review.

Therriault argued that the court decision added another layer of review to the permitting process and puts into doubt the validity of an unknown number of oil and gas projects within the Alaska Coastal Management Program. The bill would make no change to the way permitting laws have been interpreted by the Knowles administration, Therriault said.

The lawsuit was filed by the environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper. Bob Shavelson, executive director of the group, said the bill would effectively gut a unanimous Supreme Court decision. He also took issue with the fact that the amendment was unavailable to the public before its introduction on the Senate floor.

''It's incredibly undemocratic for the higher house of our Legislature to pass out a bill that the public never even had an opportunity to see the language of. It appears that the Senate would like to do away with the judiciary branch.

In addition to undoing the court decision, the bill would render moot a lawsuit filed by Cook Inlet Keeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Military Toxics Project and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.

The lawsuit sought to have the military stop using the 2,500-acre Eagle River Flats firing range at Fort Richardson and clean up unexploded munitions on the range.

The bill, introduced at the request of the military, would exempt active military ranges, such as the Fort Richardson range, from state waste disposal permits.

The bill is intended to ''ensure the state's own statutes aren't used to threaten the future viability of our bases,'' said Therriault said in his sponsor statement.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who voted against the measure, filed notice that he would bring it up for reconsideration, meaning it could come up for a vote again. Among Ellis' objections was the addition of the amendment dealing with permitting.

''What's basically proposed here is a whole new bill,'' Ellis said.

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