Gov. Tony Knowles signed a bill Friday effectively reversing a decision by the Alaska Supreme Court that the state had failed to live up to the tenets of its own environmental statutes and policies when it OK'd a Forest Oil Corp. drilling operation in Cook Inlet in 1999.
The bill also exempted the use of munitions on military practice ranges from state environmental permitting requirements.
Critics call the bill a one-two punch to coastal protection. Knowles defended the action as upholding long-standing practices.
By codifying certain Alaska Coastal Management Program practices, Senate Bill 371 ensures timely permitting processes for oil and gas development while also protecting the environment, he said in a press release.
The law was retroactive and effectively trumped a May court ruling that had vacated a September 1999 determination by the Division of Governmental Coordination that Forest Oil's exploration well project on its Osprey platform was consistent with provisions of the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Act.
Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental watchdog group based in Homer, sued the state in October 1999 claiming the state's review of Forest Oil's Osprey project was flawed. The state, Keeper said, failed to assess potential impacts from Osprey's toxic drilling wastes on Cook Inlet habitats and resources and did not consider the project's consistency with the management program standard for protecting coastal habitats.
The division did not do a consistency determination of it own, but instead relied on an existing federal general discharge permit that had already met consistency requirements, a long-standing practice, according to Knowles.
The court's interpretation, Knowles said, could have had serious implications for development in Alaska.
"This bill clarifies that it is within the coordinating agency's discretion to exclude such activities from a project review," Knowles said. "This clarification is necessary because the implications of the court decision on the state's permitting system go far beyond the subject matter of this particular case. It could jeopardize oil and gas permits as well as other resource development activities."
The new law also exempts the use of munitions in military training exercises on active ranges from the state Department of Environ-mental Conservation permitting requirements. In the past, the DEC has interpreted the state law in a way that has not interfered with firing ranges operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, Knowles said.
Cook Inlet Keeper and Alaska Community Action on Toxics condemned enactment of what they deemed special interest legislation and warned it would undermine important Alaska laws designed to protect Alaskans and their fisheries from toxic pollution.
"The governor was so embarrassed by signing this bill he waited until late Friday afternoon to announce it," said Keeper Director Bob Shavelson in a press release. "And he should be ashamed: despite his seat on the esteemed Pew Oceans Commission, this bill deals a one-two punch to fisheries and coastal resource protection throughout the state."
The "Forest Oil amendment," as Shavelson called it, will exempt from specific review large polluting facilities, such as offshore oil and gas platforms, in Alaska's coastal zone, Shavelson said.
The oil industry had the governor and the Legislature "wrapped around its finger," he said, calling passage of the law a "brazen display of political influence."
"It's is a sad day in Alaska when the protection of our fisheries -- and the families and communities they support -- take a back seat to money and politics," Shavelson said.
On the issue of munitions use, the bill's eventual affect on another suit over toxic dumping by the military at Eagle River Flats is unclear, but SB 371 has not rendered it moot, said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
In an action filed in Federal District Court in Anchorage on April 12, the toxics group, Keeper, the Chickaloon Village Tribe and the Military Toxics Project, sued the U.S. Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Defense and Donald Rumsfeld in his capacity as Secretary of Defense seeking to ensure a proper cleanup of the Eagle River range.
"SB 371 does not affect our primary claims under the Clean Water Act and Superfund laws," Miller said.
"Our Clean Water Act claim is brought using the citizens' suit provisions of the act. We are seeking to hold the military accountable for the cleanup of the more than 10,000 unexploded munitions at Eagle River Flats and to require that they get a permit under the Clean Water Act for the discharge of hazardous materials into the estuary."
Miller decried the action taken by state lawmakers in passing SB 371.
"The Legislature could not get to these federal claims, thus they focused on the state's authority to issue solid waste disposal permits. The Department of Defense clearly sought this exemption in direct response to our lawsuit, in apparent violation of federal laws which prohibit such direct lobbying.
"The lawsuit simply asks the military to tell the public how much toxic pollution it is dumping into our environment. With over 700 military toxic sites in Alaska already, this law opens the door to countless additional toxic dump sites throughout the state," Miller said. "And if we sacrifice our right to know about toxic pollution and dismantle the laws which make our state and our nation great, the terrorists win."
Shavelson said Congress already has given the president the authority to override environmental laws for national security. Signing SB 371 into law makes Alaska the first state in the union to exempt the military from environmental laws.
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