Groups seek more time for comment on pipeline renewal

Posted: Tuesday, July 23, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- More than 20 environmental, Native and community groups are asking Interior Secretary Gale Norton to give the public more time to comment on the trans-Alaska pipeline right-of-way renewal process.

The 45-day comment period began July 5 with publication of a draft environmental impact statement produced by Argonne National Laboratory for the Bureau of Land Management.

An Anchorage spokesman for the Joint Pipeline Office, a state-federal organization created to oversee the pipeline, said the requests to extend the comment period would be considered at higher levels in the Interior Department.

Tanana Chiefs Conference President Buddy Brown, in a July 15 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, said the impact statement discusses the ways in which the pipeline right-of-way renewal would affect subsistence activities. Summer is a busy time for people engaged in that lifestyle, so the comment period should be extended, he said.

Nineteen environmental, watchdog and Native organizations also wrote a letter to Norton, emphasizing the large size of the document and expressing their desire to use it as a vehicle for more rules on pipeline operations.

''This renewal process is our main instrument for protecting the many priceless natural resources at risk from oil spills along the pipeline or tanker route for the next 30 years,'' said John Devens, executive director of the Prince William Sound Citizens Advisory Council.

The council is a watchdog group authorized by Congress and funded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the pipeline's operator.

The Northern Alaska Environmental Center, based in Fairbanks, was also among the groups seeking an extension of the public comment period.

''We're talking about a potential 30-year renewal, an 800-mile-long pipeline and a 1,000-page document,'' said Deb Moore, Arctic coordinator for the Northern Center.

''Forty-five days is simply too short of a time period for the public to read, digest and comment intelligently on the information provided.''

The Alaska Federation of Natives and the Association of ANCSA Regional Corporation Presidents and CEOs Inc., also sent letters seeking an extension.

The ANCSA group represents the heads of the 13 for-profit Native corporations created by Congress in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The corporation presidents said Argonne's analysis of the subsistence impacts of the pipeline may need more work.

''To our knowledge, the firm had no previous experience with subsistence prior to taking on this project,'' wrote the group's executive director, Vicki Otte.

Most of the groups asked Norton to double the comment period to 90 days. Otte sought to have it more-than doubled to 120 days.

Rob McWhorter with the Joint Pipeline Office in Anchorage said BLM and Interior officials would consider the requests. The pipeline's first 30-year right-of-way grant and lease came from the federal and state governments, respectively, in 1974 as construction began.

Pipeline owners last year requested another 30 years from the state and federal government.

The federal government's draft impact statement issued July 5 says the ''preferred alternative'' is to renew the grant for another 30 years. The commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources issued a proposed decision favoring a 30-year lease on the same day.

Neither the state nor federal documents propose any major new regulatory obligations for the pipeline. JPO officials have said that's because the right-of-way renewal is a fairly narrow action and some of the issues raised during hearings to date should be handled in a different forum.

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