Keeper opposes proposed water quality standards

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing revisions to state water quality standards for mixing zones, areas where the discharge from industrial operations such as mining, seafood processing, oil and gas production and sewage treatment are diluted by the receiving waters.

The proposal has drawn fire from Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental group that monitors the water quality of the Cook Inlet watershed. Keeper said DEC undermines water protection standards every time it issues a mixing zone permit.

Current regulations prohibit mixing zones in rivers and streams where fish spawn even where a mixing zone could be shown to have no effect on spawning. According to a summary of the proposed revisions, DEC officials want to lift the absolute ban in favor of language permitting mixing zones with rules to prevent adverse effects.

The DEC also wants to reorganize the mixing zone standards into one section of the Water Quality Standards code and remove provisions agency officials say go beyond regulation technical language dealing with risk assessment procedures, acceptable mixing and flow models and low-flow calculations. Those would be relegated to the status of "agency guidance," allowing DEC staff to exercise some judgment regarding proposed new mixing zones, the agency said.

A public comment period continues through Sept. 10.

Bob Shavelson, head of Cook Inlet Keeper, decried the proposed changes.

"No other administration has been foolish enough to lift the ban on mixing zones in salmon streams," he said. "The reason for that is that we have been fighting an epic battle with farmed salmon. We've responded with an effective marketing campaign to brand Alaska salmon as clean, healthy and fresh. Marketing is about perception. With this effort, there is another label Alaska salmon can wear, and that will be a pollution label."

Current regulations require any facility discharging treated wastewater into surface waters the ocean, streams or rivers to have a permit. Where pollutants in the wastewater exceed water quality standards, those permits include a mixing-zone authorization. Thus, every permit issued means standards meant to protect fish and people will be violated, Shavelson said.

"They embrace this convenient loophole called a mixing zone and fall back on the old, tired notion that dilution is the solution to pollution," he said. "It is a legal fiction that has been created to circumvent the laudable goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act."

Under heavy pressure from industry, he said, the mixing-zone exception has become the rule in Alaska.

"Our state agency is complicit in undermining standards to protect people, fish and water quality every time they approve a mixing zone," Shavelson said.

The current law specifically prohibits mixing zones where anadromous (migrating) fish spawn, as well where resident fish spawn including arctic grayling, northern pike, rainbow trout, lake trout, brook trout, cutthroat trout, whitefish, sheefish, arctic char (Dolly Varden), burbot and landlocked coho, king and sockeye salmon.

According to the summary of proposed revisions available on the DEC Web site, the agency envisions three situations where mixing zones could be allowed in spawning areas. First, mixing zones would be allowed for specific pollutants that don't harm fish, such as bacteria from community wastewater treatment plants, the agency said; second, discharges could be timed to avoid spawning seasons; and third, the designs of proposed projects seeking mixing zone permits could include habitat improvements meant to offset adverse effects.

A draft guidance document also available on the DEC Web site proposes that mixing zones not cause adverse effects on the ability of an area to support spawning, incubation or rearing on anadromous or resident fish.

If a mixing zone were to be proposed for a spawning area, the DEC's Division of Water would consult with the Alaska Department of Natural Re-sources' Office of Habitat Management and Permitting and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Sport Fish about potential adverse effects and any additional measures needed to offset those effects.

The proposed regulations would prohibit mixing zones presenting an "unacceptable risk to human health." The DEC may require site-specific analyses by permit applicants.

Ron Klein, program manager for the Water Quality Assessment Monitoring Program, said Tuesday there were no new applications for mixing zone permits driving the proposed changes.

The proposed amendments resulted from a regular triennial review of Alaska Water Quality Standards.

Comments may be sent to Nancy Sonafrank, 610 University Drive, Fairbanks, AK 99709, or send e-mail to nancy_son

Public hearings are scheduled at the Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau Legislative Information Offices from 4 to 6 p.m. Aug. 24, 25 and 26, respectively. Comments may be phoned in from home to any one of the three hearings by calling (800) 385-5073. Call by 4 p.m. to register you intent to testify.

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