Few things could be worse for Alaska business than polluting both the state's salmon spawning streams and its name. And yet that is what the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposes in the name of business.
DEC proposes the use of pollution mixing zones in spawning areas except where studies show an adverse effect to spawning and rearing of fish. It does not define ''adverse'' and leaves the state open to both the perception and the reality that its proudly pristine fish habitat is dirtied.
Mixing zones are places where regulators allow polluters to exceed usual discharge standards while the pollutants are diluted. They're used around the state but have not been allowed in spawning and rearing zones since 1997. Some placer miners and sewage plants have since run up against potentially costly treatment upgrades for pollution that is said to be unharmful to spawning. DEC officials point to a Valdez wastewater plant that would need $1 million in unnecessary improvements without a rule change.
And yet a blanket acceptance of mixing zones puts the state's fisheries unnecessarily at risk. At a Juneau hearing of the proposal last week, not a single person stood to speak in favor of the change. That's to be expected, given the region's historic reliance on fisheries. Juneau lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, rose to condemn the idea. Sen. Kim Elton, a former fisherman and representative of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, pointed out that polluted spawning and rearing zones could give Outside fish farmers room for argument that their product is cleaner than Alaska's wild fish. Alaska has spent millions of dollars marketing its salmon as a clean, healthful alternative to pen-reared fish.
Juneau would get no benefit from the rule change. Its sewage treatment plants all discharge into areas free of salmon spawning.
Officials with Coeur Alaska's proposed Kensington gold mine near Berners Bay say they see no application of the rule change in their project. But mine pollution is exactly the problem that Alaska fishermen and fisheries managers are fighting just across the border. Mixing zones are allowed in British Columbian streams and would be used in a Tulsequah Chief mine that could threaten productivity of one of Alaska's most important salmon streams, the Taku River. Fishermen have enough of a fight on their hands in Canada without having to prove adverse effects of mine discharge if they want to uphold pollution standards in their own state's spawning grounds.
DEC's critics have said it is unfair to consider this proposal in the middle of the commercial fishing season and expect all public comments by Sept. 10. They want an extension, and they deserve that at the least. Better still, drop the proposal altogether.
The Juneau Empire - Aug. 29
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