Controversial amendments Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration argues would improve to the Alaska Coastal Management Program by reducing regulatory duplication and speeding up project permitting appear headed for federal approval.
A draft federal environmental impact statement, or EIS, recently released by the federal Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) says adopting the proposed state amendments was the preferred alternative among three possible actions that could be taken by its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which ultimately must decide whether incorporating the proposed amendments would leave the revised Alaska Coastal Management Program (ACMP) consistent with the requirements of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.
"I am gratified with this timely determination, which is an important step in fulfilling the reforms of the state's program that the Legislature and I have worked so hard to achieve," Murkowski said in a prepared statement released last week.
Two other alternatives were considered by the OCRM. They included: taking no official action on the state's amendments (in which case after some delay they would eventually become law), or outright rejecting the state's amendments and sending them back for further revisions. But each would produce untenable results.
A measure signed into law earlier this year, however, triggers
repeal of the state's coastal management program in May (effective July 1, 2010) if OCRM fails to complete its review and recommend approval of the state's amendments by Dec. 31, 2005.
Among other things, that would render the state ineligible for federal funding through agencies administering the Coastal Zone Management Act, funding that has meant nearly $160 million in federal aid for Alaska coastal programs since 1974.
The draft environmental impact statement is now in a 45-day public comment period. Public hearings are scheduled for Oct. 31 in Juneau and Nov. 1 in Anchorage.
Efforts to rewrite the state's coastal management plan began in 2003 when the Legislature passed House Bill 191 in an effort to streamline the state's resource development permitting process.
OCRM officials at first resisted changes proposed by the state, largely because they would reduce participation in decision-making by citizens and local municipalities.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources submitted revised amendments in December of last year, but again they met with federal rejection.
Irritated, Murkowski threatened to let the state's participation in the federal program lapse. OCRM officials backed off, issuing a preliminary approval of the regulatory amendments in April even as discussions continued on remaining difficulties.
By May, however, Murkowski was affixing his signature to Senate Bill 102, which included the provision mandating the repeal and termination of the Alaska Coastal Management Program if OCRM failed to meet the state's deadline.
According to the draft EIS, taking that action would result in "repeal and termination of all of the ACMP standards, district programs, the federal consistency provisions, and shared federal-state funding under the Coastal Zone Management Act."
That could be avoided, the draft noted, if the Alaska Legislature revised the effects of SB 102 during the next session.
While accepting Alaska's proposed amendments was labeled the preferred alternative, federal reviewers said they represented "one of the most comprehensive changes to a state coastal program in the history of the Coastal Zone Management Act."
Still, the draft EIS found some merit in the state's proposals. It said, for instance, that the lack of predictability in the state's permitting laws (which revisions are meant to correct) likely was causing apprehension in industries considering investment in Alaska.
Further, the draft noted the Murkowski administration's assertion that applicable statewide standards and enforceable policies written into local district plans were confusing and duplicative of existing state and federal rules and were causing costly delays in project design, location and review.
Those issues are addressed in Alaska's amendments.
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