Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials on Monday unveiled a new set of amendments to the mixing-zone provisions of Alaska’s water quality standards that could permit the discharge of industrial and sewage treatment plant wastewater into anadromous fish-spawning areas under some circumstances.
A mixing zone is an area of water into which a long pipe carries effluent that is dispersed by currents so that concentrations of contaminants fall to acceptable levels at a specific distance from the pipe end. Mixing zones effectively allow for confined areas in which high concentrations of pollutants may occur.
Water-quality amendments proposed in 2004 aimed to remove the state’s existing outright ban on discharging into anadromous or resident fish spawning areas. The idea of allowing pollutants into spawning areas, however, drew so much negative comment and opposition that DEC officials went back to the drawing board.
In a press conference Monday morning, DEC officials presented the revised proposed amendments, which now begin a 60-day public comment period.
The new 2005 revisions retain the existing general prohibition on mixing zones in spawning areas for specific species in streams, rivers or other flowing fresh waters, and have added lakes where spawning occurs.
However, the new language allows for exemptions from the prohibition. Permit applicants would have to comply with provisions of the mixing zone regulations and make one of three specific demonstrations to gain an exemption, DEC said. An applicant would have to show that:
· Discharges were timed to avoid spawning and would not adversely affect an area’s ability to support spawning, incubation and rearing in the future; or
That discharges did not contain substances that adversely affect present and future spawning; or
That they had a mitigation plan approved by the Alaska Department of Natural Re-sources or Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Background information provided by DEC before the press conference included several pages of revised text, including how a project might be exempted from the prohibition.
Provisions having to do with mitigation measures an applicant might employ to demonstrate overall compliance with the law were less than clear.
A mitigation plan would be required to include one or more of the following: Avoiding impact by not taking certain actions; minimizing impact by limiting the degree or magnitude of the action; rectifying the impact by repairs, rehabilitation or restoration of impacted environments; reducing or eliminating impact over time; or compensating for the impact by replacing or providing substitute resources or environments.
It was that last provision that drew the most attention. Interpreted broadly, a development could be permitted even where there was no practical proof a mitigation plan’s proposed compensation could work. Further, DEC officials acknowledged that mitigation could mean replacing lost spawning capability in one stream with a man-made spawning area in a stream completely removed from the impact stream.
Asked if the state could point to a man-made spawning area that had successfully balanced the loss of an area due to industrial development, DEC officials could not.
Apparently, industry isn’t lining up to establish mixing zones in spawning areas. Lynn Kent, director of DEC’s Division of Water, said it had been state permitting staffers who saw a problem in the current regulations’ inability to exempt projects from the outright ban, even where there might be legitimate reasons.
She said a Valdez sewage treatment plant ran into difficulty with the state regulations when salmon began spawning where discharge was already occurring. But such examples are rare, she acknowledged.
Dan Easton, deputy commissioner of DEC, said state regulations concerning mixing zones, which have been used in Alaska for decades, needed to be clearer and less strict with regard to anadromous waterways.
“A flat-out prohibition isn’t necessary to protect fish,” he said.
Mixing zones are commonly authorized in marine waters, but occasionally have been permitted in salmon-bearing rivers and streams, though not in spawning areas.
About 185 seafood plants across the state fall under the state’s general permit for shore-based facilities. A mixing zone was allowed for municipal wastewater in the Mendenhall River for certain effluent. Soldotna’s wastewater treatment plant has a similar permit.
Others using mixing zones include fish hatcheries, oil and gas facilities, mining operations and other industrial facilities.
Easton said there was a need to allow mixing zones in spawning areas “under carefully scripted conditions.” A majority of Alaska villages discharge sewage lagoons into freshwater, he noted, but they time those events to avoid spawning seasons. Easton suggested a mixing zone might be a better solution.
Under the new regulations, the state would retain the ability to outright deny a proposed activity.
What you should know The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is planning three workshops to discuss the proposed new rules for mixing zones: In Juneau on Nov. 30, in Fairbanks on Dec. 1 and in An-chorage on Dec. 5 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Legislative Information Office at 716 W. 4th Ave., Suite 200. There will be a statewide teleconference on that date.
A formal public hearing is scheduled immediately following the Anchorage workshop.
The public comment period closes Dec. 19.
For more information, visit the DEC Web site at www.dec.state.ak.us/water/wqsar/trireview/mixingzones.htm.
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