Politics & Government

Alaska takes over mining wastewater discharge permits from EPA

The state is quietly taking over a key pollution-prevention program that the federal government has been running for decades.

As of Sunday, the state took control of the wastewater discharge permits for mining projects -- meaning that it will be in charge of regulating discharges from the massive Pebble copper and gold deposit in Southwest Alaska if it is ever developed into a mine.

Next year, same date, the state will take over wastewater permits for oil and gas projects.

The changes are under way because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2008 turned over its Clean Water Act authority for wastewater permitting and enforcement to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The state agency began taking over its duties in phases -- it already oversees wastewater from seafood processors, fish hatcheries and many sewage plants, for example.

Alaska is one of the last states to take over wastewater permitting from the federal government. The idea was originally studied during the Knowles administration. In 2005, during the administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Legislature authorized the DEC to apply to the EPA to take control. Then-Gov. Sarah Palin formally applied for the transfer of authority and the EPA approved the request in 2008. The Legislature boosted the DEC budget so the agency could add 13 positions to handle its new duties.

Though they didn't try to legally block the state from running the program, some environmental groups and Native organizations sued in 2008 to overturn the federal agency's decision. That case is still pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a ruling is expected any day, a state attorney said Monday.

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