Proposed environmental rule changes threaten fish spawning areas in Alaska

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, together with the Alaska Department of Environmental  Conservation, are attempting to loosen water pollution standards in areas where fish spawn, according to Alaska Public Media

The rule change, initially proposed in 2006, would alter how the state enforces the Clean Water Act, which is the main tool used by federal agencies to regulate water standards. The change are designed to assist the state’s mining community, which has argued the current standards set in place by the Clean Water Act are too difficult to meet. 

“Alaska’s a beautiful, pristine place, and there is no pollution and certainly the background water quality is excellent,” said Frank Bergstrom, who has been active in Alaska’s mining industry for four decades. “So if you follow the Clean Water Act to the detail, you pretty much have to discharge distilled water.”

Alaska does allow “mixing zones,” which let industry sites such as mines and oil refineries to exceed the standards set by the Clean Water act in certain areas. These areas do not include spawning grounds, although in 2004, then-governor Frank Murkowski proposed overturning that ban.

The proposed changes to the mixing zone standard read as follows: “The mixing zone will not preclude or limit established processing activities or established commercial, sport, personal-use, or subsistence fish and shellfish harvesting; result in a reduction in fish or shellfish population levels; result in permanent or irreparable displacement of indigenous organisms… or form a barrier to migratory species or fish passage.”

Proponents of the revisions point to the fact that mixing zones will not be allowed in spawning areas for certain species including Arctic grayling, northern pike, lake trout, brook trout, anadromous or resident rainbow trout, Arctic char, cutthroat trout, burbot, and landlocked coho salmon, chinook salmon, or sockeye salmon.

Those against the ban are afraid that it would pave the way for controversial mining sites such as Pebble Mine, which many say would threaten Bristol Bay salmon.

“It’s something where you could basically drive a truck through the loophole,” Environmental lawyer Vicki Clark said.


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