Politics, not Science, Define Alaska’s Permitting Process
At Inletkeeper, we often talk about the “myth of rigorous permitting.” And the state has provided us with a perfect example of what we mean with their water quality certification […]
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At Inletkeeper, we often talk about the “myth of rigorous permitting.” And the state has provided us with a perfect example of what we mean with their water quality certification of the proposed Donlin Mine. 

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) mission is “conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, and economic and social well-being of Alaskans.” The state tells us that DEC employs experts as part of their “world-class permitting system” for ensuring protections of salmon and Alaskans in so-called responsible mining and that it is better that mining occur here in Alaska than in other locations where environmental protections may be weaker. 

But last month DEC issued a notice seeking “expert consultation services” to hire an outside expert to defend the state’s approval of the Donlin Mine project. The cost of that “outside expert”? Up to $99,000. 

Let me repeat that: up to $99,000 to pay a contractor to justify the commissioner’s decision to a judge. 

So why is DEC doing this? Because after spending years ignoring requests by tribes to seriously consider the severe impacts to water quality, DEC simply ignored negative impacts and certified that the project would not exceed state water quality standards. 

But this conclusion is not supported by science. An Administrative Law Judge issued a firm recommendation that the state not approve the water quality standards because “state water quality standards for mercury will undeniably be exceeded by the project in numerous locations, in many instances by a significant degree.” He also highlighted the impacts to salmon, noting, “it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the salmon productivity from that segment of the main stem of Crooked Creek will be eliminated.”

With this lack of support for a permit, you would think under a rigorous permitting system that DEC would go back to Donlin to ask them to make adjustments in their development plan to prevent such serious degradation to the water. That is what a world-class permitting system would do to protect Alaska’s environment and the people who rely on it. 

But DEC Commissioner Jason Brune instead approved the certification, finding it “appropriate to defer to the Division’s expertise in its analysis of the relevant data and information from the record.” 

Orutsararmiut Native Council, a sovereign tribal nation in Bethel, has taken DEC to court to challenge this decision. But DEC, instead of relying on the record, is seeking to pay someone to justify the state’s decision. Why is Mr. Brune no longer deferring to the Division’s expertise? Because he knows, like the Administrative Law Judge knows, that the decision was not based on science in the record regarding water quality standards but instead on a political desire to develop regardless of the consequences to the water and the people who rely on that water. 

This is the myth of rigorous permitting by the State of Alaska. 

Inletkeeper supports the Orutsararmiut Native Council’s challenge in state court asking the state to do better and have a transparent permitting system that upholds the science. For the state to continue to tout a “world-class permitting system,” the state must do better for Alaskans and our natural resources. 

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