DEC Director of Water Michelle Hale speaks to an audience of more than 80 people in Haines Monday. (Emily Files)

DEC Director of Water Michelle Hale speaks to an audience of more than 80 people in Haines Monday. (Emily Files)

An Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation official fielded frustration and confusion at a packed town hall meeting in Haines Monday. DEC Director of Water Michelle Hale was in town to explain Outstanding National Resource Water protections. Right now, there are three of those nominations pending in Alaska, including one for the Chilkat River.

The Chilkat nomination has some people worried about the potential impacts of such a high-level protection. Resident Don ‘Duck’ Hess was one of several who spoke against it.

“I might be slow, but I can’t wrap my head around why we’ve got to classify the river,” Hess said. “We don’t drink out of it, the fish go up there every year. Why classify something, [and] have another law stuffed down our throats? We don’t need that.”

Chilkat Indian Village Tribal Council President Jones Hotch Jr. explained why the village nominated the river for enhanced protection. He said, poor salmon harvests in recent years are a ‘warning sign.’

“The Chilkat River has fed us for generations,” Hotch said. “If it’ll keep coming back, we need to take care of that. And this is a vehicle that will help us help the salmon.”

Outstanding Resource designations give waters the highest protection possible under the federal Clean Water Act. Hale said, there are three levels of antidegradation standards for waters, Tiers 1, 2 and 3. In Tier 1 and 2 waters, some pollutants are allowed. But in Tier 3 waters, pollutants are prohibited unless they are temporary and limited.

“At the time of designation, no additional pollutants can be added to that water. Whereas, if it were not designated we would be able to authorize discharges that add pollutants but not exceed water quality criteria.”

But Alaska hasn’t decided on a process approve or deny Outstanding Resource nominations. The Clean Water Act requires states to have a process in place, but Hale says how to do it is left ‘wide open.’

“What that has done across the country is it’s really left the implementation of this to the states, but it’s been a very confusing process. So a lot of states have taken a long time, just as Alaska has. Alaska is in the throes of developing a process.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Walker introduced bills in the state house and senate that would give lawmakers the power to decide on Outstanding Resource nominations.

But many of the questions Monday night weren’t about Alaska’s work to develop a process. They were about how the high-level protection would impact residents and the economy.

“I keep hearing ‘our regulations, our regulations,'” said George Campbell. “What protection do we, the public here, that use this on a daily basis, have that we’re not going to be regulated out of our current uses.”

Hale said Tier 3 restrictions impact point source pollutants. That could include a mine or a wastewater treatment plant that discharges into the river. But, things like two-stroke engines, snow plowing, and septic systems would not be impacted. Also, pre-existing wastewater discharges wouldn’t get shut down if they stayed at the same level.

Constantine Metal Resources is conducting exploration for a potential mine in the Chilkat Valley. An audience member who identified himself as a miner asked about what would happen to that operation.

“If this turns into a Tier 3 river, how much harder is it going to be for Constantine to get a permit than it is right now?” the miner asked.

“I can’t answer that specifically because I don’t know what the nature of their discharge would be,” Hale said. “It could be much harder, it could be impossible.”

Some audience members said it didn’t seem fair that just anyone could nominate the river, without consensus from a wider group. Hale said public feedback is one reason DEC feels the decision should be in the hands of the legislature.

“It’s a very public process, so the legislature would hold hearings, they would ask for input from their constituents.”

Resident Thom Ely asked if it would be better to take the decision out of the political realm and put it in the scientific realm, by letting DEC decide instead of lawmakers.

“The issue here is it’s actually not so much a scientific decision as it is a political land use decision because of the potential consequences,” Hale responded.

Hale tried to make one point really clear: the bills working their way through legislative committees right now wouldn’t approve or deny the Chilkat nomination. They would simply put a mechanism in place to make decisions about nominations. That is required by federal law.

The other two Outstanding Resource nominations pending in Alaska are the Bristol Bay Watershed and the Koktuli River. Hale said they “have not generated the amount of controversy and difficulty we have seen in Haines.”

She said if the bills in the legislature don’t pass, DEC will ‘regroup’ on what to do with Outstanding Resource nominations. She said the agency would likely work with the governor on future legislation.


More information about Outstanding National Resource Waters:

ONRW Fact Sheet

DEC Antidegradation

Senate Bill 163

House Bill 283