By Pat Forgey Alaska Dispatch
March 13, 2014
HB 77, a bill that would streamline water use permitting, pits mining interests against tribal groups, fisherman and environmentalists.
JUNEAU — Modest changes to Gov. Parnell's controversial pro-development House Bill 77 haven't won it any new friends, but outraged those who were told they'd have only limited opportunity to comment on it.
"I think it is perfectly ludicrous that we're not getting enough time to comment on a bill that would remove our ability to comment," said Rosemary McGuire, a Cordova commercial fisherman.
House Bill 77 is aimed at speeding up permitting for development proposals, especially for small, seemingly innocuous projects, often by limiting public review. But at a public hearing Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee, many said they feared its effects would go way beyond what was stated.
The bill stalled last year after House passage when Senators got concerned after hearing from constituents. After 10 months of revisions, the public was given two days to review it, and then one and a half hours to comment on it.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, was brutal with the gavel, cutting speakers off in mid-sentence after their customarily allotted two minutes were up. Others said they rushed their statements so that others could be heard.
Giessel blocked questions from committee members to those testifying and then closed the oral testimony portion of the hearing after its scheduled time was up. Written testimony could still be submitted, she said.
Even so, dozens of people in Legislative Information Offices around the state and those who visited the Capitol hearing room in person appear to have been barred from testifying in person.
Other than two mining industry representatives, the changes to the bill were panned.
The bill should have already been killed, the senators were told.
"We Alaskans seem to be facing this legislation again for some reason," said Hal Shepherd, executive director of Seward's Center for Water Advocacy.
Among those leading the charge against the House Bill 77 were fishing and environmental groups.
The bill would limit the number of permits that the public could comment on, and should be called the "silencing Alaskans act." said Lori Daniel of Homer.
One provision of the bill would change how water rights reservations are handled. The public can now file for an in-stream water right, to keep water available for fish and other needs. The Department of Natural Resources won't issue those rights, however, and the bill changes the law to have in-stream water rights being held by the state, rather than individuals, groups or tribes.
Daniel didn't like that either.
"This bill still takes power away from the people and hold it in the hand of state government, she said.
The bill was initiated by Gov. Sean Parnell, whose administration has warned that environmental groups could use Alaska's laws to prevent development unless they were changed.
Gabe Scott of Homer, Alaska Legal Director for Cascadia Wildlands, spoke against the bill.
"I guess we're one of those nonprofits the governor is so fearful of," he said.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's James Sullivan said the Department of Natural Resources is worried about outside groups, but its solution in House Bill 77 would only punish Alaskans.
"Though improvements have been made since last year, House Bill 77 is still a flawed and destructive piece of legislation," he said.
Daniel Lum of Barrow said the lopsided testimony made it clear where the public stood on the bill.
"Can you not hear the overwhelming majority of Alaskans are against House Bill 77?" he asked.
The bill, he said, was the product of an all-powerful government that disregards its own citizens.
"This is not China, this is not Russia, but if this passes we'll be just like them," he said.
Support for the bill came from mining interests, including Donlin Gold and the Council of Producers, a mining industry group.
A statement from Stan Foo, general manager of Donlin Gold, offered support for the bill and regulatory reform in general.
"We also support efforts to cut unnecessary red tape without diminishing important environmental standards," Foo's statement said.
The closed hearing may reopen, however. Late Wednesday the Alaska Senate Majority announced that Chair Giessel will reopen public testimony on the bill Friday at 3:30 p.m.
“As a committee, we believe public testimony is an important part of the process,” said Giessel. “That’s why it is critical to me, and the others, to give Alaskans an opportunity to have their voices heard.”