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Sunday, November 27, 2011

A roll in the gravel with a vote...

After the last almost 1100 page assembly package everyone took off their dance shoes until Dec 6th.  Good to have a little break to give us a chance to look more closely at two big bites that will be on the assembly smorgasbord coming up then. 

First lets have a roll in the gravel
Introduced at the Nov 15th meeting ordinance 11-153 amends an existing ordinance governing the interim (temporary) materials district, conditional use permit to remove gravel and the definitions which include provisions of removal below the water table.  Down the rabbit hole we go back to 2005 when the assembly passed the bones to the ordinance now in place.  If memory serves, there was a fair amount of teeth gnashing and much hair pulling with that former assembly. Band aids were assigned in 2007 and 2008 including the ever popular “working group” with lingering concerns about reclamation and the pro and cons of allowing excavation into the seasonal high water table. To say this issue has been a hot political football would hardly do it justice.  But now with the self described veto proof mayor seated, the rabbit is getting jerked out of the hat for some fast action before the political landscape changes again. 

Stop the eye rolling.  Why should you care what some guy in the other end of the valley does with his rock pile? Other than being prepared to say a few new four letter words when that dump truck full of his gravel passes you on the Parks Hwy and redesigns your windshield by delivering a few straying pebbles?  There’s an easy answer and its two things that you and all your valley neighbors need for basic human survival. And no it’s not duct tape or finding the missing remote.  It is clean air and water. 

The ordinance before the assembly Dec 6th  if passed, will allow gravel operators to mine in our water table.  Is it a good idea to mine our drinking water?  I mean really what could go wrong?  You should expect there to be a big rush to push the yes button based on the “there is plenty of regulation” and “borough needs to be opened for business” rants from the usual suspects sitting at the horse shoe.  We already know how a few assembly members make that a regular “go to” argument on pretty much anything.  Expect to hear a bellow or two from at least one pumped out chest that “It’s done everywhere with no negatives,” and other similar nonsense. Except there are plenty of places that have banned it or are heavily regulated after bad outcomes and yes it should be one of our local government’s responsibilities to protect rights to clean water and air. 

Property rights=Water rights
People might be surprised to learn that it’s the minority of property owners in the Mat Su that actually own their property water rights. Land owners don’t have automatic rights to ground or surface water in Alaska.  You can get them by filing with the state and here is the handy dandy link to do so.   This only entitles a property owner to a claim of water quantity not quality.  Bet you could ask the next ten people if they own their water rights and you would be lucky to find that one person out of 100 has gone through the simple steps to file for their water rights.  You might also be surprised to learn that when it comes to regulation of drinking water or gravel mining, the state DEC only regulates public and community drinking water systems. It is a self test process and not any scary regulator in a white lab coat and clip board traveling all over the borough to check it out.  They do not regulate individual wells at ALL which remains much of the borough residents drinking water supply.  So what happens if the drinking water quality or quantity is compromised and who bears the burden of proof?  Yeah you got me. Proving your rights in this day and age doesn’t come cheap, and years of litigation with big time gravel operators who have deep financial resources and years of buying and hauling bottled water isn’t in many folks monthly budget.  Not having some sizeable bond or insurance in place by operators, if any amount was enough to protect landowners, gave past assemblies enough heart burn to kick the can further down the road for someone else to decide.   The other big sticking point in this bowl of gravel porridge is reclamation. Not your normal everyday subject of conversation so just what is it?  Basically it’s the rules of the road of rehabilitating the land after gravel is removed.  Without clear rules how is a gravel operator to know what is expected when reclamation is implemented and why do we care?  Well there are the obvious.  After the land is pealed back and the gravel removed, you have what most would agree is a huge impact both visually and environmentally.  It’s important that land be returned to the best possible condition for use after gravel mining is completed for dozens of reasons.  Expect to hear some assembly shout outs about the borough duplicating and exceeding reclamation standards and plans but the problem is the state has about two paragraphs addressing this.  If you don’t believe me put on your geek hat and see AS 27.19.020 reclamation standards and AS 27.19.030 reclamation plans.  A drive around the borough will tell you the state doesn’t give a dittle about reclamation or enforcement of what they do have on the books.  You have to ask yourself why this assembly loves the state rules instead of having their own other than providing somewhere else to point the finger at when things go terribly wrong. Contrary to some opinions this should not be about stopping gravel extraction in the borough, or being anti-development.  It should be about taking a pro-active approach when it comes to protecting our water table, dust control and land left for the next generation and not settling for another round of “that’s good enough”.  We should also keep in mind that although the state taxes and collects royalties it’s a pittance, and the Borough taxpayers get nothing. The last effort in 2005 for the borough to collect a materials tax to provide some mitigation funds for roads etc from the impact of mining went down in flames when the big check books came out from the industry to fight the initiative. According to APOC in just one 7 day period $41,000 was contributed by just 7 businesses and given to a committee whose job it was to kill the initiative. This is an industry not used to be told what to do.  And that was in 2005 when corporations hadn’t been deemed people by the Supreme Court.  This is all the more reason to have some sound protections for residents in place when it comes to digging big holes. We should have enough examples to draw from to have our own standards while supplying and benefiting from a great resource like gravel. Residents and the gravel industry should both be able to profit and still count on turning on the tap in every corner of the borough to good clean water period.  

So, you say you want to vote?
The other steaming bowl at the end of the buffet for the upcoming meeting is ordinance 11-157 regarding the definition of community councils brought forward by our ceremonial mayor.  This innocent looking ordinance could be a game changer to who the borough and state listen to speaking for communities.  With this legislation the mayor hopes to give community councils the ability to change up democracy Devilbiss Style expanding the definition to allow landowners (no matter where they reside) as well as residents the ability to be voting members in local community council matters.  This “expansion” much like some waists after turkey day has far reaching implications if passed.  Potentially one person, business or corporation that owns property in all of the 23 council areas could vote on council issues and even if they don’t live in the borough determine the community’s stance on a multitude of issues. One has to ask what the mayor has in mind with this legislation.  A return to when only white land-owning (perish the thought of women) could vote?  Sheesh…

These are two very big issues voters can’t not afford to not pay attention to.  It’s very possible that December 6th the assembly will experience a case of ground hog day and much like the tower ordinance take off all regulation for gravel extraction.  It’s also possible that we will slide back to the day of land barons that determined how all the peasants lived according to their rules by whose votes we count.  
Time to saddle up and have your voice heard or you might just wake up to the sounds of hoofs that have taken away all your rights to clean water, a peaceful existence and the right to vote on your community issues.   

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