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Colville conundrum: Vague designation created lengthy delays for permit

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Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 1:36 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Editorial

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally has let ConocoPhillips bridge a channel of the Colville River on the North Slope so the company can create a road connection between the Alpine oil development and a satellite drilling location.

If there was anything served by the lengthy delay of the proposed bridge, it might be the attention brought to bear on one element of the process.

That element was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s designation of the Colville River delta as an “aquatic resource of national importance.”

The Corps of Engineers, under the federal Clean Water Act, has the job of issuing permits for the discharge of dredge or fill material in wetlands in the United States.

When the EPA designates a wetland as an “ARNI,” it allows the agency to request the Corps conduct additional analysis of any projects EPA officials think could have “unacceptable adverse effects” upon the area.

The process is outlined in a two-decades old agreement between the Corps and EPA. The problem is “aquatic resources of national importance” are not well defined in that agreement. So no one knows exactly when one will appear.

The EPA says it identifies such areas using a variety of factors, including the “economic importance of the aquatic resource, rarity or uniqueness, and/or importance of the aquatic resource to the protection, maintenance or enhancement of the quality of the nation’s waters.”

Those are broad guidelines. The Colville River delta apparently fell within them, in the EPA’s view. That allowed the agency to hold a veto threat over anything the Corps might have approved.

Alaska has enough trouble dealing with the uncertainties created by the Corps’ wetlands regulations, given the vast areas of the state that can be classified in that manner. The possibility of an ARNI rearing its head from the regulatory swamp is even more unsettling to industries.

ConocoPhillips’ nearly decade-long struggle to get a permit for its Colville bridge proposal illustrated the risk of getting caught in this bureaucratic crossfire. Congress should consider retooling the agencies’ ammunition.

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