Murkowski reviews Senate-approved Alaska spending
Alaska’s senior U.S. senator touted a wide-ranging series of items affecting the Last Frontier Thursday, after the Senate’s passage of several spending bills containing funds for Alaska and the Arctic.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski hailed the wide bipartisan margin by which the bill passed, 92 to 6, as a major achievement. Wednesday’s measure includes funding for the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and financial services appropriations.
“Yesterday afternoon was a pretty good day, I think, a great day in the Senate,” Murkowski told reporters Thursday. “When you look at those agencies every one of them really impacts the lives of Alaskans.”
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chair of its Interior, Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski handled the overall bill on the Senate floor. Wednesday’s vote marked the first occasion in eight years during which an Interior bill was considered on the Senate floor to final passage.
Murkowski touched on several areas changed by the bills:
Cleanup of federal lands in Alaska
The Bureau of Land Management received $9.4 million to clean up Alaska’s contaminated “legacy wells” from prior drilling on federal lands, a task which Murkowski decried the slow pace of Thursday.
“Last year the schedule was cleaning up and plugging three,” Murkowski said. “I want a schedule of what is remaining, and what that schedule will be in the next 10 years going forward.”
In addition, BLM received funds to help identify and clean up contaminated lands that had been transferred to Alaska Native corporations, under measures including the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“Lands were conveyed that had been contaminated by the federal government over the various years whether by military waste or others,” Murkowski said. “We have been pushing aggressively with [federal agencies] and others to update its list of contaminated lands.”
Southeast Alaska logging
Regulations governing logging in the Tongass National Forest were also revisited in the Senate appropriations bills.
“We do continue provisions within the bill requiring that Southeast timber sales be economic,” Murkowski said. “We also address the issue of making sure that we have appropriate, substantial and timely data about the timber that we see coming on in the Tongass to have an accurate inventory if you will.”
In addition, the delegation is seeking means for Tongass logging to bypass the “roadless rule” limiting development in national forests, including fostering a “cooperative relationship” with Interior officials.
“Trying to find a way forward is what we’re working toward,” Murkowski said. “I think it’s fair to say the delegation supports an exemption to the roadless rule.”
Alaska air and water quality
Fairbanks air quality, which has long suffered issues in winter, will also benefit from expansions of the EPA’s targeted airshed grants to improve specific areas’ air quality. One of the grants helps homeowners replace woodstoves in the area with cleaner-burning models.
“We were able to get $4 million directed to Fairbanks this year, so with the plus-up in this appropriation for targeted airshed grants to $50 million, this is a significant increase this will help Fairbanks,” Murkowski said.
Rural Alaska will also receive some help to build updated water systems.
“The Alaska Native Village Water Program will see increases to $25 million to build improved drinking and wastewater systems,” Murkowski said. “As we know, there are many communities that don’t even have water systems, to begin with.”
Funding for new U.S. icebreakers
In a separate but related development Wednesday, the Senate also passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate called for $750 million to fully fund the U.S. Coast Guard’s construction of a second Polar-class icebreaker, as well as a study on when more ships in the class should be built.
“We’re an Arctic nation, but we’re really lacking in the infrastructure and the infrastructure starts with Polar-class icebreakers,” Murkowski said. “A study a few years ago said six were needed, (but) in my opinion we don’t even have one; we have one, but it’s been assigned to Antarctica.”
Murkowski said a future bottleneck for the project is the upcoming Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, in which money for the icebreaker would formally be approved. In addition, the Senate version of the NDAA needs to be reconciled with a House version that doesn’t fund the icebreaker.
“The House did not see fit to match that, so we’ll have a bit of a tussle over that,” Murkowski said.
Other provisions in Wednesday’s wide-ranging appropriations bills add funds to fight domestic violence and substance abuse, fight wildfires and address a maintenance backlog in national parks.
Scott Gross contributed information to this story.
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