DEC chiefs warn of health risks amid budget cuts

Leaders of the state agency charged with protecting Alaskans’ food and water are warning lawmakers that budget costs are increasing the dangers to Alaskans. Their statements came as members of the House of Representatives work this week to finalize the budgets of various state agencies, including the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“You don’t have the same amount of inspections, you don’t have the same amount of assistance to the small communities that may be having problems with their drinking water systems. You’re going to have more instances of problems with human health,” said Larry Hartig, director of the DEC, in testimony Thursday.

Hartig was speaking to the House subcommittee charged with setting his department’s budget. In the past five years, DEC has seen its operating budget reduced from $87.9 million (in fiscal year 2014) to $80.2 million (proposed for fiscal year 2019). The department, which once had 557 employees, is expected to have 485 in FY 19, which starts July 1.

DEC is charged with enforcing drinking water safety, sanitation standards, food safety, and responding to oil spills.

Christina Carpenter, director of the Division of Environmental Health, told the House subcommittee that funding cuts have completely changed how the department inspects restaurants, grocery stores, and the sources of Alaskans’ food.

“We’re in a position where we’re now prioritizing work based upon on funding source first and then risk second,” she said.

DEC no longer inspects facilities it deems “low-risk” unless there is a complaint.

The cuts are showing up elsewhere, too. DEC no longer responds to bedbug complaints at hotels, for example.

“When residents call or tourists call, we try to direct them to a website,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to respond to those complaints.”

Andrew Sayers-Fay, director of the Division of Water, said the pace of permitting for industrial projects has slowed, and the department doesn’t respond to complaints about sewage smells.

“If someone identifies that there’s sewage on the ground, that’s the kind of threshold that we’ll respond to,” he said.

Throughout the presentation, DEC administrators said the drawbacks of funding cuts don’t become fully visible until there’s a problem.

“The public may not immediately see that those risks have landed on them … we need to be vigilant,” Hartig said.

On Tuesday, the Empire asked Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and the chairman of the subcommittee, whether Alaskans are still safe, despite the cuts to DEC.

“I feel that we are safe, but we are probably at a very minimal level (of funding),” he said. “I’ve had this subcommittee this year and last year, and from what I’ve seen, I don’t feel like we can make any further cuts to ADEC. If we did, I would start questioning, I think, to a greater extent whether people who go out to eat at a restaurant, should be concerned.”

Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, is a House minority member of the subcommittee and also believes that despite the cuts, Alaskans can feel safe.

“They assured us we were still safe,” she said of the DEC administrators.

Does she believe them?

“If I can’t trust DEC on what they tell us, who can I trust?” she said.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at or call 523-2258.

More in News

The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore docks in Juneau in October, 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for t​​he Week of Oct. 1

Here’s what to expect this week.

This image from House Television shows Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., the Speaker Pro Tempore, presiding as the House passes a 45-day funding bill on Saturday at the Capitol in Washington. The House vote was 335-91. The measure now goes to the Senate, which also is meeting Saturday. (House Television via AP)
On the brink of a federal shutdown, the House passes a 45-day funding plan and sends it to Senate

Peltola, still in Alaska after husband’s death, abstains from vote, but offers statement of support.

This is a photo taken at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in July. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Forest Service, Tlingit and Haida to co-steward Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Tribe dedicated to “protection of the historic and cultural resources in the area,” president says.

Retiring Deputy Chief David Campbell, left, and City and Borough of Juneau Manager Rorie Watt, right, smile for a photo Friday afternoon during a ceremony held at the Juneau Police Station. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Juneau’s deputy and interim police chief retires after 28 years

David Campbell honored for his service during a ceremony Friday afternoon.

Violinist/vocalist Chelsey Green, seen here with her Green Project ensemble in 2022, is scheduled to perform Oct. 4 and 5 during the Juneau Jazz and Classics Fall Music Festival. (Photo courtesy of Chelsey Green)
This fall’s Juneau Jazz and Classics offers the world on a string

Cellos and violins will be playing rock, folk, baroque, fusion and traditional at five-day festival.

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Police investigate ‘random’ drive-by pellet gun attack downtown

A person in a white SUV reportedly shot at two women Wednesday night.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Derek Bos of Colorado smiles for a photo Thursday evening outside of City Hall. Bos is one of two finalists seeking the chief position at the Juneau Police Department. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Chief finalist says building trust in schools and faith-based communities a priority

He addresses past controversial arrests of two school district administrators in Colorado.

Most Read