Emma Pokon, commissioner-designee of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, discusses wood stove pollution regulations affecting the Fairbanks-North Star Borough during a Nov. 26 forum. (Screenshot from video by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

Emma Pokon, commissioner-designee of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, discusses wood stove pollution regulations affecting the Fairbanks-North Star Borough during a Nov. 26 forum. (Screenshot from video by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

Newly designated state DEC commissioner strong supporter of Dunleavy’s challenge to federal authority

Emma Pokon, as state attorney, wrote legislation eliminating independent cruise monitoring program.

The newly designated commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation authored a bill to eliminate an independent cruise ship monitoring program, which has been replaced with a process where cruise companies largely self-report compliance with wastewater management, emissions and other regulations.

Emma Pokon, who has served as deputy commissioner and then acting commissioner since joining the department in 2020, was appointed as the commissioner designee last Monday by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Previously she worked for the state Department of Law where she was assigned to support DEC, which included cases by the administration challenging the federal government about matters such as air and water regulations.

“She has shown an immense amount of knowledge and prioritizes common-sense solutions that balance environmental protection with economic considerations,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement.

Pokon also previously represented the North Slope Borough in natural resource and environmental matters, and was a law clerk for the Fairbanks Superior Court, according to an official biography provided by the governor’s office.

As an attorney working on behalf of the department and then as deputy commissioner, Pokon’s work has largely been at the direction of the Dunleavy administration and former Commissioner Jason Brune, who resigned Aug. 20 after being one of the governor’s original cabinet picks in 2018. As commissioner she will have an expanded role and, in an email responding to questions from the Empire, expressed a shared concern with other Dunleavy officials about the federal government.

“My focus is on supporting our staff in the important work they do day in and day out,” she wrote. “As a state agency, we also have a responsibility to scrutinize federal actions affecting Alaska, especially when national rules so often do not consider our unique circumstances or the needs of Alaskans.”

Brune, shortly before his departure, told the Alaska Beacon he tried to change the agency’s ethic “to be one of collaboration in protecting human health and the environment, and working with, not against the regulated community.” He led efforts to have the state take over “404” wetlands development permitting from the federal government, which the Alaska Legislature has so far rejected, as well as challenging the federal government on issues such as wood stove pollution and ownership of riverbeds.

Pokon played a significant role in many of those efforts and has continued to do so since becoming acting commissioner. State Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who co-chairs the Senate Resources Committee, said he’s spent time working with her both during and outside committee hearings during the past year, and has no reservations about her nomination, which the Legislature must confirm to make her appointment permanent.

“I feel good about her, she’s young, she listens and she’s got a good demeanor about her,” he said, “I’ll be a ‘yes’ vote when it comes time to confirm her.”

Among the notable issues Pokon has been involved with directly related to Southeast Alaska is the elimination of the Ocean Rangers program, which she drafted a bill for as an attorney before the COVID-19 pandemic and then represented it in a modified form as deputy commissioner. Local legislators and other officials have expressed concerns about the loss of the program that started in 2006 and was halted in 2020 when Dunleavy vetoed its funding, since it relies to a sigificant extent on industry self-reporting for violations that occur when not in port.

Among the subsequent actions that resulted is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve announced in the summer of 2022 it was conducting two random inspections of each large cruise ship per summer, funded by agreements with the cruise companies. That occurred in the wake of an incident where a Holland America ship was fined more than $17,000 for dumping in the park.

Pokon, in her email sent Friday, stated there is currently “a robust state presence in monitoring the cruise ship industry.”

DEC’s Cruise Ship Program has demonstrated a thoroughness in its ability to provide oversight of the industry,” she wrote. “DEC inspectors were on every single commercial passenger vessel that toured Alaska this summer. Most vessels had two inspections this year, both an in-port and an underway inspection. Many environmental programs are grounded in self-reporting. That said, given the public concern, we’re also taking a more active approach with these vessels.”

Among the Southeast legislators who support restoring the Ocean Rangers program is Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat, who called Pokon “a very competent staff attorney when answering questions” during legislative hearings. However, Hannan said she will ask Pokon more pointed questions about such issues in her role as commissioner.

“‘When I’ve previously interacted with her the presumption has been ‘your boss has told you to write this law,’” Hannan said. “Now you’re going to be the boss, so what’s your personal opinion about them? It’s a different question that can be asked, that couldn’t be asked when you were a staff attorney to a department.”

Pokon will also have oversight over numerous other clean water programs, including the ongoing efforts to take over wetlands permitting as well as cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites. While Alaska has a reputation as relatively pristine due to its enormous size and low population density, the state scored 50th in water and air quality in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of states, based largely on a Drinking Water Violation Points score of 24.97 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 1.91 per 100,000 residents.

Among the recent efforts to limit PFAS contaminants was a bill by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, that banned the substance for most firefighting purposes. The provisions of the bill were attached to legislation that passed the Legislature by a near-unanimous vote near the end of the year’s session, but was vetoed by Dunleavy who cited concerns about the provisions “removing a lifesaving tool from the toolbox” of firefighters.

Pokon stated the DEC is continuing to work on cleanup efforts statewide with the help of partner agencies.

“The Drinking Water Program will be administering a grant program designed to reduce PFAS contamination in 193 communities with public water systems,” she wrote. “We will use the information gained from the sampling effort to identify systems that may need treatment to remove PFAS from drinking water. We are also pursuing additional federal funding that would be used to help systems fund needed treatment.”

Air quality is another issue Pokon has focused on, including particulate matter pollution disputes with the Environmental Protection Agency involving the Fairbanks area. In a Nov. 26 article posted at DEC’s website headlined “DEC continues to press EPA for reasonable approach to PM pollution,” she asserted “we’ve fought the federal government’s proposed mandates where they just don’t make sense.”

“For 14 years, the local communities, the Borough, and DEC have been making progress on particulate matter pollution in the FNSB Nonattainment Area,” she wrote, adding “not only has the North Pole area reduced its emissions by half and the Fairbanks area has been “in attainment, for the most part, since 2015.”

“We recognize that asking you to update your woodstove or seek an alternative fuel source is a hassle,” she added. “But the bottom line is that if we don’t get into attainment, the federal government will likely enforce controls with much more expensive consequences.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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