Borough working group looks into peat

Much of the western Kenai Peninsula is covered in peatlands, and some people want the chance to harvest and sell it.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Material Site Working Group is in the midst of a comprehensive look at the codes governing extraction operations around the peninsula and dug into peat extraction at its Wednesday meeting. There aren’t many permitted peat extraction operations around the borough right now, but they’re currently regulated under the same rules as gravel pits — operators have to obtain a blanket conditional use permit and, within that, specify a plan of operations to the Planning Department and Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission.

Mining peat is different than mining gravel, though, in part because it almost always requires working in groundwater, something the planning department has tried to discourage gravel pit operators from doing because of concerns about affecting groundwater. The workgroup generally agreed during discussion Wednesday that peat extraction is different than gravel and should be permitted differently.

“I think one of the big differences is the water relationship,” said chairman Robert Ruffner during the meeting. “If you start digging in the peat, you’re immediately in the water.”

One of the hindrances currently is the groundwater monitoring required for permits. The Planning Department requires a year’s worth of groundwater monitoring before a permit will be granted. Many of the applicants are people who intend to extract peat to create ponds with a grant from the National Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides grants for the restoration of wildlife habitat, and the year of monitoring requirement doesn’t line up with the grant length, said borough planner Bruce Wall during the meeting.

“That one year of monitoring kind of throws a lot of these operations out because … it doesn’t fit in with the grant program to think that far ahead,” he said.

Peatlands are the most common type of wetland in the Cook Inlet basin, according to a 2015 study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Peat is a soil type that builds up when plant growth exceeds decay, but grows very slowly — in the neighborhood of about 1 millimeter a year, according to the EPA.

As wetlands, they serve as a water storage buffer for neighboring watersheds, releasing water during the dry season and storing extra water during the wet seasons. They also serve as game habitat and recreation areas. As they’re not common in other parts of the country, they are not well-documented in other research assessments, according to a 2014 report from the Homer Soil and Water District.

Peat is commonly used in agriculture and gardening, forming a good soil base for high tunnels. Other countries, such as Finland, also harvest and burn peat soils for energy production.

Though it’s technically a renewable resource because it’s made of plant matter, peat takes a very long time to build up and sustainability varies based on extraction method, said Karen Noyes, a borough resource planner at the Donald E. Gilman River Center, at the working group’s meeting. Peat can take hundreds of years to regenerate, she said.

“Examples of skimming a layer off the top is going to be a whole different regeneration of that peat compared to digging it all up and extracting gravel underneath and expecting that peat is going to grow back there,” she said. “…I think it’s a matter of (if) you take all the peat out of a wetland to turn it into a pond, that’s probably not going to regenerate, but if you harvest it in a way that allows some of that source to replenish, it’s a very slow process, but it does eventually.”

The borough’s planning department did not suggest any specific changes regarding peatlands in its initial material site regulation rewrite, in part because the staff wasn’t sure how to address it, Wall said. The working group discussed the sites in broad strokes, though working group member Jim Isham suggested having peat miners talk to the group about their operations so the group had a better idea of how they worked.

Johnson noted that peat extraction should take into consideration nearby anadromous streams, as it would be affecting the water and possibly the fish in those streams.

“One of the things that I can see … we should have a buffer and it probably should be bigger than a 50 foot buffer for peat extraction around anadromous streams,” he said. “In areas that aren’t anadromous streams, then we ought to have a set of rules that would work for people … I see no reason to keep a person from mining some peat if it’s not hurting anything and there’s a market for it.”

The working group is addressing the entirety of borough code regulating material extraction sites, but mostly focused on gravel pits, as they regularly receive the most complaints because of noise, dust, traffic and groundwater concerns. The group is planning two public listening sessions in the first week of April — one at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna on Thursday, April 5, and one at Chapman School in Anchor Point on Saturday, April 7.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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