Corps resolves seismic violations

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently resolved two separate violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Historic Preservation Act that stemmed from oil and gas seismic testing work in the area.


In a recent press release, Corps officials said Apache Alaska Corporation and Weems Geophysical, which is being contracted by Buccaneer Energy, violated the terms of their seismic work permits over the winter with the Corps, but both were able to reach a solution without seeing any fines as a result. The violations were resolved as of March 15, the Corps said.

Kevin Morgan, Chief of the Corps’ Regulatory Division for the Alaska District commented on both violations in a recent press release.

“The violations resulted in delays in both companies’ schedules and reduced the amount of area they could survey during the winter, but the Corps takes seriously our responsibility to protect Alaska’s aquatic and historic resources while allowing reasonable development,” he said in the release.

Apache’s case stemmed from its seismic work over a 684-square-mile area near Tyonek. As part of its permit, the company was to have an archeologist survey the area where the company wanted to do testing to look for areas of cultural resources before drilling shot holes that aided in the seismic process, said Dave Casey, supervisor of the Army Corps of Engineer’s Kenai Field Office.

If any previously unidentified cultural resources were found, the archeologist was to report them and create a 300-foot no drill buffer around them and other known resources in order to provide protection from the actual drilling and subsequent blasts needed for the work. Because of the large area being covered, moving the hole beyond the buffer zone wouldn’t likely affect the outcome of the testing, Casey said.

However, several areas that were cleared earlier by the archeologist were later discovered to have cultural resources by a wilderness guide who was aiding the drilling crew. However, the shot holes were drilled and the crews relayed the discovery back to the State Historic Preservation Officer who then notified the Corps, Casey said.

In total, 13 holes were drilled in the no drilling buffer zone around four previously undiscovered cultural resources.

“The question then became what to do about that,” Casey said.

Apache voluntarily agreed not to detonate the charges, removed the detonation wire from the charge and marked the holes where the explosive material remained. Casey said Apache didn’t want the crews to handle the explosive material twice, but the charge is biodegradable and can’t be discharged in the future.

“At the end of the day there wasn’t any damage done to the resource,” he said.

Also, Apache did not complete required cultural resource surveys to the entire area they were required to by a set date, possibly leaving other undiscovered cultural resources vulnerable to their activities.

“They couldn’t be identified, the buffers couldn’t be in place and so there is the chance they could put a drill hole inside 300 feet of what would have otherwise had been identified,” Casey said.

However, Casey said Apache slightly changed its plans and delayed drilling during the winter while the Corps met with the State Historic Preservation Officer and two federally recognized Native tribes to develop a programmatic agreement to mitigate for the adverse effects caused by Apache’s seismic survey.

The mitigation efforts contained in the agreement will be required regardless of whether or not the area’s cultural resources are damaged, unless the company doesn’t drill in those areas at all, Casey said.

“The programmatic agreement is based on the belief there will be adverse affects in those areas they were supposed to get to, but now can’t (because of snow) and they are still going to do the work,” Casey said.

The National Historic Preservation Act allows damage to resources to occur, Casey said, but it has to be mitigated through any number of efforts, such as research of the prior culture’s use of the area they are drilling around.

“They could damage a resource, but say if they documented the resource before they damaged it and published an article about what they found and interpreted what they think the culture used that site for that may be sufficient mitigation so that the knowledge of that site is preserved and known in perpetuity,” Casey said.

In total, Apache found about 36 new cultural resources in the areas they did survey and placed a buffer around, Casey said.

“We were finding a lot of things and we didn’t have any reason to believe they would stop finding things,” Casey said. “So we erred on the side of the resource and said, ‘Look, if they are not going to look then they are going to need to mitigate for the affects.’”

Buccaneer Energy and its contractor Weems Geophysical violated the Clean Water Act, the Corps reported, by drilling more than 800 shot holes for seismic work in a wetland area without a permit.

Casey said the Clean Water Act requires a person to obtain a permit prior to discharge of dredged or fill material in the waters of the United States, included oceans, rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Weems had applied for the permit, Casey said, but hadn’t received an approval before they started the work around late January. The wetlands the company was working in are northeast of the Kenai Airport. Of the 915 holes the company drilled, about 800 were not permitted, Casey said.

The Corps asked them not to do anymore drilling until they could figure out the extent of the violation and how to resolve it.

“In this case we decided to accept an after-the-fact permit application from the company associated with the 800 shot holes drilled in wetlands, which is fairly routine,” Casey said. “In our regulations we have the ability to accept after-the-fact permit applications.”

The Corps also approved Weems to drill an additional 266 shot holes in the wetlands adjacent to the mouth of the Kenai River, stipulating the work be done when the ground is frozen and no closer than 500 feet from the river to mitigate any adverse effects.