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State seeks comments on new mobile drilling pollution permit

Posted: April 4, 2013 - 8:00pm

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is seeking public comment on a new proposed pollutant discharge permit for mobile oil and gas exploration facilities in state waters of Cook Inlet.

It is the first permit the state has developed since it applied for, and was granted in October 2012, primacy of permitting and enforcement of the Clean Water Act from the Environmental Protection Agency. The permit is under public review through May 22 and will be the subject of three public hearings in Homer, Kenai and Anchorage in late April and early May. The state’s permit is being developed in concert with a renewal of the EPA’s permit for pollutant discharge in federal waters of Cook Inlet.

All waters north of the southernmost point of Kalgin Island — the majority of existing Cook Inlet oil and gas exploration interest — are state waters and would be governed under the new permit. Federal waters extend south of the Kalgin Island baseline, save for a three-mile buffer out from the shoreline and the baseline, which is covered by the state. Critical habitat areas such as Clam Gulch and Kachemak Bay are excluded.

The state’s existing permit covers both oil and gas exploration and production in Cook Inlet. The new permit separates exploration using mobile infrastructure from the existing permit and makes few if any changes to existing requirements, said Gerry Brown, DEC Division of Water, Oil and Gas section manager.

“No, not really,” said Brown when asked if the new regulations are different than the old. “There are some subtle things that we have done differently. We’ve gone and we’ve given a little bit better of state perspective of our requirements in this mobile exploration permit.”

Among other things, the permit regulates what wastewaters may be discharged into Cook Inlet — including drilling fluids, drill cuttings, deck drainage, domestic wastewater, graywater and others — and sets mixing zone requirements.

Brown said the switch in permitting shouldn’t complicate existing exploration, as existing facilities under the old permit will be transferred to the new permit.

“That’s really kind of the reason why this is really the same permit because they’re going to be operating the same way as if they were under the existing permit,” he said.

Brown said it was mostly a coincidence that the state decided to break the permit up considering the increased exploration activity in the Inlet. The main reason for the separation was because a lawsuit filed by Cook Inletkeeper tied the production portion of the permit up in the court system. The state applied for primacy in 2006 and DEC started talking about separating the two portions of the permit in 2011.

Cook Inletkeeper dismissed their suit in late January of this year, Brown said.

“From the most basic position, our point is that these are toxic wastes and there is technologies to not dump them into our fisheries, so why are we doing it?” said Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson.

Shavelson said Cook Inletkeeper is currently considering whether or not it will comment on the new mobile exploration permit.

“If you look across the landscape of habitat and water protection, all we are seeing is rollbacks and so we have to decide where we are going to put our resources and we are looking at that permit very carefully,” he said.

He said that the organization is generally concerned with the composition of drilling muds and cuttings that are being released back into Cook Inlet and its fisheries. He said the more responsible way to deal with those substances is to ship them to disposal facilities or to reinject them back into the well.

“With drilling muds, the industry will say, ‘Oh, it’s just clay, it’s just bentonite, it’s harmless,” he said. “Well, first of all, it depends on where you are going to discharge the stuff and second of all, there are all types of toxic additives that go into drilling muds.”

To manage discharge toxicity, Brown said DEC requires a chemical inventory and a drilling fluids plan to be submitted before a company starts drilling. Regulations do not allow for the discharge of oil, diesel or other non-aqueous contaminated drilling muds or cuttings.

Moreover, there are various regulatory benchmarks drilling fluids need to meet whether they are water-based or synthetic before they can drill as part of that plan, Brown said. While the company is drilling or discharging the material, they also have to perform toxicity tests and meet certain requirements to not violate their permit, Brown said.

The EPA and DEC will host three public hearings on the permit:

■ Kenai — April 29, Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 11471 Kenai Spur Hwy.

■ Homer — April 30, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Island & Ocean Visitor Center Auditorium, 95 Sterling Hwy. Suite 1

■ Anchorage — May 2, University of Alaska, Gorsuch Commons Building, Conference Room 106, 3700 Sharon Gagnon Lane.

All meetings will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Residents may also comment to Brown by email to gerry.brown@alaska.gov, by mail to 555 Cordova St., Anchorage, AK, 99501 or by fax to 907-2693487. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. on May 22.

Residents may email comments to the EPA to godsey.cindi@epa.gov, or mail comments through the Director of the Office of Water and Watersheds EPA — Region 10, 1200 Sixth Ave., Suite 900 OWW-130, Seattle, WA, 98101.

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