DEC regulator resigns after reassignment

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A top regulator has resigned from the Alaska Department of Environment Conservation, 2 1/2 months after she was stripped of authority to oversee some North Slope oil activities.

Susan Harvey notified 30 staffers of her resignation Monday. She said she plans to focus her career on technical work to achieve environmental improvements.

Harvey's departure comes after DEC reassigned her and colleague Robert Watkins to focus on other duties. That outraged some co-workers, environmentalists and industry workers, who claimed they were punished for regulating the oil industry too vigorously.

DEC officials said that wasn't true. They said Harvey and Watkins were overloaded with other work, but they also said the two officials were nitpicky.

Harvey was a shining star in a state heavily influenced by the oil industry, said Peter Van Tuyn, litigation director with the Anchorage environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.

''She was willing to work with the industry to come up with a way to still get their oil out of the ground but also ensure environmental protection,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News.

Harvey declined to comment Tuesday.

She joined the state agency in 1999 after working as a Prudhoe Bay engineering supervisor for Arco Alaska Inc.

Harvey oversaw DEC's program on preventing and responding to North Slope oil spills until December, when she was temporarily relieved of those duties and told to focus on her other projects. She could not approve spill-cleanup plans and oil drilling permits this winter.

Watkins worked for Harvey, managing field inspectors, spill plans and permits for the Slope and Cook Inlet oil fields. He was reassigned to an administrator job.

Watkins still works for DEC and said Harvey felt she could no longer do her job effectively because ''she had been cut out of the decision-making.''

''She did an excellent job and she is going to be missed,'' he said.

Watkins believes they were removed from their jobs in part because of the debate over how long oil companies should be allowed to drill during winter and the frozen months of spring.

To avoid environmental damage, oil companies drill when the ground is frozen and covered in snow. But recent winters have been shorter, making it harder for companies to complete drilling projects.

As this winter's drilling season approached, Harvey and Watkins found themselves disagreeing with Phillips Alaska Inc. over when the company should be finished. Watkins said he and Harvey wanted to be sure there would be enough time to clean up a potential spill before the ground began to thaw.

''After we were removed, the department made a decision to approve the Phillips permits as proposed,'' Watkins said.

He and his union, the Alaska Public Employees Association, have appealed his job change.

Michele Brown, DEC's commissioner, said the regulators were reassigned in part because of issues with drilling permits. But she also said they were both overloaded with other work.

The agency decided to reshuffle staff, creating a temporary team to focus on Slope drilling permits and oil spill-response plans. Jeff Mach, a longtime environmental regulator, became head of the team on a temporary basis.

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