EPA reissues inlet discharge permit

Environmental group worries about monitoring reduction for some facilities

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it has reissued the general permit under which Alaska oil and gas facilities discharge waste into Cook Inlet.

The new permit, which becomes effective July 2 and is good for five years, expands the existing coverage area to include recent Minerals Management Service lease sales 191 and 199 and state water adjoining those lease area.

It also authorizes discharges from oil and gas exploration facilities within the expanded coverage area, including discharges associated with the use of synthetic-based drilling fluids, according to a fact sheet available at the EPA Web site.

Other changes include:

· authorizing discharges from new oil and gas development and production facilities within the expanded coverage area, including sanitary wastewater, domestic wastewater, deck drainage and miscellaneous discharges, such as cooling water and boiler blowdown. These new facilities, however, are not be authorized to discharge produced water, drilling fluids or drill cuttings under the new permit. Instead, they have to apply for new individual permits, according to the EPA.

· adding new whole effluent toxicity and technology-based limits for discharges that contain treatment chemicals, such as biocides and corrosion inhibitors. These could include, but are not limited to, flood wastewater, cooling water, boiler blowdown and desalination unit wastewater.

· adding a new water quality-based effluent limit for total residual chlorine.

· updating existing monitoring requirements, essentially increasing monitoring for violators and decreasing it for facilities with good compliance records;

· expanding the existing permit’s baseline study to include new facilities;

· including a new study that will involve collecting ambient data to determine the effect of large-volume produced-water discharges on Cook Inlet; and

· expanding the permit’s discharge prohibition near protected areas, coastal marshes and deltas.

Bob Shavelson, head of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed, said the new permit allows a significant increase in discharges, including more oil and heavy metals.

He also said it concerned him that monitoring requirements are to be reduced. Such monitoring, even for facilities with good records, he said, helps produce long-term historical baseline data about the inlet on which future decisions might be based.

He called it remarkable that the industry has concluded that discharges are not harming beluga whales and fish when there is insufficient data to determine that either way.

Hanh Shaw, with EPA’s Seattle office, said monitoring will not be eliminated, just the frequency or monitoring will be reduced for complying facilities. Monitoring is done by facility

operators and amounts to compiling logs that are turned over to EPA for review. Monitoring frequency depends on what activities are occurring and may happen monthly or quarterly.

“We feel the frequency of monitoring in some cases can be burdensome,” Shaw said, adding that reducing the frequency is seen as an incentive for compliance.

She said in no case would a facility go months without monitoring.

The industry will design and conduct the new study program, likely over one field season, at an estimated cost of $500,000 to $1 million, Shaw said. The actual cost won’t be determined until the industry produces a study plan and that plan is reviewed and authorized by EPA, she said.

While the reissuing of the permit was not unexpected, Shavelson said he found it ironic that the same agency that recently meted out a $10,500 fine to a small Ninilchik fish packer, Deep Creek Custom Packing Inc., for dumping organic fish waste into the Ninilchik River, would “bow to the heavy-handed oil industry” and allow “huge” discharges of pollutants into the fish-rich water of Cook Inlet.

Asked to respond, Shaw declined, saying only that EPA’s compliance program is responsible for reviewing and enforcing discharge rules.

The current permit actually expired in 2004, but has remained in effect until the new was permit is issued. The new permit may be challenged in court within 120 days of being issued.

Permit text and background information can be found at the EPA’s Web site, http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/water.nsf/NPDES+Permits/General+NPDES+Permits#2007cookinlet.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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