Zero discharge possible, environmentalists say

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Cook Inlet oil and gas industry has the technology and the money to reach zero discharge of pollutants, a move that is long past due, says Cook Inletkeeper, one of several plaintiffs in a suit filed June 15 challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to OK a new five-year general discharge permit for the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry.

The organization dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed detailed how zero discharge might be accomplished in its report, “Dishonorable Discharges: How to Shift Cook Inlet’s Offshore Oil & Gas Operations to Zero Discharge,” published last year. The report, which can be found at, argues that discharging wastes into the fish-rich environs of Cook Inlet no longer makes economic, technical or scientific sense. The study suggests using existing pipelines to deliver treated wastewater to specific platforms for re-injection, or drilling new disposal wells.

Marilyn Crockett, deputy director of the industry group Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said going to zero discharge is complicated by the nature of the aging field, aging equipment and platforms with virtually no free space on which to install equipment for re-injecting waste into the substrata. That substrata is extremely fractured and offers a small reservoir, she said.

“A good portion (of the argument against zero discharge) is economic,” she acknowledged, “but the nature of the subsurface is equally important.”

The federal government’s continued willingness to issue discharge permits in the inlet — the only place in the country where that is allowed — has contributed to the industry’s poor compliance record under the Clean Water Act, Keeper said.

In a press release Monday announcing the lawsuit, Cook Inletkeeper noted that the industry routinely violates its permits. In 1995, the industry paid over $2 million to settle a suit alleging 4,200 violations of the Clean Water Act. Nevertheless, a few years later the industry reported more than 1,000 similar violations occurring between 2000 and 2003.

According to Keeper, EPA conducted just four inspections of inlet oil and gas facilities between 1996 and 2006, and conducted no independent monitoring of waste discharges. Thus, Keeper argues, penalties are considered part of the cost of doing business, and lax oversight virtually ensures future violations.

Crockett disagreed with that assessment.

“Industry takes compliance with environmental rules and regulations very, very seriously,” she said, adding that when a company finds it is out of compliance it “steps up” to report that to the agency and come to some agreement about a remedy.

Crockett also said that a comparison of permits from the 1970s to those of today would show that discharges from some waste streams are no longer allowed and others have been ratcheted down.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the plaintiffs who have sued the EPA, it is time zero discharge be applied here as it is everywhere else along the nation’s coastline.

“The toxic dumping loophole in Cook Inlet is a massive subsidy for the oil and gas industry, and at a time of record industry profits, industry can afford to do it right,” said the Keeper’s Executive Director Bob Shavelson. “Anyone else intentionally dumping that much oil into Cook Inlet would be arrested.”

Hal Spence can be reached at

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