Bring 'em on, Governor; Keeper welcomes debate on environmental enforcement

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2004

The Murkowski Administration's environmental enforcement record to date speaks for itself: Punish the little fish and let big corporate fish off the hook. When the largest toxic spills, repeated spills and spills in sensitive areas receive little or no attention by the state's environmental police, what's to stop them from recurring?

Though Cook Inlet Keeper used the state's own data to produce its recent report on the Murkowski Administration's environmental enforcement record (covered in Clarion news articles on June 11 and June 21), the governor disagrees with our analysis. Gov. Frank Murkowski issued a challenge to us at a June 15 Soldotna Chamber of Commerce meeting: He would pit his experts against Keeper's experts anytime. We say, "Bring 'em on, Governor," and let's have a public debate on environmental enforcement that focuses on science and facts rather than politics and hyperbole.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Ernesta Ballard has assured the public and industry on numerous occasions that "enforcement will be the predictable consequence of failure to comply." As a result of these statements, Keeper analyzed the state's enforcement data for the first 13 months of the Murkowski Administration. Because the state has the discretion to fine those whose spills cause environmental damage, Keeper also analyzed the 2,356 reported spills during that time period (approximately 5.7 per day, with an average spill size of 150 gallons).

The state data show that Commissioner Ballard's tough enforcement statements are empty rhetoric. Corporations with the greatest potential to pollute face very little risk of fines, while individual Alaskans with tailpipe problems in Anchorage or Fairbanks may face criminal enforcement actions all 12 criminal actions in the enforcement database were against individuals. Because the state can lose federal dollars for air quality violations but not for spills to water or land, the Murkowski Administration focused its criminal prosecution resources on individuals rather than on corporations violating the state's oil and hazardous substance discharge standards. Though not all spills result from violations, when they do and when the spills are indicators of future problems the state should do its utmost to collect fines and environmental restoration costs from those operators.

Among other findings, only 7 percent of the enforcement actions during the time period covered were taken against the state's biggest industries (i.e., oil production, tourism including cruise ships, seafood, logging and mining), which represented 34 percent of the reported spills. The Top 10 spills, ranging from 4,800 to 158,000 gallons of toxic liquids, had no enforcement actions against them as of June 2004. These 10 spills came from the oil industry (five spills, including one at a caribou crossing), mining (three spills) and logging and fuel distribution (one spill each) and resulted from pump failures, corrosion, excessive driving speed and other preventable causes.

Of the 329 enforcement actions during this time period (including actions with and without penalties), zero were against the logging and mining industries, and six each were against the oil production and seafood processing industries. Additionally, the number of environmental enforcement actions by month declined by approximately 60 percent from December 2002 until January 2004, further demonstrating the Administration's lack of commitment to meaningful enforcement.

What would "sufficient" environmental enforcement look like? The state would focus its enforcement resources against those with the greatest potential to pollute. The state would pursue a more balanced enforcement approach, with air enforcement no more than 50 percent of the state's actions the data show that air enforcement was 89 percent, water and wastewater was 5 percent, oil was 6 percent, and solid or hazardous waste was 0 percent. The state would not decrease the number of enforcement actions until a significant percentage of spills and other forms of pollution resulted in fines. And the state would penalize high spill quantities, repeated spills and spills in sensitive areas to send a message that such actions are both costly and unacceptable.

When Keeper presented these findings to the governor, Commissioner Ballard and Attorney General Renkes in a letter signed by other nonprofit organizations, the administration chose to mischaracterize the analyses and attack our organization's credibility rather than respond to the data findings and recommendations. Sadly but not surprisingly they chose to shoot the messenger rather than consider the message.

Because we believe the facts are on our side, we welcome a substantive public debate on environmental enforcement. Alaska's magnificent resources are too important to have it any other way.

For those who wish to review the state's enforcement and spill databases and the Cops Off the Beat report on the data, see

Lois Epstein is a senior engineer and the oil and gas industry specialist at Cook Inlet Keeper's Anchorage office.

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