Environmental and Native groups are challenging proposed terms of a new permit to govern discharges to Cook Inlet from the Tesoro Alaska Petroleum Co. refinery in Nikiski.
"The most significant point is that what's being proposed is illegal under the Clean Water Act," said consultant Alexander J. Sagady of East Lansing, Mich.
Sagady is consultant to Cook Inlet Keeper, Nanwalek IRA Council, Port Graham Village Council, Ninilchik Traditional Council, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and Alaska Center for the Environment, which criticized the draft permit in comments to state and federal agencies.
"I really am in total disagreement with their comments," said Vern Miller, the refinery's manager of environmental compliance.
Tesoro has worked extensively on the new permit since 1995 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and state coastal management officials, he said. The information all has been public. Suddenly, he said, Cook Inlet Keeper thinks it has found a pile of problems the agencies missed.
"I don't put a lot of stock in it," he said.
Sagady said that since 1984, the EPA has significantly increased the allowable limits for discharges from the refinery, and not all of the increases have been proper. The proposed permit would reduce limits on discharges of some pollutants, but eliminate limits on others.
"Our comments are intended to put a stop to these illegal increases," he said.
Ron Noel, vice president and general counsel for Tesoro Alaska, said the proposed permit will bring no increase to the discharge of contaminants. The discharge limits for individual pollutants either remain the same or fall.
While the draft permit drops limits for some chemicals and eases monitoring requirements for others, Miller said, that is because previous monitoring suggests those chemicals are not problems at the plant. Tesoro still must test regularly for their presence under separate rules governing the cleanup of the refinery's underground fuel spill.
The EPA took public comment on the draft permit until June 19. The state Division of Governmental Coordination, which reviews the permit for consistency with the state and Kenai Peninsula Borough coastal management plans, took comments until June 27. Miller said he expects EPA to hold a public hearing, perhaps as early as this month.
State and federal officials familiar with the draft permit were not at work Friday afternoon. Tim Hamlin, groundwater project unit manager for the EPA in Seattle, said the environmental coalition's criticisms "may be legitimate points that would cause us to make changes to the permit, or maybe it's all things we've thought of and believe we've handled appropriately. Either way, the detailed responses to those comments will be made."
Tesoro has been working for years to clean the underground fuel spill. The environmental coalition said the refinery formerly sent treated groundwater through a secondary system used to clean water contaminated by refinery processes.
It now proposes to discharge much of the treated groundwater directly to Cook Inlet, bypassing the secondary treatment, they said, and that would increase pollution. They said putting all of the groundwater effluent through the secondary treatment plant could overwhelm it.
Sagady said Tesoro had to increase groundwater pumping to prevent the spill from seeping into Cook Inlet. Now, it must add to its secondary treatment capacity or demonstrate that the present plant is adequate.
Miller said Tesoro must withdraw considerable groundwater to create a low spot in the aquifer where it can collect pooled contaminants. Much of the withdrawn water is clean, he said, and that is what Tesoro proposes to discharge directly into the inlet.
"We won't bypass the secondary treatment if there is anything in the water that's not allowed," he said.
Tesoro's 1995 permit application proposed daily effluent of 1.260 million gallons. Roughly 92 percent of that would be treated groundwater, clean steam condensate and clean cooling water.
The environmental coalition said it appears that dilution is Tesoro's strategy for meeting water quality standards, and that violates the intent of the Clean Water Act.
Miller, though, said adding water to the waste stream does not allow Tesoro to release more pollutants.
"There are regulations that don't allow you simply to dilute," he said. "They take into account the total amount of contaminants times the total volume. All the water that's discharged, we have to account for."
The coalition said the draft permit sets no limits on discharges of chlorinated relatives of dioxin and furan produced during reformer catalyst regeneration. It relaxes monitoring requirements and requires no sampling to detect those chemicals before they enter the main waste-water stream.
Robert Napier, the refinery's environmental compliance administrator, said that is the complaint that surprised him the most. There are no detectable dioxins in the present effluent, he said, and there are no treatment requirements. Even so, Tesoro volunteered to clean waste water from reformer catalyst regeneration with activated carbon filters before it enters the existing treatment system.
The environmental coalition said the draft permit fails to define best management practices for spill prevention, operation of the groundwater treatment system, management of sludges and sediments and control of persistent environmental toxins. Napier said those procedures are covered under separate rules governing cleanup of the underground spill, which are stricter than those governing discharges to the inlet.
"If you examine the information we've provided and the steps we've followed for the renewal process, you'll find that most if not all of those complaints are already answered," he said.
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