Unocal, borough sale put on hold

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

A land deal to sell six acres of borough land near Beluga to Union Oil of California, which the petroleum giant wants for a new drilling-waste pit, has been put on hold for at least 90 days.

Unocal would use the new "monofill" pit to permanently store some 6,000 cubic yards of old drilling wastes now housed in its 30-year-old pit at Ivan River, about 20 miles to the north inside the environmentally sensitive Susitna Flats State Game Refuge. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has ordered Unocal to remove the pit over concerns it might eventually contaminate ground water and Cook Inlet. It currently is not polluting those waters.

In recent weeks, however, there has been a new development that might alter plans.

Unocal has been in discussions with a Tyonek Native Corp. subsidiary called Envirotech, which has a license to employ a new chemical process that can turn hazardous drilling muds into inert, chemically stable materials within a matter of hours. Their operation is at Tyonek, about 30 miles south of the Ivan River pit.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly heard testimony in committee hearings and at the Aug. 5 regular meeting suggesting Unocal would be agreeable to a delay of the land deal while talks between Unocal, Tyonek Native Corp. and Envirotech explored using Envi-rotech's process as an alternative to building a monofill pit.

The assembly voted to postpone action on Ordinance 2003-28, the land-sale ordinance, after hearing from the manager of Unocal's abandonment remediation program, Bob Shipley, who said Unocal had alternatives.

"The top three are grind and inject, the monofill and also other technologies being investigated like what Envirotech has described," Shipley said.

Grinding and injecting means turning the wastes into a slurry and pumping it into an abandoned well, which means burying it thousands of feet below the surface. Shipley said that was his favorite method.

The monofill is essentially a landfill. The pit would be lined to prevent leaching and capped with concrete.

"The monofill may be our best alternative right now," Shipley said.

However, Unocal is interested in Envirotech's process, he said. At the moment, though, Envirotech's DEC permit places limits on what the company can accept for processing, restricting the levels of certain kinds of hydrocarbon contamination called diesel range organics. The Ivan River drilling wastes exceed that restriction, Shipley said.

"There may be some work that they can do with their process to make it work for our Ivan River pit," he said. "It's very early to tell if it would work."

Shipley said Unocal is willing to continue discussions with Enviro-tech and DEC and delay the land purchase.

He also said Unocal has no plans for further drilling on the west side.

"We are looking toward the future as far as what the west side will look like when Unocal's no longer producing out there," he said. "We need to find a place to store permanently those stained soils."

Bart Garber, chief operating officer of Tyonek Native Corp., said the corporation is one of the largest landholders on Cook Inlet's west side. It has banned monofills and the grind-and-inject methods of waste disposals on its land. However, Garber said the corporation is a solid supporter of the oil and gas industry.

In fact, he added, the corporation, through Envirotech, has gotten into the oil and gas industry that end of it concerned with cleanup of the byproduct of drilling operations. Garber said it is no longer necessary to store wastes in pits.

"The technology has gone beyond that," he said.

Envirotech currently can handle about 500 barrels of material day, Garber said.

"That can easily be doubled or tripled," he said.

Whether the process can be made and permitted to handle the kinds of contamination it would see from the Ivan River pit remains to be seen. Meanwhile, discussions will continue. The borough assembly will revisit the land-sale issue in November. The six acres of land would be sold for $40,000 under the proposed ordinance.

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