Environmental groups sue to block Katalla drilling

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service to block oil drilling planned at the historic Katalla oil field near Cordova.

Plaintiffs contend in the suit filed Tuesday that the Forest Service didn't do an adequate environmental assessment in issuing a permit to Anchorage-based Cassandra Energy Corp.

The plaintiffs include The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Cascadia Wildlands Project, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Eyak Preservation Council. The groups want the court to take away the permit.

Cassandra plans to drill directional wells from private land to explore for oil in subsurface zones held by Chugach Alaska Corp., a Native regional corporation. Cassandra also plans to build a 550-foot temporary access road across federal land.

The project, which is within the boundaries of Chugach National Forest, required Forest Service review and approval. In December, the agency signed off on Cassandra's plan, issuing a ''finding of no significant impact.''

Scott Anaya, of the National Wildlife Federation, said the plaintiffs are concerned about the effects of oil development and potential spills on the rich Copper River salmon fishery. He said the suit was a last resort after the plaintiffs voiced their concerns all the way through the Forest Service environmental assessment process.

One problem, Anaya said, is a lack of an adequate cleanup plan for spilled oil that could harm the nearby Copper River Delta.

''We think it's just too big a risk with probably the most famous fishery in the world sitting as its next-door neighbor,'' Anaya told the Anchorage Daily News.

Chugach Forest supervisor Joe Meade said Tuesday he couldn't comment until he had a chance to read the 12-page suit and review the agency's Katalla drilling approval document, which Meade's predecessor signed.

Cassandra president Bill Stevens said the suit won't dissuade his company from pushing ahead with the exploratory project.

The plan is to barge a drilling rig up the Katalla River and begin drilling sometime after mid-September, Stevens said.

The project, he said, can be done safely and cleanly, in an area that already saw plenty of oil activity decades ago.

The old town site of Katalla is about 56 miles southeast of Cordova, home to the Copper River commercial fishing fleet. The Katalla field produced oil from 1902 to 1933.

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