CIRCAC recertified

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

The U.S Coast Guard announced last week it had recertified the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council as the alternative advisory group for Cook Inlet, and that claims brought against CIRCAC by the Alaska Center for the Environment had been dismissed.

Capt. D.W. Ryan, acting commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, said CIRCAC had "been managed within regulatory requirements in fulfilling the mandates of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90)." CIRCAC is certified through Aug. 31, 2004.

That act established the regional councils in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound in the wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and charged them with providing advice, oversight and monitoring of terminal facilities and tanker operations.

The 13 members of CIRCAC's board of directors represent cities, boroughs and interest groups from Anchorage to Kodiak who have a stake in protecting Cook Inlet resources.

"The annual recertification process gives us an opportunity to showcase the substantive changes in our programs," said CIRCAC Director Michael Munger in a press release Tuesday. "CIRCAC is a great example of how a citizen-based organization can serve a broad constituency. Safe marine transportation and oil facility operation are important issues affecting the quality of life around Cook Inlet. Through CIRCAC, citizens play a direct role in the decisions-making process."

CIRCAC has been the focus of scrutiny by independent environmental groups, including Cook Inlet Keeper, whose director, Bob Shavelson, represents environmental groups on the CIRCAC board. They have expressed concerns that its ties to the oil and gas industry are problematic. CIRCAC is funded primarily by the inlet industry members it is charged with monitoring.

In a Sept. 3 letter to Randy Virgin, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, Rear Admiral J.W. Underwood, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, said he valued the organization's input regarding the council, but that following an investigation into claims made by the center, those claims were being dismissed.

One claim questioned the use of CIRCAC funds in a contract between CIRCAC and its former director, James Carter, under which Carter would be paid for raising new funds for the agency. The Coast Guard said Carter would not receive payment for funds already secured during his tenure as director and that the contract only applied to new funds. If none were developed, Carter would not be paid anything.

Underwood said he considered "the aggressive pursuit of additional funds through a commission-based contract both permissible and aligned with sound business practices."

He also dismissed a claim that CIRCAC had failed to adhere to its bylaws in the way it sat new members of CIRCAC committees.

He said he had found no evidence supporting a claim that CIRCAC attempted to direct a sole source contract to the CIRCAC executive director and added that he was satisfied with the council's ethical controls.

Finally, a claim that CIRCAC was failing to represent the citizens of the inlet or weigh-in on important policy issues was said to be beyond the Coast Guard's responsibility to investigate. Underwood said his role was to determine if CIRCAC's general business practices were in accord with those of similar independent nonprofit organizations and that they fostered the general goals of OPA 90.

Virgin said Friday it appeared all the Coast Guard did was take CIRCAC's statements on the issues as fact. They never talked to the center directly, he said.

"They looked at recertification. They were very specific to the statutes that set out the recertification process in OPA 90," he said.

In that narrow scope, he said, the Coast Guard did not find anything "technically illegal."

He said the most important thing for the center was that CIRCAC takes its concerns seriously and addresses them. So far, he said, serious reform has yet to happen.

"I'm not saying the Coast Guard letter was not legitimate," Virgin said. "What I am saying is that it fell short of what we were looking for."

He said he wasn't looking for CIRCAC to be decertified, but he had hoped for more focus on their concerns.

"We will take a different tack," he said. "We're not going to challenge the Coast Guard decision. We will just stay involved on the CIRCAC board and make sure we have our concerns heard."

Munger said that in dismissing the claims, the Coast Guard emphasized the importance of a dynamic partnership between government, industry and the community.

"The relationship among these diverse groups can be challenging at times, but that's one of the reasons CIRCAC exists," he said.

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