Court Sends Inlet Dumping Permit Back for Additional Review
Yet Toxic Oil Industry Dumping Continues in Cook Inlet's Rich Fisheries
HOMER, AK - A coalition of fishing, Alaska Native and conservation groups today responded sharply to a recent court opinion that recognizes significant flaws in the State of Alaska's Clean Water Act permitting program, yet allows toxic oil and gas dumping to continue unabated in Cook Inlet's rich and productive fisheries.
"Chevron has raked in over $10 billion in profits so far this year, yet they refuse to properly treat the toxic waste they dump into our subsistence fisheries," said Tom Evans, an Alaska Native and a member of the Nanwalek IRA Council in Lower Cook Inlet. "This is a human rights issue - our elders and our kids have a right to clean water and healthy fisheries."
On October 21, 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision which left in place a Clean Water Act permit that allows the oil and gas industry to virtually triple the amount of toxic pollution it dumps annually into Cook Inlet fisheries. However, the decision also recognized serious flaws in the State of Alaska's efforts to implement its so-called "anti-degradation" policy when establishing the dilution allowances (i.e. "mixing zones") for industry wastes, and remanded the permit to EPA to correct these deficiencies.
"EPA routinely penalizes our fish processors when they dump organic matter back into the ocean," said Roland Maw, Executive Director of Cook Inlet's largest commercial fishing organization, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. "Yet they let the oil and gas industry dump billions of gallons of toxics into Cook Inlet each year. It's wrong and it treats the fishing industry unfairly."
Cook Inlet is the only coastal waterbody in the United States where EPA allows the oil and gas industry to dump toxic drilling and production wastes into important subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it established five year terms for discharge permits, with the intent that technology would improve over time and pollution eventually would be eliminated. However, the current permit vastly increases the amount of toxic dumping in Cook Inlet compared to the previous permit, with industry authorized to discharge approximately 100,000 gallons of oil and over 835,000 pounds of toxic metals each year. In 2006, Inletkeeper released a report, entitled "Dishonorable Discharges: How To Shift Cook Inlet's Offshore Oil & Gas Operations to Zero Discharge," that provides practical alternatives for safe industry waste disposal.
"Our people consume a lot of fish, and we depend on clean water and healthy fisheries to sustain our culture and our way of life," said Patrick Norman, Chief of the Native Village of Port Graham in Lower Cook Inlet. "It's hard to explain to our people why EPA allows industry to dump toxic wastes into our bread basket."
Despite lenient permit conditions for oil and gas operations in Cook Inlet, industry has routinely violated its permit. In 1995, industry paid over $2 million dollars to settle a lawsuit that alleged over 4,200 Clean Water Act violations, and between 2000-2003, industry reported over 1000 similar violations. As a result, water quality penalties have simply become the cost of doing business for oil and gas corporations in Cook Inlet, and lax oversight by governmental agencies virtually ensures future violations.
"It's a hard job to get a court to overturn an agency decision," said Vicki Clark, Litigation Director at Trustees for Alaska. "But the court recognized the serious flaws in the state's process to meet water quality standards for the discharge, and now they will have to explain to the court how they will fix it."
"The oil and gas industry continues to put profits over our fisheries and the countless families they support," said Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper. "When the oil jobs and taxes are gone, we'll still need healthy, intact fisheries to sustain our communities. The court's decision clearly shows EPA needs to get serious about protecting our fisheries."
The groups who brought the challenge to the oil and gas industry permit are:
Cook Inletkeeper, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund, the Native Village of Port Graham, and the Native Village of Nanwalek. The nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska represented the plaintiffs (www.trustees.org).
For more information, including the court decision and related documents, and Inletkeeper's report showing why zero-discharge is feasible in Cook Inlet, see: www.inletkeeper.org.
Established in 1995, Cook Inletkeeper is dedicated to protecting Alaska's Cook Inlet watershed
and the life it sustains.