By Naomi Klouda
A tank farm at the base of Mount Redoubt containing 6.2 million gallons of crude continued to raise concerns this week, while officials formed a unified command to react if volcanoic ash and melting glacial ice sent floods down the Drift River plain.
Fearing risk of an oil spill in Cook Inlet during this period of eruptions, Cook Inletkeeper Director Bob Shavelson went to the Coast Guard’s boss at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Shavelson’s letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urged her to order Cook Inlet Pipeline Co., to remove the 6.2 million gallons of oil at the Drift River Terminal at the base of the erupting Mt. Redoubt volcano until conditions improve.
“We are writing to ask you to take swift action to protect Alaska fisheries and the countless people they support from the threat of a major oil spill in Cook Inlet, Alaska,” Shavelson wrote. He described the precarious situation of the terminal’s location at the base of Mount Redoubt with the volcano erupting, sending mud, water and debris flowing down the Drift River.
“This scenario did not unfold overnight. Similar events transpired during the 1989-90 eruption of Mt. Redoubt. In the current instance, the Mt. Redoubt volcano has been in a heightened state of seismic activity since late fall of 2008. Since that time the DFT operator — Cook Inlet Pipeline Company… has refused to release to the public information on the facility’s Volcano Readiness Plan and the volume of oil remaining in the facility’s tank farm, citing Homer Security Act exclusions,” he wrote.
The Coast Guard backed the company’s decision to not reveal how much crude was stored in the Drift River tanks, even though it’s now established policy for tankers in Prince William Sound to release their tank volume information.
The situation boils down to two questions, Shavelson said. “Why was Chevron hiding behind façade of the Homeland Security Act? (And) why don’t our laws and rules accommodate a worse-case scenario in places where we know the risk is high?”
The Coast Guard has regulatory power over Cook Inlet Pipeline Co., said spokesperson Sara Frances. “We have the authority, if there is a significant threat to the environment, the Coast Guard can direct them to remove oil or suspend operations,” she said.
The Coast Guard did not ask the company to suspend operations or move the fuel. Instead, in a press conference Monday, Coast Guard officials joined with terminal owners and the Department of Environmental Conservation to form a combined command to pool spill resources and expertise.
“This is an ongoing operation, and granted it exists at the base of a volcano, but they have the containment in place, they have contingency plans, so at this time we don’t feel it’s necessary to make them remove the oil,” Francis had said last week. “In any case, it’s not safe to allow a vessel in to do the removal, or we don’t know if it’s safe because debris and mud slides have occurred, and the tanker could be damaged.”
This could also risk a spill, she said.
After Thursday and Friday blasts from Redoubt, the company released a statement saying the engineer who designed the dike had performed an aerial inspection of it.
“And (he) is confident the dike remains sound. He and a CIPL engineer are scheduled to fly out to Drift River Terminal to continue assessments as soon as ash clears and weather permits,” the statement read.
CIPL is developing plans to remove debris and clear the road to the safe haven and the heliport as the first step of action. Clean up of the outbuildings will follow.
“The initial goal is to prepare the facility to load a tanker as soon as is safely possible,” it read. By Monday, the company was holding firm on this decision, with DEC and Coast Guard collaboration.
The Coast Guard plans to perform tests at the loading platform and will advise CIPL of the results. These tests determine the level of debris and depth of the water and will decide when it is safe to allow a tanker to enter the area.
Not only is the terminal of concern, but also a 42-mile pipeline on the west side of Cook Inlet that carries the crude from oil drills to the terminal, Shavelson said.
“Certainly we are aware of the threat to the environment, but there’s also the issue of commerce and jobs, as well as products to Alaska residents that come from oil,” Francis said.
The terminal is made up of seven tanks, with a maximum capacity of 277,000 barrels, Francis said. The facility includes buildings for workers and a platform leading two miles from the terminal to the dock where crude is loaded onto tankers.
The facility was built in 1967-68 on land Chevron purchased from the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Environmental protections and processes were not yet developed to regulate the facility during the time of its construction. According to the EPA, it operates on two clean water discharge permits that require renewal every five years.
After Redoubt blew in 1989-90, the company installed a dike for flood protection. Francis said the engineering work on the dike won a design award.
So far, the dike has held, but buildings at the terminal experienced flooding after the Thursday morning blast unleashed lahars, landslides of wet volcanic debris running down the side of a volcano. Shavelson, who said he has been to the facility, said he is not reassured by the positioning of dikes. The power of nature has proven stronger than man-made innovations.
“And you can’t lose sight of the fact that the public was denied information before the situation got into crisis mode,” he said.
When viewing the terminal, Shavelson said it is surrounded by a broad flood plain.
“I also see the force of nature and I think we can look at Katrina and any number of instances where it is no match for nature’s force. A lahar can dig a new channel, moving directly at this terminal. The situation can change rapidly. We’ve been extremely lucky.”
Cook Inlet does not have the capacity to deal with a spill potentially 6 million gallons strong, he said.