Environmentalists, fishermen and others in the Copper River region are spearheading a new effort to boost citizen monitoring of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
For now, it's hard to tell if their work will pay off. But recently, they've made some headway: A leader within the group, Cordova-based Copper River Watershed Project, received a grant from the federal government's pipeline oversight agency to develop a plan to improve citizen monitoring of the 800-mile line.
For years, environmentalists and some rural communities have argued the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, built more than 30 years ago, deserves the same level of citizen watchdogging as oil shipping in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. Congress created industry-funded, citizen-led oversight groups to monitor risks in the Sound and the Inlet after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
The Cordova nonprofit, called the Copper River Watershed Project, is one of several organizations along the pipeline route that want Congress to create a citizen advisory council for the pipeline. But in the past decade, that idea has repeatedly failed to get traction: Federal regulators, the pipeline operator and Alaska's congressional delegation have either rejected the idea or declined to champion it.
One reason creating a citizen council for the trans-Alaska line hasn't been a political priority is that the pipeline hasn't had a catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez spill, observers say.
"Mostly, the creation of groups like ours has been in a response to a disaster," said Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, one of the two watchdog groups created by Congress after the Exxon spill. His group receives its funding from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., whose owners hold the leases to the North Slope's major oil fields.
Alyeska says the public has plenty of opportunities to weigh in on its pipeline activities.
The company doesn't have an opinion about the Cordova group's project because it doesn't know enough about it yet, said spokesman Matt Carle.
Federal officials said they want to encourage citizen involvement, but cautioned that the grant doesn't mean that regulators are endorsing creation of a citizens' advisory council.
"(That's) really up to Congress," said Dennis Hinnah, of the Joint Pipeline Office, an umbrella for state and federal agencies that regulate Alaska pipelines. He is the JPO liaison for the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
RIVER OF CONCERN
The Copper River Watershed Project got interested in pipeline monitoring because its members are worried about oil leaking into Copper River tributaries and damaging a world-famous salmon fishery, said Kristin Smith, the nonprofit's executive director. Created about a decade ago, her group works on fish habitat restoration in the region, among other projects.
The pipeline crosses five major Copper River tributaries and dozens of streams. Because the line is aging and oil companies are slashing their costs, the risks of a potential spill deserve more attention now, she said.
Last year, her group applied for and won a $48,380 grant from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The federal agency also gave pipeline-safety grants to 24 other nonprofits around the country. The funds were approved by Congress in the wake of several fatal pipeline explosions in the Lower 48.
While the grant doesn't create a new citizen watchdog group, it does provide money for the nonprofit to study what citizen monitoring of the pipeline could entail.
As it turns out, that's a pretty complicated question.
First of all, sorting through information already produced on the issue would be daunting. Alyeska and government regulators produce voluminous reports and spill contingency plans that take up boxes. A person could "go cross-eyed" reading them, Smith said.
Absorbing official reports already is a big undertaking for Prince William Sound's citizen advisory council, which spends roughly $3 million per year to watchdog the tanker port and tanker traffic in and out of Valdez. It recommends safety-related upgrades at the tanker port and it hires experts to review Alyeska's reports and spill response plans.
Another big obstacle for a pipeline-watchdog group is that the pipeline traverses an enormous area -- from the North Slope to Valdez -- with a handful of rural communities scattered over hundreds of miles along the route.
Instead of dictating what citizen monitoring should entail along the entire pipeline corridor, Smith said her group is focusing on the Copper River watershed. Other Alaskans could use the group's findings as a prototype for their own regions, she said.
The final big obstacle is funding for citizen monitoring projects.
To create a group like the ones for Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound with a similar funding level, "it would take federal legislation," Smith said.
The regional Native corporation, Ahtna Inc., based in Glennallen, shares the Cordova group's interest in increased pipeline monitoring, said Kathryn Martin, Ahtna's vice president for land and resources.
Thousands of Ahtna shareholders rely on salmon from the Copper River, Martin said. "Any spill would affect us," she said, noting that the pipeline crosses a couple of spawning rivers that empty into the Copper, where the shareholders net fish and run fish wheels.
So far, a few other organizations have signed letters supporting the creation of a pipeline citizen advisory panel, including Smith's nonprofit, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and the Cordova District Fishermen United, a commercial fishing group.
For now, the Alaska congressional delegation is not championing the idea.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, "has not taken up the idea nor is he pursuing legislation," said spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has no comment on the idea, and is not looking at any legislation on the matter, said her spokesman Robert Dillon.
"There's probably been 20 to 30 people who have tried to move this forward at one point or another," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage environmental attorney.
"I think we've kind of hit a plateau," he said.
But some feel the DOT grant is a sign that federal regulators are interested in an expanded role for citizen involvement.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Richard Fineberg, a veteran pipeline watchdog who lives in Ester and recently began working with the Cordova group on its project.
The PHMSA grant money will run out in August and the group is required to publish a report detailing its work.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.