Anchorage — At the end of October, the state Department of Environmental Conservation took over the permitting of wastewater discharges from oil and gas operations in Alaska, a role previously performed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The permitting comes within the operation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, a program mandated under the federal Clean Water Act.
Under the program, any discharge of waste into the waters of the U.S., either directly or through some form of wastewater collection system, requires a permit.
Although the EPA retains ultimate authority, states that can demonstrate the means to administer the program can take over permitting. A majority of states now operate the program for themselves.
In 2008, Alaska applied to implement the discharge program in the form of a state effort called the Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
The state has been implementing its program in four phases. Phase I, which included domestic discharges and discharges from seafood processing facilities and hatcheries, was completed in 2008; phase II, which included federal facilities, storm water and wastewater pre-treatment plants, was completed in 2009; and phase III, covering mining activities, was completed in 2010.
Phase IV, which covered wastewater permitting for the oil and gas industry, as well as the permitting for some other activities such as the use of pesticides, was scheduled to be finished in 2011. But completion was deferred into 2012 to allow more time for what DEC characterized as "the substantial workload associated with the oil and gas sector permits."
With phase IV complete, DEC is now administering the entire wastewater discharge permitting system in Alaska. However, EPA remains responsible for permitting for offshore activities on the federal outer continental shelf, outside state waters, which generally extend three miles from the coast.
State program manager Wade Strickland said the biggest advantage of the state taking over the program is it's ability to assign enough knowledgeable staff to ensure processing of permits quickly enough to meet project deadlines.
"We have a total of five permitting sections in the wastewater discharge authorization program," Strickland said. EPA had relatively few permit writers assigned to work on Alaska permits, he said.
The DEC staff also understands the weather and environmental conditions that operators need to contend with in Alaska. DEC has an established protocol for working with tribes and local communities which a project may affect, Strickland said.