Inlet council hears report on volcano-threatened oil tanks

Richard Mauer

A new report on the potential for a disastrous oil spill during the Mount Redoubt eruption last year ignited a brief but loud argument Friday among directors of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council over whether they are properly exercising their oversight role.

"This is a breeding ground of complacency," board member Bob Shavelson said of the council. Shavelson, who represents the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper, said the report failed to address significant issues he had raised, including his concern that the council was too beholden to Chevron, the company that owns the 1960s-era crude-oil tanks built in the shadow of Redoubt.

Board President Grace Merkes, appointed to the board by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, didn't directly address Shavelson's concerns but called for a vote to accept the report even as he was speaking, their voices rising to a confusing din. Later, she insisted in an interview, she listens to Shavelson's opinions, but at the same time said he could be removed from the oversight board for criticizing it.

"I'm not taking away his American rights," Merkes said. "He can go talk to the public, as long he's just talking about his personal opinion, but not his opinion about the board."

A board member's job is "to represent what this board represents," Merkes said.

The council was one of two citizen oversight panels mandated by Congress in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Its more famous cousin, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, has been studying oil spills, spill prevention, cleanup and community response since its inception. It's now advising Gulf of Mexico communities on how to cope with the BP blowout.

The 57-page report released Friday was written by consultant Leslie Pearson. It contained a long section on the history of the Drift River Oil Terminal and its tank farm, now owned and operated by a Chevron subsidiary, and the events that occurred during the 2009 eruption. The terminal and its storage tanks are part of the transportation system for oil pumped from offshore platforms on the west side of Cook Inlet.

While the site was convenient for a tanker dock, it happened to be 22 miles downriver from a very active volcano, Mount Redoubt. Mudflows from the volcano damaged the facility in a 1989-90 eruption, though no oil was spilled, and threatened it again in March 2009, again without loss of oil, though officials, fishermen and others were on edge for weeks.

For days during the early stages of the eruption, Chevron and the Coast Guard refused to say how much oil was in the two active Drift River tanks, citing restrictions in post 9/11 anti-terrorism laws. They finally acknowledged the tanks contained 6 million gallons when the company and state and federal governments established a unified command to manage the crisis.

In her presentation, Pearson said she was unable to find a "trigger" in the law that allowed release of the information -- it just happened.

"It probably was very confusing to the public," Pearson said. "It was confusing to me to try and make some sense of it." Anti-terrorism laws hid other information that the public had come to expect, such as the hazards of nearby industrial sites that had to be reported under federal community right-to-know laws, she noted.

Knowing the volume in the tanks would indicate the scale of a worst-case scenario if the tanks were breached. As it was, Shavelson said, spill response teams only have the capacity to pick up and store half that much oil.

Pearson proposed some changes in the future, including earlier establishment of a unified command -- before a disaster appears imminent. Until that troika is created, the oil company is mainly responsible for response.

But Shavelson said the report ignored many of the questions he had asked it to answer. Among them: what effect the council's funding might have had on its oversight role.

Both the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet councils are funded by the oil industry. While the Prince William Sound council routinely gets its annual $2 million-plus from the operators of the trans-Alaska pipeline, Shavelson said the Cook Inlet group must negotiate its funding regularly from the companies it oversees.

"Yet the report is silent on the fact the CIRCAC was actively negotiating for its funding with Chevron during the 2009 Chevron/Drift River Incident," Shavelson said in a letter he distributed at the meeting. "While there can be no way to demonstrate malfeasance on CIRCAC's part as a result of this dynamic, the report should at a minimum reference it to ensure full transparency is achieved."

Shavelson's unhappiness with the council reached it peak during the vote on whether to accept the report. He asked the council's executive director, Mike Munger, whether he had challenged Chevron on a key issue that arose during the crisis. Chevron said it didn't want to empty the tanks of oil out of fear they'd float away in a flood. Why couldn't they just replace the oil with a heavier substance, water? Shavelson asked.

The question was cut off by Merkes. "I'm not going to accept that, no. We have a motion on the floor."

"This is exactly how CIRCAC cuts off debate and disallows honest questions," Shavelson retorted.

"The motion is on the floor," Merkes said. "I'm going to call a roll-call vote."

"The executive director refuses to answer direct questions," Shavelson said.

"Roll-call vote."

"I'm sorry, this morning at the beginning of this meeting, the executive director called me 'chicken----' and he said 'FU' to me," Shavelson said. "That is the hostile environment that exists in this organization."

"Let's go off the record for a minute, please," Merkes said.

"It was said to me in an open room," Shavelson continued. "You're cutting off debate on an important issue when there's unresolved questions."

"I have that opportunity," Merkes responded. "I am the president."

The report was accepted on a 9-1 vote, with only Shavelson opposed. During the break, Munger denied using profanities but acknowledged having an "altercation" with Shavelson that he amended to a "heated discussion."

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