Exxon's proposed plan for handling thousands of tons of oily waste created by the Prince William Sound oil spill may require side stepping existing permits and environmental laws, state and federal regulators said Tuesday.
In particular, parts of a controversial federal permit governing the discharge of oily wastewater from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal in Valdez may have to be waived if Exxon is to be allowed to dispose of millions of gallons of oily water there.
And state air quality experts said burning oily absorbent pads and other material at Alyeska may cause enough air pollution to trigger a complex regulatory review of the entire shipping facility. Alyeska has been resisting state and federal attempts to push that review for more than a year, but could find itself forced to submit to the inspection now.
Dick Stokes, a state Department of Environmental Conservation official reviewing the waste disposal plan, said Tuesday, "DEC is not going to relax its standards."
"We won't try to hold up Exxon on some technicality by saying one type of oily water is not the same as another," he said. "But we're holding the line on our (air and water quality) standards."
On Monday, Exxon gave the Coast Guard its final beach cleanup proposal and what it called a waste disposal "scoping" plan. Because the cleanup isn't finished, Exxon isn't sure exactly how much oily water, oil soaked debris, clothing, rags, trash and other waste it will eventually have to get rid of. But the Coast Guard has asked other agencies to review the plan and submit comments by noon today.
Exxon has asked for an expedited review of the plan, and said use of the Alyeska facilities will require "letters of nonobjection, waivers and permit modifications" in some cases.
The disposal plan calls for running between 16 million and 20 million gallons of oily water, drained from skimming operations, through Alyeska's ballast water treatment plant. On average, the plant each day cleans 13 million gallons of oily ballast water brought in on tankers from the Lower 48, which is then discharged into Port Valdez.
In 1985, during an investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the plant had been partially dismantled and wasn't operating as well as anticipated. Since then, DEC and EPA have been closely scrutinizing Alyeska's operation and recently proposed a tough new environmental permit that substantially reduces the amount of aromatic hydrocarbons that can be discharged into the port.
That permit, which replaces one that expired in 1983, could soon be in force, making it more difficult for Exxon to dispose of its oily wastewater at the terminal. Alyeska has challenged DEC's hydrocarbon limit and delayed the permit's issuance.
But Larry Dietrick, director of environmental quality for DEC, said Tuesday the state has finished negotiations with the pipeline company over the discharge limit and has decided to stick to its position. He said the state will soon be asking EPA to issue the new permit, but he expects legal challenges to keep it in abeyance.
Dan Robison, an EPA water quality expert, said Exxon's proposal may run into trouble even under the existing permit.
He had not finished reading the proposal by Tuesday afternoon, but said Exxon seemed to be relying on facilities that Alyeska has shut down or that no longer exist. For instance, the plan calls for heat treatment to break the emulsion of oil and water, but Alyeska took out the heat treating system about five years ago, he said.
Robison also questioned how large volumes of oily water from the spill would be fed into the plant along with millions of gallons of tanker ballast water and not overload the plant.
"The conceptual plan could work but not the way Alyeska has been doing it," he said.
He also was concerned that Exxon wanted permits modified or waivers issued rapidly but hadn't provided enough information for the agencies to act on.
Stokes and Dietrick said the plan to use Alyeska's ballast water system seemed to be the only reasonable option to dispose of the oily water. They said the total volume is relatively small compared to the amount of oily ballast water that runs through the plant and that the spill disposal is just for a few months.
"It would seem to me it would not pose any additional risk," Dietrick said.
The Exxon proposal also calls for burning oily absorbent pads and other debris in several incinerators, one in Whittier, one on an offshore barge and three that would likely be located on or near the Alyeska terminal.
The Exxon plan asks that the three incinerators be considered a "stand alone" facility, not part of Alyeska's overall operation.
But Bill MacClarence, a DEC air quality expert who has been investigating air pollution at the terminal for more than a year, said state law clearly requires an overall review of air quality if any new air pollution sources are added.
The review, which is intended to prevent significant deterioration of existing air quality, can take months and requires expensive and extensive computer modeling as well as monitoring before a permit can be issued, MacClarence said.
"There's all these extra hoops they've got to jump through," he said.
DEC and EPA have been pushing for the so called PSD review at Alyeska for some time because they say routine burning of hydrocarbon vapors in three huge incinerators justifies the review. But Alyeska has resisted the review so far.
Stokes said it might not be worthwhile to do the PSD review because the incineration is a short term situation. "We're only talking about a few months that they'd be operating," he said.
Environmental groups also challenged the Exxon waste disposal plan Tuesday and said the state should not give in to any requests to modify permits or loosening environmental standards.
"The general tone in the whole report is that the regulatory agencies ought to sort of lay off," said Mike Wenig, a staff attorney for the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska. "They say they need quick approval but they don't say what the emergency is."
He said the Exxon plan suggests the company is trying to circumvent environmental regulation, rather than come up with a plan that works within existing rules.
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