The government has taken over cleanup of 4,400 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled into a creek bed northeast of Valdez because the responsible company said it lacked enough insurance to finish the job.
Much of the low-sulfur diesel remains frozen in the roadside creek weeks after a tanker slid off the Richardson Highway at Mile 48 on Dec. 9 as it was transporting the fuel to the North Slope for drilling operations.
Environmental regulators said North Pole-based Alaska Petroleum Distributing Inc., the tanker operator, told responders on Dec. 22 that it used most of its $1 million insurance coverage and was financially incapable of completing the cleanup. The federal Environmental Protection Agency assumed command of the effort, with other partners including the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader said the first priority is the cleanup, which resumed Tuesday. But the "bottom line in these situations is the polluter pays," she said in an email Thursday.
"EPA has not made any decisions on potential enforcement," she said.
Jay Johnson, whose family owns Alaska Petroleum, said he will reimburse the government. The company has had the same per-incident insurance coverage for 20 years and didn't even need half of it for cleanup of an 1,800-gallon spill on the Dalton Highway.
Johnson said he hopes the EPA will work with him so he can make restitution.
"It's not that we're unwilling to pay," he said. "I just can't pay it all at one time."
The December spill was in a creek that flows into the Tiekel River, which flows into the salmon-rich Copper River, according to officials.
Steven Russell, the DEC's state on-scene coordinator, said the remainder of the cleanup is expected to take seven to 10 days. But crews are dealing with weather challenges, including wind gusts of up to 55 mph, and the cleanup could take longer, he said.
Alaska Petroleum could face civil fines and penalties from the state or federal government, Russell said. But he also said that's a consideration for the future. For now, the focus is recovering the pollution that remains at the site.
As for the responsible party not having enough insurance, that's not an issue as far as Russell is concerned.
"Their capability just ran out there," he said.
Russell said the company exerted a substantial amount of effort to cleaning up the site — an effort to be taken into consideration pending any future enforcement actions.