After concerns were raised about the safety of the Drift River oil storage facility located at the base of Mt. Redoubt, the energy company Hilcorp has started a project to ensure protection of the large oil tanks located there. But before the project could be started, Hilcorp first needed waivers from provisions of the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area Management Plan.
The management plan that protects the critical habitat area around Redoubt Bay was put on the books in 1994 and has specific allowances for work related to oil and gas development. In this case, Hilcorp needs materials to build up and strengthen the earthen berm that protects the 270,000 gallon tanks. Those materials, mostly gravel and boulders, come from sites within the protected area.
“In order to obtain our armor material, we needed to access material site A, which involved crossing an intermittent stream,” said Bo York, Facilities Engineering manager for Hilcorp. “That allows us to have our haul truck drive across, load rock, drive back across and return to the Drift River terminal with the rock,” York said.
He said increasing the structural integrity of the storage facility is necessary as the Drift River Terminal is part of a longer term strategy to increase production. Without that storage capacity, more tankers would have to come through Cook Inlet to pick up the oil. For public interest groups like the Cook Inlet Keeper, the simple fact that permits were properly obtained doesn’t mean that the best interests of the environment are kept at the forefront.
“There’s this pervasive myth of rigorous permitting; the public’s led to believe that there’s this alphabet soup of authorizations and permits and if industry complies with all the requirements that you’re going to somehow protect salmon habitat,” said Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inlet Keeper.
“It’s only a matter of time where the death by a thousand cuts that’s led to the decimation of wild salmon runs across the world befalls us in Cook Inlet,” Shavelson said.
York said the stream in question was identified by Fish and Game as anadromous, with salmon fry having been observed there, and that Hilcorp has designed its project, which includes an access ramp across the stream, with the appropriate protections in place.
“At the project site, the stream flows over an unconsolidated lahar flow from the 2009 Mt. Redoubt eruption,” said Fish and Game Habitat Biologist Paul Blanche.
"There is no defined channel. Instead, the stream flows over a wide, shallow area with occasional deep areas, about 6-10 inches deep, that collect larger flows…Our impression, based on the geology and the multiple waterfall inputs is that the system is somewhat flashy during precipitation events and likely has very low flow during the winter,” Blanche said.
The Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Management plan forbids materials extraction, unless there are extenuating circumstances for which there is no feasible alternative.
In a letter to Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, Shavelson noted that a possible alternative for Hilcorp would be to barge in the large rocks they need for construction.
The material site is just six miles south of the Terminal. Shavelson maintains that the best alternative would be to do away with the terminal altogether, and construct an oil pipeline beneath Cook Inlet.
“The state department of Fish and Game is allowing them to violate Fish and Game’s own rules to mine these boulders to resume storing oil at the base of an active volcano, which is the stupidest place to store oil that I can think of,” Shavelson said. “The best way to get that oil across the inlet is to pipeline it across,” he said.
Shavelson isn’t the only one who sees an oil pipeline as a safer way into the future. This summer, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council released a position paper stating its support for a pipeline, which has been backed by other energy companies operating in Cook Inlet.