State and federal agencies have tightened their oversight of the disposal of dirty ballast water by oil tankers into the coastal waters of Alaska, while officials continue investigations into what appears to be an industrywide practice.
Tankers are routinely transporting oily ballast water from the West Coast to the marine terminal at Valdez, Alaska, where the water is run through a treatment plant and dumped into the harbor, according to industry sources and documents obtained by The Times.
Some tankers whose ballast was restricted by environmental regulators came back a second time to dump the same ballast, records show. Other tankers transferred their dirty ballast to ships headed north for discharge into the plant. Some dumped ballast water in the open ocean en route to Valdez.
Critics argue that some of the ballast water shipped to Alaska may contain toxic concentrations of hydrocarbons and other materials that the treatment plant was not designed to filter out. Such substances, they say, may be winding up in the state's coastal waters, where they could pose a risk to wildlife and the marine environment.
Oil industry officials deny that that is the case or that the practices pose any environmental risk. So far, government regulators have turned up no hard evidence of improper disposal.
Still, there has been enough concern that industry and government officials are scrutinizing the process. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have launched detailed probes of theindustry practice; the state's findings are due this month.
In addition, the EPA has begun restricting the types of ballast accepted at the treatment plant. Also, the state department has begun periodic sampling of ballast discharges.
Regulators are also investigating two instances of allegedly improper waste-water disposal. Moreover, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) has asked the congressional General Accounting Office to investigate the Valdez ballast-water treatment plant's operations.
Others have criticized regulatory oversight as being lax, and federal officials have acknowledged some shortcomings, though they deny a lack of vigilance.
"I think we could have done a better job of examining and asking hard questions about what wastes were coming in there and (of) writing a tighter permit," acknowledged Harold Geren, chief of the water permits and compliance branch in the EPA's Seattle office.
Despite heightened awareness by regulators, however, the industry remains largely self-regulated.
At the center of the issue is the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a company owned by a consortium of major oil companies that operates the Valdez terminal, the treatment plant and the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline.
"All we've really found out is that there is an enormous sense among the population that there is no (independent) monitoring there at all," said Michele Brown, executive director of the Citizens Oversight Council on Oil and Other Hazardous Substances in Anchorage, one of two citizens groups slated to receive state grants to monitor waste-water discharge. "Alyeska is kind of a sovereign state and provides self-monitoring that is invariably self-serving."
Alyeska disputes that, arguing that regular testing ensures that only water meeting EPA guidelines is returned to the sea.
The company says that the marine environment around the plant falls within those parameters. "We have found no long-term impacts," said Alyeska spokeswoman Marnie Isaacs in Anchorage.
Allegations of illegal waste-water disposal have been circulating for months. But the controversy is heating up Congress debates opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, prompting environmentalists to again question the oil industry's environmental record in Alaska.
At issue is the water carried by oil tankers in their empty cargo tanks to stabilize the big ships as they steam north to Valdez to pick up oil for transport. Before a tanker can load oil in Alaska, it must unload the ballast.
But such water can contain oil and diesel fuel flushed from tanks, decks, bilges or engine spaces. In some cases, the water can also contain detergents used to clean out cargo tanks.
Such "tank washings," "slops" and "dirty ballast water"--as the liquid is known in the industry--may have large concentrations of oil and sludge, as well as such toxic hydrocarbons as benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene and xylene. Chronic exposure to such chemicals can kill wildlife and cause long-term damage to the marine environment, critics say.
Critics argue that the Valdez ballast water treatment plant--set up mainly to separate oil from water--was never intended to process the type or amounts of dirty ballast water now flowing into it. Alyeska says it processes 16 million gallons of such ballast daily.
"The fact is, we don't know what happens and we don't know how that facility treats that waste," one industry source said.