Understaffed for oil spills?

Official says state team not able to respond to spills effectively

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001

FAIRBANKS - The supervisor in the state office that oversees the cleanup of hazardous spills in northern Alaska says a reorganization of his agency six years ago has led to some spills not being cleaned up properly and others not investigated.

That reorganization of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 1995 closed a North Slope office and transferred its spill response duties to the department's northern region office in Fairbanks.

But, according to northern region supervisor Ed Meggert, he never got additional staff to handle the added work. His staff has been juggling its North Slope responsibilities with the rest of the region.

"We have too few people to do an adequate job," said Meggert, who has been on the job since 1991.

While Meggert's superior at the department's Anchorage office agrees the North Slope needs more spill responders, he disagrees with Meggert's claim that the northern office is highly overworked. Nevertheless, he said, the department is looking at ways to increase North Slope staffing.

Meggert's argument is one of gallons and geography.

The northern office, he says, has been responsible for the cleanup of 2.4 million gallons of spills since 1995.

The region includes the North Slope, 82 villages, two military bases, most of the state's major mines, two of the states' major oil refineries, portions of the Alaska Railroad and the trans-Alaska pipeline, the Fairbanks North Star Borough and several major road systems.

"It's a bit like war," Meggert said from his cramped basement cubicle at the DEC building. "Your ability to mitigate damage, to keep it out of the water - that is done by having adequate resources to deal with spill response."

Meggert said he's been asking for more staff for years to handle those reports. The nine positions in the central region are justified because that's where most of the work is, said Brad Hahn, statewide chief of the Prevention and Emergency Response Program.

In addition to oil and gas complexes at Valdez, on the Kenai Peninsula and in Cook Inlet, Hahn noted that most of the state's people live in the central area, which includes Anchorage and dozens of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

"People are what create spills," he said.

Hahn also said all of the spill response offices can call on others in the department for help or hire contractors to visit sites. In addition, region supervisors also respond to spills. True, Meggert said, but his office is still responsible for tracking the spill.

According to Meggert's report, spills reported in the northern area averaged 479 gallons each, while those in the central area average 135 gallons each. Southeast area spills averaged about 384 gallons each.

That's significant, Meggert argues, because larger spills have greater potential to harm the environment or human health and because cleanup costs can be high if work isn't begun immediately.

For at least two decades a North Slope office handled cases for an assortment of DEC programs, such as water and air quality, in addition to spill response.

But in 1995, with the approval of Gov. Tony Knowles, DEC reorganized all its divisions statewide under a tighter budget.

North Slope spill response was transferred to Meggert's group in Fairbanks. The workload nearly doubled immediately while staffing remained the same, he said.

Shortly after the changes, North Slope exploration and other activity picked up. Meggert said the new industry activity and the absence of a North Slope office forces him to balance staff between the North Slope and the rest of the region.

The result, he believes, is a less-than-sharp focus on the oil fields.

Now oil companies and their contractors have hundreds of new employees working on the Slope. Responders, he said, need to develop relationships with those employees to find out the nature of their work and what type of equipment is on hand should a spill occur at any of the hundreds of work locations.

Richard Fineberg, a longtime oil industry watchdog, sees a problem with the DEC's empty North Slope office.

"The North Slope is one of the largest industrial complexes in the world with no environmental monitor based there full time," Fineberg said. "That is ridiculous."

Some change is under way.

This summer, at Hahn's instruction, DEC workers started rotating to the Slope from the northern and southeast regions. The office since has been staffed three to eight days a month.

He is also looking at moving a position from Anchorage to Fairbanks and is considering asking the Legislature for more money for oil and gas oversight statewide.

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