KENAI - A group is alleging that the Environmental Protection Agency manipulated and falsified discharge data to justify an increase of toxic pollution that can be legally dumped into Cook Inlet.
In its lawsuit, Trustees for Alaska wants the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to find that the discharge permit governing oil and gas industry operations in the inlet are unlawful.
The nonprofit public interest law firm is working on behalf of the Native villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham, Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, and Cook Inletkeeper.
The Cook Inlet General Permit is a renewable five-year permit authorizing increasingly large effluent discharges by 19 oil and gas facilities.
The suit alleges that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson violated the Clean Water Act when he reissued the permit. The reissue allows Union Oil Company of California (Unocal) and other operators to dump, among other pollutants, 279 tons of oil and grease into Cook Inlet every year.
According to Trustees, 95 percent of the pollution comes from Unocal's Trading Bay Production Facility.
"EPA is bending the rules to let the oil companies extract the last penny of profit from these aging facilities," said Trustees for Alaska attorney Justin Massey. "And Cook Inlet is paying the price."
In order to extract oil and gas, the industry maintains pressure in the oil reservoir beneath Cook Inlet by injecting millions of gallons of seawater into the substrata. When that water returns to the surface along with oil and gas, it is contaminated with oil, grease, heavy metals and other pollutants.
The EPA requires reinjection of contaminated fluids in coastal waters everywhere except in Cook Inlet, where the dumping permit allows operators to discharge the toxic mixture to sea, Trustees said.
The amount of seawater needed to extract Cook Inlet product is increasing. According to Trustees, EPA documents demonstrate that the waste stream has doubled since 1999, and is projected to grow to nearly 10 million gallons per day during the permit's 5-year life.
To accommodate those discharge levels, the EPA has increased the size of so-called "mixing zones," areas downstream of outlets where pollutants are expected to dilute to safe levels by the time they reach zone boundaries as much as two miles away. Today's mixing zones are 10 times larger than those approved by the EPA in 1999, according to Trustees.
"Instead of telling the operators to recycle their wastewater - like they do everywhere else in the U.S. - EPA has labeled more and more of Cook Inlet as a waste dump for the exclusive use of these oil companies," Massey said.