Regulators pulled off oil spill oversight

DEC denies claims the agency is bending to industry pressure

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2001

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has stripped authority from two regulators overseeing North Slope oil spill cleanup, in part because they allegedly nitpicked in their industry reviews, the agency's commissioner said.

The news that Susan Harvey and Robert Watkins were ousted from their spill-cleanup oversight angered some oil industry watchdogs, who think DEC is clamping down on regulators to appease an industry that finds itself under increasing criticism for poorly maintaining machinery.

DEC Commissioner Michele Brown denied the claims.

"Nobody from above exerted pressure to remove these individuals," she said.

Harvey oversaw the agency's spill prevention and response program. She no longer can approve spill-cleanup plans for the oil companies. She will continue to regulate other aspects of the industry, such as the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Watkins worked for Harvey, managing field inspectors who evaluate oil companies' spill plans. He said he was reassigned to an administrative job.

"We both did the best jobs we could," Watkins said.

Brown wouldn't name individuals but said some agency workers were "nitpicky" in their reviews, and that caused some spill plans to be held up unnecessarily.

For instance, she said, her regulators delayed plans until minor paperwork and clerical items were resolved.

"We're talking about (companies) getting ready to drill this winter and not knowing whether they would have their plans approved until a couple weeks before they were set to go," she said.

In other cases, she said, "staff were changing the rules because they thought they had a better way to do things."

Harvey and Watkins were upset with Brown's allegations. DEC honored Harvey last year for uncovering serious deficiencies in the oil industry's spill-response plans, she said.

"I welcome anybody to come look at the state records and decide for themselves whether our reviews are substantial," she said.

Watkins said that if spill plans were held up, it is because of large, controversial issues.

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