EPA designation for Yukon River complicates gasline plans

  • The Yukon River, left, and the Tanana River, right, converge during the Nuchalawoyya Celebration in Tanana in 2014. A recent designation for the Yukon River by EPA Region 10 officials is complicating plans for both of Alaska’s gas pipeline efforts. (Photo/Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

Alaska Gasline Development Corp. leaders are worried a special label the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 office has placed on the Yukon River could challenge construction of both of their pipeline projects.

AGDC Senior Vice President Frank Richards said during the corporation’s Oct. 23 board meeting that the EPA has deemed the Yukon watershed an aquatic resource of national importance, or ARNI, as it relates to the in-state-focused Alaska Standalone Pipeline, or ASAP, and potentially the larger Alaska LNG Project.

EPA Region 10 officials wrote a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Aug. 29 detailing the agency’s concerns with AGDC’s approach to building the ASAP project through wetlands in the Yukon watershed. Roughly half of the 737-mile pipeline corridor is through the massive river drainage, according to Richards.

“(Region 10 EPA) took the opportunity to identify, from their perspective, that the Army Corps’ actions in terms of authorizing fill in wetlands is of concern to the EPA,” Richards said. “So they identified not just specific wetlands along the pipeline corridor, they identified they entire Yukon River basin, an area of approximately 200,000 square miles, from the Canadian border all the way west to the outlet of the river. It essentially bisects the entire state of Alaska.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of writing the draft supplemental environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the ASAP project and generally issues wetland fill permits under the Clean Water Act for the EPA.

Under a 1992 memorandum of agreement between the two, the agency, as part of its participation in the EIS, can raise issues it sees in the Corps’ evaluation of a project plan in an ARNI and initiate a consultation process.

The EPA took similar steps while the Alaska Railroad was seeking permits for its new Tanana River bridge southeast of Fairbanks — part of the Yukon watershed — and for a bridge over the Colville River to ConocoPhillips’ CD-5 North Slope oil development.

“This was done unbeknownst to EPA headquarters in D.C. so we’ve taken the opportunity to identify that to EPA Administrator (Scott) Pruitt,” Richards said.

ASAP received a final EIS in 2012 but changes made to the project necessitated amending the document.

EPA Region 10 Environmental Review Director R. David Allnutt wrote in the August letter that the agency supports the state’s desire to develop its energy resources, noting the ASAP project could help Fairbanks improve its poor winter air quality by providing the area access to natural gas, which is an ongoing issue the EPA has pushed the community to resolve.

However, Allnutt also outlined why it doesn’t think AGDC’s compensatory mitigation plan for the project’s impacts to wetlands is sufficient. He wrote that the pipeline is expected to damage 8,907 acres of wetlands, yet AGDC’s plans to offset those impacts with compensatory mitigation by buying into a mitigation bank on 105 acres are, “approximately 1 percent of the impacted wetland area,” Allnutt noted.

That’s because AGDC considers the 105 acres to be the only “ecologically significant” wetlands out of the 8,907 acres without accounting for indirect losses from associated permafrost degradation, according to Allnutt.

The pipeline would also cross 60 watersheds in its path across the state.

“Although the project would adversely impact wetlands, streams, and other aquatic resources in all 60 watersheds, the draft compensatory mitigation plan uses a novel approach to summarily dismiss potential impacts on the aquatic ecosystem in all but two of these watersheds as ‘insignificant,’” he wrote. “This conclusion is particularly remarkable since the draft SEIS assigns some of these same wetland impacts [e.g., wetland loss and fragmentation] a ‘major’ or ‘moderate’ negative effects ratings.”

As a result, the EPA wants the wetlands plans for ASAP to be reviewed in further detail, Allnutt stated.

Gov. Bill Walker subsequently wrote in a letter to Pruitt Oct. 4 that AGDC followed guidance from the Corps’ in establishing its mitigation plan and the state believes it is sufficient.

He also noted Alaska’s abundance of wetlands; the state holds roughly 65 percent of all the wetlands in the U.S.

“As you are likely aware, almost all wetlands in our state are undisturbed, and accordingly, most of the wetlands traversed by our proposed pipeline are also undisturbed,” Walker wrote to Pruitt. “As large and remote as Alaska is, and as many wetlands as it contains, it would not be practicable, nor environmentally justifiable, for this project to mitigate for all wetland impacts along the entire pipeline route.”

Pruitt named Alaska Commerce Department Commissioner Chris Hladick to be the EPA Region 10 director, a position he will take over in December. Pruitt made the announcement Oct. 17. Hladick previously served on the AGDC board of directors under Walker.

Richards said further mitigation could mean limiting construction to winter when gravel pads, which add to filling wetlands, would not be needed, but that would add greatly to the time and cost of either pipeline project.

The EPA suggested building sections of the gasline above ground, similar to how the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built, but that would raise costs and having a large gas pipeline above ground for substantial sections presents safety issues as well, Richards said.

A final outcome is expected soon as to whether AGDC will have to modify its plans, but for now a final EIS is still on track for early next year, he said.

“We’re on schedule until the Corps tells us otherwise for a final EIS and a record of decision, but I’m anticipating with the EPA action that we will have a delay, how much, I don’t know,” Richards added.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

10/25/2017 - 10:31am