DEC proposes changes to regulations on oil spill contingency plans

  • Three Edison Chouest Offshore vessels docked at the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System facility Monday, April 2, 2018 in Valdez. From left, escort tug Commander, ORSB-1 oil spill response barge, and the general purpose tug boat Elrington. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The long list of changes Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation leaders want to make to spill regulations for oil and fuel shippers and handlers is out, and stakeholders are diving in.

DEC Commissioner Jason Brune offered some unique language when attempting to describe the department’s objectives for the regulatory reform effort in a Nov. 2 statement, shortly after the 118 pages of long-awaited proposed changes were published.

“The goal is absolutely to maintain Alaska’s high standards for environmental protection, while also modernizing plan-holder requirements and ending ‘administranglia’ for our (spill contingency) plan holders that takes their focus and resources away from the things that really matter. In the end, we want to see contingency plans that are very effective for preventing and responding to spills and don’t get caught up in things that are duplicative, inefficient, or no longer work,” Brune said.

The proposed changes to the state’s rules for spill contingency plans, or C-plans, for entities producing, storing or transporting large quantities of oil and fuels come roughly two years after DEC officials first began soliciting input on C-plans from direct stakeholders and the public, ahead of the likely reforms.

Currently, there are 131 active C-plans held by 77 plan holders, according to DEC.

Most members of the public then urged DEC officials to maintain the current levels of protections in the regulations, and many questioned why the department would open the regulations to possible changes given the state’s reliance on marine resources and the relative lack of large fuel or oil spills in the state since the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Many expressed concerns that the decidedly pro-business Dunleavy administration would ease environmental standards at the behest of industry.

Local government officials by and large also emphasized a general desire for the department to uphold current levels of oversight on the oil and gas industry, while also suggesting some changes to clarify and strengthen the existing regulatory code. Several local and Tribal governments across Alaska submitted resolutions against actions to ease the regulations.

Fuel shippers, oil field service companies and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. at the time all offered numerous ways they feel the regulations are too rigid, unclear or outdated.

Stakeholders across a range of interests in the realm of spill prevention and response all said they were actively reviewing the more than 30 detailed regulatory changes, and deferred comments on the proposals to a later time.

Spill Prevention and Response Division Director Tiffany Larson described the approach that agency officials responsible for revising the regulations took in determining whether important environmental standards are upheld in the proposals with a question.

“Do I know more or less information about the regulated facilities with this set of regulations than I would have with the other (previous) set?” Larson said. “We made sure that we didn’t compromise any of our existing environmental protections.”

She said the members of the Spill Prevention and Response, or SPAR, regulatory team collectively has about 70 years of experience in those roles.

Much of the work in the first draft of changes to C-plan requirements went into “marrying” two sections of at-times arcane administrative code to better clarify what is expected of plan holder, she said.

“We were able to reduce a lot of redundancies and citation duplication in regulation that made it confusing, not only for the regulated community, but for agency personnel also,” Larson said.

She acknowledged changes in the rules for site inspections and demonstrations of spill response equipment and processes could be viewed differently depending on the perspectives of stakeholders.

The proposed regulations would require one site inspection by SPAR staff and one demonstration during the five-year life of each active C-plan. Under current regulations, SPAR officials may call for two inspections over the five years. Larson said the update could potentially be construed as easing the site inspection and demonstration mandates, but emphasized that the draft regulations remove ambiguity and ensure each C-plan holder will be visited regularly.

Reforms to how SPAR officials evaluate the effective recovery capacity for response equipment such as oil skimmers are also being floated. The new language would limit the stated capacity to recover spilled oil, fuel and contaminated water to available on-site storage, and not rely on equipment capabilities.

“Maybe a skimmer could collect 5,000 gallons in a day but they only have storage for 2,000; well, their capacity is only 2,000 gallons,” Larson said. “That might seem more burdensome to industry than before.”

Other reforms focus on more simply on bringing the C-plan rules “into the 21st Century,” according to Larson. That is achieved through adding flexibility for virtual inspections in some instances and subtracting requirements for paper files.

“If the state had written that you must submit five copies of something, well then you must have five copies,” she said.

Comments on the draft C-plan regulations can be submitted on DEC’s website through Jan. 31.

Larson said DEC leaders hope to be able to finalize the packet of new regulations in about a year.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/10/2021 - 10:02am