Cook Inlet leads state in pollutant releases

PHOTO/Nancy Pounds/AJOC
KENAI -- More than 1.67 million pounds of toxic pollutants were released into the air, land and water in and around Cook Inlet in 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest Toxics Release Inventory made public last month.

Cook Inlet leads the state in manufacturing-related toxic discharges, the EPA said.

According to the EPA data, Agrium’s Nikiski fertilizer plant led all Alaska manufacturing facilities with on- and off-site releases totaling 1.46 million pounds of toxic chemicals. Tesoro’s Nikiski refinery was responsible for releasing 87,000 pounds of toxic emissions, while the Kenai pipeline facility reported nearly 126,000 pounds.

"Once again, we find industry dumping massive amounts of toxics into the air and water of Cook Inlet," said Bob Shavelson, head of the Homer-based Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental watchdog group.

The reports don’t tell the whole story but only account for a small fraction of the actual toxic discharges into the Cook Inlet region, Shavelson said.

"They don’t include the billions of gallons of toxic pollution discharged each year into Cook Inlet by oil and gas activities, polluted run-off and sewage treatment plants," he said.

Denise Newbould, environmental health and safety superintendent for Agrium, agrees the whole story is not being told.

"The law that drives the reporting is the Community Right-to-Know Act. In my opinion they don’t tell you enough," she said. "They don’t tell you about relative toxicity."

The vast bulk of waste emitted from the Agrium complex is ammonia, which is not harmful in low quantities, and ammonia does not accumulate in the environment as other pollutants can, Newbould said.

"If you are not exposed to a large quantity all at once, there is no danger. It doesn’t cause cancer, it doesn’t attack organs and it doesn’t harm fetuses or anything."

Newbould said Agrium, and its predecessor Unocal, have reduced emissions over the past decade or more by over 95 percent. Scrubbers remove ammonia before discharge and that ammonia is recovered. Flares burn what cannot be economically recovered, and the by-products of that burning are water and nitrogen gas, the major component of air, she said.

The EPA data shows an overall increase in the production of wastes at the Agrium complex but not a relative increase in toxic emissions. Newbould said the efforts at cleaning up emissions are paying off. She also said, however, that a flaw in the reporting requirements may also be skewing the data.

"We have to report if we send spent catalysts to a recycler (where metals are recovered)," she said. "That’s not an environmental harm issue, but we have to report the total quantity." Newbould said spent catalysts could account for several percent of the total emissions.

Other EPA data showed the nearly 534 million pounds of toxic releases coming from mines and power plants made Alaska fourth overall among all states for releases from nonmanufacturing industries.

Some 23,000 factories, refineries, mines, power plants and chemical manufacturers across the nation self-report their emissions to the EPA. On- and off-site releases for all reporting industries totaled 7.1 billion pounds in 2000. Those industries reported creating 37.89 billion pounds of production-related wastes in all, most of it treated or disposed of other than by release. That figure was almost 8.4 billion pounds greater than in 1998.

Agrium was honored by Gov. Tony Knowles at the Export Alaska 2000 banquet in Anchorage May 23.

Agrium Kenai Nitrogen Operations was named winner of the governor’s Exporter of the Year Award.

The Agrium complex includes two ammonia plants and two urea plants with a combined annual production capacity of almost 2 million tons, Knowles said. Since 1999, the fertilizer export market has grown from $113 million to almost $190 million.

Shavelson said it was ironic that Agrium, a Canadian company, would be so honored, while dumping toxics into Alaska’s environment.

Newbould said the complex is "consistently significantly below the toxic release limits imposed by EPA and that what does get released is actually a nutrient."

"Bob Shavelson can say we are ’dumping toxics,’ but I say that’s misleading," she said. "I don’t see the irony. There’s nothing contradictory in it. The governor was not giving the award to Agrium’s international corporation, but to this facility, which is converting a raw material into something of higher value. What’s wrong with that?"

06/09/2002 - 8:00pm