Oil, Water, Baseline studies, and Cheats

Sometimes large projects spawn new science research.  For example, in 1958, when Edward Teller as director of the Atomic Energy Commission proposed to use nuclear bombs to landscape a harbor at Port Thompson on the west coast of Alaska, white man’s science data on the area did not exist.  Nearby local residents, particularly the Inupiat and David Frankson, of Pt. Hope, objected to the grandiose plan.

“Project Chariot” never occurred, but baseline studies proposed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks formed the groundwork for the first environmental impact statements concerning the area.  This story is documented in Dan O’Neill’s book “The Firecracker Boys: H-bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental movement.”  The book explores the impact of the bold plan proposed by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Fast-forward to: oil discovery, extraction and proposed oil delivery by the Trans-Alaska pipeline to Port Valdez, Alaska.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Trans-Alaska Authorization Act of 1973 led the State of Alaska to establish water quality standards in Alaska. Safe levels of oil for aquatic life and safe levels of oil that could be discharged at Port Valdez with out harming the port’s marine life was required. Stanley “Jeep” Rice, working for NOAA at the National Marine Science Research Lab, with a Team of Federal and State scientists, set those standards.  Rice, a toxicologist specializing in poisons and contaminants’ effects on aquatic life, led the Team.  Read about related details and published studies in Riki Ott’s book “Sound Truth and Corporate Myths, The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Thanks to EVOS Trustee Council

At the same time Rice was developing water quality standards for the State of Alaska, the National Marine Science Research Lab team was out at Alaska’s Port of Valdez and Prince William Sound doing baseline studies of local sea life and the background level of oil pollution.  They collected sediment samples and counted the number of animals and species along the beaches and shallow near-shore area.  On either side, all along the proposed Prince William Sound oil tanker shipping lane, they collected intertidal and mussel samples.  The samples were free of oil pollution and registered very low levels of hydrocarbons (PAH) in the sediment samples.  (More to follow in an upcoming blog about the meaning of low level hydrocarbons in sediments and sea life.)

In 1979, Alaska state water quality standards were established.  Alaska standards are the most stringent in the nation.  The state of Alaska adopted a total PAH criterion of 10 parts per billion and a total aromatic hydrocarbon criterion of 15 parts per billion.  The equivalent amounts to less than ¼ of a teaspoon (0.05 ml) of crude oil in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The Trans Alaska Pipeline owners, British Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield and Exxon (a consortium known as Alyeska) did not object to the stringent water standards of the State of Alaska.  The Clean Water Act allowed the industry to monitor their own discharges for pollution.

They cheated.

How did they cheat?  According to Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Charles McCoy (reporting after the Exxon Valdez spill), if water samples had been analyzed in Valdez “They would have been off the scale.”  Instead of testing the samples locally in Valdez, the oil companies slow walked the samples.  They sent the samples unrefrigerated down to Seattle.  By the time any sample was tested, the toxicity was broken down or absorbed, therefore, the tests showed toxicity levels in the water samples were within the EPA’s discharge limits.

The cheating was exposed but hard to stop.  News articles published the findings.  Patty Epler, Anchorage Daily News, published a 1985 report, “Slipping through the cracks. Wastewater from Alaska oil terminal eludes agency control” and a 1988 report, “Port Valdez study stirs controversy. Report finds no pollution, one scientist doesn’t buy it.” The Wall Street Journal in 1986 published the article:  “Unsafe harbor. Alyeska pipeline is accused of polluting sea water since 1977” by A. Pasztor and R.E. Taylor.

As the cheating continued, the Macoma clam population crashed in the muds flats near the Port of Valdez terminal.  85 percent of clams vanished between 1978 to 1984.

According to Epler in her 1988 Anchorage Daily News articles, toxic carbons were slipping undetected into the waters of the Valdez terminal and slowly accumulating.  A valid question is:  What is the current status of the Macoma clam population?  Another:  Whether water samples are being properly tested and meeting Alaska water quality standards.

Thanks to EVOS Trustee Council

Frontier Scientists continues to count down to the commemoration of the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

By Liz O’Connell