US Sues Alaska and Alaskan County for Clean Water Act Violations Impacting 10 Communities

The United States has sued an Alaskan borough and the state in the District of Alaska for purported Clean Water Act violations for oil spills from various facilities leaking into wetlands; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed settlement the same day.

According to Wednesday’s complaint, North Slope Borough, the northernmost municipality in Alaska and the United States, has 70 facilities in 10 communities for the “storage of oil and the treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.” The complaint notes that each of the facilities had an aboveground storage capacity of at least 1,320 gallons.

The proposed settlement requires the borough to “take comprehensive actions and make infrastructure improvements” to comply with waste and oil spill prevention controls. The agreement would also require the borough to pay a $6.5 million fine and hire an auditor to ensure compliance.

The government complaint contends that in a 2014 Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Regulations Plan, the defendants “identified numerous tanks and drum storage areas that lacked adequate secondary containment” and they did not include an integrity testing and visual inspection schedule for the aboveground containers. The U.S. adds that the defendants failed to provide evidence that these insufficiencies were fixed, and that during inspections, the Environmental Protection Agency found drum storage areas without the proper secondary containment in several facilities in a few of the communities.

For example, there was discharge from a warm storage building in Point Lay, Alaska. In September 2014, the United States identified a leak from the 55-gallon drums on a gravel pad. The complaint states that after the leak was discovered, the defendants’ contractor “characterized more than 400 drums on the gravel pad and determined that most of the drums contained new or used oil and had been stored at the Warm Storage Building for at least one winter season.”

The U.S. asserted that surface water samples from wetlands next to the gravel pad “exceeded Alaska Water Quality Standards for total aromatic hydrocarbons and total aqueous hydrocarbons” and the wetlands’ surface had a sheen. Furthermore, these wetlands are next to the Kasegaluk Lagoon, connected to the Chukchi Sea, which is navigated by recreational or commercial boats. Therefore, the U.S. avers that it is possible for the wetlands to pollute the Kasegaluk Lagoon because “there is an uninterrupted flow path capable of transporting pollutants from the point of discharge in the wetlands to the Kasegaluk Lagoon.”

Additionally, in 2017 at the Kaktovik Utility/School District Warehoke and Heavy Equipment Maintenance Facility, it was discovered that 2,400 gallons of oil spilled from the fuel line. Reportedly, during snow removal “after the spill and prior to discovery, NSB’s heavy equipment operators distributed contaminated snow from the initial spill site into push piles throughout the community.” Upon melting, 14 out of 26 piles had a sheen to them and several were pushed into wetlands. As a result, the U.S. claims that the spill has affected a 33,150 square foot area. The United States adds that the affected wetlands are next to the Kaktovik Lagoon and the Pipsuk Bight; these are connected to the Beaufort Sea, which is navigated by boat. As a result, the Kaktovik Lagoon and the Pipsuk Bight have purportedly been affected by this pollution.

The United States also avers that the defendants stored solid and hazardous waste, such as lead-acid batteries, waste lamps and punctured aerosol cans at facilities in several communities. The defendants would allegedly store more than 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste at various facilities per month, however, the defendants allegedly stored hazardous waste before they made hazardous waste determinations and their chemical waste management company noted errors in their hazardous waste manifestations.

The complaint asserts four counts against the defendants for Clean Water Act violations and 12 counts for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.