Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
November 2012

Vol. 17, No. 46 Week of November 11, 2012

State takes over wastewater permitting

Alaska assumes authority over the permitting of discharges from oil and gas operations within state territory and coastal waters

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

At the end of October the State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, took over the permitting of wastewater discharges from oil and gas operations in Alaska, a role previously performed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The permitting comes within the operation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, a program that is mandated under the federal Clean Water Act with the objective of protecting U.S. water from unacceptable pollution.

Under NPDES any discharge of waste into the waters of the United States, either directly or via some form of wastewater collection system, requires a permit.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, retains ultimate authority over NPDES, states that can demonstrate the means to adequately administer the program can take on the operation of the NPDES permitting. And a majority of states now operate the program for themselves.

In 2008 the State of Alaska applied to implement NPDES in the form of a state program called the Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or APDES.

Four phases

The state has been implementing APDES in four phases. Phase I, which included domestic discharges and discharges from seafood processing facilities and hatcheries, was completed in 2008; phase II, which included federal facilities, storm water and wastewater pre-treatment plants, was completed in 2009; and phase III, covering mining activities, was completed in 2010.

Phase IV, which covered wastewater permitting for the oil and gas industry, as well as the permitting for some other activities such as the use of pesticides, was scheduled to be finished in 2011. But completion was deferred into 2012 to allow more time for what DEC characterized as “the substantial workload associated with the oil and gas sector permits.”

With phase IV complete, DEC is now administering the entire wastewater discharge permitting system in Alaska. However, EPA remains responsible for NPDES permitting for offshore activities on the federal outer continental shelf, outside state waters, which generally extend three mile out from the coastline.

“This is an important accomplishment for the State of Alaska,” said DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig on Nov. 1 when announcing the completion of the transfer of authority from EPA. “The transfer of authority will enable us to manage wastewater issues closer to home and better serve Alaskans as a result. We appreciate EPA’s efforts in helping us meet this goal.”

Prompt permitting

APDES Program Manager Wade Strickland told Petroleum News that the biggest advantage of the state taking over the NPDES program is the state’s ability to assign a sufficient number of knowledgeable staff to the program, to ensure the processing of permits quickly enough to meet project deadlines.

“We have a total of five permitting sections in the wastewater discharge authorization program,” Strickland said. EPA had relatively few permit writers assigned to work on Alaska permits, he said.

The DEC staff also understands the unique weather and environmental conditions that operators need to contend with in Alaska. And DEC has an established protocol for working with tribes and local communities which a project may impact, Strickland said.

A further benefit from the state operating the permitting system is that permit applicants will no longer have to travel to Seattle for face-to-face meetings with EPA permit writers, he said.

“Overall it’s a program that we’ve been really excited for a long time to take on and we’re confident that industry will enjoy working directly with Alaskans on their projects as well,” Strickland said.

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