DEC regulators pulled off oil-spill jobs
By Tony Hopfinger

Anchorage Daily News
20 December, 2001

Critics say they were removed to appease companies.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has stripped authority from two regulators overseeing North Slope oil spill cleanup, in part because they allegedly nitpicked in their industry reviews, the agency's commissioner said.

The news last week that Susan Harvey and Robert Watkins were ousted from their spill-cleanup oversight has angered some environmentalists, who believe these regulators have raised DEC's oversight of the oil companies.

The timing didn't help, either.

A DEC manager informed Harvey and Watkins about the same time Gov. Tony Knowles unveiled his $4.8 million proposal to beef up oil oversight but also streamline the permitting for everything from well drilling to spill cleanup plans.

The streamlining portion sparked some watchdogs to speculate DEC was clamping down on two of its top regulators to appease an industry that finds itself under increasing criticism for poorly maintaining the Slope's aging pipelines, safety valves and other machinery.

DEC Commissioner Michele Brown denied the claims. "Nobody from above exerted pressure to remove these individuals," she said. Harvey oversaw the agency's spill prevention and response program. She no longer can approve spill-cleanup plans for the oil companies. She will continue to regulate other aspects of the industry, such as the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Watkins worked for Harvey, managing field inspectors who evaluate oil companies' spill plans. He said he was reassigned to an administrative job.

"We both did the best jobs we could," Watkins said.

Jeff Mach, who has headed the agency's oil and gas activities, now will take on oversight of North Slope oil spill prevention and response. Brown appointed him recently for this assignment.

Brown wouldn't name individuals but said some regulators were "nitpicky" in their reviews, and that caused some spill plans to be held up unnecessarily. For instance, she said, her regulators delayed plans until minor paperwork and clerical items were resolved.

"We're talking about (companies) getting ready to drill this winter and not knowing whether they would have their plans approved until a couple weeks before they were set to go," she said.

In other cases, she said, "staff were changing the rules because they thought they had a better way to do things. You can't make up the rules as you go along." Harvey said she was puzzled and upset with Brown's allegations.

After all, she said, DEC last year awarded her for uncovering serious deficiencies in the oil industry's spill-response plans. And last August, DEC gave her an "outstanding" performance review, she said.

"I welcome anybody to come look at the state records and decide for themselves whether our reviews are substantial," Harvey said.

Watkins said that if spill plans were held up, it is because of large, controversial issues, like what time of year oil companies should be allowed to drill on the Slope.

He is talking to his union, the Alaska Public Employees Association, and plans to appeal his job change.

Dennis Geary, the union's assistant business manager, confirmed he is looking into the matter.

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