Environmental Groups Attempt to Block Drilling in Cordova

Environmental groups on Tuesday sued the U.S. Forest Service in federal court in Anchorage in an effort to block oil drilling planned for this fall at the historic Katalla oil field near Cordova.

The environmental plaintiffs including The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Cascadia Wildlands Project, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Eyak Preservation Council contend in the 12-page suit that the Forest Service didn't do an adequate environmental assessment.

The groups are asking the court to take away the permit the Forest Service gave to Anchorage-based Cassandra Energy Corp.

Cassandra plans to drill directional wells from private land to explore for oil in subsurface zones held by Chugach Alaska Corp., a Native regional corporation. Cassandra also plans to build a 550-foot temporary access road across federal land. U The entire project, which is within the boundaries of Chugach National Forest, required Forest Service review and approval. The agency in December signed off on Cassandra's plan, issuing a "finding of no significant impact." Scott Anaya, of the National Wildlife Federation, said the plaintiffs are concerned about the effects of oil development and potential spills on the rich Copper River salmon fishery. He said the suit was a last resort after the plaintiffs voiced their concerns all the way through the Forest Service environmental assessment process.

"We've looked at it and we think the Forest Service failed to consider many things on this project," Anaya said.

One problem, he said, is a lack of an adequate cleanup plan for spilled oil that could harm the nearby Copper River Delta.

"We think it's just too big a risk with probably the most famous fishery in the world sitting as its next-door neighbor," Anaya said.

Chugach Forest supervisor Joe Meade said Tuesday he couldn't comment until he had a chance to read the lawsuit and review the agency's Katalla drilling approval document, which Meade's predecessor signed. Cassandra president Bill Stevens said that he hadn't expected a lawsuit but that he wasn't surprised, either. He vowed that the suit won't dissuade his company from pushing ahead with the exploratory project. The plan is to barge a drilling rig up the Katalla River and begin drilling sometime after mid-September, Stevens said.

The project, he said, can be done safely and cleanly, in an area that already saw plenty of oil activity decades ago.

"The whole area was, in fact, an industrial oil field. It was the original Alaska oil field. It was drilled and produced, and oil was even refined there for over 30 years."

The old town site of Katalla is about 56 miles southeast of Cordova, home to the Copper River commercial fishing fleet. The Katalla field produced oil from 1902 to 1933.

Ken Hodges, a Forest Service fisheries biologist in Cordova who helped draft the environmental assessment, said commercial fishing groups had not E been particularly vocal about the Katalla drilling.
No fishing group is listed as a plaintiff in the federal suit.

Sue Aspelund, former executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United, the area's leading commercial fishing group, told the Forest Service in a September 2001 letter that fishermen intended to closely monitor any drilling to see that it doesn't threaten fish, wildlife and habitat.

Robert Henrichs, president of another Cordova-based group, the Copper River/Prince William Sound Native Fishermen's Association, wrote that with the new oil industry technology that's evolved since Katalla was active, "we see no problems developing these oil fields."

Henrichs said Chugach Alaska Corp. has the right to develop its holdings at Katalla.
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 - Environmental Groups Attempt to Block Drilling in Cordova (Aug 15)

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