IN the waning days of the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rushed to issue regulations mandated by 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
Noticeably absent is a rule for the marine-based terminal of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, said by experts to be North America's largest emitter of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - hydrocarbon-based pollutants - that stream into the air as tankers are loaded with North Slope crude oil.
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company terminal, where one-quarter of national domestic oil is loaded onto tankers, releases 43,000 tons of VOCs into the air each year. This includes 450 tons of benzene, linked to cancer by some researchers.
On Nov. 25, the Alyeska oil-company consortium was ordered to pay state and federal governments $32 million to settle lawsuits over its failure to respond quickly to the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident. Alyeska was responsible for the initial cleanup of the nation's largest oil spill.
Alyeska's VOC emissions give Valdez, a mountain-rimmed town of 4,500, one-tenth of the VOC pollution that covers the entire Los Angeles Basin. State and independent scientists say that here, amid the spectacular natural scenery, the VOC levels have become comparable to cities such as Washington and Boston.
The pollution is legal. No state or federal regulation requires Alyeska to control VOCs from tanker loadings. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments order the EPA to issue regulations covering oil-tanker terminals. These were due by Nov. 15 of this year. Environmentalists say they are disappointed that the EPA missed the deadline for issuing a rule to control air pollution at Alyeska's terminal in Valdez.
"Delay has become a part of the background," said Joe Bridgman, a staffer with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council (RCAC), a group calling for a hard-piping vapor-control system. This system would collect the vapor in pipes for later burning or recycling.
David Markwordt, chief engineer for the EPA team drafting rules for VOC-emitting petroleum terminals, said the regulations can be expected late in the winter or next spring - after a probable lawsuit is filed by environmentalists. EPA behind schedule
"We're behind schedule," Mr. Markwordt said. The delay, he said, is due to the Clean Air Act's complicated treatment of oil vessels and marine terminals. "There were a lot of legal questions associated with it," he said.
Alyeska may be exempted from regulations that target other oil terminals if the EPA is convinced that this terminal poses no significant health risk, Markwordt said. Another reason for an exemption is that Valdez is relatively unpolluted as defined by other EPA standards.
A hard-piping vapor-control system to control pollution would cost Alyeska $120 million to $140 million, company spokeswoman Marnie Isaacs said. Alyeska argues that there is no health justification for a vapor-control system. A two-year company-funded study concluded that the terminal accounts for just 11 percent of the personal-exposure benzene emitted in Valdez.
RCAC-hired scientists dismissed Alyeska's study as flawed, maintaining that the vast majority of benzene in Valdez comes from the terminal.
Alyeska's claim that air pollution from the terminal is blown out to sea is contradicted by a 1977 oil-industry report that predicted heavy local air pollution from tanker loadings.
Prepared by consultants for Sohio Transportation Company, the report to the United States Bureau of Land Management estimated that emissions of about 27,000 tons a year, based on a 1.8-million-barrel-a-day pipeline flow, would stream directly from the terminal to the city's center.
The study concluded that a hard-piping system "offers the possibility of virtually eliminating HC [hydrocarbon] emissions from the tank-ship loading operation."
Despite its objections to the impending regulation, Alyeska is actively developing a vapor-control system, Ms. Isaacs said. The company has also tested and discarded alternatives that would use foam and cooling systems to reduce vapors.
Markwordt said the state has the power to impose its own vapor-control rules if it is dissatisfied with the agency's pace. But that appears unlikely, given the state's political climate. Change of governor
In 1990, Democratic Gov. Steve Cowper's administration issued draft regulations mandating an Alyeska vapor-control system. Then Walter Hickel, a pro-development independent, was elected governor in that year's elections. His administration dropped the vapor-control campaign and ordered that environmental rules be relaxed to accommodate business.
The state turnaround is reflected in comments made by Alyeska president James Hermiller.
Two years ago, he stated in testimony to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: "Any demonstrated health risk is unacceptable to us." His primary concerns, he said, were for safety. An improperly designed vapor-recovery system "could do more harm than good" by exposing Valdez to explosion and fire risks, he said. This year, Mr. Hermiller bemoaned potential vapor-control costs as "a clear signal to oil-industry investors that return on investment is not a high priority here." The health rewa rds of a vapor-recovery system do not justify the large cost, he said.