Here’s a bad omen for Cook Inlet beluga whales. Apache Corp. – the same company that’s exploring for oil and gas in delicate Cook Inlet, Alaska – spilled an astounding 2.5 million gallons of toxic waste in Alberta, Canada this month.
The Alberta spill was big news last week, although it took the company almost two weeks to report it (and only after a local TV station got wind of the story). Local residents now say the entire spill area is a dead zone.
“Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation.
Information compiled by the Dene Tha suggests the spill was toxic, though Apache minimized the spill as “salty water,” with “trace amounts” of oil.
In Alaska, Apache has promised to “minimize” any impact to critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales as it explores for oil and gas in Cook Inlet.
Apache Alaska Corp. has leased approximately 850,000 acres in Cook Inlet to explore for oil and gas. It has already finished year one of exploration. Concerned about impacts to beluga whales and other marine mammals from high-energy airgun surveys, NRDC, the Native Village of Chickaloon, Center for Water Advocacy, and Center for Biological Diversity challenged Apache’s permit – which allowed the company to “take” 30 beluga whales during the first year of its seismic exploration.
Did I mention that Cook Inlet beluga whales are highly endangered and only 312 of them are left on the planet?
Last month, a U.S. District Court Judge in Alaska ruled that the federal government’s decision to authorize Apache Alaska’s oil and gas exploration violated three federal statutes. The court ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) underestimated the take of Cook Inlet beluga whales, thereby rendering its calculations “arbitrary and capricious” and its permit to Apache “clearly erroneous” under the law.
The court ruled in favor of NMFS on other issues, finding that NMFS did not fail in its duty to ensure the availability of belugas for subsistence uses.
At the outset of the litigation, Gary Harrison, the traditional chief of the Chickaloon Native Village, expressed frustration with the potential impacts of Apache’s exploration on subsistence culture: “Belugas are sacred to my tribe and part of our tradition. Because so few of the whales remain, we no longer hunt them. Indigenous peoples are working to protect these whales, yet industry [Apache] can come into the Cook Inlet and harass 30 beluga whales every year as they look for oil and gas. It’s simply wrong.”
It turns out Chief Gary was right. At least in Canada, Apache has left behind a huge swath of destruction.
We’re continuing to fight to ensure that the past is not prologue in Cook Inlet. Because Cook Inlet is no place to gamble on industry mistakes…or we could end up with 2.5 million gallons of spilled of toxic waste.
Photo courtesy of NOAA