Federal regulators are investigating the alleged dumping of thousands of gallons of tainted mud by a Texas drilling company into the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's northern coast, a spokeswoman for Alaska's environmental protection agency said Tuesday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether workers from Pioneer Natural Resources Co. of Irving, Texas, dumped the contaminated mud - a mixture of bit lubricant and chemicals drawn from the drilled hole - through ice fissures on Oooguruk Island in March 2003, oil industry critic Chuck Hamel of Alexandria, Va., said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Two EPA investigators obtained records and spoke with the response team from the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in August, agency spokeswoman Leslie Pearson said Tuesday.
The EPA wouldn't confirm the investigation to The Wall Street Journal, which reported the investigation Tuesday in its online edition. The EPA's regional office in Seattle did not return calls from The AP.
Pioneer officials didn't immediately return phone calls to the AP. However, officials told the newspaper they were not aware of an EPA investigation. The company said the spill was an accident, and was properly contained and cleaned.
Ed Meggert, the state's on-scene coordinator in Fairbanks, wasn't immediately available for comment Tuesday, which was a state holiday in Alaska.
But Pearson said the state conducted its own investigation shortly after the spill but didn't fine the company.
"They're a new operator. We issued them a notice of violation, which doesn't normally trigger a fine," she said. "We gave them information on how to report spills should another incident occur. As far as I know, we haven't had another problem."
But in a Monday letter asking U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, for tighter oversight, Hamel claimed workers were told to dispose of thousands of gallons of the mud into the sea.
"It's got to go to a licensed disposal," Hamel said of the tainted mud. "And they save money by washing it down through fissures."
Hamel said he and whistleblowers from the rig crew met with the EPA's criminal investigation team in Seattle in June, triggering the probe.
An Alaska-based spokesman for Nabors Industries Ltd., which operated the rig for Pioneer, said company officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Pioneer Natural Resources, http://www.pioneernrc.com
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: http://www.dec.state.ak.us
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov
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