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U.S. EPA seeks court order for compliance

By Ferdie de la Torre SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Nov. 29, 2010) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. that EPA may need to take action to "protect the waters of the United States" if CUC cannot immediately clean up the oil contamination at the two power plants in Lower Base.

CUC, however, disclosed that recent testing of the areas for which EPA has expressed concern shows that no oil is seeping into the ocean.

CUC says it began implementing the cleanup work plan at Power Plants 1 and 2 in Lower Base on Sept. 22, 2010.

In the U.S. second status report filed in the U.S. District Court for the NMI on Wednesday, Bradley R. O'Brien, counsel for EPA, said that EPA filed a letter with the clerk of the federal court, raising concerns about the implementation of CUC's workplan.Specifically, O'Brien said, CUC began subsurface investigation and sampling at the two power plants.

"This investigation revealed the extensive presence of oil (diesel and heavy oils) in the groundwater beneath and around the facility, including contamination very close to the shoreline," he said.

The EPA, O'Brien said, is extremely concerned about ongoing and potential future discharges of oil directly to waters of the United States in violation of Sections 309 and 311 of the Clean Water Act.

O'Brien said pursuant to provisions of the court's order, EPA is discussing with CUC options for addressing potential ongoing oil discharges and preventing continued migration of contaminants into the waters.

Deborah E. Fisher, counsel for CUC, in a Tuesday letter addressed to the court, O'Brien, and Attorney General Edward Buckingham, pointed out that EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard recently inspected Power Plants 1 and 2 and found no sheen on any of the ocean waters that border the two power plants

Fisher said CUC has learned that soil samples taken at the beach indicate organic material, not oil.

"CUC acknowledges that there is oil contamination in the soil farther inland, and the test boring sites do show a sheen," she said.

It appears, however, that an impermeable clay soil acts as a barrier, preventing oil migration to the ocean at this time, Fisher said.

"As a result, there is no immediate danger of any oil reaching the ocean. CUC plans to take all measures necessary to clean Power Plants 1 and 2," Fisher said.

In CUC's second status report filed in court on Nov. 13, 2010, Fisher said CUC is confident that the implementation of the workplan will be completed on schedule.

She said EPA, through its on-scene coordinator, has been monitoring the cleanup to ensure that the project and the quality of the sampling protocol are maintained.

Fisher said samples have been sent to an EPA-approved laboratory in California.

She said the contractor has installed 13 monitoring wells as of Nov. 9, 2010.

The only concern on this project, Fisher said, is that the drill supplies were ordered late and shipping problems may delay the program.

"Plans are in place to ensure the fieldwork/testing will meet the deadline of Jan. 30, 2011," she added.

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