Image courtesy of AVO/USGS by James Isaak. Photo taken 3/31/2009.

No, this isn’t Battlestar Galactica, but the same can be said for the Drift River Oil Terminal: this has all happened before and will all happen again. Coast Guard officials have (finally) decided to move ~6.3 million gallons of crude oil from the Chevron-owned Drift River Oil Terminal at the base of Redoubt. The oil terminal has been a flashpoint since Redoubt began to make noise earlier this year and even up until yesterday, it was unclear what, if any, action the Coast Guard might take with the facility. It had been shut down and evacuated since Redoubt began to erupt last week, but now the oil will be removed over the next few days (weather/volcano permitting).

It seems that the threat of dome collapse pyroclastic flows and the lahars/flood they might generate could have been the tipping point for the oil terminal. Even after the oil is moved, there will still be over 800,000 gallons of oil left in the tanks at the Terminal. The terminal was improved since the 1989-90 eruption of Redoubt, with the installation of dikes to protect it from potential floods and lahars that would travel down the Drift River valley from Redoubt – and so far, the dikes have withstood the floods of the 2009 eruptions. However, the public scrutiny and the uncertainty involved in, well, locating an oil terminal near an active volcano (see map above), has apparently forced the move. Groups near the Cook Inlet fear any breach of the dikes will spill millions of gallons of crude oil into the inlet, in a state that has already had to survive one major oil spill and is still recovering from that.

Hopefully, this will be the last time we have to deal with this issue at Redoubt. Either Chevron or the U.S. government should get the sense that keeping this terminal in operation is a detriment and a danger to both the ecology of Cook Inlet and the oil production in the region. However, I would also not be surprised if after Redoubt quiets after these eruptions, the oil returns and 10 years down the road we have to go down this road all over again. This problem won’t go away unless we make it go away.


  1. #1 gg
    April 3, 2009

    Maybe Governor Palin should consider this: How much is tourism worth to Alaska?

    Do Alaska-bound cruise ships prefer oil, or crystal clear water? Instead of helicopter wolf hunting, how about heli-volcano tourism: all the violence of nature, without guns. Just a thought.

  2. #2 Sarah
    April 3, 2009

    I have had a hard time feeling even a little bit sorry for the oil companies who were stupid enough to put their facility near an active volcano. And I agree, Erik, that they’ll probably go back to using that same facility in a decade or so. Humans have an awful track record of not learning from our encounters with natural events (hurricanes, volcanoes, etc.).

  3. #3 mike don
    April 3, 2009

    Some investigative journalist should look up Chevron’s original decision to site the terminal there, given that Redoubt’s topography and eruptive record mean that lahars down the Drift River are not just likely but near-certain. And since lahars are not plain water floods, which drain away, but thick density flows, they’ll just have to keep building the dykes ever higher. Not sustainable in the long run, surely?

  4. #4 EKoh
    April 3, 2009

    As someone experienced with Coast Guard and maritime operations, I just want to add that the Coast Guard decision on removing the oil will constantly adjust according to the situation. One has to remember that their are other natural forces as powerful as volcanoes to consider, namely sea conditions (sounds like a Kilauea documentary). Anyway, moving large ships in and out is not like driving tanker trucks up to a pump. Be assured that they are well aware of the risk of leaving the oil there versus the risk of something happening offloading to the tanker or while its underway. After all, the Coast Guard is the ones that will have to deal with rescues and spills.

    As to the siting issue, I don’t know the history but I can easily see that just about anywhere along the west coast of Cook Inlet is near a volcano. As smart as living on a barrier beach…

  5. #5 Erik Klemetti
    April 4, 2009

    Yes, by no means was this meant to be a slight on the Coast Guard. These are difficult conditions to transfer oil into ships with volcano and weather involved. However, in my mind, the Coast Guard should never entered into this because the terminal shouldn’t be there in the first place. Aren’t there any locations on the east side of the Cook Inlet that the terminal could be located? It just seems like a classic case of a pound of cure instead of an ounce of prevention.

  6. #6 BBeier
    April 4, 2009

    What are the residents of Kenai, Homer, and other communities on the peninsula going to think about siting an oil terminal there?

    What’s the regulatory climate now, compared to 40-plus years ago when the Drift River terminal was built on that nice flat plain (check out the topography of the peninsula); even if it is physically and socially possible, are environmental legal policies even going to allow the building of a new oil terminal on the peninsula?

    After all, volcanoes are not the only threat; major earthquakes and potentially huge tsunamis can happen at any time there; so even if the communities on the east side of the peninsula are eager to have a new terminal (which I doubt) and it’s not prohibited to build one there under current law and is even economically feasible, there is no “safe” place there. If you build on the peninsula, and then another magnitude 9-plus earthquake happens and there is an oil spillage from the new terminal, it’s not going to just go into the inlet, which would be a tragedy but containable; it is going to go into the sea and end up on all the places the Pacific washes in that region, maybe even all the way down to the Pacific Northwest. That’s quite an EIS the new builders are going to come up with, for sure.

    The Anchorage Daily News has been covering this pretty thoroughly at . Apparently it’s more risky to remove all the oil from the terminal, as that will leave the tanks light and vulnerable to being pushed off their bases if the dike is breached(a pollution scenario that happened in the New Orleans area during Hurricane Katrina). Also, it’s not possible to drain the tanks completely because of the position of valves and so forth. They could do it by pumping in water, but then you have a chemical mixture that will corrode the tanks and everything else that handles it. There is no easy solution to the problem.

  7. #7 gg
    April 4, 2009

    Big explosion today, cloud to 50,000 ft. plus, lahar detected, and a flash flood warning for the Drift River from the National Weather Service. This is not looking good for the Drift River terminal. Will the berms protect the oil storage tanks this time, and the bigger question: is lava going to reach the oil terminal? What can withstand lava?

  8. #8 EKoh
    April 4, 2009

    The type of magma driving Redoubt produces a viscous lava that generally does not flow far from the vent. The danger is from the lahars- these mudflows have enough mass and velocity to tear apart an industrial facility. The result of a lahar hitting the terminal could be an oily mudflow into the inlet. Lahars do not seem to get as much press as other volcanic phenomena (I guess because people don’t automatically associate volcanoes and mud), but they are among the most far reaching and destructive eruption products.

  9. #9 gg
    April 4, 2009

    So much for the plans to move more oil out of the tanks. That must be on hold.

  10. #10 Dennis anderson
    April 4, 2009

    I am located about 5 miles NW of Homer. We just went through a pretty good ashfall from this morning’s event. I still have not heard anything about the lahar that certainly was created this morning but the NWS had issued a flash flood warning to evacuate the Drift River immediately after the eruption.
    From the Hut web-cam at the AVO (Alaska Volcano Observatory)site you could see that there has been extensive melting and a large outflow from the eruption at the dreft glacier piedmont.
    I’ll tell you what; People around here are mad as hell that 6 million gallons of oil is still sitting in those tanks when the oil company had months of warning to do something and chose to ignore the danger.
    What could they possibly get out of another disaster? How about this: HIGHER OIL PRICES!!! KA…CHING!!! $$$ !!!

  11. #11 Bobby
    April 4, 2009

    All you guys screaming about the millions of gallons of oil, need to find a creek, and put a metal can in it, empty…… Now, take the same can, fill it with oil, (Cap it, duh) and try again…….

    The chances of the empty tanks, still containing over 700,000 gallons spilling into the inlet, are far greater than the millions of gallons from the full tanks. not only because the weight will hold them down, but also because the inside pressure will be holding damage at bay. The tanks are fine, leave them be. Then, after the volcano settles, think of moving it.

    Knee jerk reactions from environmentalists will do nothing but hurt us in the end. Use common sense, and quit blaming the oil companies. If in doubt, remember the spruce beetle.

  12. #12 Erik Klemetti
    April 4, 2009

    Bobby – I don’t really follow your logic. If debris ruptures the tank, it doesn’t matter how much oil is in the tanks, it is going to get out, mix with the flood/lahar and make it to the inlet. And this isn’t really a “kneejerk” reaction as we’ve had months (and years) to think about the problems of having an oil terminal located there. The same thing could be said for the ski areas on Ruapehu – yes, so far nothing tragic has happened, but does that mean it is a good idea to keep them open when the volcano erupts again?

  13. #13 Dennis A.
    April 4, 2009

    I guess as long as I run gas through my engines I can’t complain much – Oh wait! The hell I can’t. It took nearly 20 years for the EXXON Valdez lawsuit to be “settled” for pennies on the dollar. Hundreds and hundreds nay- thousands of Alaskans were screwed on that one and EXXON continues to post record profits. If there is another disaster guess who picks up the tab and guess who gets screwed?
    Just typical of corporate America. Proceed at any risk in the name of greed and profits and when disaster strikes let the taxpayer foot the bill.
    The oil terminal should not be there in the first place. These oil companies have many highly trained geologists on their staff. They knew they were putting this terminal in one of the worst possible places. This volcano has been sending Lahars down the drift River for hundreds of years. It was no secret. So why was it put there? Me thinks perhaps because it was the flattest piece of ground around and that it would save the oil companies a lot of money by not having to move much dirt around in order to put the airstrip and tank farm in.
    Weather the tanks survive this eruptive episode or not they should be drained completely and dismantled no matter the cost to the greedy bast&%$s!!!

  14. #14 Bobby
    April 4, 2009

    I may have not been clear enough…..

    Running off in the middle of a lahar flow trying to lighten a tank, might not be a great idea. I don’t think the DROT should be there either, but they put it there, and the state let them.
    Look at the pictures of the DROT, the chances of actual debris reaching the tanks in a force great enough to poke through them, is pretty slim, unless the volcano does something totally tremendous.

    So here is my logic, leave the tanks, for now, heavy, that way, if the mud does reach them, they wont slide off of the foundation, and break open. Either way, there is a risk, but you have to weigh the options. Hopefully, they will do something about this, for the future.

    You also have to remember that Chevron will do what is best for business, and what is best for business, right now, is to not have crude sliding into the cook inlet.

  15. #15 Bobby
    April 4, 2009

    To Dennis.

    The best way to solve this for the future is for us to not forget about it when the volcano is done. As far as exxon posting profits, and not being responsible for their actions. We can all agree on that. Too bad the world has been taken over by lawyers and politicians. And we have a government that foots the bill and lets big corporations get away with it….. But, lets not get started on politics.

  16. #16 Dennis A
    April 4, 2009

    Yes, let’s not forget about it.
    Maybe seawater is corrosive but since these tanks should be shut down and dismantled, for now couldn’t the oil be replaced by seawater for boyancy? After all it is done with ships all the time. We are now getting towards spring and the danger of freezing seawater in the tanks has probably passed with the increase we are seeing for daytime/nightime temperatures.

  17. #17 BBeier
    April 5, 2009

    As a matter of fact, I don’t agree about oil companies “posting profits, and not being responsible for their actions.” But that’s neither here nor there. We’ve got a volcano emergency ongoing here.

    The human mind is an interesting thing: in emergencies, its “what if” faculty is very necessary for survival, but it can go overboard, too. A little common sense is also definitely needed for the most optimal survival of any emergency, including this one.

    First, the current situation: It’s not as if the dike at the terminal has failed or is about to fail: it held up just fine and protected the tanks yesterday during what might have been the biggest explosion thus far in the 2009 eruption. Some water did get in at another part of the terminal and damaged a generator, per the Anchorage Daily News today, and that set back drainage efforts 2 days.

    However, it’s not the imminent failure of the tanks at the terminal that’s putting human lives at risk now as well as forcing the additional risks of transfer of oil from tanks to tanker under the shadow of an erupting volcano, and costing huge bucks to private companies, insurance companies, the state of Alaska and the US. The tanks are fine, and so are the people who have to be at the terminal (they have a safe refuge to go to during floods–I love how the Anchorage Daily News insists on calling them “flash floods,” not “lahars”!)

    No, it’s the “what if” factor, scaring everybody common-senseless.

    True, they’ve also got to figure out what to do with all the oil production that’s currently being stored on the platforms out in the Inlet (they’re not going to put it in the terminal just now, that’s for sure). However, the main thing fueling all this is the environmentalist furor and consequent publicity that’s making the companies and state and federal agencies take more risks now than they might do otherwise. And I’m not sure that’s wise. People could get injured or killed who might otherwise have never been put into a risky situation. Oil could get spilled that might otherwise have rested securely throughout this eruption in terminals that have not yet even been approached by a lahar, let alone impacted by one.

    Is that wise? I don’t think so.

    It’s not like we haven’t been through this, and worse, before. Katrina’s unexpectedly huge surge knocked some oil tanks off their bases and breached others as well as sulfuric acid storage facilities, you name it: the Houston Chronicle goes into it some at

    It was a terrible mess, and the environmentalists and media really shouted out the worst over it in 2005, scaring us all half to death. It was bad, certainly, but the worst of what we heard then turned out not to be true, and New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish, and the entire area is coming back.

    We handled Katrina’s environmental damage well. For that matter, we also handled well the damage caused by the “Valdez” spill. We can handle any eruption-caused mishap at the Drift River terminal very well, too; we are doing just that already.

    I’m not sure, though, that we’re handling our own “what-if” scenarios all that well and helpfully right now.

    The long-term situation: Just two questions come to mind, the first of which I’ve already addressed. Where are you going to put a new storage terminal for the Tesoro Refinery if you close the Drift River terminal? Close the terminal, and you’ll have the close the refinery and shut down the platforms. And who is going to tell the Cook Inlet region, the state of Alaska, and the USA that no more oil may be produced from that site because they had to shut everything down over fears that *maybe* a lahar *might* someday damage the only practical oil storage facility in the region and cause a spill in the Inlet that could be thoroughly cleaned up even if it happened? Not me, that’s for sure.

  18. #18 Erik Klemetti
    April 5, 2009

    Thanks for the comment, BBeier. It definitely shows the complexity of the issue. I, not surprisingly, came at it from the prospective of a volcanologist and the idea of putting important infrastructure like the terminal at that location was just baffling to me. Mitigation can be very tricky as, really, it boils down to probability and risk management. Some will always err on the side of no risk and some will always err on the side of risk, but the real answer lies somewhere in between.

  19. #19 Gwhizzzel
    April 5, 2009

    I am so relieved to find a discussion group/blog on this subject! Very Interesting posts to say the least. I have lived on the shores of Cook Inlet my entire life and am very worried about the situation at Drift River. As I write this, I look out the window at the volcano and wait for the next eruption…will it be the one that knocks out the terminal? Will Cook Inlet and surrounding waters be drenched in Crude during the night? Even the thought of this possibility is incomprehenible.
    I wonder what the governor’s stance on this situation is? I don’t see any news from her office on main stream media…
    If the worst were to happen it would make the Exxon Valdez look like a picnic…why is this topic not getting more coverage, before I found this comment group I was beginning to think I was the only person worried about this.

  20. #20 Chris
    April 6, 2009

    Between 1990 and 1999 I worked at the Drift River Terminal: First as a contract electrician, and finally as a direct hire for Unocal Corp. During my time at Drift River, I worked many positions and constructed numerous projects; from basic facility maintenance to installation and supervision of the SCADA automation of the Cook Inlet Pipeline. Eventually I became an operator in the field responsible for tanker loading operations on the Christy Lee Platform.
    I am surprised at some of the comments and criticisms on this page that I believe are short sighted and in need of education about the facility, its history, and its purpose.
    The Drift River Terminal was constructed in 1968 as the only means for handling the oil production of the Cook Inlet oil field. Mobil oil constructed the facility with an incredible eye for detail, fully aware of the region in which it was developing operations. The Christy Lee Platform’s location at the end of Kalgin Island was precise. Water depth to allow Tanker loading operations, tidal flow, ice pack, and seismic impacts were all taken into consideration when the platform was designed and sited. There was no detail left unaccounted for in the design of the terminal, either. Possible eruptions of Mt. Redoubt were carefully considered.
    Prior to the 1989 eruption of Mt. Redoubt, the facility’s tank farm had been protected by a dike system that was standard for its time. The dike was not intended to protect tanks from external hazards, but to prevent a loss of product escaping the facility. In other words, these dikes were not intended nor built to protect the Tanks, only to prevent spills from spreading unchecked. During every event since construction, these dikes have served their purpose.
    Post 1989 an improved dike system was established to further protect the facility. It was designed and built using the most modern techniques available. Techniques which created a design resulting in awards for excellence. It has served its protective purpose exceptionally well during this most recent volcanic event, and has proved that proper planning and prevention do have their rewards.
    For those of you who say it is foolish to even consider placement of a facility in this region, you are conveniently ignoring some very important facts. Alaska has a long history of seismic events. Knowing this, it would seem a much larger concern that major tank farms sit all over the city of Anchorage, most notably at the airport, the port, and the military bases; all of which are very much nearer to actual population and the Cook Inlet. It’s also relevant to remember that the 1964 earthquake happened in Anchorage. Shall we then re-site ourselves because we fear the law of averages? Using this knowledge, and that logic, no facility should be built in Alaska, as everyone surely knows an earthquake comparable to that of 1964 could cause an environmental catastrophe.
    Without the Drift River Terminal and it’s location in proximity to the Christie Lee Platform, the oil production of the Cook Inlet could not exist, and as such, neither could the natural gas produced as a byproduct. The same natural gas that powers the Beluga Power plant, heats our homes, and powers our industries.
    There are many local and state agencies that oversee Cook Inlet Pipelines operations and they are well aware of the preventions and safeties put in place to prevent accidents at this facility: There is spill response equipment on site, helicopters, boats, snow machines, ATV’s, heavy equipment and emergency living quarters.
    The men who work the terminal are all highly trained experts in every aspect of the operations, including spill response and firefighting. There is no lack of knowledge on behalf of the company about what to do or how to do it.
    The real issue here is that people are not fully informed about this facility, and are quick to jump to uneducated conclusions. What we need now is rational minds; with good suggestions about how to overcome the challenges that Mother Nature will throw at us again.

  21. #21 Erik Klemetti
    April 6, 2009

    First off, thank you, Chris, for that excellent explanation of the Drift River Oil Terminal. I, for one, am glad that more thought was put into its placement and design that we have been lead to believe. Now, why haven’t any company or government officials come out and said any of this? It is usually the lack of communication from private enterprise and the government to the general public that creates these public relations nightmares.

    It looks like 60% oil from the Terminal has been moved already and operations have been suspended for the time being. I’m sure the Oil Terminal will remain controversial, but it is good to hear information about it from someone with firsthand experience.

  22. #22 ckirkham
    April 8, 2009

    “Groups near the Cook Inlet fear any breach of the dikes will spill millions of gallons of crude oil into the inlet, which has already had to survive one major oil spill and is still recovering from that.”

    The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound (well east of Cook Inlet), not in Cook Inlet where the Drift River Oil Terminal and Mt. Redoubt are located. Please get your facts straight before you use stories to make a sensationalized point. Maps are great for that.

  23. #23 Erik Klemetti
    April 8, 2009

    Thanks for catching the error on the Exxon Valdez spill, but the point still stands: oil spills into fragile environments are bad news. I would also have to say that this is fairly non-sensational as much as pointing out that oil and volcanoes might not mix.

  24. #24 DAnderson
    April 8, 2009

    Yes, Thank you Chris for a most informative inside view of the Drift River Terminal operations. It is easy to see that many factors were considered before and during the construction of this facility in the end though it is still just a highly-educated roll of the dice.
    To ckirkham; If you did do your homework you would find that the Exxon Valdez spill had affected about 1200 miles of Alaska shoreline including Lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island. The oil was spread on strong currents for hundreds of miles.
    It is no wonder that residents of Cook inlet have such an “alarmist” view of the current and ongoing situation as well as a general distrust of any operations.

  25. #25 D. Anderson
    April 13, 2009

    It seems that operations at the drift river have been indefinately suspended and the pipeline and state authorities are considering shutting it down permanantly with a possibility of re-locating the facility.
    As per a conversation with Bob Shavelson yesterday;
    Release of imagery to the public of the April 4 flood has been controlled as and the airspace over the facility has been restricted making assessment difficult.
    Bob did obtain a high resolution from a NASA satellite of the terminal. You can find it here; Be sure to download the high-res version.
    Generators and pumps at the facility were flooded and disabled leaving it “dead in the water”.
    It is clear that this facility presents a real danger to the well-being of the eco-system of Cook Inlet and should never have been built directly in the out-flow of an active volcano in the first place.

  26. #26 D.Anderson
    April 29, 2009

    Today a tanker is again at the terminal and operations are underway to remove the remaining oil. The tanks will be completely drained and cleaned over the next few months as the volcano allows.
    The lahar on April 4th flowed over the airstrip at the facility and 3,000 feet of runway had to be cleared before today’s operation could take place.

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