The groups, which include tribes from Port Graham and Nanwalek, Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association, Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund and Cook Inletkeeper, contend the EPA has ignored hundreds of public comments and violated the Clean Water Act.
"The EPA is happy to slap a small fish processor with a big fine, but they bend over backwards to let the oil and gas industry dump billions of gallons of toxic pollutants into our subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries," said Dave Martin of the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund.
Cook Inlet is the only coastal water body in the nation where the oil and gas industry is permitted by the EPA to discharge pollutants. Because it has the biggest and most dynamic tides in the world, the Inlet is considered a 'mixing zone' that naturally flushes out industrial pollutants.
"The mixing zone embraces the notion that 'dilution is the solution to pollution,' and when Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, they never mentioned the term mixing zone. Now mixing zones have become the exception that has swallowed the rule," said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper.
"If you don't have to measure compliance at the end of the discharge pipe and you can measure it somewhere downstream after it's had a chance to assimilate in the water, you completely undermine the purpose of the Act, which was to ratchet down pollution with improved technology over time," Shavelson said. "That's why they set five year permit terms, with the goal being that industries would ratchet down their pollution standards until they get to zero discharge."
The Alaska groups are not trying to put a stop to oil and gas development in Cook Inlet, rather, they want the lead operator, Chevron, to use other disposal methods such as re-injection technology. That method, used for years by BP on the North Slope, is a technique in which drill cuttings and other oilfield wastes are pumped at high pressure down an injection well.
"If they simply installed a re-injection well at one facility (at Trading Bay) it would take care of roughly 95% of the discharges in Cook Inlet. Shavelson said. "And when you dump pollution into a large water body, you are essentially getting a large subsidy because you are using a public resource more or less for free. It's not a technology argument anymore, and they can afford to do it right," he added.
Roland Maw, director of the Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association, agreed.
"If they don't like the re-injection technology, then they could put (the wastes) onto a boat and bring it to shore. They could recover the drilling mud, dewater it and have a reusable product."
Maw said UCIDA, which represents 585 salmon permit holders, is concerned that oil developers plan to expand operations as far as Cape Douglas and the Barren Islands.
"At two public hearings, they were unaware that large recreational and commercial fisheries even existed there," Maw said.
He stressed that the fishing industry is a big user of petroleum products and they are not "out to get" the oil companies.
"We're not trying to stick it to one of the oil companies because they provide goods and services that we need. But we'd just like to have them do it in such a way that it doesn't damage our fishing businesses."
Shavelson said the goal of the lawsuit is to get the oil industry to shift to zero discharges.
"We understand that Chevron is taking steps in that direction, but it is not on the schedule we think is acceptable. They've been discharging into Cook Inlet for roughly 40 years and the technology exists now to stop it. They certainly have the financial wherewithal to do it, and so they should."
"I wish the issue could be resolved without going to court," Maw said. "It's pretty drastic and expensive and time consuming, and everybody puts their future in the hands of a judge. You never know how it will end up."
The nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska is representing the plaintiffs. A Chevron spokesperson would not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.
Business savvyfor fishermen
Alaska's fishing industry is made up primarily of thousands of small operators who could benefit from some business basics. Now they can get it for free, without leaving home.
"Mom and pop operations, owners of one boat or a couple of permits-a lot of them haven't had some basic business background," said Glenn Haight, a fisheries business specialist with Alaska Sea Grant's Marine Advisory Program.
Starting Sept. 16, Haight will offer free, weekly classes on basics such as managing finances, filing income taxes, vessel insurances, business financing, investments and direct marketing. Haight said the classes are especially relevant for younger fishermen.
"As more fisheries move towards privatization, it's difficult for young people to get involved. These classes will help give them a head start," Haight said. "If they can find ways to make more money and save a little in their fishing operation, and if they are able to put some funds away for personal use and plan for retirement, it makes for a better industry."
The classes are available statewide through the University of Alaska TV (UATV) service on local cable channels, and on the internet. Each hour-long class is interactive in real time via toll free phone calls and Live Chats on computer. The classes will run through December. No registration is required. Find more information at www.alaskaseagrant.org or contact Glenn Haight at 907-796-6046 or firstname.lastname@example.org.