“It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” Sen. Howard Baker, 1925-2014
If charges filed in the Cordova District Court in September are to be believed, David Reggiani and a couple of his employees at the Cordova-based Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association have got to be thinking they should have listened to the words of Baker, a one-time Senate Majority Leader and chief-of-staff to President Ronald Reagan.
They didn’t and as a result, according to the state court documents, a simple, leaking fuel tank at PWSAC’s Cannery Creek hatchery now has PWSAC’s long time general manager in big trouble.
Along with employee Christine Mitchell, Reggiani is charged with oil pollution, failure to report a hazardous substance spill, and lying to investigators with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Another PSWAC employe, Dale Lords is also charged with providing misleading information, but the charges clearly paint Reggiani as the leader in an oil-spill cover up. He did not respond to a message left with the PWSAC receptionist in Cordova or to an email sent him personally.
Oil spills are, of course, a very touchy subject in the Sound. The world there changed after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989 and spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil.
The oil sucked up water to form an oily emulsion, a mousse as it was called, that fouled the Alaska coast from Prince William Sound north to Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island and the Katmai Coast.
In the wake of that mess, everyone started taking pollution seriously. The days of pumping oily bilge water into harbors or washing spilled fuel off the deck with a hose at the gas dock were over.
Or at least they were in most places.
A simple repair
According to the charges against Reggiani, Mitchell and Lords, Jason Vinyard, the one-time maintenance manager at Cannery Creek, in December 2013 discovered a corroded diesel fuel pipe at a housing unit in the wilderness outpost that appeared to have been leaking for some time.
The discovery came, again according to the court file, after Vinyard filled the 500-gallon, above-ground fuel tank supplying the cannery’s housing unit #3 only to find it empty a few days later.
Vinyard then found what appeared to be the missing diesel fuel in the housing unit’s crawl space.
“Vinyard’s opinion based on his observations is that this was not the first fuel spill in that location,” the charging documents say. “Vinyard explained that the copper pipe had corrosion around the break that indicated this break had occurred at a previous time. Vinyard also observed the plywood had a very dark discoloration that could have come from previous fuel oil leaks.
“Vinyard said he immediately reported the spill to Christine Mitchell, the Acting CCH Manager, telephonically and via email. Vinyard said Mitchell directed him to remove the contaminated soil from the crawl space, and replace it with fresh dirt from the river. Vinyard also stated Mitchell told him ‘Do not say anything to anyone’ and ‘We have had these issues before.'”
Vinyard ignored the order to keep his mouth shut and reported the spill to the U.S. Forest Service. He quit PWSAC not long after. Reggiani told investigators that Vinyard was a “disgruntled” employee.
The Forest Service notified DEC of the spill, and the state agency contacted Reggiani to inquire. They told him, according to the documents, that they had “received a report of a diesel fuel spill at CCH that was not reported properly. Reggiani replied that he looked forward to addressing the ‘alleged and unconfirmed’ report of an oil spill.
“On Dec. 24, 2013, Regianni submitted a report to ADEC completed by Chief Maintenance Supervisor Dale Lords and Christine Mitchell, dated 12/20/2013, indicating there was no diesel smell upon entering House #3 or upon going under the house where the spill ‘allegedly’ took place. The report specified there was a section of wet soil in the crawl space measuring 2 feet by 3 feet and a small quart size puddle of fuel on the vapor barrier. The report concluded the spill appeared to be ‘possibly’ five gallons.”
When investigators pushed Regianni on the issue, according to the documents, he said PWSAC managers “examined the fuel logs, which were a requirement for maintenance supervisors to maintain whenever the transfer fuel from the bulk tanks to a delivery system or household; however, they were unable to deduce any loss of fuel.”
On reviewing the fuel logs themselves, however, investigators found something different.
“A review of a fuel log provided by Reggiani disclosed fuel transfers from a bulk storage tank were consistent with statements made by Vinyard in his incident report, specifically the transfers of 265-gallons on December 4, 2013, and 450-gallons on Dec. 10, 2013.”
Investigators also reported they found other Cannery Creek employees who confirmed Vinyard’s story of leaking diesel and reported the smell of fuel in unit #3 had been overwhelming.
An environmental clean-up company summoned to the cannery in 2014 to clean up the mess eventually reported that their tests “showed that fuel releases occurred within the crawl space from at least two different locations, one of which being along the west wall where the fuel line entered into the crawlspace,” the documents said.
“The fuel releases were ongoing for extended periods of time and an unknown quantity of fuel was released into the crawl space.” Most of it, the documents said, appears to have disappeared into the ground.
The charging documents do not say how long it might have taken the fuel to percolate down into the water table, but the Cannery Creek Hatchery about 40 miles east of the port of Whittier isn’t far above the water line.
Built by the state of Alaska in 1978 at the peak of state efforts to rebuild decimated Alaska salmon runs, the Cannery Creek Hatchery was given to PWSAC to run a decade later. The state still owns the buildings, but PWSAC runs the hatchery.
The aquaculture association describes the arrangement this way: “PWSAC manages and operates the facility for ADF&G under a 20-year professional services agreement at no cost to the state.”
The hatchery was losing money under state ownership. PWSAC has made it and other Prince William Sound hatcheries pay with “cost-recovery fisheries” that scoop up hatchery fish that have steadily increased in number over the years.
The Canney Creek Hatchery released less than 3 million pink and chum salmon in 1978 and saw an eventual return of less than 100,000 of those fish. By 2011, the fry release was up to 172 million and 19.5 million salmon came back.