Alaska villagers sue to void key permit for Conoco field

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Feb 28, 2013 7:18pm EST

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska Feb 28 (Reuters) - Residents of an Inupiat Eskimo village on Alaska's North Slope have sued the U.S. government in an effort to overturn a crucial permit allowing a ConocoPhillips oilfield near their homes.

The lawsuit, filed late on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, challenges a wetlands-fill permit issued in 2011 that allows ConocoPhillips to build a road, bridge and above-ground pipeline connecting its CD-5 prospect to existing oilfield facilities.

The plaintiffs are seven residents of Nuiqsut, a village of 428 people located 9 miles southeast of the CD-5 prospect.

"This project will add a bridge, road and traffic to one of our most important fishing and hunting areas," Sam Kunaknana, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement on Thursday.

The CD-5 field, which ConocoPhillips hopes to bring into production in late 2015, would provide the first commercially produced oil ever from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a huge federal land unit on the western North Slope.

It would also be the North Slope's western-most producing field and, its supporters hope, a gateway to small satellite fields in the reserve that would feed into the Conoco-operated Alpine field, a major oil producer located on state land.

ConocoPhillips temporarily shelved the CD-5 project after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2010 denied its application for a permit allowing the bridge, road and suspended pipeline. The Corps had ruled, based on opinions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency, that the field could be developed with an underground pipeline instead.

ConocoPhillips has long argued that the bridge, roads and above-ground pipeline are necessary to build CD-5 and ship out its oil. Development of other oilfields farther west is feasible only if all that is built, Conoco and Alaskan leaders argue.

The Corps in December 2011 reversed its permit denial, after ConocoPhillips appealed and the Fish and Wildlife Service relented on its opposition. The Corps cited design changes and reconsideration of maintenance challenges for a buried pipeline. ConocoPhillips in October formally sanctioned CD-5 development, and construction was expected to start in the winter of 2014.

But the Nuiqsut villagers argue that the Corps should have stuck with its original decision.

"Things haven't changed since the first finding by the Corps that building the bridge was not the least environmentally practicable alternative," said the villagers' attorney, Brian Litmans of environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska. Allowing a riskier alternative violated the Clean Water Act, he added.

The planned multi-segment bridge threatens villagers' fish supplies, among other resources, while any spill from the pipeline would be "catastrophic," tainting an entire river delta considered a highly important Arctic habitat, the lawsuit says.

A spokesman for the Corps' Alaska District said the agency could not yet comment on the lawsuit's specific allegations.

"We have just received a copy of the complaint filed and have not had a chance to review it in its entirety. However, the Corps went through a very rigorous review of the project and is confident in the record of decision," spokesman Curt Biberdorf said in an email on Thursday.

ConocoPhillips had no comment on the lawsuit, a spokeswoman said.

Another lawsuit challenging the CD-5 permit is pending. The Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday sent notice to the Corps of its plans to sue over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.

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