Why was oil terminal built at the base of an active volcano?

ANCHORAGE, Alaska _ When Mount Redoubt began erupting last month, the nearby Drift River oil terminal suddenly emerged from the obscurity of a low-key industrial facility to the potential source of an environmental disaster on the scale of the Exxon Valdez.

With its place in the spotlight came an obvious question: How could such a hazardous facility have been built 22 miles from Redoubt's cone?

"That is the most consistent question I hear on the street," said Bob Shavelson, the executive director of the environmental watchdog group Cook Inletkeeper. "The everyday, walking-around person scratches their head when they hear there's an oil terminal at the base of an active volcano."

The details of why it's there are lost in the haze of history. The current owners, Chevron-managed Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co., say they inherited the facility in 2005 when Chevron bought out Unocal, the prior operator, and don't know its full history. State records show that officials from Mobil, one of Cook Inlet Pipe Line's original owners, initiated the purchase and lease of two state land parcels for the terminal in early 1966.

A workaday storage and transit facility for crude oil, tiny by comparison with industrial monsters like Alaska's Valdez terminal and accessible only by air or boat, Drift River usually operates with routine monotony. The oil comes in from platforms in Cook Inlet. The oil goes out in the hulls of tankers.

State records show it received its first permits in 1966 and was licensed to operate in 1967, but there's no record of a public discussion of the facility. The state file of its 55-year tidelands lease to Cook Inlet Pipe Line has not a single word justifying the use of that particular site. The modern environmental movement was just dawning then, and it would be three years before President Richard Nixon would sign the National Environmental Policy Act with its requirement for a detailed impact statement -- including alternatives -- on projects like Drift River.

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