Commentary: Anchorage Daily News, October 26, 2001

Governor overstates spill response
 
By Richard A. Fineberg


More than 24 hours after the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was penetrated by a bullet Oct. 4, the wounded pipeline still fired a thick, black stream of oil into the nearby trees as Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. workers watched.

One week later, in a stand of spruce trees just outside the reach of that fire-hose spray of crude oil, on the surface nothing appeared amiss; the predominant colors were brown, purple, green and white. But a hand-dug trench at the bottom of the picture revealed a fierce black stain of crude oil spreading beneath the ground. The jagged swath beneath the surface contrasted sharply with the muted colors of early winter in Interior Alaska. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials believe all the trees in the second picture will die.

Gov. Tony Knowles praised the "safe, quick and effective response" to the Livengood spill (Compass, Oct. 20). But the agonizing 36-hour delay in stopping the leak undercuts the hollow claim that Alaskans should be "proud and reassured" by Alyeska's response. Knowledgeable observers say properly trained and equipped responders could have closed the hole much earlier.

To be sure, Alyeska security was there with uncanny speed and the first responders, working by flashlight in the dark forest, were able to guide a bulldozer into position to dig containment sites ahead of the oil. Nevertheless, the oil that blackened the area near the pipeline for a day and a half revealed glaring deficiencies in Alyeska's state-approved oil spill contingency planning.

For years, the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, the Copper Country Alliance and other observers of the pipeline have sought more realistic spill exercises. Instead of re-approving old spill scenarios, in its triennial contingency plan Alyeska should be required to create and solve new, real-world problems. The Livengood fiasco might serve as one scenario, raising the following questions:

Even before it entered service, the pipeline had been shot at more than 50 times. The current contingency plan boasts that "Alyeska maintains a variety of clamps and sleeves for emergency patching or repair that can be used to stop a leak." Those clamps include a bullet-hole clamp, described as "a steel band . . . strapped around the pipe with the cone pointed toward (or in) the hole," as well as a much larger hydraulic clamp. At Livengood there was no mention of the promised bullet-hole clamp. Instead, Alyeska officials said a host of safety considerations forced them to wait for reduced pressure before using a large crane to mount the heavier hydraulic clamp.

Officials said that the oil mist from the pipeline posed an explosion risk. In 1978, oil released by a shaped-charge explosion that put a hole in the pipeline dug a hole in the frozen tundra more than 14 feet deep. Did Alyeska's current planners really imagine that oil from a bullet hole would drip safely and gently?

According to Alyeska and the governor, the Oct. 4 response was particularly difficult because the leak was near the bottom of a hill, just above a check valve. The pipeline has more than 60 check valves, which are typically at the bottom of a grade.

What would Alyeska have done if a bullet had been fired into the pipeline over one of the many rivers that the pipeline crosses on its journey across Alaska?

Alyeska has only one hydraulic clamp. What would Alyeska have done if two or more bullets had pierced the pipeline?

The governor concluded his praise of Alyeska's spill response by stating, "We owe our thanks to the dedicated, well-trained team whose sole purpose is to work for the safety of Alaskans and the security of our economy."

Perhaps such a group should be established to protect the 800-mile pipeline. If so, its mission should also include environmental considerations and realistic testing of spill-response capabilities.

In the meantime, outside the relatively small dead zone near Livengood, the principal casualties of the Oct. 4 spill were the credibility of the trans-Alaska pipeline owners and the governor.

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Richard A. Fineberg, who consults from Ester on economic and environmental aspects of oil development in Alaska, is preparing a report on trans-Alaska pipeline operations for the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility.