When a valve designed to stop back flow on the trans-Alaska pipeline suddenly closed last October, pressure on the valve shoved the pipeline 14 inches to the north, damaging components of at least seven above-ground support anchors over a 11/4-mile stretch. The damage at Prospect Creek, in high, open country north of the Yukon River, went undetected for three months.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. discovered the damage, repositioned the pipeline and replaced anchor components in January. The pipeline operators subsequently disclosed that the Prospect pipe movement occurred Oct. 5, when pipeline crews attempted to pump oil upstream from Livengood, 125 miles away. On that day, crude oil escaping through a bullet hole in the pipeline at Livengood was bombarding nearby tundra and trees at an average of more than 100 gallons per minute.
According to an Alyeska spokesman, the components of the pipeline support system replaced at Prospect were designed to absorb impact and "worked as they were supposed to."
While the pipeline components may have performed properly, the operators did not. Alyeska's spill response manual warns against pumping upstream.
According to the pipeline oil spill contingency plan -- a state-approved company manual -- in limited circumstances spill volume may be reduced by closing upstream valves while leaving downstream valves open and continuing to pump. But, the manual warns, "leaving upstream valves open to attempt to back flow oil to an upstream pump station relief tank is even more limited an option due to the prevention of back flow provided by pipeline check valves."
Alyeska's departure from the response plan at Livengood on Oct. 5 marked the first time oil had ever been pumped upstream. It is not clear why pipeline operators at Valdez and personnel in the field failed to monitor the check valve at Prospect closely. Had they done so, they would have known that the force of the back flow had damaged the valve, shoved the pipeline out of position and crushed impact-absorbing anchor components.
While no oil was spilled, the mishap mocks the lavish praise for the Livengood spill response issued after the event by self-serving pipeline officials and an obliging governor.
Alyeska president David Wight specifically praised the actions of the pipeline crew that "safely isolated the leak and shut down the line, then later safely restarted it," as well as "the crew that installed and operated the successful pump around' (upstream flow) pumping operation."
In fact, the pipeline appears to have been restarted in unsafe condition because of damage caused during the effort to pump upstream. Stranger still, that damage was not discovered and repaired for three months. When state regulations and the contingency plan both require weekly aerial inspections of the pipeline, how did last October's pipeline damage escape detection over this extended period?
In April 2000, Alyeska operators using faulty pipeline restart procedures caused a pressure hammer that shoved the pipeline off its supports just south of Atigun Pass. That problem was not discovered for at least a month. At that time, Alyeska senior vice president Bill Howitt called the delay in discovering the damage to the above-ground support system unacceptable and said, "We will modify our surveillance procedures by doing everything from lower altitude surveillance fly-overs to painting orange alignment stripes on the pipeline anchors to make sure the pipe is positioned where it is supposed to be."
So much for promises.
The Atigun Pass and Prospect pipe movements are not isolated incidents. Rather, they represent serious pipeline operating problems. Alyeska and government monitors have noted that the constant pressure to reduce expenses has contributed to many of these problems. Alyeska's recent plan to reorganize and cut employees to reduce costs is liable to make things worse.
Energy analysts Amory and Hunter Lovins argue that a long energy supply line like the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is inherently very risky; security experts like former CIA director R. James Woolsey share their concern.
The Livengood spill response and the Prospect pipe movement demonstrate chronic and persistent operating problems that exacerbate these strategic concerns.
Richard A. Fineberg of Ester is preparing a report on pipeline operations for the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility.