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Alaska Oil Spill Blamed on Poor Pipe Maintenance

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

British Petroleum has shut down two of its pipelines in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field because of internal corrosion damage. Corrosion in one of the transit lines caused what was the largest spill ever recorded on Alaska's North Slope.

It's been cleaned up. But with oil industry profit's soaring, government officials say BP should be doing more. Elizabeth Arnold reports.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

The largest oil spill in North Slope history went undetected for at least five days and was discovered by a worker who smelled it. More than 200,000 gallons of thick black crude oil seeped into the snow at the edge of a frozen lake and spread nearly two acres across the tundra. That was two months ago and the state's unseen spill coordinator Lesley Pearson says she has no complaints with BP's clean up efforts.

Ms. LESLIE PEARSON (Alaskan On Scene Spill Coordinator): The response went really well. They did a good job.

ARNOLD: But BP is hardly off the hook. A steady stream of oil was able to leak for days without notice from a major artery of the maze of pipelines that drain the Prudhoe Bay field. A report done by a team of BP and state investigators confirms the cause was simple corrosion. The report also indicates the corroded spot where the hole developed had been known since 1998.

That got the attention of Congress and federal pipeline safety officials who after an oversight hearing determined BP hadn't regularly cleaned its transit lines, including the one that developed the leak. One way industry maintains its lines is what's called a pig, a device that performs both maintenance and detection by running inside the pipe and recording problems such as corrosion and sludge build up. Richard Feinberg is an independent oil analyst based in Fairbanks who spent years calling attention to pipeline corrosion.

Mr. RICHARD FEINBERG (Independent Oil Analyst, Fairbanks Alaska): They had not pigged since '98. It's a slam-dunk. They were grossly out of whack. They knew the corrosion had begun on that line that broke and they still weren't watching and they weren't pigging.

ARNOLD: BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell says his company has been engaged in corrosion control since the first day of operation.

Mr. RONNIE CHAPPELL (BP spokesman): It's a big part of our maintenance effort up there now. We have 25 engineers who do nothing but work corrosion and who are focused on insuring the integrity of our pipelines and operating facilities. You know we do a hundred thousand inspections a year and it's growing. I mean we're spending eighty percent more money on corrosion inspection and monitoring this year than we did in 2000.

ARNOLD: But Chappell says those inspections are usually done by taking x-rays of cross sections of pipe. The company believed that was the most effective method of monitoring corrosion. Pigging also pushes sludge toward the main trans-Alaska pipeline or sale stream, something industry seeks to avoid.

Mr. CHAPPELL: That is the technique that we have, had generally used on the, on the North Slope. However we're going to be doing more maintenance pigging and more smart pigging as a result of this incident.

ARNOLD: There's a saying in the field that corrosion works twenty four-seven and Chappell says BP has stepped up maintenance efforts as the pipeline has aged. But critics like Feinberg say BP and other North Slope operators have a history of resisting regulatory efforts aimed at updating detection and monitoring systems. Taking the leaky pipeline out of service for weeks caused a drop in production of as much as a hundred thousand barrels a day. And BP's recent decision to shut down two other transit lines is another disruption of flow. None of this is good news for the consumer and environmental groups have been quick to point to the spill as reason not to allow industry to drill in more sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Pearson, of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation says while there are no regulations specifically mandating how or how often industry should maintain its transit lines, she's confident BP will now be more vigilant along with other operators on the slope.

Ms. PEARSON: I mean when an incident occurs on one side of the field, the tundra telegraph works really well up there and so its not uncommon to see the other operators take a good hard look based on the cause of an incident and take some corrective action too.

ARNOLD: Feinberg and other oil industry watch dogs are not as optimistic.

Mr. FEINBERG: The irony of it is that even at twenty dollar oil it clearly, the ounce of prevention is worth the expense but the owners say we'll take the risk. Our job is to maximize the returns to the shareholders.

ARNOLD: But with oil at seventy dollars a barrel, lawmakers and regulators are not about to accept cost cutting measures as an excuse for a leaky pipeline. As one member of Congress put it, it can't be that BP doesn't have enough money.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Arnold
Elizabeth Arnold is a freelance reporter for NPR. From 2000 - 2004, she was an NPR national correspondent, covering America's public lands with a focus on the environment, politics, economics, and culture.