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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wear and Tear on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick travels along the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline to assess safety and environmental controls on one of America's most important--and remote--energy lifelines. Critics are concerned that years of delayed maintenance and staffing cutbacks on the aging pipeline have increased the chances of a dangerous spill. Pipeline officials admit there have been problems, but insist the environment is not at risk. This report is part of Living On Earth’s continuing special coverage of oil and Alaska, marking the tenth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Perhaps no one facility is as vital to America's domestic energy supply as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Twenty percent of the oil produced in the US flows through this pipe from Alaska's North Slope to the loading harbor in Valdez. Critics contend, though, that perhaps no other oil facility poses a bigger environmental risk, and they complain that decades of neglect have increased the chance of a major spill. Pipeline officials admit there have been problems, but insist the environment is safe. As part of our continuing special coverage of oil in Alaska, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick takes a closer look.

(Footfalls on snow)

FITZ PATRICK: When you first see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snaking across the snow, you can't help but be impressed. It's a single silver thread on stilts above the frozen tundra, 4 feet wide and 800 miles long.

(To Green) Wow. It just goes and goes and goes.

GREEN: Yeah. This being the start of the pipeline and it, you know, being such a flat surface up here on the North Slope, you can really see for a long distance.

FITZ PATRICK: Tracy Green is a spokeswoman for Alieska, the industry consortium that operates the pipeline.

GREEN: You can see a pretty good example of the zigzag of the pipeline from up here. And that allows for movement from either earthquakes or seismic movement or changes in the temperature of the oil.

(Footfalls continue)

FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Green is my tour guide on an oil odyssey along the length of the pipeline from the Arctic coast to the tanker terminal at Valdez Harbor.

(Voice on speaker)

FITZ PATRICK: Our first stop is Pump Station 1, where jet engines push 48 million gallons of hot, pressurized oil down the line every day.

(Jet engines)

FITZ PATRICK: Here I can't help but think how dangerous the pipeline can be. While walking through a maze of plumbing, I discover I'm one spark away from disaster.

(Horn, followed by beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Before I can enter the pump room with my tape recorder, technician Rick Weinrich must test the air with a safety sniffer.

(Beeps continue)

WEINRICH: We want to make sure that we're not going into an area where there's a combustible mixture of gas, because of there is and you move a switch in that tape recorder, you could actually trigger an explosion.

(A door shuts; fans, beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Today the pump room is safe. But I wonder what would happen if something did go wrong? Mr. Weinrich says the station is equipped with special valves and tanks, just in case.

WEINRICH: These 3 valves behind you here can go to full open in 2 seconds. So all of the oil goes into the tanks instead of down the line.

FITZ PATRICK: Two seconds?


FITZ PATRICK: So when things happen, they happen fast.

WEINRICH: They sure do. They sure do.

FITZ PATRICK: This idea stays with me during my journey along the line. This is no simple drain pipe. It's a complex machine designed to delicately pass through some of the most spectacular wilderness on Earth.

(Wheels on the road)

FITZ PATRICK: In its 800 miles the pipeline crosses 3 mountain ranges and 34 rivers.


FITZ PATRICK: I'm traveling beside it in a heavy-duty 4-wheeler on an icy ribbon of gravel. It's 14 below zero, and ice fog has coated the radio antenna so heavily it hums like a tuning fork.

(Humming, road sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Before construction, environmentalists said it would be too dangerous to run a pipeline through such a rugged and hostile landscape. But Alieska's Tracy Green says they've been proven wrong. And a generation later, she says, workers still feel a sense of accomplishment.

GREEN: There is a real sense of pride, because it is something that hasn't been done anywhere else in the world. And it was done so well and so safely, and with a lot of the Alaskan environment in mind.

(Voices on radio; road sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Construction didn't go quite as smoothly as Ms. Green suggests. And in the first 5 years of operation there were several big spills totaling more than a million gallons of oil. But since then, nothing major has gone wrong. Still, some Alaskans worry that could change in an instant.

FEINBERG: It's now 21 going on 22 years old. And as it ages, the risk of a spill increases.

FITZ PATRICK: Richard Feinberg is a former oil policy analyst for the Alaska Governor's Office, and author of a report called Pipeline in Peril. It was prepared 3 years ago for an environmental watchdog group, and it catalogues a history of problems. Everything from corroded pipe and faulty wiring to sloppy repairs and risky operating procedures. Mr. Feinberg says these problems arose primarily because for years, maintenance wasn't a priority.

FEINBERG: The fact that the pipeline had been engineered and designed very carefully carried it through nearly 20 years where they cut corners on their maintenance and didn't pay that much attention to the line. It allowed for complacency.

FITZ PATRICK: Complacency on the part of Alieska was one factor that turned the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill into a disaster. And when it comes to assessing the state of the pipeline, Mr. Feinberg was not alone in sounding an alarm. A Federal inspection in 1993 uncovered dozens of places where the pipe was unlikely to withstand an earthquake. Also, electrical wiring was not up to code. The spill detection system was inadequate. And firefighting equipment was poorly maintained. Federal inspectors said some of these problems were severe enough to create an immanent threat of an oil spill. "It is generally only a matter of time," they wrote, "before some relatively benign accident sequence expands into a catastrophic event."

(Wheels on road, beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Since the inspection report, Alieska says it has spent millions to correct nearly all the problems and work continues on the rest. During my trip I could see maintenance crews out with bulldozers and backhoes, even in the bitter cold of winter. Alieska Vice President Bill Howett admits the company did fall behind on some safety measures. But he says the most important component of the line is as sound today as the day it was built.

HOWETT: The 48-inch tube, the actual pipe, is extremely strong. It has suffered very little degradation. We have ever-improving ways to monitor that and to know whether it's corroding, whether it's settling. I don't believe the risk of a spill will ever increase if we keep maintaining the pipeline.

FITZ PATRICK: However, a recent incident raises serious questions about the quality of Alieska's ongoing maintenance and repair operations. And its commitment to safety. It involves the most important environmental safeguard on the pipeline: the 62 remote control valves that shut like watertight doors of a ship during an emergency. Because the pipe holds enough oil to fill 8 supertankers, these valves are vital to prevent the entire line from draining onto the tundra. Last fall Mr. Howett abruptly suspended a project to upgrade the valves when company inspectors found wiring that was not up to code. The complaints led to open feuds among workers in the field and harassment of the inspectors. Mr. Howett ultimately replaced the project managers and clarified inspection standards and the work is set to resume soon. He insists the incident should not be cause for concern.

HOWETT: For me, in reality, shutting down some work should inspire confidence. You know, ideally the work should be perfect right from the start. But the fact that we have the guts to say I'm stopping the work because it's not the way I need to have it actually is, for me, if I was looking at another industry, that would inspire a lot of confidence.

FITZ PATRICK: But the incident also suggests that a poisonous atmosphere lingers inside Alieska. Eight years ago a Congressional investigation revealed a pattern of harassment and intimidation of employees who blew the whistle on safety concerns. Jerry Braze, who direct a Federal-State oversight task force called the Joint Pipeline Office, worries that atmosphere hasn't completely changed.

BRAZE: The corporate culture at Alieska is still such that 35%, 40% of the people are afraid to report safety, integrity, environmental problems. So that indicates to me that the mindset and attitude is still a little shy of what it ought to be. If we were in the nuclear business, I don't think you'd feel very good if 35% or 40% of your employees were afraid to report a safety problem.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists say the situation is serious enough to warrant another top to bottom independent audit at the pipe to determine if it is safe. Meantime, they're focusing on another unknown: is Alieska prepared if a spill does occur? After the Exxon Valdez, Alieska was forced to improve spill response on water. Now, its oceangoing team is widely regarded as the best outfit anywhere. On land, though, it may be a different story.

(Footfalls on snow)

KREINER: This is part of our oil spill equipment. We've got one vacuum truck located at each facility that we could use to actually pick up the oil that's set up. These, you'll see these a lot of times...

FITZ PATRICK: Back on the line, at Station 5, just above the Arctic Circle, Alieska's Jim Kreiner walks me through one of the pipeline's largest spill response centers.

(Echoing voices, followed by clinking)

FITZ PATRICK: The garage is packed with riverboats and snowmobiles. A helicopter and crate after crate of specialized hardware.

(To Kreiner) You could lead an expedition with all this stuff.

KREINER: Oh, just about. Some of this is actually some pretty high-tech stuff you wouldn't expect to see.

(Clinking continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Kreiner takes spill response seriously.

KREINER: Being an Alaskan you really take it personally. You want to make sure nothing happens to affect this area up here, because it's beautiful country. It's my home. I was an Alaskan a long time before I became an Alieska employee.

FITZ PATRICK: However, recent volatility in oil prices has prompted Alieska to make deep budget and staffing cuts. And because production has fallen on the North Slope and the pipeline is running far below capacity, Alieska has mothballed 4 of its 11 pumping stations. That means that along several stretches of pipe, there's virtually no one left to respond to a spill. This has left the state of Alaska uneasy. Ed Megert coordinates spill prevention and response for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

MEGERT: You can only streamline so far. And then the chances of something happening start to increase, and the chances that you can't react properly also increase at that point. And I think we're at that point.

FITZ PATRICK: Alieska was ordered to draw up a new spill response plan that includes more personnel, more equipment, and a dramatic increase in the number of training exercises. But Jerry Braze at the Joint Pipeline Office says it wasn't easy to get the oil companies to agree to the improvements.

BRAZE: There's been belt-tightening and more questioning and more back and forth negotiating on various items. For example, this oil spill plan was a year and a half overdue, and it's a simple fact, what are the companies [who are] going to spent the money, and do they have the people to get things done?

FITZ PATRICK: Environmental analyst Richard Feinberg says the new spill plan, completed last fall, looks good on paper. But the bruising battle to complete it leaves him skeptical Alieska will make it work.

FEINBERG: This company has a lousy history of not living up to its promises. I hope that they will at this point. There are those in Alieska trying to change the culture. Their president Bob Malone deserves great credit for the openness and the effort. But clearly, something is still wrong.


FITZ PATRICK: At my final stop along the line, the Pipeline Command Center in Valdez, things look well under control. Operators keep close watch on a complex network of computer terminals, responding to even the slightest alarm.


MAL: This is Mal.

DAVID: (On speaker) Mal, this is David at 12.

MAL: Yes, David.

FITZ PATRICK: But in the end, the company's ability to prevent and handle a spill depends on when and where there's trouble. The growing reliance on technology instead of people underscores what many environmentalists complained about even before the line was built. For 800 miles oil surges across the heart of Alaska, a vast region where often there's not a single soul for miles to watch over it. The fear remains that a tiny glitch could escalate into a tragic chain of events. And due to the Arctic interior, what the Exxon Valdez did to the waters of Prince William Sound.


FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick at the Control Center of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska.


KNOY: For additional reports about oil's impact on Alaska, visit the Living on Earth Web site: www.livingonearth.org.



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