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Oil Spill Raises Concerns Over Pipeline Maintenance
WASHINGTON, March 18 An oil spill this month in Alaska, the largest ever on the North Slope, has raised new concerns among state and federal regulators about whether BP has been properly maintaining its aging network of wells, pumps and pipelines that crisscross the tundra.
BP Exploration Alaska, the subsidiary of the international oil giant that operates the corroded transmission line from which more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil leaked, has been criticized and fined in several different cases, most recently in 2004 when state regulators fined the company more than $1.2 million.
Now the division of the federal Department of Transportation responsible for pipeline safety is looking into the company's maintenance practices.
James Wiggins, a spokesman for the office, said Friday that BP had been informed that it could not restart the pipeline until the company had thoroughly inspected the line, internally and externally, repaired it, and given the agency a corrosion monitoring plan.
In addition, one of the company's longtime employees, a mechanic and local union official who has participated in the spill cleanup, said in a telephone interview that he and his colleagues had repeatedly warned their superiors that cutbacks in routine maintenance and inspection had increased the chances of accidents or spills.
In the interview, Marc Kovac, who is an official of the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the BP facility, said he had seen little change in BP's approach despite the warnings.
"For years we've been warning the company about cutting back on maintenance," Mr. Kovac said, adding that he was speaking for himself, not the union. "We know that this could have been prevented."
Asked about Mr. Kovac's account, Daren Beaudo, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail message, "Whenever employees raise concerns about our operations we look into them and address them." He did not specifically address Mr. Kovac's account of his complaints to his bosses.
In November 2004, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission fined the company more than $1.2 million after an explosion and fire at one of its wells. The accident, in 2002, left an operator badly burned.
BP has cultivated a worldwide image as a company concerned about the environment, recognizing global warming and making conspicuous efforts at aggressive environmental protection in many places.
But the most recent spill, which spurted from an elevated transmission pipeline at a spot where it dips to ground level to allow caribou to cross, has prompted critics inside the industry and among environmental groups to revisit questions raised four years ago. They question whether the company is skimping on maintenance and inspections to save money a complaint the company strenuously denies.
But it remains unclear whether the company had warning that corrosion in this line had worsened to the point of a breach, and whether the warning signals company officials say they picked up in September should have prompted them to shut down this section of pipe and route oil around it.
"When we inspected the line in September 2005, points of manageable corrosion were evident and all were within standards of operations integrity," Mr. Beaudo said in an e-mail message. "Something happened to the corrosion rates in that line between September 2005 and the time of the spill that we don't yet fully understand."
Gary Evans, an environmental program specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, defended the company in a telephone interview. Referring to the September inspections with ultrasound imaging, he said, "I believe in my heart if they would have found a spot on that pipeline that set off a bell or a whistle they would have shut it off" and built the kind of detour pipeline now under construction.
"I can't believe for a second that they would chance it," he added. "This is a worst-case scenario."
Another question is whether the company postponed for too long a rigorous but disruptive internal inspection of the pipeline, known in industry jargon as smart pigging.
In the procedure, electronic monitors called smart pigs successors to an earlier generation of cleaning devices that squealed as they ran through the pipe are used to measure the thickness of a pipe's walls and detect defects. Mr. Beaudo and Mr. Kovac agreed that since 1998 no such inspection had been performed on the line that leaked.
Setting up the device is cumbersome, and its data are hard to analyze. The process also slows the movement of oil to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
BP's own 2003 plan for safe maintenance and management of its facilities, on file with the Alaska Department of Environmental Protection, says that "the interval between smart-pig runs is typically five years."
Mr. Beaudo, the BP spokesman, said that since 1999, 85 external corrosion inspections had been conducted on that line. Further, he said, 139 internal inspections were performed with ultrasound devices applied to the outside of the insulated pipe, providing a picture of the inside.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Maureen Johnson, the senior vice president and manager of the Greater Prudhoe Bay unit of BP Exploration Alaska, said, "We believe the leak was caused by internal corrosion and internal corrosion caused relatively recently" in the last six to nine months.
In September, she said, inspections revealed advancing corrosion and showed "we needed to do something." She said an internal "smart pig" inspection was scheduled for this month.
In an e-mail message to a company lawyer in June 2004, Mr. Kovac, the union official, assembled a collection of his earlier complaints to management. One of these, dated Feb. 28, 2003, concerned "corrosion monitoring staffing levels." It began, "The corrosion monitoring crew will soon be reduced to six staff down from eight."
Later, it noted, "With the present staff, the crew is currently one month behind. The backlog is expected to increase with a further reduction in manpower."
Mr. Kovac and other workers have reported their concerns for several years to Chuck Hamel, a onetime oil broker who has made himself a conduit for getting press attention for worker complaints and who Mr. Kovac called "our ombudsman."
Asked about Mr. Kovac's account, Mr. Hamel said: "Whatever I've been able to help the technicians publicize, they've fixed. Whatever we're not publicizing, we don't fix. They delay, and they schedule for next year. Everything's scheduled for next year. That way, if something goes, like in this case, they say, 'We scheduled that.' "
Mr. Beaudo, asked about staffing levels, said by e-mail, "We've significantly increased the number of external inspections since 2000," adding "and therefore have increased our staffing."
He pointed to the company's 2004 report to the state on corrosion monitoring. It shows that external and internal inspections on lines from the wellheads usually smaller than the transmission lines like the one that leaked rose from 39,001 in 2001 to 69,666 in 2002, before falling back slightly, to 60,666 in 2003 and 62,637 in 2004.
In a separate message he noted that staffing and scheduling decisions for the BP division that handles corrosion inspections "are carefully considered and managed according to the scope of the work being done."
In a press release Friday, Kurt Fredriksson, a commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, praised BP's efforts. "The oil spill response has been well managed," he said. "The spill occurred at a time when impacts to the environment are minimal."
The release also quoted him as saying, "We will be considering the investigation team's findings over the next several weeks in deciding whether to propose additional corrective actions or regulatory changes for leak detection, corrosion control and integrity management."
The line that leaked was in the last leg of a network that carries oil from the wellhead through processing facilities, and on to the main pipeline that ends in Valdez.
The smaller lines nearer the wells are regulated by the state; lines like the 34-inch one that leaked are under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the federal Transportation Department.
But that office exempts from its regulations pipelines, like the one that leaked, that are in rural areas and are run at low pressures. At a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday, Lois N. Epstein, a petroleum engineer and an environmental advocate in Alaska, called for the department to scrap that exemption.
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