A pipeline operated by BP that ruptured over the weekend and spilled as much as 4,200 gallons of methanol, crude oil and other fluids into the Alaskan tundra took place at a facility that one of the company's employees warned in an internal email to executives “was operating in [an] unsafe condition.”
The email, obtained exclusively by Truthout and highlighted in an investigative report published a year ago, was written in January 2010 by an employee who works at BP Exploration Alaska's Lisburne Production Center, site of the Saturday's pipeline rupture.
The employee was prompted to write that email following a November 29, 2009 pipeline rupture at the same facility, which spilled 45,828 gallons of oil and water into the tundra, one of the largest spills on the North Slope. BP blamed the rupture on ice plugs that built up inside the pipeline that resulted in increased pressure and finally the rupture. But the employee said BP's negligence contributed to the disaster.
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Lisburne Production Center L-1 drill site viewing north at the release point at the pipeline road crossing. (Photo: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)
The employee, whose identity Truthout had agreed to keep confidential because he said he feared BP would retaliate against him, listed more than a dozen pieces of crucial production equipment that he claimed were not working or were out of service at Lisburne during the time of the November 29, 2009, spill, thereby “leaving no back-up to running equipment and equipment out of service which should be on-line as per the system requirements to run the plant.”
“With minimum manning in maintenance and operations we are basically running a broken plant with too few people to address the problems in a timely and safe manner,” the employee's email said. “Operations cannot rely on Management to provide them with a safe and reliable plant to work in. The management of our maintenance at [Lisburne Production Center] simply is not working to maintain a safe operation. This gap in maintenance management causes problems that increase the overall risk of plant integrity and personnel safety.”
Viewing road crossing at pipeline release. (Photo: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)
Steve Rinehart, a spokesman for BP Alaska, told Truthout in June 2010 the issues the employee raised in the email were immediately dealt with.
“We will not operate facilities unsafely,” Rinehart said. “We take this kind of info from employees very seriously. In this case, line leadership started meeting with the employees who raised these issues at Lisburne as soon as they received the list. We have made very good progress. Half the items have been closed out, some of the rest are virtually complete and all are being worked and tracked.”
The November 2009 spill was the subject of a year-long criminal and civil investigation by the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency and Alaska state authorities. At the time of the November 2009 spill, BP was on criminal probation due to a 212,000 gallon oil spill that took place in 2006 on the North Slope that was blamed on severely corroded pipelines the company failed to inspect for a decade.
In November 2010, just days before BP's three-year probation term was scheduled to end, the company's federal probation officer, Mary Frances Barnes, petitioned a federal judge to revoke BP's probation due to the November 29, 2009 spill at the Libsburne facility. She said the circumstances behind the incident amounted to “criminal negligence” under state law and the federal Clean Water Act and violated the terms of the probation agreement BP signed in November 2007.
BP is fighting the probation revocation recommendation in federal court. A hearing is scheduled for September. Karen Loeffler, the US Attorney in Alaska, will represent the government in court proceedings pertaining to the probation revocation. Loeffler was previously the the chief of the office's criminal division.
In a previous interview with Truthout, Scott West, the former special agent-in-charge of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division (CID), Loeffler had played a role in a decision by the Justice Department to pull the plug on a criminal probe West was conducting into the 2006 oil spill, which threatened to net top BP officials.
BP's North Slope operations has been plagued with problems for more than a decade, due, in part, to severe budget cuts that have come at the cost of safety and integrity.
Marc Kovac, who has worked for BP on Alaska's North Slope for more than three decades, told Truthout in an interview last year, “The condition of the [Prudhoe Bay] field is a lot worse and in my opinion a lot more dangerous” than the disaster that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“We still have hundreds of miles of rotting pipe ready to break that needs to be replaced,” Kovac said at the time. “We are totally unprepared for a large spill.”
Last September, BP's Chief Executive, Bob Dudley, announced the creation of a new safety division that would be given “sweeping powers to oversee and audit the company’s operations around the world.”
The Lisburne Production Center, which produces 30,000 barrels of oil per day, has been shut down since June 18 for planned maintenance. According to an incident report prepared by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), Saturday's spill occurred at 3:28 am, “during a leak test intended to check newly-installed valves.”
“The pipeline is sleeved within a larger pipe structural casing through which the spilled fluids were released at each end…The pipeline pressure reached 949 [per square inch] and then failed,” the ADEC report says.
The circumstances behind Saturday's pipeline rupture are now under investigation by Alaska state environmental officials.