Drift River work moves ahead

Hilcorp continues work at oil storage facility, Christy Lee platform

Hilcorp Alaska officials discussed further details of their plans to reopen the Drift River oil terminal and Christy Lee loading platform located on the west side of Cook Inlet during a Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council meeting Friday.


Officials are working to fix a broken part of the Christy Lee platform before winter ice conditions arrive, raise a berm designed to protect the Drift River facility from potential flooding caused by future eruptions of Mount Redoubt, an active volcano, and amend the facility's oil spill and contingency plan to include specifics of how to shutter the facility in the event of an eruption.

Hilcorp hopes to bring two tanks back online at Drift River by October. The company's proposal is being considered by the state. The Drift River tank farm was drained of oil following the 2009 Redoubt eruption when volcanic mudflows caused flooding around the facility's protective berm.

No oil was spilled at time, but the event resulted in five to seven feet of sediment deposits around the base of the berm. To compensate for the increased land elevation Hilcorp plans to raise the 20-foot barrier another 15 feet.

Bo York, Hilcorp Facilities Engineering Manager, said the company has received a number of questions about why the facility was built decades ago so close to an active volcano.

York, referencing a Cook Inlet depth chart, explained the area where the Christy Lee loading platform is located is the best to accommodate deep draft vessels -- oil tankers -- coming in close to shore to load.

"The tides are very favorable here too, and along with tides are our ice conditions," he said. "The Christy Lee facility is located on an underwater cliff where it gets very deep very quickly very close to land. That's why it was placed there so the tanker could come up and load."

In April, York said, there was a failure of the Christy Lee's fender system, which are two large wooden buffers each weighing about 200 tons that brace an oil tanker to the dock when it is loading.

One of the fenders dropped to the base of the structure underwater after the system that raises and lowers it broke. No vessel was moored to the dock at the time of the incident. Within 30 days, the company had a temporary fix -- a floating fender that rode up and down the structure with the tides. The company hopes to have the facility in normal operating mode by Nov. 1.

"We don't want to leave the flexi-float system out there with the ice because we don't think it would last very long with the ice flowing in the inlet," York said.

The company is also looking into the other hoists and moving parts of the Christy Lee as part of normal maintenance, he said.

"From a structural integrity standpoint it is holding up very well, as well as our other platforms offshore," he said.

York also spoke about the company's work to raise the protective berm surrounding the facility that caught about three to seven feet of sediment as a result of Redoubt's lahars in 2009. He said the berm performed "exceptionally well" given the circumstances.

"The event that occurred was equivalent to a 500-year flood of the Yukon River ... at the mouth of the river," he said. "So the volume that we saw come through here was equivalent to 50 times a 500-year flood for the Drift River."

That flooding was the worst experienced since records have been kept, he said, and Hilcorp is building the berm to protect against a similar event, in addition to resulting back flow also experienced in 2009.

"(Back flow is) not a huge concern because the velocity, by the time it comes around and comes up the back side, won't be the same we are seeing on the front side," he said.

In all, the company plans to move about 300,000 yards of dirt and stone to protect against a "hammer punch" to the berm.

Diane Dunham, Hilcorp's Emergency Response Coordinator, said the state is currently reviewing the company's oil discharge prevention and contingency plan it submitted in mid-April.

"The plan has been rewritten from the ground up," she said.

New language has been added to the approximately 200-page document to outline just how Hilcorp would go about shutting the facility down during various levels of Redoubt's activity. Dunham said officials had a mid-May tabletop drill with the plan, which showed there were still areas in which they could improve.

"But overall the drill went over very well," she said.

In a yellow status, which is defined as increased seismic activity with an eruption possible, Hilcorp would remove all non-essential personnel from the facility and start the process of tight-lining, which includes isolating tanks, preparing oil for loading at the Christy Lee and having a vessel scheduled to lift crude oil from the facility within 24 hours.

In the orange status, defined as an eruption likely within a few days, the company would notify aviation companies, move vehicles and heavy equipment to high ground and test remote operations.

In a red status, defined as an eruption likely within 24 hours, the company would start to evacuate all personnel and evaluate shutting in the facility.

The goal is to have no oil in storage tanks that could be susceptible to a flood event, York said.

"Our design is to protect empty tanks," he said.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.