BP to replace faulty valve four years after worker complaints

Posted: Wednesday, January 09, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. said Tuesday that it will replace a faulty valve used to isolate oil and gas leaks at Prudhoe Bay.

The move comes nearly four years after workers first asked the company to fix the problem following a 1,200-gallon oil spill.

''These valves are like the brakes on your car, and the brakes don't work right now,'' said Marc Kovac, vice chairman of a union that represents about 200 BP workers at Prudhoe Bay.

''We know these valves leak, we know there are other issues (at Prudhoe), and we're happy BP is now doing the right thing,'' Kovac told the Anchorage Daily News.

The malfunctioning valve is located at the Prudhoe Bay gathering center, a sprawling complex where natural gas and water are separated from the oil brought up from Prudhoe Bay wells.

A series of mishaps led to a 1,200-gallon oil leak from a pipe at the center in 1998. As workers struggled to isolate the leak, they discovered the emergency valve didn't seal off the pipe, allowing more oil and gas to seep into a building at the center.

''It was a situation that could have hurt workers and caused environmental damage,'' Kovac said.

An internal investigation in 1998 recommended BP repair or fix the valve. The company didn't do so, citing a later review that found the valve worked fine.

The matter was dropped until last year, when workers publicly criticized BP for not keeping up with maintenance at Prudhoe as production has fallen. Production at the 24-year-old oil field -- North America's largest -- peaked 13 years ago.

Last fall, BP released the results of an audit that faulted the company for staff cuts at Prudhoe Bay, maintenance backlogs, concerns with leaking valves and fire detection, and other problems that could threaten operation of the field and employee safety.

The bottom line: Workers believe ''management's top priority is controlling costs and achieving short-term budget targets,'' not safety and regulatory compliance, the audit said.

BP leaders pledged last fall to do a better job. One of the company's first acts was to begin testing hundreds of emergency valves, and at the top of the list was the emergency valve involved in the 1998 oil spill, BP said.

Company spokesman Ronnie Chappell and another BP official said a few weeks ago the valve worked when it was retested and called the 1998 incident old news. But some gathering center workers didn't believe the results, Kovac said. They questioned the test, which relied on thermal imaging to see whether oil and gas seeped through when the valve was closed.

About two weeks ago, workers collaborated with a supervisor to perform a definitive test. This time the closed valve leaked as the workers had warned.

That triggered another test Monday, Chappell said. Oil and gas again seeped past the valve, so much that the company shut down the related oil well upstream of the valve. The company hopes to replace the valve in about a week at a cost of up to $10,000, he said.

Although nearly four years have passed since workers first suggested the valve be replaced, Chappell said the company's most recent action shows BP is committed to responding to employee concerns.

BP will check hundreds of valves over the coming months. It also plans to refine its testing method and decide how tightly a valve must close before it is considered a problem, he said.

Chappell describes the program as a ''huge undertaking,'' one the company has yet to put a price on.

''We've said (last fall) that we need to do a better job and that's what we have started to do,'' he said.

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