Forum examines threats from aging pipelines

Posted: Monday, January 14, 2002

Beneath the seas of Cook Inlet and beneath the ground of the northern Kenai Peninsula, a generation of oil pipelines is aging. How to avoid spills from them was the subject of a forum Thursday in Soldotna.

Industry, agency and environmental representatives shared information and brought up serious questions about the future of the area's aging petrochemical infrastructure.

Mike Munger, one of the organizers, praised the forum as a productive setting for improved communication about the issues.

"This increased scrutiny is a good deal," he said.

"... It was a full day, and a lot was covered."

Munger coordinates the prevention, response, operations and safety committee for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, one of the forum's sponsors.

CIRCAC organized a forum on Cook Inlet shipping issues in 1999. Since that time, the council and others have continued to call for a comprehensive assessment of risks to Cook Inlet.

In the meantime, the priority concern has shifted from shipping to the pipelines, especially following several spills in the past few years associated with deteriorating lines.

Offshore, 58 miles of active pipelines, most dating from the late 1960s, move oil from offshore platforms. Oil from the west side of the inlet is piped to Drift River; oil from the east side goes to Nikiski.

Onshore, lines of assorted ages move crude from the Swanson River Field to Nikiski; from Nikiski to Point Possession to send undersea across Turnagain Arm to Anchorage; and on the west side of Cook Inlet in the area of the West Foreland, McArthur River and Drift River Terminal.

Lines are being checked for corrosion, have been replaced, have been decommissioned or await testing.

The Cook Inlet area is a harsh one for oil pipelines and the workers who maintain them. For one example described at the forum, divers in Cook Inlet can only work during slack tide and have to cope with frigid water opaque with silt.

For another example, natural forces can be awesomely destructive, such as in a 1990 incident when icebergs, broken off glaciers during the eruption of Redoubt volcano, flooded down the Drift River with enough force to move and deform a pipeline buried at least four feet below the riverbed.

During the full-day meeting, panelists from the companies operating pipelines described their lines and the procedures for maintaining and repairing them. Included were reviews of spills and responses to them.

Participating companies were XTO Energy (formerly Cross Timbers), Unocal, Forest Oil, Tesoro and Cook Inlet Pipeline Company.

Company representatives explained measures they use to prevent spills, such as heavy-duty pipes, chemical coatings, cathodic protection and an array of high-tech scrubbers and detectors called "pigs" that travel inside the pipes. More replacements and technology upgrades are planned, they assured the audience.

Judy Brady, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Associa-tion, said the industry is showing leadership.

"People are doing things that are not required because they are very concerned," she said.

Representatives of state and federal agencies outlined their areas of responsibilities, the applicable regulations and regulatory authority. Participating agencies included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation.

Munger praised the technological advances, the usefulness of the government oversight agencies and the industry. The companies are active in ensuring the integrity of the pipelines, he said.

But he singled out the public's involvement as particularly crucial.

"I think the increased scrutiny from the public has brought the issue to the fore," he said.

One group not sitting on a panel but scrutinizing the situation is the Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based environmental watchdog organization.

Bob Shavelson, the group's head, told the panelists that the public is concerned about what he called "a proliferation of mystery sheens."

Lois Epstein, the Keeper's senior engineer and oil and gas industry specialist, testified during the public comment period. She had asked for a seat on the panel but was blocked by request of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said a prepared statement from the Keeper.

The number of pipeline spills in Cook Inlet increased to nearly one per week in 2001; nearly one-fourth of the inlet's on- and offshore pipelines receive little or no regulatory scrutiny; and industry failed to make information available to the public to assist in decisions about pipeline safety, Epstein said.

The Keeper plans to release its own report in the spring.

Others at the forum were more upbeat about the current situation.

Doug Lentsch, general manager of Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., said the information presented demonstrated that industry has made good strides in prevention.

"I think we are ahead of the curve," he said.

One issue that came up was the discrepancy between the number of spills counted by industry vs. those tallied by Cook Inlet Keeper based on DEC records. Participants said records are incomplete, and they identified a need for those involved to standardize the criteria for classifying spills.

The forum was divided into two sessions, the first on offshore pipelines and the second on onshore pipelines. After the industry and agency panels presented information, the audience was invited to comment and ask questions.

About 100 people altogether attended the event at the Soldotna Sports Center.

The forum sponsors were the Alaska DEC, the U.S. DOT, the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and CIRCAC.

Facilitator Brian Rogers, from Information Insights, said he plans to compile the forum proceedings and post them on the Internet.

Munger said the organizers were pleased by the participation.

"It really was a who's who of the petroleum industry for the inlet," he said.

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