Prosecutor weighs criminal charges in death of Alyeska worker

Posted: Thursday, February 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and one of its contractors could face criminal charges in connection with the death of an Alyeska worker in Valdez last August.

The Palmer district attorney's office is reviewing the death of Jerry Barnes, 51, Aug. 16. Barnes died when the brakes on a gravel-filled dump truck he was driving failed, sending the truck plunging over the side of a cliff.

Not only did Barnes have little training to drive a dump truck, but the road was supposed to have been closed to heavy vehicles, according to state and federal officials. Investigators also faulted Alyeska and Houston/NANA Inc., its equipment maintenance contractor, for inadequate maintenance procedures in Valdez.

A review of a workplace death for criminal actions is ''unusual but not at all unprecedented,'' said Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division in Juneau. The step does not necessarily mean criminal charges will result.

''The mere fact that we are reviewing should not raise expectations that anything will come of it,'' Guaneli said.

Alyeska spokesman Tim Woolston said Alyeska has cooperated with the Valdez Police Department, which did the investigation, and will await the district attorney's review. Alyeska runs the 800-mile oil pipeline and marine terminal at Valdez. Six oil companies, including BP, Exxon Mobil and Phillips, own Alyeska.

The Valdez Police Department forwarded its investigation to the Palmer district attorney's office, which has jurisdiction over Valdez, in late November, said Valdez police Sgt. Leon Morgan. But Palmer district attorney Roman Kalytiak has been waiting for the state office of Occupational Safety and Health to review the case.

Last week the agency cited Alyeska for five violations related to Barnes' death and fined the company $35,000. OSHA cited Houston/NANA with two violations and fined the company $14,000.

Since the accident, Alyeska has worked to correct many of the problems, including doing an immediate check on all heavy equipment brakes, instituting a heavy equipment maintenance check, creating a driver training program, closing the narrow road and improving control over trucks that need repair, said Alyeska's Woolston.

Guaneli declined to talk specifically about the Barnes case or what charges could arise.

In general, criminal charges in such cases depend on the degree of recklessness or negligence on the part of the company or employees, Guaneli said.

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