Holding back the flood: Drift River Terminal withstands Redoubt eruption

Posted: Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Life in the snow-white valley of the Drift River at the foot of Mount Redoubt took a raging turn for the worst early Monday morning.

Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Flood water and debris push up against a retaining wall protecting oil tanks at the Drift River Terminal Facility on Tuesday morning. The previously frozen braided river is now more than a mile wide ribbon of mud, ash, shredded trees and ice.

The mile-wide valley saw a surge in floodwaters that scientists from the Alaska Volcano Observatory said may have been 20 to 25 feet deep.

The Drift River Terminal, an oil storage facility at the mouth of the river, sustained considerable damage when the intense heat of the eruption melted the snow and ice capping Redoubt, spilling it into the valley below.

Viewed from an overflight taken over the facility, the dykes built up around the seven 277,000 barrel capacity oil storage tanks appeared to have done their job holding back a black wall of mud that ripped through the valley.

Only two of the aqua green tanks are currently storing any oil. Each has 74,000 barrels, or over 3 million gallons of Cook Inlet crude.

Streaks of mud running down the inside of the flood walls were apparent on the north side of the levy facing upstream, while water was pooled toward the center of the storage facility.

No apparent sheening from released oil was apparent and the tanks appeared to have survived the onslaught in good shape, according to a press release issued by the Coast Guard Tuesday afternoon.

The oozing mud seemed poised to overtake the facility though, which has now become an island of order amidst a river of chaos.

After the eruption, Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. notified area producers the terminal would not be available to receive, store or deliver additional crude oil.

All CIPL Drift River Terminal personnel, a total of 11, were evacuated by helicopter to the Trading Bay facility Monday morning.

Chevron's subsidiary, Union Oil of California, shares ownership of CIPL with Pacific Energy, a Cook Inlet producer. CIPL, operated by Chevron Pipe Line Co., operates the facility.

The crude is delivered via pipeline from fields on the west side of the inlet.

Not all areas of the terminal were so lucky as to escape the river's wrath.

The runway, where planes come in to deliver crews and supplies to the facility, was covered in mud and littered with trees. From the air it looked as though a child had carelessly opened a box of straws and left them scattered across what was once a well graded gravel strip.

A plane would now need some impressive mud tires and four-wheel drive to land or take off there.

Meanwhile, the hangar had mud and debris piled up against its side to the height of the building's windows.

The terminal's "safehouse," a structure that looks like a ranch styled house, perched atop a large elevated cylinder, had also served its purpose, keeping the crew safe through the disaster.

Though no apparent fuel leaks were visible from any of the facility's operational fuel tanks, some debris did appear to be scattered about in the mud flooding the runway area.

Scientists at AVO were still unsure Tuesday afternoon whether future eruptions could unleash another torrent.

"There was probably a substantial amount of ice denuded from the Drift Glacier," said Michele Coombs, a geologist with AVO.

"It's likely a future event won't be as large, but our observations are still preliminary," she said.

Coombs said staff from the observatory conducted an overflight Monday afternoon but were only able to get a glimpse of the flooding noted in the valley because of heavy cloud cover.

She said an estimate of the river's peak discharge had yet to be made, but was likely comparable or larger to that seen in the 1989-1990 eruption series.

AVO scientists have estimated that for a short period during the eruption on Jan. 2 1990, the river's volume may have, at least for several minutes, been close to 2.2 million cubic feet of water per second -- a flow that would put the Mississippi River to shame.

"The preliminary observations were that the flooding event Sunday night looked like they affected an area at least as great or greater than those in impacted in the '89-'90 eruption and may have even surpassed what was seen 20 years ago," Coombs said.

On Tuesday, Lana Johnson, a spokeswoman for Marketing Solutions, Inc. in Anchorage, contracted to speak on behalf of CIPL, said an 11-member crew had returned to the facility.

According to a press release issued by CIPL, a team will assess the terminal when it is deemed safe to do so.

She said she was unsure whether the crude currently being held at the facility could be removed if necessary. She did note however that the dock where a specialized tanker would receive oil from the facility appeared to be "unscathed."

Roxanne Sinz, a spokeswoman for Chevron in Anchorage, said the company's 10 platforms operating in the inlet are continuing to produce oil and deliver to the Trading Bay Production Facility and Granite Point Tank Farm,

Lee Warren, a spokeswoman for Marathon Oil Corporation in Houston Texas, said their company's facility's were also operational.

Both companies said they were continuing to monitor the situation on the volcano and had emergency plans in place.

A spokesman from XTO energy in Kenai was contacted by the Clarion but did not return follow-up phone calls.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com

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