Rising failure rate of safety valves prompts state inspection order

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state has ordered BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. to step up its inspections after tests showed high failure rates of critical safety valves on Prudhoe Bay oil production pads.

The valves sit on top of hundreds of oil wells at Prudhoe Bay. The wells are designed to close automatically when sensors detect a drop in pressure.

''These valves are the first line of defense,'' said Dan Seamount with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that oversees development of Alaska's oil fields.

A series of tests since December turned up failure rates of more than 10 percent among wells at six of the 22 production pads on the western side of Prudhoe because of faulty sensors and unlubricated hardware.

''This could lead to a catastrophic failure,'' Seamount told the Anchorage Daily News.

For the next three months, the commission has ordered inspections to be made monthly instead of at the typical six-month intervals.

BP officials said the failure rate was not acceptable and the company has accelerated its testing program. A BP spokesman attributed some of the problems to procedural foul-ups with oil field contractors.

But BP's Ronnie Chappell downplayed the spill risk from the faulty valves, saying there were a number of backups.

The commission order requires BP to test the valves monthly until the failure rate drops below 10 percent. Chappell said BP is working toward a failure rate of 5 percent or less.

''That's less than half what the state requires. That's where we try to get,'' he said.

Faulty valves have not led to any known operational problems since the December tests.

But in October of 1998, a leaking valve prolonged a fire after an oil processing building exploded at Z Pad. The valve did not close because of debris, Seamount said.

Commission chairwoman Cammy Oechsli Taylor said the commission has the authority to fine the companies up to $5,000 per day per violation. The decision to fine depends upon whether the companies were negligent in maintaining the equipment.

''Any time we have an investigation, it could lead to penalties,'' she said. ''They are on notice.''

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