Source of sheen remains mystery

Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 2001

The source of a sheen seen for a week near Unocal's Baker Platform remains a mystery, a state official said Monday.

Leslie Pearson, on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said a commercial airline pilot first spotted the mile-long sheen last Tuesday about a mile and a half north of the Baker Platform. The sheen is in the area of two abandoned pipelines originally owned by Amoco. The abandoned lines still are the only candidates as sources for the spill, Pearson said.

One of the abandoned lines carried crude oil. However, that has been severed and is now filled with sea water, she said. The other carried natural gas from the Unocal's Anna Platform, and that had been charged to a pressure of 50 pounds per square inch.

On Friday, Unocal reduced the pressure in the abandoned gas line to 11 pounds per square inch, hoping that would stop any fuel it might contain from leaking out. However, the sheen was still there when officials flew the area Friday night, Pearson said.

"Right now, our focus is definitely to identify the source, because we have an ongoing discharge taking place in Cook Inlet," she said. "It's in that abandoned pipeline right of way, and in that one consistent location."

Paul Laird, spokesperson for BP, which bought Amoco, said his understanding was that the sheen disappeared over the weekend. However, the source of the spill has not yet been proven, he said.

The pipelines are about 120 feet below the surface of Cook Inlet, Pearson said, and it may be possible for divers to find and fix the leak.

Pearson has maintained that Unocal inherited the lines in the early 1980s when it bought Amoco's Cook Inlet assets, and state law makes both Unocal and Amoco responsible for the spill.

"We'll be asking them for a plan to stop the release," she said.

Unocal's position is that it never owned either of the pipelines and has no responsibility for them, said spokesperson Roxanne Sinz. Even so, Unocal is working with DEC and the U.S. Coast Guard to develop a plan to control the leak, she said.

"Unocal takes this very seriously, and if there's something we can do to keep the inlet the way it should be, we're going to take care of it," Sinz said. "Until someone else steps up to the plate, we're doing what we think is the right thing."

Pearson said she has asked the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to do a title search for the pipeline right of way to determine who is responsible for the abandoned lines.

Laird said BP wants more information before taking a position on who should have responsibility for stopping the leak.

"There are still a number of issues unresolved about ownership of the pipeline or the source of the sheen," he said. "We want to know what it is that leaked. There are still some other issues, depending on what it was that leaked and how it got to where it leaked from."

Meanwhile, in a totally separate incident, Tesoro Alaska has welded a patch over a leak in the pipeline that carries refined fuels from its Nikiski refinery to Anchorage, said Don Fritz, an environmental specialist with DEC. The line was back in service by Saturday morning, he said.

State officials said that leak was discovered Tuesday night when Phillips Petroleum Co. workers found jet fuel on the ground near the buried Tesoro pipeline. The spill site is near Mile 35 of the Kenai Spur Highway -- about 13.75 pipeline miles from the refinery. It lies a couple hundred yards from the highway, between Bishop Creek and the Swanson River and inside Captain Cook State Recreation Area. The Tesoro pipeline carries jet fuel, gasoline and diesel.

A preliminary investigation suggests that about two acres of soil have been contaminated by the Tesoro spill. The firm of Kent and Sullivan Inc. is doing additional soil borings to map the contaminated area more thoroughly. To minimize damage when workers haul out contaminated soil, Tesoro has been building a gravel road from the Kenai Spur Highway to the spill site. The road, several hundred yards long, was nearly finished by noon Sunday, Fritz said.

Tesoro has has installed a 1,400-foot pipeline to carry contaminated water from the spill area to vacuum trucks on the highway, he said.

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