Coast Guard investigate spark on oil tanker

Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Coast Goard and state and federal regulators are investigating how an electrical spark flashed on the deck of a docked oil tanker in Valdez last week, creating the potential for an explosion.

Greg Jones of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the Valdez oil port, called the event ''a near miss'' for the company.

Company critic Chuck Hamel is calling the spark ''near catastrophic'' -- a characterization that regulators do not dispute.

''Simply put -- you don't want sparks around oil tankers,'' said Gary Reimer, an official with the Joint Pipeline Office, a group of state and federal regulators that oversee Alyeska operations and is reviewing the incident.

The incident occurred Oct. 19 as a long pipe used to collect toxic vapors during oil loading was moving toward the waiting tanker.

Static electricity often builds on long pipe sections. The pipe is equipped with a device that prevents electricity from reaching the end that touches the tanker. For an unknown reason, a worker fastened a strap that conducted electricity past the device and onto the tanker, said Don Verble, the state electrical inspector who is reviewing the incident.

The spark then flashed off the pipe, said Coast Guard Lt. Dave Smith, who is part of the team investigating of the incident. Smith said there was too little vapor in the area for an explosion.

There has never been a major fire at the oil terminal in Valdez. But with about 1 million barrels of oil crossing the docks and another 4 million or 5 million barrels sitting in nearby storage tanks, a fire could be catastrophic.

For Alyeska and the Coast Guard, the focus now is on what caused the spark at the tanker. How did a worker unwittingly put an electrical conduit around a device meant to stop electric flow on the pipe?

''It defeated the whole purpose of the isolation (device),'' Verble said. ''We're trying to see how a breakdown in the system could have happened.''

Hanging over the spark incident are questions about Alyeska's fire suppression system at the Valdez oil storage tanks. After some foam suppression systems did not work during tests last year, regulators ordered Alyeska to test the entire fire system in the tank farm. The company has changed the system and plans to complete testing by Jan. 1, company spokesman Tim Woolston said.

The Alyeska and Coast Guard investigations of the spark incident could take several weeks, both said. Alyeska is owned by a consortium of six oil companies, led by BP, Phillips and Exxon Mobil.

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