Arrival of winter slows pipeline spill cleanup

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The cold temperatures and snow have slowed the cleanup of oil spilled earlier this month when a man shot a hole in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline north of Fairbanks.

The cleanup rate is about 700 gallons a day compared with 70,000 gallons a day immediately after the spill.

In total, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the company that runs the pipeline, has recovered more than 171,000 gallons of fluid.

That's more than half of the 285,600 gallons of crude oil that spilled after the shooting Oct. 4 near Livengood about 75 miles north of Fairbanks. Alyeska and state officials both say that getting more than half the oil is a good cleanup.

''We've got more than 50 percent and we're still moving aggressively,'' said Wes Willson, Alyeska's environmental manager at the spill.

But this was a big spill -- the third largest since North Slope oil production began in 1977. As oil recovery slows, cleanup will turn toward more aggressive steps: clearing the stained forest and removing about 3 acres of topsoil.

Tens of thousands of gallons of Alaska crude saturate a mat of moss, peat and silt over the 3-acre spill area. In recent days, temperatures have dipped into single digits at night, rising to the 20s during the day. With the cold weather -- crude congeals at 8 degrees Fahrenheit -- the oil is holding in place, said Ed Meggert of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in Fairbanks.

Cleanup crews have dug trenches around the spill area to collect the oil. The oil flows into containment ponds, where it is sucked up and eventually reinjected into the pipeline, the company said.

Alyeska initially estimated cleanup costs at $3 million. David Wight, chief executive, now thinks the final number could be two to four times that estimate, said spokesman Tim Woolston.

During the cold Interior winter there is little risk it will escape to nearby Shorty Creek or, farther downstream, to the Tolovana River, officials say. But heavy water flow during spring breakup or even a good steady rain could transport the oil remaining into the nearby river and onto the Minto Flats, a huge wetland downstream.

''That's the big concern, and I am comfortable we've got it contained,'' Meggert said.

Downstream from the spill site in the community of Minto, many have questions about whether the crude will contaminate the vibrant Minto Flats, habitat for thousands of birds, mammals and fish that villagers depend upon for food.

''That's what we're concerned about,'' said Ronnie M. Silas, the environmental technician for Minto. Silas has met with Alyeska officials in Fairbanks and said he feels confident that oil will be kept out of the water.

''That's what I told the elders -- they're OK with it, but worried,'' Silas said.

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