'Near miss' in Valdez serves as warning shot

Posted: Wednesday, November 08, 2000

A spark recently flashed between a vapor recovery device and the deck of an oil tanker docked for loading in Valdez.

Fortunately, loading operations had not yet begun and oil fumes were not present in explosive concentrations. Officials at Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the company that operates all aspects of the trans-Alaska pipeline system and routinely stores millions of barrels of crude oil in the tanks massed on the hillside overlooking its tanker terminal, later confirmed the company got lucky.

"We had what we call a near miss," Greg Jones, an Alyeska terminal official, told KTUU television in Anchorage.

What's incredible is the spark was apparently released by a conductive conduit or strap bypassing a safety device.

The spark came from the end of a pipe used to siphon off vapors released during the loading process. The pipe was outfitted with a grounding device designed to keep static electricity from collecting in that area. The problem stemmed from an unidentified worker's installation of a piece of conduit -- bridging the safety device.

"It defeated the whole purpose of the isolation," Don Verble, a state electrical inspector, told the Anchorage Daily News.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the Joint Pipeline Office, a combined state-federal watchdog bureau, and presumably Alyeska, are now investigating the incident, trying to figure out how a mechanical flaw of this magnitude came to be.

Obviously, there is no excuse for such bungling by terminal employees or contractors.

... (I)t's at least as important that investigators determine why this apparent deviation from mechanical specs wasn't caught by an inspector.

We could have been looking at an environmental and economic disaster surpassing the Exxon Valdez. Imagine what closure of the aging marine terminal, even briefly, might mean for this nation's already tight energy supply.

A "near miss" of this nature underscores the importance of making sure BP Amoco, Phillips, Exxon and Alyeska's other producer-owners spend the dollars it takes to maintain at the highest level every facet of the trans-Alaska pipeline system.

It's also a warning shot for regulators.

Alyeska's economic role is too important, and the crude it handles too toxic, for passively allowing another charge to build toward a fateful spark.

--Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Oct. 29

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