Pipeline cleanup continues despite winter's arrival

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

LIVENGOOD (AP) -- Mile 400 of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is calmer now. The blackened trees are cleared and the noxious petroleum stench is gone from the air.

A month ago a swarm of workers and equipment bustled around the area where a bullet hole caused the second-largest spill in the pipeline's history.

The arrival of winter has slowed efforts at recovering floating crude and the number of on-site workers has dropped off. But 12-hour shifts are the norm as Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. works toward its goal of digging up the contaminated soil before spring.

About 50 workers are at the spill site about 80 miles north of Fairbanks, sleeping in a local pipeline camp that reopened because of the shooting.

So far about 176,000 of the 285,600 gallons of oil that sprayed from the pipeline after Daniel Carson Lewis allegedly shot it on Oct. 4 have been recovered. Efforts have slowed to about 100 gallons a day, as the drop in temperatures thickens the oil. The crude had been flowing into containment ponds, where it was sucked up into waiting trucks.

Alyeska and its contractors are trying a new approach with mobile heating units that blow hot air into the ground in an attempt to release trapped oil.

''It's pretty slow,'' said Kalu Kalu, an Alyeska official who is overseeing the cleanup. ''We don't seem to be getting a lot from it.''

Kalu said the oil has not spread through the tundra as much as initially feared. The crude spread out in fingers rather than as a single sheet and has saturated the tundra from 3 to 6 six inches. The contaminated area covers about three acres.

The oiled trees from the worst 2.5 acres have been cleared and sit in stacks awaiting eventual incineration.

This winter Alyeska plans to drive vehicles onto the frozen tundra and remove contaminated soil. One possibility is using bulldozers with trimmers, which are somewhat like barrels with spikes on the front end.

Kalu is working to obtain a piece of equipment that would condense out the crude when those dug-up soils are run through it.

That oil, like the rest of the spilled crude that has been recovered, would then be reinjected into the pipeline.

After the contaminated soil is removed, Alyeska plans to replace it with new soil before spring breakup. The area also will be reseeded.

There is a possibility that runoff during breakup could pose a problem if crude remains, perhaps even threatening the Tolovana River.

''It's still a possibility,'' Kalu said. ''But that possibility will not exist once we eliminate the majority of the contamination.''

The only obvious evidence of the bullet hole on the pipeline itself is a green plug sticking out from the steel. But Alyeska plans to paint the affected section, sandblast it and reinsulate it.

Last week the company finished its repairs and reinsulation of damage done to the pipeline from another series of nearby bullet strikes that did not cause a spill.

Lewis, who is accused of firing at the pipeline just to see if he could pierce it, is jailed in Fairbanks on state and federal charges. He is scheduled to go to trial on the state charges the week of Dec. 31. No date has been set for the federal trial.

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