How oil pipeline officials handled the 'big one' of 2002

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Standing on a platform atop the trans-Alaska oil pipeline about 10 miles north of Delta Junction, Kerry Erickson had just lowered a bucket of tools to the ground.

Then the insistent rattling began.

At first he thought coworker Cody White, next to him on the platform, was making the noise, but it wasn't. Could it be a metal pig passing through the 800-mile pipeline?

Erickson, a pipeline maintenance and spill response worker for Houston NANA, lifted his head to look at the half-mile stretch of pipeline visible from his perch on that warm, gray Sunday Nov. 3 and realized he was in the middle of the largest earthquake of his almost 30-year career.

''Everything was moving that shouldn't have been,'' he said later from his Delta Junction home. ''It was like a wave came through here. It wasn't violent. It was more fluid. You could hear it coming.''

About 60 miles to the south, metal pins holding the pipeline's iron brackets, called shoes, broke from the two minutes of shaking. Eight shoes -- one on each of eight support structures -- fell to the ground, along with five vertical support crossbars on which the shoes rest.

The pipeline, with the ground rippling beneath it, shifted about seven feet sideways and several feet north, movement envisioned by engineers when they planned the pipeline more than 30 years ago.

Moments later, though, with the magnitude 7.9 earthquake over and the aftershocks set to begin, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. employees knew little about how the line actually fared. Had the line collapsed? Was oil gushing out? Or had it survived?

Back at Mile 520 of the pipeline, Erickson radiod his supervisor, Hillary Schaefer, who had just left the two to drive back to her Pump Station 9 office after bringing them pizza for lunch. He and White had run to a clearing for safety.

''Hillary, we're having an earthquake, a significant earthquake,'' Erickson told her, as the ground rumbled under them. She pulled over to the side of the Richardson Highway to wait it out, and he hung up to call his family in Delta.

When the shaking stopped, Schaefer, the maintenance coordinator for Pump Stations 9 and 10, continued to her office. There she learned from Alyeska's Valdez Operations Control Center that the 1:12 p.m. quake occurred along the Denali Fault, the largest fault the pipeline crosses and one of the world's longest. She sent a helicopter crew and two ground teams, including Erickson and White, to inspect the pipeline.

''We were still having aftershocks,'' she said. ''We knew it was big.''

Jim Johnson, Alyeska's pipeline manager who oversees pump station and pipeline activities, was at his Fairbanks home reading the newspaper when the earthquake struck. The shaking was the worst he has felt in his 22 years at Alyeska.

He called the Valdez operations center to find out the quake's magnitude. The center houses Alyeska's Earthquake Monitoring System, which includes software designed by Alyeska engineers and consultants to analyze seismic activity along the pipeline and at the terminal and pump stations.

''The next question I ask is 'What is leak detection telling you?''' he said days later from his Fairbanks office. No leaks detected, they say.

As designed, the detection system also had begun an automatic shutdown of the pipeline.

But both Johnson and the Valdez staff decide to override the system and manually shut down the pipeline. That would avoid damage that could be caused by the abrupt stop initiated by the automatic shutdown. A manual shutdown is slower and more controlled. Then he started on the 15 minute drive to his office.

Greg Jones, Alyeska's senior vice president of operations and maintenance and Johnson's supervisor, faced an even longer ride to his Fairbanks office. He and his wife, Anne, were on an Alaska Airlines jet waiting to take off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport when the plane began shaking.

With little information, the flight was a long 50 minutes.

On the ground in Fairbanks, Jones started making calls. The first message waiting on his cell phone was from Johnson telling him that the pipeline was damaged but that there were no reports of leaks. Jones headed to his Fairbanks office.

At Alyeska's South Cushman Street office building, Johnson put the company into emergency mode. He activated the company's Fairbanks Emergency Operations Center and became the incident commander, a role he is assigned under Alyeska's emergency response system.

Johnson opened the second-floor ''war room,'' which will become the heartbeat of Alyeska's response to the earthquake. The last emergency the room was used for was when the pipeline was shot at Mile 400, leaking more than 285,000 gallons of crude just over a year ago.

The room looks like a rocket launch control center. Ten seats surround a U-shaped conference table, with each place holding a computer, phone and nameplate. The room is dimly lighted so information on the various monitors is easily seen. Maps of every mile of the pipeline hang on the walls.

Lee Monthei, Alyeska's vice president of engineering and projects, was summoned. He had been at his Fairbanks home watching the last few minutes of the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders game when the quake struck. Knowing that the Valdez telephone lines would be busy, he had waited nervously for someone to call him.

Monthei was one of several engineers who helped develop Dr. Quake, Alyeska's seismic monitoring software, which should have waiting for him a list of places on the pipeline to check for damage. Monthei had to see those reports.

This was the software's first major real-life test.

By 2:12 p.m. Sunday the manual shutdown of the pipeline was completed.

Monthei and other engineers who have been arriving at the war room pored over reports. The computer has listed more than 500 items of suspected trouble. Some inspections had to be made before the pipeline could be restarted, others could come afterward. The engineers spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening ranking the tasks.

From the field late Sunday afternoon surveillance crews reported that most of the damage was at Mile 588 of the pipeline, where the shoes and crossbars had fallen. They found dents to the pipeline's metal insulation, which cocoons the pipe at its vertical supports, and deep cracks in the earth around Remote Gate Valve 91, both signaling potentially serious and expensive repairs.

In all, three miles of the pipeline have been damaged.

Early Monday morning, eight engineer teams started checking off the list of 161 tasks to be completed before restart. By Monday evening 95 tasks were completed. Then temporary wooden supports for the pipe had to be built.

Also that morning, Alyeska work crews -- now about 150 people -- started bringing equipment and materials to repair the pipeline and help the engineer teams further test and inspect the pipeline and its facilities. Department of Transportation crews had worked through the night to make the Richardson Highway passable.

Monthei and the other engineers, meanwhile, conducted leak tests that included calculating pipe pressure at the fault line.

Out in the field, workers began to dig up Remote Gate Valve 91 to see if it was leaking crude. The valve gate, which stops the flow of crude between sections of the pipeline, caused serious concern.

''The valve settled six inches and moved horizontally two feet,'' Monthei said.

But the gate valve survived.

By Tuesday afternoon, 14 contractors and 300 people were working in the field to complete the rest of the task list. Senior management decided to fill the pipeline to Fairbanks by draining full oil tanks at Pump Station 1 on the North Slope. Otherwise BP and ConocoPhillips would have faced shutting down oil wells.

Williams Alaska Petroleum's refinery in North Pole helped ease the North Slope's growing volume of crude by extracting some from the pipeline to refine into jet fuel.

By late Tuesday afternoon most of the work was done. David Wight, Alyeska's president, was satisfied with the progress. He had been monitoring the work from Anchorage, making a roundtrip to inspect the pipeline on Monday, all the while keeping Gov. Tony Knowles and the pipeline's owners apprised.

Wight, as the final authority, authorized a Wednesday morning restart for the pipeline.

''We were better off waiting for first light,'' Wight said, worried about worker safety. ''It's a gut check. We didn't want to be in a hurry and make a mistake.''

By 8 a.m. Wednesday workers at the seven operating pump stations, the Valdez operations center and the Fairbanks Emergency Operation Center stood ready.

In a normal restart, Pump Station 1 would be the first to fire up. But Alyeska's managers decide to start at Pump Station 9, nearest the earthquake damage. If there were to be problems, they would know immediately.

A computer monitor with real-time data of crude flowing through the pipeline and passing pump stations was projected to a large screen in the war room.

Startup went smoothly, and ice cream bars were passed around in celebration. By the end of the evening 750,000 barrels of oil was flowing down the pipe, just 250,000 barrels shy of the normal daily load.

''Hopefully we won't get any earthquakes like that again,'' Wight said. ''It was our unintended report card.''

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