Tests before TAPS construction showed bullet could pierce pipeline

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The people who built and approved the trans-Alaska oil pipeline knew before it was done that a bullet from a hunting rifle could punch a hole through the half-inch metal.

That possibility drew little concern, however, because they also concluded the pipe itself could be quickly repaired and was impossible to completely guard from sabotage anyway, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Monday.

Twenty years later their conclusions were confirmed.

On Oct. 4, a man shot a hole in the pipeline near Livengood. About 285,000 gallons spewed from the hole in the 36 hours before it was plugged. More than half was recovered.

That such a shot was ''successful'' isn't surprising, given what was and is known about the pipeline's strength. More surprising, perhaps, is that such a hole hadn't been opened earlier.

The line has been shot dozens of times over the years. Even before it was complete, shooters had hit the line at least 50 times, the News-Miner reported in June of 1977, the month before oil began flowing.

Operator Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. learned well before then that a bullet could puncture the line.

In 1976 and 1977, when construction was at its height, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., held hearings on pipeline security. Alyeska and law enforcement officials told Thurmond's Senate Judiciary subcommittee that they knew a bullet from a civilian rifle could puncture the line, according to transcripts of the hearings.

Richard Burton, Alaska's commissioner of Public Safety, said on Feb. 23, 1977 that the pipeline had been shot and dented several times.

''They did not penetrate all the way through, although we know that some calibers will penetrate entirely through the line,'' Burton said.

They knew because Alyeska had taken pipe and hit it with every civilian caliber available, according to Bob Koslick, who worked for the company's security department starting in 1974. Koslick, of Fairbanks, was directing security operations on the entire line when he retired in 1997.

Koslick said last week that Alyeska also worked with the military to test its weapons. And it tried out some explosives -- dynamite and military C-4 -- at one of the bombing ranges.

''We learned a lot about what would and what wouldn't work,'' he said. He declined to describe the results in detail.

''I'm almost certain that that data is still considered proprietary,'' he said. ''There was an understanding that that information would not get out. You didn't want to present a blueprint for the public.''

The gist of the results were shared with some people, though.

''I am told that you almost have to stand right on top of the pipeline with a high-powered rifle to have enough velocity to pierce that pipe,'' Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told the committee in 1976.

Clear holes weren't the only problem, Burton noted in his congressional testimony. Deep dimples required repairs, too, he said. The News-Miner reported in its June 1977 article that at least one dimple on the southern half of the line had already been cut out and patched. The dimples were detected by ''pigs,'' the instrument-bearing plugs that are occasionally run down the inside of the line.

Even if Congress had decided in 1976 that the pipe wasn't tough enough, there was little that could have been done. The pipe had long since been manufactured and delivered to Alaska.

The congressional committee in 1976 also grilled government and company officials about what kind of security they would require along the line.

Those testifying argued with congressional staff about which government agency bore responsibility for regulating pipeline security. But they unanimously agreed that it would be impossible to prevent the occasional potshot from damaging the line, according to transcripts.

Koslick said last week that Alyeska security settled on a strategy called ''site-hardening,'' or adding security to specific places.

That meant the company left some areas vulnerable -- but only in places where damage was considered relatively benign. Such an approach was nothing new in the military, but it was ''kind of new for a private company to adopt that strategy,'' Koslick said.

The benign areas were mostly the exposed line itself. All the agency and company officials who testified in 1976 and 1977 said they thought any damage to the pipe could be repaired within a matter of days, a prediction that has been confirmed in subsequent years.

They were more tightlipped about the critical components that were site-hardened.

''The most critical components are probably the control center at Valdez -- excuse me, is what we are saying part of a public record?'' said James Goodwin, an operations division manager for Alyeska, at the hearing.

''Let's go off the record,'' Thurmond said, ending further public exposure of Alyeska's security analyses.

However, Burton, the public safety commissioner, later said another worrisome site was the control station on the North Slope.

''Someone could conceivably take over the control station at pump station No. 1 and the one at the terminal,'' he said. ''What are you going to do about it? Are you going to bomb the pipeline? You would really be helpless.''

Stevens and Burton told the committee that they thought some kind of joint task force between the FBI, Alyeska and local law enforcement personnel to warn about organized terrorist threats would be a good idea.

Alyeska spokesman Tim Woolston said there is no formal arrangement between federal, state and company security officials today but that they do talk.

''That sort of open line of cooperation and communication has been significant and a really high priority on both sides and certainly for us,'' Woolston said.

These days, Stevens said, he doesn't second-guess whether the pipeline and all the other tanks, power lines, roads and ships around the country are tough enough to withstand random attacks.

''Don't go down that trail,'' he said in early October after the Livengood shooting. ''Our system is based on freedom. It's hard to protect anything we do in our daily lives. We don't have the preventive measures against nuts.''

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