Study finds oil cleanup efforts in icy waters ineffective

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A state report completed this week details BP's inability to mop up spilled oil in slushy water off the Arctic Coast.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the final multi-agency report, based upon fall and spring tests, determined that BP could not effectively respond to an oil spill in the fall slush when more than 1 percent ice is present.

''In the fall really even trace amounts just make the system ineffective,'' Robert Watkins, a DEC environmental specialist, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

A variety of different techniques and pieces of equipment failed to improve the situation during the October test in the Beaufort Sea. Slush accumulates in the back of the boom and blocks the skimmers from operating, Watkins said.

Test results were better -- but still lacking -- in a July test of springtime conditions when the Beaufort Sea ice consists of more solid chunks. According to the report, the July test demonstrated an ability to clean oil up in as much as 30 percent ice.

''Once ice concentrations passed 30 percent the system quickly became overwhelmed and collapsed,'' according to the report, which was produced jointly by federal and state agencies and the North Slope Borough.

Even in up to 30 percent ice DEC is worried the propeller wash from all the spill response boat activity would help emulsify the oil and water mixture, serving to drive the oil farther down into the water column.

Another agency concern is that the vessels used to move the largest ice floes out from in front of the spill response fleet would also be moving the oil away.

This is uncharted territory, as no one has ever developed a system to scoop up oil in such conditions.

But DEC officials said that, based upon initial predictions of industry experts, the spill response system was supposed to work in waters containing up to 70 percent broken ice.

BP and the state have agreed to a prohibition against drilling on offshore fields during times of broken ice -- the months when pack ice retreats and ice floes clog waterways -- until the state signs off on a spill response plan.

Production drilling is also not allowed in the summer on offshore fields, including the Northstar development six miles offshore in the Beaufort Sea, until adequate facilities are provided for transportation of recovered in the event of a spill.

Oil companies, during the approximately seven months of winter sea ice, could drive equipment onto the ice and clean up a spill.

''Right now really the only time they'll be able to drill is during times of (solid) ice offshore,'' Watkins said.

BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said the industry is not disputing the report's assessment of the situation.

''I think the next step is to reexamine the techniques and the technology used to respond in these broken ice periods,'' Chappell said, ''and determine if any improvements are to be had.''

Northstar, which holds an estimated 176 million barrels of recoverable oil, is expected to come on line next November. The Northstar development would feature the first subsea pipeline in the Alaska Arctic.

Other fields affected by the seasonal drilling prohibition include Point McIntyre, Endicott and Niakuk.


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