July 26th, 2010
04:49 PM ET

Video: The next oil spill?

Drew Griffin | BIO
CNN Investigative Correspondent

David Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

Program Note: A look at the investigation into potential safety concerns along the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline on tonight's "AC360" 10 p.m. ET

Delta Junction, Alaska (CNN) - The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, 800 miles long and carrying an estimated 650,000 barrels of oil a day, sweeps majestically over the fast-flowing Tanana River here.

For most of its 33-year history, the pipeline has done its work well. It survived an earthquake and even a 2001 attack by a deranged man who pumped six high-powered bullets into its skin.

But a little-publicized accident over the Memorial Day weekend has triggered a wave of concern among congressional investigators and led to accusations that Alyeska, the oil company consortium that manages the pipeline, is cutting maintenance and safety budgets.

According to pipeline critics, those cuts could endanger the entire system and one day lead to a spill that would shatter Alaska's fragile ecosystems.

"There's incident after incident within the last six months (that) might seem like small things, but when you put them all together, in a relatively short period of time, it really tells you how poorly this pipeline is being maintained," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, told CNN in an interview to air on tonigh't "AC360"

Stupak said the biggest and most troubling incident by far was a shutdown of the pipeline caused when both the main power and the backup power failed during a routine systems test at a spot called Pump Station 9, about 10 miles from Delta Junction. It's one of 12 pumping stations between Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope and the oil terminus at Valdez.

Stupak said no one from Alyeska noticed because Pump Station 9 was unmanned - part of a plan by the pipeline operator to reduce manpower.

With no power to control the oil flow, the result, company officials acknowledged, was a spill of tens of thousands of barrels of oil into a so-called capture tank. About 5,000 barrels then leaked onto the ground nearby.

CNN was told by Alyeska's chief of security in Fairbanks that a crew could videotape Pump Station 9 from the company parking lot so long as they ventured no farther. When the team from CNN's Special Investigations Unit arrived, however, security personnel stopped them at the entrance about 10 yards from the highway. A guard said he had received instructions to stop them, and he didn't allow CNN access.

Later, Alyeska Vice President of Operations Mike Joynor told CNN that he was unaware of the incident. As for the spill, he said Alyeska was still investigating why the power failed.

Joynor said the company also was in the midst of developing recommendations to ensure the power failure would not be repeated. But he told CNN those steps would not be made public.

According to Alaska state Rep. David Guttenberg, who once worked as a construction worker for Alyeska, the company also wants to move its most valuable engineers and safety experts to company headquarters in Anchorage, far from the pipeline. They now work in Fairbanks, much closer to any potential pipeline spill.

"The e-mails we've been receiving, the fact that Alyeska is moving people away from their posts where they should be out in the field, 350 miles away to an office building in Anchorage, creates a problem of proximity to their work," Guttenberg said.

And one Alyeska source told CNN that a backlog of deferred maintenance, year after year, is the real problem. That backlog is creating what the source called a "bow wave" of repairs that will some day soon cause a cascade of safety and integrity concerns to hit the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

BP is the dominant partner in Alyeska, controlling 46.3 percent of its budget. It is the dominant partner in the relationship, according to Richard Fineberg, who has served four Alaska governors as an oil and gas advisor and says BP's insistence on cost-cutting has influenced the pipeline consortium.

Alyeska CEO Kevin Hostler, a former BP executive, announced his early retirement in July after being severely criticized by Stupak.

But Joynor told CNN that even though the company's two most recent presidents have come from BP, there is no undue influence from the company, now under fire for its handling of the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And Alyeska says its maintenance budgets fall "within industry standards" and that it is "routine practice" to defer some maintenance items for the succeeding budget year.

Joynor said the pipeline is safe and secure and told CNN that the planned movement of personnel involves only office staff, not "first responders," as he put it. He said the pipeline is safe, and he was not under pressure to cut costs.

"We stick to what our core values are: Safety, integrity, environmental protection and protection of a safe work force," Joynor said.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Scott

    I work for Alyeska. This article is a gross distortion of the facts. Typical for CNN, however.

    July 27, 2010 at 5:43 am |
  2. David of Coden Alabama

    The pipe just blew up and oil going everwhere and the pipe is so big and so much oil is pouring out at 8000lbs per square inch , BP or whatever you want to call your self, what if some one blowed off a section of the pipe in Alaska ? how would you fix that huge thing? now how would you fix it in real life ,not BP land ? and by the way "thank's for capping the leaking pipe in the gulf".now is the time to think of a way to stop oil leaks and set up back up plans, now is the time to get the team going with safety ,do they even have a shut off valve on it any where ,and how far apart are the valve's ,

    the pipe hasn't blew up yet , but i bet you know what you need to do, sometimes a little scare does the trick, so don't wait until you need the tool before you buy it .

    July 27, 2010 at 5:11 am |
  3. theroguecandidate

    Apologies, I should add, thank you so much Anderson for covering this and making it national! Can't wait until you're report on Liberty.

    July 27, 2010 at 3:53 am |
  4. J.V.Hodgson

    The last time I heard 56% of share owners call the shots if needed. The executives that run Alyeska also have huge say in what does or does not happen whether it be about maintenance or whatever. When ever you have something that's 800 miles long with 12 different pumping stations, it is inevitable that the occasional failure will occur, as the whole thing is managed by Human beings. Left to Sarah palin there would be another Alaskan pipeline.
    This whole of this investigation just implies the only bad guys are BP and they are outvoted if push come to shove on anyhing!! Real world please!!
    Also one contributor is totally contradicted by a current Senior Exec of Alyeska re Key engineers moving and the companies view on safety, integrity and the environment.

    July 27, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  5. TAPS Employee

    Wow is all I can say. I have worked on the Trans Alaska Pipeline System for more than a decade, and I am amazed at the misinformation being touted on this episode. Fact check here folks: There are not 12 "pump houses" and never were. Pump station 11 was never built, and 2, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 12 no longer have pumping units at them, so inspect away Mr. Brinkley! Also, the large 2006 spill on the North Slope was at a facility outside of the boundaries of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The fire at pump station 9 was a flash fire, and did not "almost burn down the station," as stated by Fineberg. I think the footage that was shown says it all. Look at the pristine environment around the pipeline. It is pristine because all of us contractors and employees are dedicated to keeping it that way. For most of us Alaska is our home, our play land, and where we raise our children. I am sick of the inaccuracies and untruths continuing to be sold to the public regarding the work I and my coworkers have dedicated our lives to, and I ask you all to stop continuing this.

    July 26, 2010 at 11:48 pm |
  6. gina

    What about the role of Alyeska Safety Professionals at Pump Station 09? Or linewide?

    July 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  7. industry regulator

    Rep Stupak, the pump station 9 incident was NOT the most serious recent near miss!

    Are you aware of the incident in January of 2009 that came within a wind change of destroying Pump Station #1 (the beginning of TAPS), killing more than 20 people, and shutting down the entire pipeline for at LEAST 18 months?

    As someone who is intimately familiar with both the Pump Station 1 and Pump Station 9 incidents I can tell you unequivically that the Pump Station 1 incident was MUCH more serious. The incident at pump station 9 pales in comparison to the loss of human life, environmental dammage and long term crippling of a significant portion of domestic energy production that was narrowly avoided at Pump Station 1 in January of 2009.

    The ONLY thing that prevented this from occuring is the wind changed directions a few hours before.

    The incident was documented and reported in February of 2009 but amazingly drew very little interest.

    July 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
  8. Annie Kate

    Sounds like those executives from BP took the cost-cutting culture of BP with them to Alaska and it sounds a lot like what we have heard on the Deepwater project. If you let small items wait to be fixed the combination of them all can cause larger problems mostly unanticipated. If they can't keep the pipeline operations current on repairs and safe then it needs to be shut down until they do. We've already had one major environmental disaster because of them; we don't need another.

    July 26, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
  9. David Ginsberg

    I have a great question. What if I or someone else or even you accidentally spilled oil into the ocean or a wet land and killed or contaminated the animals, would we get arrested or fined or even imprisoned???????
    If we would be fined, imprisoned or both, why then is B.P. not fined, or imprisoned?????
    It does not make any sense. If I was to go out and kill an endangered animal, I would be arrested, right?! So why isn't B.P. fined and arrested. Are they above the LAW??? This is crazy.

    July 26, 2010 at 9:01 pm |