IMAGE: OIL FROM SPILL
BP Exploration  /  AP
Oil from a pipeline spill is seen Thursday in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Most of the leaking oil was covered by snow.
NBC News and news services
updated 3/3/2006 7:15:21 AM ET 2006-03-03T12:15:21

An unknown quantity of crude oil spilled Thursday from a 34-inch diameter pipe transit line at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, and dangerous fumes stalled inspection and clean up efforts for hours.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Coordination’s on-scene coordinator, Ed Meggert, told NBC News there was a “fairly large spill.” It was discovered shortly before 6 a.m.

Crude oil could be seen on snow-covered tundra along the pipe more than 200 miles east of Barrow.

Crews on Thursday afternoon began using a vacuum truck to recover some of the oil that had pooled on the frozen ground, said BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., spokesman Daren Beaudo. The amount of crude spilled will be determined in the clean up.

Officials with BP, which operates the transit line, still did not know the cause.

"It's taken us awhile to get closer and closer to the actual scene to try to evaluate exactly where the leak is," Beaudo said.

Pipeline shut down
The spill was discovered early Thursday morning by BP operators visually inspecting lines, Beaudo said. He was not sure how long it took to respond but said the line was quickly blocked and depressurized.

BP workers also shut down Gathering Center 2 in response. Gathering centers separate oil from water and other materials that come out of the ground during drilling.

The spill was about a mile from the gathering center, which processes about 100,000 barrels of Prudhoe Bay's daily production of 470,000 barrels. That oil is fed into the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, which provides nearly 17 percent of domestic oil production and carries about 850,000 barrels per day from all sources.

The spill was not detected by automated leak detection systems, which are geared to automatically shut down pipelines during catastrophic failures.

"They are not necessarily as sensitive to very small leaks at any one time," Beaudo said.

Air monitors measuring high levels of hydrocarbons kept crews away Thursday morning. Beaudo said there could have been an explosion risk as well as a breathing risk for workers.

Much ‘isn’t visible’
It was not immediately apparent how much ground the spill covered. Hot oil in the pipe melts snow and spreads underneath it along the ground, he said.

"A lot of the oil isn't visible," Beaudo said.

Field responders said oil had reached the edge of a lake.

A response crew flew over the site in an aircraft fitted with an infrared detection device on the nose. The device picks up heat images but is not conclusive because it does not detect oil that has cooled, Beaudo said.

The transit pipe is elevated off the tundra an average of 2 to 3 feet, and sometimes as high as 8 to 9 feet where it crosses gullies, Beaudo said. A service road runs parallel to the line.

"Sometimes the snow can be up to and over the top of the pipeline," he said.

The transit line runs between Gathering Center 2 and Pump Station 1 in Prudhoe Bay's western operating unit.

The gathering center processes oil from 13 well pads covering upward of 240 wells, Beaudo said.

Oil should gel up
Weather was expected to help with cleanup efforts. Alaska Department of Conservation spokeswoman Lynda Giguere said the cold temperature will cause the crude oil to "gel up."

The temperature at Barrow reached 17 degrees below zero on Thursday, when sunny skies along with patchy ice fog marked the spill site.

East winds of 10 to 20 mph were expected to push wind chill for workers to 65 below zero.

NBC News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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