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After Valdez, Alaska now eyes onshore oil spills

Alaska is associated with the Exxon Valdez and oil spills at sea, but the recent spill on land suggests future concerns will focus on pipeline corrosion.
The Trans Alaska Pipeline, seen here at Alaska's north coast near the Beaufort Sea, is 800 miles long and will be 30 years old next year. The pipeline operator expects it to be used for another 30 years.Rick Bowmer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Friday marks 17 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, causing the worst oil spill in American history. Its effects are still felt by fishermen and the Alaska Natives who live off the land.

"You can still go and pick up a rock and find what looks like fresh oil," said John Devens, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

Many of the lessons of 1989 — when 11 million gallons of crude oil oozed from the grounded tanker creating a slick that moved across 470 miles of shoreline — have been applied.

The oil tankers that ship Alaska's crude to the West Coast have become stronger, most with double hulls and redundant operating systems for safety. Two escort vessels now guide the tankers out of Prince William Sound. More equipment, such as containment boom, are housed nearby to respond if a spill happens again.

"In general, the changes that have occurred in Prince William Sound in terms of oil transport since 1989 have been phenomenal," said Nancy Bird, president and chief executive of the Prince William Sound Science Center. "I feel much more confident that we would be able respond to an oil spill today."

Shift onshore
But 17 years after the disaster, the potential for danger appears to have shifted onshore. Corrosion in the aging oil supply system is seen by some as a growing threat, as evidenced by a leak this month on the North Slope, the second-largest spill in the state's history.

A transit line upstream of the main pipeline and operated by BP Exploration Alaska Inc. leaked up to 267,000 gallons of crude from a small hole onto the frozen tundra of Alaska's North Slope.

State environmental regulators say the spill will lead to fines and possibly stricter pipeline regulations in Alaska, a state that has grown rich on oil since crude began flowing from the North Slope via the pipeline in the 1970s.

The leak in the transit line has caused some observers to worry about the condition of the entire pipeline system.

"I think many of us are seriously concerned about the aging and the deterioration of the pipeline and the facilities" Devens said. "We know that corrosion is becoming a factor."

This month's North Slope oil spill was caused by corrosion in the transit line, according BP PLC officials. The corrosion may have been due to the water and sediments that are carried with the viscous oil, said company spokesman Daren Beaudo.

$450,000 a year for upkeep
The main pipeline, which stretches 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in the North Slope to Valdez in Prince William Sound, will be 30 years old in 2007. Less than half the oil is flowing now than at peak production, but the oil industry and state officials figure on at least another 30 years of life out of the pipeline.

Devens said with that kind of expectation, the amount spent on maintaining the pipeline should be increased.

Mike Heatwole, spokesman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates and maintains the Trans Alaska Pipeline, said his company has all the funding necessary to keep the pipeline running safely. Alyeska has an annual budget of $350,000 for operations and maintenance and another $100,000 for capital projects, he said.

"We are ready to handle oil flow for the next 30 years," Heatwole said. "We're making the necessary investments to do that."