Bullet pierces pipeline - 70,000 gallons of crude oil pours onto land north of Fairbanks

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Bullet pierces pipeline

Alaskan arrested as 70,000 gallons of crude oil pours onto land north of Fairbanks

Diagram of pipeline cross section

By Ben Spiess

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: October 5, 2001)

A bullet punched a hole in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline Thursday, sending oil spewing for hours in a remote area north of Fairbanks.

A man who lives near the pipeline was arrested in connection with the shooting.

At least 70,000 gallons of crude oil sprayed into the scrub and spruce forest near the small community of Livengood, 107 miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. The spill is the biggest along the pipeline in 23 years.

Alaska State Troopers, who responded to the spill with the FBI, charged Daniel Lewis, 37, who lives near Livengood, with criminal mischief.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism," a troopers spokesman said. "This is someone being dumb with their rifle."

Late Thursday night, oil still spilled uncontrolled from the pipeline. Officials with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the pipeline, wrestled with the problem of how to relieve pressure in the pipe and stop the oil. Oil production on the North Slope has been virtually shut down.

Alyeska has increased security along the pipeline since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast. The incident underlines the difficult job of protecting the 800-mile pipeline, which traverses Alaska’s wilderness.

It is owned by six oil companies, primarily Exxon Mobil, BP and Phillips Petroleum. The pipeline moves about 1 million barrels a day. Alyeska officials said the pipeline could be shut down until early Sunday.

Pipeline security discovered the spill about three miles south of Manley Hot Springs Road at 2:30 p.m. during a helicopter overflight, said Alyeska spokesman Tim Woolston.

Alyeska officials immediately shut down the 400-mile section of pipeline north of the spill area and asked North Slope producers to curb production. Meanwhile, they continued pumping oil to drain the pipe to the south.

Alyeska faces a daunting problem of how to control the spill. About 20,000 barrels of oil, about 840,000 gallons, is trapped in the leaking section of pipe, according to Alyeska. While the bullet hole is small, the oil is backed up on a valve. Pressure is high, and late Thursday night, oil spilled at a rate of 140 gallons per minute, Woolston said.

Alyeska could drain the oil around two nearby valves to relieve the pressure. Or workers could clamp the pipe. The first option is slow and may take several days. The second option has been tested but never used to control a real spill, said Alyeska president David Wight.

"This is a scenario we’ve thought about. And we’ve got equipment that will work," Wight said. But Wight was unsure whether Alyeska would use the clamp in the cold, wet night. Workers may wait until daylight. "Its a grave concern to get in there as quickly as we can. ... Safety is our first concern."

The shooting apparently was a random act of vandalism.

As the helicopter swung over the pipeline at 2:30 Thursday, the pilot spotted two men near the pipe. The two are brothers, according to the FBI. When the helicopter landed, one man fled. The other stayed and talked to security officials, Woolston said.

Troopers and FBI agents from Fairbanks held spill cleanup workers away from the scene as they searched for the missing man. At 6:35, Troopers arrested Lewis at a nearby home on the Elliot Highway and took him to Fairbanks.

The brother was not charged.

"The suspect we have in custody acted alone," said troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

The shooting is not the first time vandals and saboteurs have targeted the pipe. In February 1978, someone set off plastic explosives on the pipeline at Steel Creek near Fairbanks, spilling 16,000 barrels of oil. Authorities never made an arrest in the case.

In 1977, a dynamite explosion buckled but did not break the pipe.

In 1999, a Vancouver man was charged in a plot to blow up the pipeline in an attempt to drive up oil prices and reap a profit on oil futures.

But the incident is the first time a gunshot penetrated the half-inch steel on the pipeline. State hunting regulations prohibit the use of firearms within five miles of the pipeline. But Woolston said that bullets, possibly from stray rounds or even intentional shootings, have scarred the pipe dozens of times since it opened in 1977.

Most hunting rifles would not be capable of penetrating the pipeline, said Bob Shem, firearms examiner at the state crime lab. Most hunting in the Livengood area, including for moose, is closed.

But if fired at close range, a high-powered rifle such as those used for moose or bear hunting could penetrate the pipe, he said.

"It seems extremely unlikely you’d be able to perforate that with a handgun," he said.

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), October 05, 2001


Ya gotta love those drunk hunters. I hope he has to pay every penny of the repair bill. I hope he has to forfeit his hunting licenses. That's just what the tundra needs is a nice pool of oil that will sit there for decades.

-- Guy Daley (guydaley1@netzero.net), October 05, 2001.

Anybody can take down the Alaskan Pipeline with a hunting rifle?

-- Ken (n4wind@sonic.net), October 05, 2001.

The good news is, heightened security due to terrorism probably resulted in earlier detection and remediation.

The bad news is, this demonstrates how incredibly HYPERVULNERABLE the infrastructure that human civilization depends upon is. This was the main lesson from Y2K, even though that particular "bullet" barely grazed the Technological Tower of Babel.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), October 05, 2001.

Livengood is only about fifty miles north of Fairbanks, well south of the Brooks Range and the tundra. Remember, Alaska is a big state. The Pipeline runs from Valdez, which is basically temperate rain forest and very wet, north through three mountain ranges and a lot of very varied terrain before it gets to the North Slope and the tundra. A big spill still isn't good, of course.

And another report I saw mentioned that the pipeline has been shot at probably fifty times before, but never penetrated by a bullet until this time.

-- Kathleen Sanderson (stonycft@worldpath.net), October 06, 2001.

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