ANCHORAGE — A federal judge is deciding whether oil giant BP deserves new penalties for a spill at a production center on the North Slope in November 2009.
The case argued in federal court is now before U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.
Federal prosecutors who are seeking new penalties for BP. The hearing has been focused on a spill of more than 15,200 gallons of crude at the Lisburne oil field. The spill occurred at a time when BP was on probation for a much bigger spill at Prudhoe Bay in 2007. The company was under orders not to commit any new environmental crimes. BP argues that the spill was not foreseeable and then was cleaned up quickly.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward said in her closing argument Wednesday that 10 times in the summer and fall of 2009 a temperature sensor on the Lisburne pipeline triggered a cold alarm that sounded like a train whistle and flashed on a control room monitor. But operators at the production center failed to act on the alarm beyond acknowledging it, which turned off the sound and blinking signal, she said.
By August, the pipeline stayed cold, according to a government analysis of the alarms.
“After that point, the alarm latched in and became buried on the board,” Steward said. A buried alarm is so deep on the alarm list, operators no longer see it.
As temperatures dropped into the fall, ice plugs formed in the pipe, which carried a mix of natural gas, water and crude. When the ice expanded, excess pressure built from the gas and the thick metal pipe blew open with a two-foot hole.
“From operators all the way up to the area manager, it was agreed that had the plug been discovered prior to the freezing temperatures, it would not have been a problem and much easier to address,” Steward said.
BP operators testified that they didn’t use the cold temperature alarms to warn that the pipeline was improperly cooling down, but rather to indicate a slug of natural gas moving through, information that would be conveyed to the drill site.
The operators did nothing wrong by simply acknowledging an alarm intended to be informational and not warning of something critical, BP lawyer Jeff Feldman said.
Feldman said the prosecution’s case was thin. The two main witnesses against BP were an expert who had never been to the North Slope and a special agent with the Environmental Protection Agency who focused on BP’s own investigation of the spill, he said.
“The government gave us no one who had, I will submit, a credible understanding of the plant, the lines and the operations that were at issue, or most significantly, the industry practices that define the standard of conduct that applies here,” Feldman said.
Steward noted that BP’s investigation concluded that the failure of operators to recognize and respond to the alarms was a root cause of the spill.
She said that BP failed to apply lessons learned in 2001, when a pipe froze and cracked open, resulting in spilling of 10,000 gallons of oil and methanol. The spill occurred during an ill-fated attempt to thaw the line.
BP didn’t even believe it was possible for the Lisburne line to freeze and rupture, according to a required safety analysis of the Lisburne center before the spill. Never before had a large diameter pipeline like the 18-inch Lisburne line frozen and ruptured, BP says.
Troubles were masked because the line was paired with a bigger pipeline that still carried oil, natural gas and water to the processing center, witnesses testified. The temperature sensor also was positioned on a piece of the pipeline inside the heated module, so the cold alarms didn’t reflect just how cold the pipeline really was.
After the 2001 spill, all of the temperature sensors for looped lines that weren’t already outside were moved out of their heated modules — except for the ones at Lisburne, Steward said.
In 2007, BP pleaded to a federal misdemeanor for a 200,000 gallon spill in 2006 when a severely corroded pipeline at Prudhoe Bay leaked. BP was put on three years of probation and had to pay $20 million in fines and penalties plus $25 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the federal government.
A separate state lawsuit is set for trial in the spring.
After the 2009 spill, BP’s misdemeanor probation was extended.
Feldman argued the extra year on probation already served was enough. But if Beistline finds BP in violation of that probation, prosecutors want more fines and another term of probation.
Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com