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PRUDHOE BAY - Heavily bundled crews braved merciless cold Monday to continue cleaning up the largest crude oil spill ever on Alaska's North Slope.
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Cleaning up the spill estimated at up to 267,000 gallons in the Prudhoe Bay oil field has been slow going because workers are having to take frequent breaks to protect themselves against extreme conditions. As of Monday, about 60,000 gallons - or 1,428 barrels - of crude had been recovered since the leak from a ruptured transit line was discovered March 2 by an operator with oil giant BP's Alaska subsidiary.
"There's still a lot of work to be done under very trying conditions," said Dan Larson, a BP spokesman visiting the site Monday.
In recent days, temperatures here plunged to 70 degrees below zero with the wind chill, barely warming to 44 below on Monday.
Crews in arctic gear vacuumed molasses-colored oil that has pooled in some places, using small front-end loaders to carry fresh snow to other spots to absorb the crude. They used dump trucks to transfer the contaminated snow to a concrete pad for melting and separating.
Ultimately the oil will be treated and sent to market, according to BP officials.
Spill responders at the site said the work was going as well as expected, considering the harsh environment, where winds can churn the snow into a blind frenzy and workers can become dehydrated in the arctic desert conditions. The goal is to collect at least 90 percent of the spilled crude.
"Hopefully, the tundra will recover," said Ed Meggert with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "It's never going to be perfect."
Officials emphasize the Prudhoe spill bears a relatively small imprint, taking up a size smaller than two football fields in a vast industrial hub traversed by a network of pipelines, oil gathering stations and power plants. And despite the numbing weather, winter conditions are actually helping recovery, turning oil thick as honey, so it doesn't spread as quickly as it would in warmer temperatures.
"But the downsize is, it's friggin' cold," Larson said.
The spill is dwarfed by the 11-million gallon spill when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989. But the Prudhoe Bay spill far surpasses the previous North Slope record of 38,000 gallons set in 2001.
BP officials and state regulators said the crude leaked from a quarter-inch hole apparently caused by internal corrosion in the transit line. The 34-inch diameter line leads to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline on remote wind-scraped flatlands in Alaska's north coast near the Beaufort Sea.
Workers on Saturday repaired the rupture, welding a metal sleeve on a six-foot section of the three-mile transit line.
The plant, 650 miles north of Anchorage, usually processes 100,000 barrels of oil daily - slightly less than 10 percent of the daily flow through the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline. Full production is not expected to resume for a week or more, said BP incident commander James Fausett.
For now, a six-inch pipeline is being used for production of 5,000 barrels daily. BP also is looking at an optional plan to reroute the crude through another pipeline.
Critics have said the massive spill is the latest result of the oil industry's failure to properly maintain the North Slope's aging infrastructure.
The pipeline is equipped with a leak detection system, but officials do not know when the crude began trickling out of the line. The rupture occurred inside pipe insulation in a low-lying section constructed to let caribou pass.
BP will investigate whether the detection system installed in 2003 was working at the time of the leak, Fausett said.
Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the company will end up paying a fine mandated by state law for a crude spill larger than 18,000 gallons.
The fine is derived by subtracting the amount collected in the first 36 hours, in this case, slightly more than 21,000 gallons. Under that calculation, the cost to BP would be close to $2 million if the estimate of spilled oil is 267,000 gallons.