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ANCHORAGE - For five days or more, crude oil oozed from a pipeline through a corrosion hole about the size of a pencil eraser, silently spreading underneath the snow in what would become the biggest spill ever on Alaska's North Slope.
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Ultimately it wasn't the pipeline's leak-detection systems that discovered the spill.
It was an oilfield worker who caught a whiff of the petroleum.
Industry watchdogs say the spill was absolutely preventable and should have been detected more promptly, and they blame cost-pinching practices at BP, which runs the Prudhoe Bay operation. BP has defended its maintenance spending and inspection practices.
Nevertheless, 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 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also is investigating and this week ordered BP to inspect the affected pipeline and two other transit lines, making any necessary repairs. The company also must submit a corrosion management plan to the Department of Transportation agency, which has final say on when production of the line can resume.
"The intention is to give us confidence to ensure public safety and protection to the environment," spokesman James Wiggins said Friday. "That's our main deal. Until we have that confidence, the line will not be restarted."
Up to 267,000 gallons are believed to have spilled onto the frozen ground from a 34-inch-diameter pipeline situated in the tundra about 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. The arctic-grade carbon-steel pipe, which leads eventually to the trans-Alaska pipeline, lies above ground but is covered by a layer of gravel, as well as the snow.
Former state oil analyst Richard Fineberg, author of a report issued Thursday on the spill by the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, said BP knew there was a corrosion problem with the 30-year-old pipeline but was not conducting frequent enough inspections. BP also steadfastly refused to install a more accurate leak-detection system, he charged.
"How can you possibly not have the best available technology in the largest oil field in the U.S., in view of the fact that aging pipes have been a problem for years and years and years?" he said. "If you had a state-of-the-art leak detection system, you probably would have known about a spill on first day."
BP officials said they have an aggressive maintenance program, with a corrosion inspection budget for the North Slope this year of $71 million, up from $50 million spent in 2004.
"Our intention is to be operating in Alaska for another 50 years," said company spokesman Daren Beaudo. "Part of that requires renewed investments in our facilities and pipelines."
Also, company officials said that after an inspection last fall revealed corrosion, they stepped up their inspection schedule, and had been planning a follow-up look this month. They said they were stunned that the corrosion ate all the way through the line so quickly.
As for why the leak was not discovered sooner, BP said the leak may have simply been too small to register. The pipeline's leak-monitoring equipment, installed in 2002, is designed to detect a 1 percent drop in the oil flow over a 24-hour period, BP said.
Beaudo said the age of the pipe is not believed to be a factor. Instead, he said, the accident may be related to the fact the pipeline is increasingly carrying viscous oil, a hard-to-pump heavy crude being tapped as the oil field is drawn down.
Viscous oil carries more sediments and water, and the separation chemicals used on viscous oil may interfere with corrosion-inhibiting additives that are put in the pipeline, Beaudo said.
"Viscous is a challenge to get out of the ground and it's harder to separate. That's presented new challenges," he said.
The spill - which was eventually was discovered March 2 by an oilfield worker who smelled it - covers an area smaller than two football fields in a vast industrial hub traversed by pipelines, oil gathering stations and power plants.
Given the size of the spill, officials believe the crude was pushing out of the quarter-inch hole for at least five days. About 63,500 gallons - or 1,513 barrels - of crude have been recovered, with work slowed in the past week by punishing arctic conditions that, with wind child, plunged temperatures to the equivalent of 70 degrees below zero.
At the same time, the extreme cold thickens the crude, making it easier to scoop up and less capable of seeping into the ground.
Ed Meggert of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said he expects little permanent damage. "There could be a spot here and there that doesn't recover," he said. "But with revegetation it should look quite a bit like it used to by the end of summer."
Among the crews responding to the spill are Eskimos from North Slope villages who live off the land and consider themselves caretakers of the wilderness. North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta, an Eskimo hunter and whaling captain, is urging state regulators to require better leak-detection equipment.
"It's fortunate this did not happen in a river or fish-producing lake and fortunate it happened where it did," Itta said.