Valdez Spill Anniversary

Oil tankers better built; pipeline is now at risk

Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Friday marks 17 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound and caused the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

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The 11 million gallons of crude oil that oozed from the grounded tanker created a destructive slick that moved across 470 miles of shoreline to the Alaska Peninsula, killing unknown quantities of flora and fauna and causing damage that is still felt today 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 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."

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 this month's North Slope leak, the second-largest spill in Alaska history.

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

Transit lines generally have not been subjected to regulations as rigorous as the 800-mile line, though state regulatory officials say that could change because of the spill. 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.

It 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.

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

The main pipeline will be 30 years old in 2007 and oil industry and state officials figure it will be needed for another 30 years of life. Alyeska has an annual budget of $350,000 for operations and maintenance, said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for Alyeska.

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