Lack of awareness factor in shutdown

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2010

JUNEAU - The operator of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline system said Wednesday that an internal company review found that power failure and lack of "situational awareness" contributed to a contained oil spill in May.

Michelle Egan, a spokeswoman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., said the company isn't releasing the report, wanting to ensure worker privacy and a candid flow of communication. The report, she said, is intended to be an internal working document, to help identify any shortcomings or areas in which the company can improve.

Egan said that lessons learned, including a need for greater situational awareness, are being put into practice during scheduled maintenance shutdowns of the line this summer. One such shutdown is planned this weekend.

In late May, the line was idled for nearly 80 hours, after Alyeska said a power failure during a planned shutdown caused normally closed valves to open, leading to an overflow of oil from a storage tank to a containment area. The line carries oil from Alaska's North Slope to Valdez, where tankers pick it up for transfer to refineries; the shutdown was believed to have been the longest in at least a decade.

Estimates of the oil spill ranged from about 4,500 barrels to around 5,000 barrels.

Egan said the review deemed the power failure the "number one root cause." But she said another big issue was that workers were so focused on restoring power, they "didn't have the situational awareness to anticipate the tank filling and overflowing."

With power down, the operations center in Anchorage couldn't see what was happening at the affected pump station - and provide a needed backup to workers focused on restoring power, she said.

The company has taken steps to avoid a repeat in the future, she said, making workers aware of the need to be cognizant of their surroundings - and possible, or likely, situations that may arise - and having plans for specific training. The lessons are already being put into practice, she said.

During the first scheduled maintenance shutdown of the summer season, she said, there was an extra person in the control room whose sole purpose was to monitor the entire system - staying out of the maintenance work at hand to be aware of what else might be going on.

Alyeska has strongly defended its safety record, as its management has come under scrutiny. Recently U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, cited an internal report that he said found widespread employee dissatisfaction with the pipeline's operation and raised serious concerns with the management culture at Alyeska.

Communication is something Alyeska has said it's working to improve.

BP Pipelines (Alaska) is the largest single owner of the line; other owners include ConocoPhillips Transportation Alaska Inc., Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co., Unocal Pipeline Co. Inc. and Koch Alaska Pipeline Co. LLC. The line is independent of BP.

Betty Schorr, industry preparedness program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said a state review of Alyeska's oil spill contingency plan found the plan was properly adhered to and that the secondary containment, to which the oil spilled, "worked appropriately, which was great."

She said her office works with Alyeska daily and nothing's been brought to her attention that causes her alarm.

"If there had been anything of imminent concern, it would have been brought to my attention," she said. "At this point, we always are trying to be vigilant in our oversight, but I don't have anything in particular that I'm concerned with right now."

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