Alaska Digest

Posted: Monday, August 27, 2007

Critic: Oil pipeline update has problems

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ANCHORAGE - An oil industry critic in a letter told members of Congress that a project to modernize the trans-Alaska oil pipeline is plagued with problems.

Chuck Hamel in a letter told the Energy and Commerce Committee that problems with the 30-year-old pipeline include shutdown caused by lightning, possible bad welds and dangerous vibrations.

Hamel claimed in the letter that Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the consortium that runs the line, on Aug. 14 tested new backup power generators vital for keeping oil moving through the pipeline, but the tests were "a total failure."

Hamel wrote the letter last week to U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

The situation is so bad it places the major stream of oil destined for the West Coast at risk, he wrote.

An Alyeska spokesman, as well as a top pipeline regulator, acknowledged Thursday that the pipeline modernization effort has problems. But they said they don't believe either the pipeline or the flow of oil is in jeopardy.

"There's some issues, but they're being worked," said Jerry Brossia, the top federal official in the Joint Pipeline Office, which regulates the line.

Alyeska has been working since 2004 to overhaul and automate four main pump stations along the 800-mile pipeline. The goal is to reduce staff and costs as production declines from Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope oil fields.

The two-year, $250 million project, is now costing more than $400 million.

So far, only Pump Station 9 just south of Delta Junction has been converted to run on electricity from a Fairbanks utility, with a goal of retiring the station's onsite power turbines.

Hamel, who lives near Washington, D.C., said in an interview Thursday he gathered his information from Alyeska workers. Problems include a lightning strike this summer that knocked out power to Pump Station 9. Backup generators then failed to come on automatically.

Eielson squadron gets new name, mission

FAIRBANKS - The 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base has a new name, a new leader and a new mission.

At a ceremony Friday, the 18th Fighter Squadron, part of the 354th Fighter Wing, became the 18th Aggressor Squadron. Along with the name change comes a change in focus for the squadron and a shift in Eielson's role in the larger scheme of the Air Force.

The sole mission of the F-16s assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron will now be to serve as the "bad guys" in Air Force training exercises such as Red Flag-Alaska.

"It's not about winning any more for us," Lt. Col. Patrick Welch, the squadron's new commander, said. "We're out there to prepare and train the rest of the combat forces, so they are prepared for real combat in whatever theaters, whatever conflicts they might be in."

The squadron's pilots will all be specially trained in enemy tactics, Welch said.

The squadron will be swapping out its 18 F-16s with similar jets from a unit in Korea. The new F-16s will not be combat-coded, according to Col. Mark Moore, commander of the 354th Operations Group of the 354th Fighter Wing.

"We don't have to maintain some of the subsystems since they're not meant for combat," Moore said, giving as an example the fact that these jets, while at Eielson, will not be equipped to drop bombs like other F-16s."

The change in jets won't be the only change for Eielson, which this last month saw the last of its A-10s leave for other assignments. Now that the base doesn't have any combat-ready jets, Eielson's main focus will be hosting training exercises like Red Flag-Alaska.

"It's a shift, but it's not a huge transition," Moore said.

Mother awarded $1.8 million in son's death

ANCHORAGE - The North Slope Borough was negligent and must pay a Barrow woman nearly $1.8 million following her son's death in 2005, when he drove his snowmachine into an ice hole on a lagoon and drowned, a jury decided this month.

The jury determined the borough was responsible for the death of Alfred Brower, 18, who drove into the hole that the borough annually drilled to get water from Middle Lagoon in Barrow.

Brower's mother, Isabel Brower, claimed the hole was not marked and Alfred couldn't see it through the heavy ice fog that was in the area the night of his death.

"It was basically a death trap because they put a berm around this 20-foot hole," said Brower's attorney, David Henderson. "There was evidence that he struggled to get out."

Chief Administrative Officer Harold Curran said the borough is reviewing its options before deciding to appeal the award, which he said seems high.

"I'm not sure that it fully complies with the law," he said. "There are certain caps on damages in Alaska law, and this may exceed those caps."

Curran said he didn't know whether the hole had warnings posted in 2005, and he said he wasn't going to speculate on any of the factual findings the jury made.

The borough denied the hole was unmarked during the trial, Henderson said, but the jury still found it legally responsible after the seven-day trial and awarded damages to Isabel Brower for pain and suffering and the fact that she relied upon her son for financial support.

Henderson said video taken as Alfred Brower's body was recovered didn't show any signs that cones, barriers or other markings were in place at the hole, which was located in a high-traffic area on the lagoon.

"The evidence was pretty clear that they didn't mark the hole until after the guy died," Henderson said.

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