Pipeline pierced by bullet

Hole causes line's biggest spill

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

ANCHORAGE - Spill cleanup continued near a damaged section of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline today, a day after a bullet pierced the line, causing the worst spill in the pipeline's history.

Tim Woolston, spokesman for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., said oil continued to pour out at a "high rate" today as repair plans were being worked out. Woolston said Alyeska planned to install a large hydraulic clamp this afternoon to attempt to stop the leak.

Brad Hahn with the state Department of Environmental Conservation said this morning that oil was flowing from the leak at an average of 140 gallons a minute. That rate would put the spill at more than 150,000 gallons. By this calculation, it is the worst spill from the 24-year-old pipeline.

Hahn said the cleanup began Thursday evening and involved digging ditches and deep holes to capture the oil, which was being vacuumed into trucks and transferred to storage tanks.

"Our priority is that no oil migrates from the site to the Tolovana River a mile away," Hahn said.

A suspect was arrested about four hours after the leak was discovered Thursday afternoon.

Alaska State Troopers arrested Daniel Carson Lewis, 37, without incident at a residence at about 6:30 p.m. Lewis lived on the Elliott Highway, about a mile from the pipeline, in the small community of Livengood, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records.

"He's been charged with criminal mischief in the first degree and he's been transported to Fairbanks Correctional Center," trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. Troopers had no information on a possible motive, Wilkinson said.

"We do know that alcohol was a factor," said trooper spokesman Tim DeSpain. "It does not appear to be an act of terrorism."

In the past, Lewis has been charged with weapons violations and assaults, thefts, burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts, as well as drunken driving and making a false statement, according to troopers.

Trooper Sgt. Ron Wall said troopers were meeting with district attorneys today to determine if Lewis will face more charges in connection with the shooting.

The pipeline was shut down at about 3 p.m. Thursday after a surveillance helicopter spotted an oil spill about 75 miles north of Fairbanks. The shooting occurred at about 2:30 p.m., Woolston said.

Woolston said the security officers in the helicopter landed and spoke with a man at the scene, who was later identified as Lewis' brother. While Lewis fled the scene, his brother remained. Troopers did not release the name of Lewis' brother.

"That's pretty much how we knew what had happened," Woolston said.

The company was able to detect a loss of pressure in the line from its Valdez operations control center. Gate valves halted the flow of oil down the line, but oil remained under high pressure in the section of the line pierced by the bullet.

Because the suspect remained at large for more than three hours, Alyeska was unable to send cleanup crews into the area. Woolston said oil under high pressure was spewing 75 feet across an access road and into tundra and brush.

By 7:30 p.m. crews were able to get into the area. Their first priority was draining the pressure in the pipe so that the leak could be plugged. Cleanup operations began after that.

Alyeska has stepped up surveillance along the line in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The incident Thursday highlights the difficulty of protecting the 800-mile line, much of which runs through remote wilderness.

"If somebody wants to go to great lengths to damage that pipeline, they can," Woolston said. "It's important to understand that it's 800 miles long and it's a monumental task to protect every inch of that pipeline 24 hours a day."

Oil producers on the North Slope were asked to reduce their production by 5 percent during the shutdown.

The 48-inch pipe is protected by an outer layer of galvanized steel and nearly 4 inches of insulation. The steel wall of the pipe is about a half-inch thick.

Indentations from bullets have been found in the line over the years. Woolston said people have shot at the pipeline in more than 50 incidents, but never caused enough damage to produce a spill.

An act of sabotage on the pipeline in 1978 resulted in a spill of 16,000 barrels of oil. A hole was blasted in the line with explosives at Steele Creek, near Fairbanks. No one was ever arrested in connection with that attack.

The pipeline carries about 1 million barrels of oil a day, or 17 percent of domestic oil production.

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