State eyes highway restrictions

Checkpoints or closing the road are among the options for tightening security along the oil pipeline

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

ANCHORAGE - State officials are considering restricting traffic on the Dalton Highway through the Alaska interior to protect the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and North Slope oil facilities from terrorist attacks.

The options range from closing the road to the public to putting up checkpoints along the highway, said Del Smith, deputy commissioner of public safety and a member of a task force evaluating state security issues.

"No final decision has been made," Smith said. "We have to look at the legalities."

The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the 800-mile pipeline, favors some type of traffic restriction on the highway, also known as the haul road.

"We've suggested to the state that one way to help secure the pipeline and the North Slope oil fields would be to provide some degree of control. It's up to the state to determine what that might be," said Bill Howitt, Alyeska's senior vice president in Fairbanks.

The need for additional protection for the pipeline was driven home last week when a man fired a .338-caliber bullet into the line, causing a 285,600-gallon oil spill. The suspect, Daniel Carson Lewis, is being held on $1.5 million bail.

The 414-mile-long Dalton Highway was built in 1974 to serve the North Slope oil industry. It runs parallel to the pipeline, crossing the Yukon River, climbing over the Brooks Range and passing through the broad flat plain of the North Slope. It has been used mainly by commercial rigs carrying supplies to Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

Before 1994, traffic on the road was restricted during most of the year to vehicles supplying the oil fields. But in 1994, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the highway should be opened to the public. The court said the road was intended as a public highway, based on a federal right-of-way obtained in 1974.

The number of travelers adventurous enough to tackle the rutted gravel road has remained relatively small. An average of 246 vehicles per day used the haul road last year, the state said.

The use of firearms within five miles of either side of the pipeline is prohibited, making the road popular with bowhunters in search of moose, caribou, grizzly bears, grouse and ptarmigan.

"Bowhunters really appreciate the opportunity to hunt in a place where firearms aren't allowed," said Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

It's unlikely highway restrictions would have made a difference in this latest case of pipeline vandalism. Lewis lived a few miles from the line and Alaska State Troopers say he used an all-terrain vehicle to reach a pipeline access road.

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