State slams BP for 2008 explosion

Anchorage Daily News
February 25, 2009

CORROSION: Rupture of gas line hurled dangerous chunks of pipe.
Published: February 24th, 2009 10:27 PM
Last Modified: February 24th, 2009 10:45 PM

Photos: The Prudhoe Bay pipeline explosion

A new state report is sharply critical of BP for neglecting a natural gas pipeline that ruptured last fall in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, hurling big hunks of mangled steel pipe across the tundra.

“All parties agree this was a very serious incident — had the high pressure gas pipeline failure occurred under slightly different circumstances, the results would have been catastrophic, potentially with loss of life,” the report says.

No one was injured, but photographs show the violence with which the pipe blew apart on Sept. 29 near a Prudhoe drill site called Y Pad.

When the above-ground pipe burst, releasing pressurized gas, the broken ends of the line — about 9 inches in diameter — whipped around like a garden hose going full-bore.

One end wrapped itself around a metal post.

Pieces of pipe went sailing onto the open tundra, plowing up ground when they landed.

Twelve workers were tending nearby wells and other equipment at the time. One of them, the well pad operator, “heard a loud gas release and felt a vibration,” a BP document says.

But no one was close enough to be hit with the flying metal, and the workers were able to complete an emergency equipment shutdown.

The rupture was the result of what has become a painfully persistent problem for BP — corrosion that can eat holes in Prudhoe Bay’s vast and aging pipeline network.

The company’s corrosion crisis began in 2006 when a leaky pipe let loose the North Slope’s largest oil spill ever, more than 200,000 gallons.

The spill drew rebukes from Congress and regulators, and ultimately BP Alaska pleaded guilty to a federal pollution misdemeanor. A judge put the company on probation for three years and imposed $20 million in penalties.

BP executives acknowledged lapses in pipeline maintenance, and the company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to replace miles of bad pipelines and improve upkeep.

Yet corrosion-related accidents continue. Last week, nearly 2,000 gallons of water and oil was found to have leaked from a corroded pipe on Prudhoe’s east side. A cleanup is under way.

A new watchdog agency created in the wake of the 2006 spill, the state Petroleum Systems Integrity Office, began an investigation after last fall’s gas line rupture.

In a three-page “status report” released Friday, agency coordinator Allison Iversen notes the extreme safety hazard the rupture posed, and also raises questions about BP’s pipeline inspections.

The corrosion, and the rupture, occurred at a point along the Y Pad pipe where a piece of insulation was peeled off in 1998 so workers could look at some welds. The insulation never was replaced, allowing corrosion-causing moisture to get at the steel for 10 years.

Although the pipeline was examined for corrosion in 2003, the place with the missing insulation was passed over because it was buried under a snow drift at the time, the agency report says.

BP lacked procedures for replacing insulation on pipes, and for flagging and revisiting lines where scheduled inspections were missed due to snow cover or some other reason, Iversen wrote.

Among her other criticisms:

• It’s not clear whether a list of “corrective actions” are assigned to managers at a high enough level at BP to assure the fixes are carried out.

• BP took too long to complete a “root cause investigation” into the pipeline rupture.

Iversen’s agency has no authority to impose fines or other penalties. Rather, its job is to monitor the condition of Alaska’s critical oil and gas systems, which on the North Slope date to the 1970s.

In a Dec. 4 letter to Iversen, BP senior vice president Tony Brock said the company knew of two similar incidents of pipelines coming apart due to corrosion, one in 1986 and the other in 1999.

BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said his company began an immediate investigation into the pipeline rupture, and has kept regulators informed.

One of the first actions, he said, was to check other high-pressure gas lines similar to the one that burst.

Workers visited all 71 spots where insulation had been removed, and all were up to date on inspections, Rinehart said. But not all have been reinsulated.

“That’s a big piece of work, for which we are drawing up plans,” he said.

Rinehart acknowledged BP lacked “a formal to-do list” for revisiting pipe locations where inspections were skipped due to snow cover. That’s been corrected, he said.

He also acknowledged the pipeline rupture could have injured or killed workers.

“We acknowledged at the very beginning that that could have been a much more serious event,” Rinehart said. “And we have responded to it as a serious event.”

BP runs Prudhoe on behalf of itself and the other owners: Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Find Wesley Loy online at or call 257-4590.

~ by fredfelleman on February 25, 2009.

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