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The Politics of Alaskan Oil Spills Rockin' the Pipeline

Rockin’ the Pipeline

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

This is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new environmental history, Born Under a Bad Sky, now available from AK Press / CounterPunch Books.

It was the biggest quake to hit North America this century, a 7.9 jolt centered beneath the tundra about eighty miles south of Fairbanks that tickled seismographs all the way to New Orleans.

The trembler, on November 4, 2002, opened zigzag fissures in the earth, mangled roads, crushed a few remote cabins, triggered landslides, and cracked concrete from Fairbanks to Anchorage.

The Denali Fault appears to be awakening from a relatively long slumber. The fault, which curves through the Canadian Yukon through the Alaska Range past Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, is the longest in the US where plates move horizontally, with land to the north slipping east and land to the south sliding west. It’s a violent mix.

Two weeks before the big shake, a 6.7 quake rocked an area just south of the epicenter of the latest quake. “They’re a very interesting pair of earthquakes,” said Roger Hansen, a seismologist at the Earthquake Information Center in Fairbanks. “One began and unzipped in one direction, and the second just unzipped the fault in the other.” For more than a month, hundreds of aftershocks continued to pulse across Alaska, some as powerful as 5.7.

Still, for all the rumbling, only one person was injured, a seventy-six-year-old woman from Mentasa Lake who broke her arm when she fell down the stairs of her home.

But the Denali quake did shake the foundations of the TransAlaska Pipeline. The pipeline, which carries about a million barrels of oil a day, was shut down hours after the quake and remained closed for days.

In its 800-mile trek from the belching ruin of Prudhoe Bay to the tanker ship terminals of Valdez, the pipeline crosses eighty rivers and streams, three mountain ranges, and it dips under coves, ponds, and marshes. The oil courses through the line at 140 degrees. A rupture would spill steaming crude oil onto some of the most ecologically frail lands in the world, and by comparison, make the Exxon Valdez spill seem like an oil stain on a driveway.

The pipeline is managed by the Alyeska Corporation, a consortium of the oil companies that exploit the reserves of the North Slope: BP, Phillips Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Williams, Unocal and Amerada Hess. For the past twenty-five years, Alyeska’s flacks have maintained that the pipeline is invulnerable to natural disasters.

But hours after the quake throttled the Alaskan interior, reports came that several of the H-shaped brackets that hold the forty-eight-inch pipeline off the ground had buckled and broken. Engineers have identified ten severely damaged supports, including two consecutive ones near the point where the pipeline crosses the Denali Fault.

The foulest fantasies of Dick Cheney and his cohorts to extract the rest of the North Slope’s reserves may well rest on those frail and battered supports. Oil production at Prudhoe Bay is declining. Thus the oil companies are anxious to extend their domain west into the National Petroleum reserve, east into Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and north into the Beaufort Sea. All of that oil would have to be sluiced down the pipeline to Valdez.

One of the biggest questions concerns the valves in the underground sections of the pipeline, long considered the most likely point for a catastrophic breach during a quake. Aleyska says it sent “sniffer probes” down tubes to check the valves. But most engineers say those probes are of limited value.

There was enormous pressure from the oil companies to get the pipeline back in operation. Quickly. It’s estimated that more than $25 million worth of crude flows through the pipeline every day.

With this much at stake, no one could count on Alyeska to tell the truth about the damage to the pipeline. This is a company with a history of lies, known to abuse employees who have tried to tell the truth about problems with the pipeline in the past.

Richard Acord was a safety inspector on the pipeline. Back in 1991, he witnessed what has become a fairly typical occurrence. At Milepost 113.6, the pipeline dips below ground for one of twenty-five animal crossings, allowing caribou and other migrating animals to cross the pipeline corridor. A giant drilling rig, weighing more than 60,000 pounds, tried to cross over the buried line on wooden planks, slid off and sunk in the mud directly above the pipeline. The truck’s oil line broke, spilling diesel fuel onto the tundra. Acord tried to issue a stop-work order to ensure that the pipeline itself had not been damaged in the accident and to develop a plan to extract the rig without further damage to fouled tundra. The drilling crew’s supervisor chastised Acord and told him that he would either play ball or “they would find someone who would.”

“We had oil running down the tundra,” Acord stated in a deposition about the event. “We had a rig stuck across the pipeline, indeterminate material in the ground. All of those constitute a bad situation.” After going public, Acord was fired.

Acord was not alone. In 1994, four other safety inspectors settled a whistleblower lawsuit with Alyeska, claiming, among other things, that the pipeline company blacklisted them from other jobs in the oil industry after they raised complaints about worker safety and environmental practices.

Take the case of Charles Hammel. Back in the late 1980s, pipeline workers and inspectors began feeding Hammel information about problems with the pipeline and with Alyeska’s reckless cost-cutting and mismanagement. Hammel, an independent oil broker, took these concerns to congress and Alyeska was forced to spend millions of dollars to repair corrosion along the line.

The company, and the oil corporations behind it, didn’t like this one bit, so they went after Hammel with a vengeance. In 1990, they hired the Wackenhut Corporation to dig up dirt on Hammel. They rummaged through his trash, ran credit reports on him, set up a fake enviro group to trick him into giving them information, and even hired a prostitute to try to seduce him. Hammel sued the company for invasion of privacy and won a $5 million settlement.

But that didn’t stop Alyeska. When whistleblowers raised concerns to management or went public, they were fired. After one inspector got subpoenaed to testify before congress, his manager told him that he’d “break his fucking arm” if he said anything to damage the company.

When auditors from the BLM and other outfits began to look at Alyeska’s books, the company’s managers were caught “file stuffing”—adding post-dated documents to make the thin records look more robust. When one employee refused to go along, his manager threatened to fire him on the spot. In fact, Alyeska was so brazen in its intimidation tactics that it even spied on California Congressman George Miller, then chairman of the House Interior Committee.

Alyeska has plenty to cover up. A series of audits since 1990 have disclosed thousands of code violations. The company’s maps don’t accurately depict the location of the pipeline. In one instance, Alyeska’s maps showed the pipeline being more than a mile away from its real location.

The fact is, the pipeline already leaks and has since nearly the beginning. The leaks are getting worse and more frequent as the pipeline ages. Between 1979 and 1993, the pipeline averaged about two shutdown incidents a year. Since then, the rate has increased to more than eight per year. In 2001, a twenty-one-inch shift in a section of pipeline at Atigun Pass went undetected by Alyeska for several months. This is oil spillage as normalcy.

As the problems get worse, Alyeska becomes more and more stingy, cutting costs at every turn. Since 1998, the company has cut manned stations along the pipeline from eleven down to four. That lack of oversight led to oil spraying undetected from the pipeline for more than thirty-six hours after a couple of drunks shot holes into it—also showing terrorists how easy it could be to turn the Alaskan tundra into a frozen facsimile of the Kuwaiti oil fields following Saddam’s retreat.

None of this fazed the Bush administration, which moved swiftly to reauthorize the pipeline for thirty more years of service.

“You can’t help but think about your physical safety when you are costing somebody $500 million,” said one Alyeska whistleblower. “The theory is that they will use the equipment until the line is destroyed. When you step back and look at the big picture, God, it stinks.”

Of course, one more twitch from the uneasy depths of Denali could bring it all crashing down.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net