After two serious oil spills and other mishaps at the remote site, the BP employees fingered a long list of safety issues that have not been adequately addressed, making the Prudhoe Bay oilfield vulnerable to a devastating accident that potentially could rival the havoc in the Gulf.

“The condition of the [Prudhoe Bay] field is a lot worse and in my opinion a lot more dangerous,” said Marc Kovac, who has worked for BP on Alaska’s North Slope for more than three decades. “We still have hundreds of miles of rotting pipe ready to break that needs to be replaced. We are totally unprepared for a large spill.”

Kovac, a mechanic and welder who is the steward of the United Steelworkers union local 4959, said a lot of employees share his feelings, but “don't want to risk their jobs for speaking out.” Kovac said he was willing to take the risk because BP has been slow to deal with the Prudhoe Bay problems and that “many lives are at stake.”

Some of the employees, speaking anonymously, said BP follows an “operate to failure” attitude. Kovac said that means BP Alaska avoids spending money on “upkeep” and instead runs the equipment until it breaks down.

Typical of this problem, the employees said, was an oil spill that was discovered on Nov. 29, 2009, when a BP Alaska employee performing a routine check discovered oil pouring out from a two-foot long gash on the bottom of a 25-year-old pipeline at BP’s Lisburne facility.

“The spill was from an 18-inch three-phase common line carrying a mixture of crude oil, produced water, and natural gas,” according to an incident report from the Alaska Department of Environment and Conservation’s (ADEC) Division of Spill and Response.

BP Alaska’s “preliminary estimate for the total volume of oily material released is 45,828 gallons (1,091 barrels),” the report said.

The circumstances behind the spill are now the subject of a criminal and civil investigation by the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency and Alaska state authorities. BP blamed the rupture on ice plugs that built up inside the pipeline, which caused increased pressure and finally the rupture.

In a Jan. 27 letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, BP Alaska President John Minge said the “overpressure rupture” was the result of looping the 18-inch pipeline with a 24-inch one as a way of minimizing “backpressure in the individual pipelines.”

“The two critical factors that led to the overpressure rupture of the pipeline were this looped configuration in combination with inadequate temperature monitoring locations” that were “physically located on the pipelines” inside the production facility “and not outside,” according to Minge’s letter to Murkowski.

Criticism of BP

A person who works closely with BP and reviewed the letter said it “presents the specific facts of the event,” but does not contain the necessary context.

“When he indicates that the temperature sensors were located inside the buildings - obviously this shows a lack of attention to monitoring the pipelines,” said this person, who requested anonymity. “It is not just a mistake in placement of the monitors. The letter shows that they knew the line had a low flow rate and would go to the path of least resistance.

“Therefore, knowing that this field is located well above the Arctic Circle - you don't need a temperature sensor to know that by early November there will be sub-zero temperatures in place. So, a basic risk assessment should have identified this possibility well before you needed a temperature sensor to tell you what the temperature in the line would be.”
 
A top BP Prudhoe Bay official, who has grown “disillusioned” with the company’s management style over the past year, agreed.

“Someone was clearly not paying attention to the flow,” said the official, who also requested anonymity because he feared retaliation for discussing internal matters. “The temperature dropped and the line froze. This shouldn’t have happened. I equate this with a lack of operating discipline and place the blame squarely on leadership.”

Two weeks after the spill, a “red flag” e-mail was sent by BP’s Prudhoe Bay Operations Manager to officials and employees on the oilfield, reminding them to adhere “to established processes that ensure freeze prevention in flow lines, as well as, appropriate responses when freezing occurs.”

But other evidence suggests that poor management and cutbacks on safety may have contributed to the Lisburne oil spill.

In January, an employee at Lisburne sent an e-mail to BP officials in Alaska saying the facility was “operating in [an] unsafe condition.” The employee, whose name was redacted, listed more than a dozen pieces of crucial production equipment that he said were not working or were out of service during the time of the spill, thus “leaving no back up to running equipment and equipment out of service which should be on-line as per the system requirements to run the plant.”

The employee warned that “with minimum manning in maintenance and operations we are basically running a broken plant with too few people to address the problems in a timely and safe manner. …

“Operations can not rely on Management to provide them with a safe and reliable plant to work in. The management of our maintenance at [Lisburne Production Center] simply is not working to maintain a safe operation. This gap in maintenance management causes problems that increase the overall risk of plant integrity and personnel safety.”

The e-mail claimed that some of the safety problems threatened the lives of workers. The employee cited “louvers” that he said fail to seal, an issue that has allegedly persisted for years. Louvers are connected to the production facility’s fire and gas suppression systems and are supposed to remain closed to trap a halon discharge in the event of fire or a gas buildup. Halon is a chemical that prevents explosions by depleting oxygen in the air.

“Simply put,” said one employee who works at Lisburne, “if those louvers don’t seal and there is a fire or gas is released people could die.”

Imminent Danger

According to a top BP official who works on the North Slope and six Prudhoe Bay employees, BP’s fire and gas technical authorities told them it is likely that if BP were to test all of the louvers at North Slope facilities they would fail to seal, meaning the fire and gas suppression systems would be ineffective. That could put workers in imminent danger if there were a gas buildup, explosion or a fire.

Moreover, internal BP documents indicated that as of April 11, the louvers were not operating and would not be fixed for months. It’s unclear how the Gulf disaster, which occurred nine days later, will affect the pace of repairs at Prudhoe Bay.

Steve Rinehart, a spokesman for BP Alaska, said the issues the employee addressed in the e-mail were dealt with immediately.

"We will not operate facilities unsafely," Rinehart said. "We take this kind of info from employees very seriously. In this case, line leadership started meeting with the employees who raised these issues at Lisburne as soon as they received the list. We have made very good progress. Half the items have been closed out, some of the rest are virtually complete and all are being worked and tracked."

The Alaska State Fire Marshal, who would be responsible for inspecting the louvers and other fire and gas-related equipment to ensure it works properly, did not return a call for comment.

The employee’s e-mail, I was told by BP Alaska officials, is now in the hands of criminal investigators and BP’s probation officer, Mary Frances Barnes, who are scrutinizing the employee’s claims to determine if it had any bearing on the pipeline rupture last November and whether it would amount to a probation violation for the company.

BP pleaded guilty in October 2007 to a criminal misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, resulting from two oil spills on the North Slope in 2006, both of which resulted from severely corroded pipelines that the company failed to upkeep. The company was placed on probation for three years.

Tyler Amon is the special agent-in-charge at the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division probing the circumstances behind last November’s oil spill. He did not return calls for comment nor did Barnes or a spokesperson for the FBI.

The e-mail has also been sent to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman’s office did not return several calls for comment. An earlier congressional investigation found that deferral of maintenance projects contributed to other oil spills.

As of June 5, Lisburne was shut down for planned maintenance. It’s unknown if BP intends to address any of the maintenance and operational issues described in the e-mail.

Two BP management officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters, said budget cuts were largely the reason equipment was not upgraded or repaired and indicated that much of the problem has yet to be addressed. BP’s Alaska budget for 2010 is $1 billion, compared with $1.1 billion in 2009 and $1.3 billion in 2008.

However, a document, which BP sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee before the Gulf disaster, said budget cuts have not impacted projects that need to be funded at Prudhoe Bay. The company said the fear by employees that budget cuts would impact “integrity investment” was likely due to “dramatic changes in oil prices and economic uncertainty in late 2008 and continuing into 2009.”

“This perception was likely heightened by [BP Alaska’s] challenge to its contractors in early 2009 to deliver cost efficiencies,” said the budget document. “Our commitment is to activities that reduce risk – we target efficiency improvements to complete these activities at lower cost.”

The document indicates that BP deferred or “re-paced” some projects, but the company said it “risk-assessed each of the activities and identified mitigative measures to reduce any risk to safe operations.”

Past Mistakes

The pipeline rupture at Lisburne also may have been an example of BP Alaska failing to learn from its past mistakes. On Feb. 19, 2001, a pipeline ruptured under similar circumstances, with temperature monitors placed on the pipeline inside the building.

BP told the State of Alaska and the ADEC that it would rectify the issue in the future by moving the monitors on all of its pipes outside of the facility so it could accurately check the temperature. But the company apparently never fulfilled its promise.

Kovac and several other BP employees also raised red flags about a newly constructed – but what they consider a poorly designed – pipeline that feeds directly into pump station 1, the beginning of the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

Replacing a portion of corroded pipeline that ruptured in 2006 and spilt more than 200,000 gallons of oil across the frozen tundra, the two-mile-long rebuilt pipeline has experienced “severe hopping up and down on the vertical support members,” due to wind induced vibration, a phenomenon that was discovered when the oilfield was developed more than 30 years ago.

But it does not appear that BP learned that lesson of the past, either, when it designed the new pipeline. That “hopping,” Kovac said, has caused stress on the “pipewall” and weld joints on sections connected to the vertical support members.

“The harmonics in [the pipeline] allowed it to bounce up and down,” Kovac said. “BP rectified the problem by placing timbers under the line between the vertical support members [which is not unusual] about two months ago. As far as I know, there isn’t a plan in place to [permanently] fix the problem.”

Kovac and other employees added that there are other corroded pipelines that should have been replaced three years ago, but haven’t been; plus, a spill-detection system hasn’t been installed.

Another contributing factor to the two most recent oil spills is the overworking of employees who face 16-18-hour work shifts because of a shortage of trained personnel.

Internal company documents described the work situation as an “imminent safety risk” because employees who work more than 16 hours during a 24-hour time period can lack the mental capacity to make sound and timely decisions.

Yet during 2009, 16-plus hour work shifts were routine at Prudhoe Bay, with employees working beyond 16 hours about 200-400 times per month, 75 percent of which represented 18-hour work shifts, according to internal BP documents.

Another internal BP document, dated Sept. 8, 2009, shows that one BP employee worked 36 consecutive days of 16 and 18 hour shifts in 2009 in violation of BP's own policies.   

According to Jeanne Pascal, the EPA’s former debarment counsel who worked on BP-related matters for more than a decade, BP told her 10 years ago that the company intended to come up with a plan to “fix” the 16-18 hour work shifts.  

BP employees who work at Prudhoe Bay are supposed to work 12-hour shifts for two weeks and then receive two weeks off. However, since employees who work beyond 12 hours receive overtime pay, some employees are “happy” to stay on the job beyond 12 hours because the pay is so good, Kovac said.

“It’s not a good idea,” Kovac said. “Working more than 12 hours during a shift affects decision making and response time and can cause disasters. People have to take catnaps while operating large volumes of hydrocarbons under high pressure. We will have accidents as a result of it.”

BP has addressed the issue by hiring more technicians, but even that has not solved the problem as it takes three to four years, Kovac said, for a trainee to be fully prepared to work on the North Slope.

“The number of new technicians sent to the operating facilities since 2006 and the slower than expected pace of newly-hired technician training has not kept pace with ‘leavers,’ new work activities requiring substantial facility/field production technician support, and support for external commitments made and BP initiatives,” according to an October 2009 internal BP document explaining why 18-hour shifts continue despite their impact on the safe operations of Prudhoe Bay.

In 2009, there were 652 instances in which well-pad and drill-site operators worked in excess of 16 hours.

“Since well-pad operators are designated professional drivers, the scheduling represents a deliberate non-conformance to BP Group Standard for Driving Safety and [the BP Exploration Alaska] Driving Safety Policy,” said the October 2009 internal BP memo.

“Allowing the continuation of the 16-plus hour work shifts would be seen by internal and external stakeholders as putting production ahead of safety,” the document said.

Kovac and the other BP employees said they doubt that BP has the wherewithal to tackle the issues plaguing Prudhoe Bay.

“This company seems incapable of managing its assets safely,” Kovac said – an observation that many Americans living along the Gulf of Mexico might consider an understatement.

A version of this article also appeared at Truthout.org.

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