Commentary: Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 2001

Spill response shows preparedness

By Gov. Tony Knowles

In a senseless act of vandalism, the trans-Alaska pipeline was punctured by a gunman north of Fairbanks earlier this month. This bullet struck not just the pipeline but Alaska's economic security, too.

People wondered how safe can we feel if this line, so vital to our economy, can be halted by a single bullet.

The safe, quick and effective response to this incident by workers from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and the state provides a positive answer to that concern. Alaskans can be proud and reassured by the creative, coordinated and committed around-the-clock efforts by this team in a dangerous situation.

Consider these facts: The leak itself was spotted almost immediately by aerial surveillance, which also spotted the gunman. The section of pipeline was quickly isolated by control valves.

Alaska State Troopers and pipeline security apprehended the gunman within hours as the State and industry were already mobilizing to stop the oil flow. Alyeska Pipeline opened its emergency operation center in Fairbanks, where the response was professional and by-the-book rather than a crisis mode.

The bullet struck just below a steep rise in the pipeline that created enough pressure to gush a spray of crude more than 150 feet. Steps were immediately taken to reduce the pressure within the section of the line. Oil remaining in the section of pipeline was pumped out and, for the first time, oil even flowed northward along the line through a bypass valve to reduce the pressure.

The high pressure also created a serious hazard for responders: a fine mist of oil created a potentially explosive atmosphere. Fire crews, including local volunteer firefighters from Steese, were staged near the spill with foam suppressants as heavy equipment was brought in to stop the leak.

A hydraulic clamp, designed, built and tested just for such a leak, was lifted by crane into place within 36 hours of the gunshot and stopped the oil flow. By the next morning, the bullet hole had been permanently plugged and the precious flow through the pipeline restored.

Oil remained on the ground, but immediately after the spill was detected, state Department of Environmental Conservation and Alyeska crews worked though the night to stop the flow of spilled crude. Protecting the nearby Tolovana River was a priority.

Trenches, berms and containment pits were dug at 2 a.m. and have proved effective in containing the oil to within a quarter of a mile of the leak. In fact, even before the bullet hole was plugged, crews were recovering more oil than was gushing out. Now almost half the spilled oil has been recovered.

Work will continue to clean up the remaining oil and monitor the area for any indication of contamination flowing from the site. Meanwhile, the state and private industry are looking at additional steps that may be necessary to protect the pipeline, including restricting access at critical points.

National security has been in question ever since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No one can ever guarantee complete security from a terrorist with the darkest intentions, or even some fool with a gun.

But the quick and professional response by private industry and the state to the recent incident near Livengood shows that Alaska is prepared to respond to whatever unforeseen event happens along the pipeline.

We owe our thanks to the dedicated, well-trained team whose sole purpose is to work for the safety of Alaskans and the security of our economy.


Tony Knowles has served as governor of Alaska since 1994.