News: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, November 20, 2002, p. A1

How oil pipeline officials handled the 'big one' of 2002


Staff Writer

Standing on a platform atop the trans-Alaska oil pipeline about 10 miles north of Delta Junction, Kerry Erickson has just lowered a bucket of tools to the ground.

The insistent rattling begins.

At first he thinks coworker Cody White, next to him on the platform, is making the noise. He looks at him but the racket isn't from White. Could it be a metal pig passing through the 800-mile pipeline?

Erickson, a pipeline maintenance and spill response worker for Houston NANA, lifts his head to look at the half-mile stretch of pipeline visible from his perch on this warm, gray November Sunday and realizes he is in the middle of the largest earthquake of his near 30-year career.

"Everything was moving that shouldn't have been," he said later from his Delta Junction home. "It was like a wave came through here. It wasn't violent. It was more fluid. You could hear it coming."

About 60 miles to the south, metal pins holding the pipeline's iron brackets, called shoes, break from the two minutes of shaking. Eight shoes--one on each of eight support structures--fall to the ground, along with five vertical support crossbars on which the shoes rest.

The pipeline, with the ground rippling beneath it, shifts about seven feet sideways and several feet north, movement envisioned by engineers when they planned the pipeline over 30 years ago.

Moments later, though, with the magnitude 7.9 earthquake ended and the aftershocks set to begin, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. employees know little about how the line has fared. Has the line collapsed? Is oil pouring out? Or has it survived?

Over the next 24 hours they would find out.

First moves

Back at Mile 520 of the pipeline, Erickson radios his supervisor, Hillary Schaefer, who had just left the two to drive back to her Pump Station 9 office after bringing them pizza for lunch. He and White have run to a clearing for safety.

"Hillary, we're having an earthquake, a significant earthquake." Erickson tells her, as the ground rumbles under them. She pulls over to the side of the Richardson Highway to wait it out, and he hangs up to call his family in Delta.

The shaking stops and Schaefer, the maintenance coordinator for Pump Stations 9 and 10, continues to her office. If there is any damage to the pipeline, her job will be to help direct the repairs. At the office she learns from Alyeska's Valdez Operations Control Center that the 1:12 p.m. quake occurred along the Denali Fault, the largest fault the pipeline crosses and one of the world's longest.

"I pull the crew (Erickson and White) back in and launch a reconnaissance," she said later. She sends a helicopter crew and two ground teams, including Erickson and White, to inspect the pipeline.

"We were still having aftershocks," she said. "We knew it was big."

Jim Johnson, Alyeska's pipeline manager who oversees pump station and pipeline activities, is at his Fairbanks home reading the newspaper when the earthquake strikes. The shaking is the worst he has felt in his 22 years at Alyeska.

He calls the Valdez operations center to find out the quake's magnitude. The center houses Alyeska's Earthquake Monitoring System, which includes software designed by Alyeska engineers and consultants to analyze seismic activity along the pipeline and at the terminal and pump stations.

Like Schaefer, Johnson finds out the quake is a bad one and that the Denali Fault is the location.

"The next question I ask is 'What is leak detection telling you?'" he said days later from his Fairbanks office. No leaks, they say.

The detection system has begun an automatic shutdown of the pipeline, which channels 17 percent of the nation's oil consumption.

Both Johnson and the Valdez staff agree they should override the system and manually shut down the pipeline to avoid damage that could be caused by the abrupt stop initiated by the automatic shutdown. A manual shutdown is slower and more controlled.

Minutes later Johnson, assured that his family and home are fine, climbs in his truck for the 15-minute drive to his office. His mind is sifting through initial data that tell him he potentially faces major problems along a stretch of pipeline spanning more than 100 miles.

"It was the longest drive I've ever had to this office," he said.

Greg Jones, Alyeska's senior vice president of operations and maintenance and Johnson's supervisor, faces an even longer ride to his Fairbanks office. He and his wife, Anne, are on an Alaska Airlines jet waiting to take off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport when the plane begins shaking.

Over the plane's speakers the pilot confirms it was a huge earthquake in Fairbanks. The Joneses think of their children--one a West Valley High School senior, the other a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Our hearts sank," he said. "I tried to pull out my cell phone and make a quick call but couldn't get through."

With little information, the flight is a long 50 minutes for Jones, who oversees all operations of the pipeline, its pump stations and the Valdez marine terminal. What would they find in Fairbanks?

Was the pipeline OK?

On the ground in Fairbanks, Jones starts making calls.

The first message waiting on his cell phone is from Johnson telling him that the pipeline has been damaged but that there are no reports of leaks. Jones heads to his Fairbanks office.

It has been a little over an hour since the earthquake.

"It would really have to be a bad earthquake to put us in a bad situation," he said. "I was being hopeful that was not the case. We knew we had to set about a very methodical plan of repairs."

The war room

At Alyeska's South Cushman Street office building, Johnson decides Alyeska must go into emergency mode.

He activates the company's Fairbanks Emergency Operations Center and becomes the incident commander, a role he is assigned under Alyeska's emergency response system.

Johnson opens the second-floor "war room," which will become the heartbeat of Alyeska's response to the earthquake. The last emergency the room was used for was when the pipeline was shot at Mile 400, leaking more than 285,000 gallons of crude just over a year ago.

The room appears much like a rocket launch control center. Ten seats surround a U-shaped conference table, with each place holding a computer, phone and nameplate. The room is dimly lighted so information on the various monitors is easily seen. Maps of every mile of the pipeline hang on the walls.

More people are called in as the scope of the quake's effects becomes clear.

"We knew we had some damage," Johnson said. "We needed a full engineer assessment."

Lee Monthei, Alyeska's vice president of engineering and projects, is summoned. He had been at his Fairbanks home watching the last few minutes of the football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders when the quake struck. Knowing that the Valdez telephone lines would be busy, he had waited nervously for someone to call him.

Monthei was one of several engineers who helped develop Dr. Quake, Alyeska's seismic monitoring software, which should have waiting for him a list of places on the pipeline to check for damage. Monthei had to see those reports.

This is the software's first major real-life test.

"I certainly had a lot of anxiety," he said of the drive to work. "I didn't know what we were dealing with in terms of the magnitude of the problem."

By 2:12 p.m. Sunday the manual shutdown of the pipeline is completed.

Monthei and other engineers who have been arriving at the war room pore over reports. The computer has listed more than 500 items of suspected trouble. Some inspections must be made before the pipeline can be restarted, others can be made afterward. The engineers must rank the tasks, and they spend the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening doing so.

From the field late Sunday afternoon surveillance crews report that most of the damage is at Mile 588 of the pipeline, where the shoes and crossbars have fallen. They report dents to the pipeline's metal insulation, which cocoons the pipe at its vertical supports and deep cracks in the earth around Remote Gate Valve 91, both signaling potentially serious and expensive repairs.

Three miles of the pipeline have been damaged by the quake.

With no oil leaking and the pipeline shutdown, and with darkness settling in, the response is on hold until daylight.

Early Monday morning, eight engineer teams head out to start checking off the list of 161 tasks that must be completed before restart. By Monday evening 95 tasks are completed.

The next course of action is to build temporary wooden supports for the pipe.

Also this morning, Alyeska work crews--now about 150 people--start bringing equipment and materials to repair the pipeline and help the engineer teams further test and inspect the pipeline and its facilities. Department of Transportation crews have worked through the night to make the Richardson Highway passable.

Monthei and the other engineers, meanwhile, conduct leak tests that include calculating pipe pressure at the fault line.

It has been just over 24 hours.

"That was really the first information we had there weren't any leaks in the pipe," he said.

Out in the field, workers begin to dig up Remote Gate Valve 91 to see if it is leaking crude. The valve gate, which stops the flow of crude between sections of the pipeline, causes serious concern.

"The valve settled six inches and moved horizontally two feet," Monthei said.

But the gate valve survived.

By Tuesday afternoon, 14 contractors and 300 people are working in the field to complete the rest of the task list. Senior management decides to fill the pipeline to Fairbanks by draining full oil tanks at Pump Station 1 on the North Slope. Otherwise BP and ConocoPhillips face shutting down oil wells.

Williams Alaska Petroleum's refinery in North Pole helped ease the North Slope's growing volume of crude by extracting some from the pipeline to refine into jet fuel.

"The tension started to lift when we realized we had no serious damage," Johnson said. "That's when the mood shifted a little bit."


By late Tuesday afternoon most of the work is done. David Wight, Alyeska's president, is satisfied with the progress. He has been monitoring the work from Anchorage, making a round trip to inspect the pipeline on Monday, all the while keeping Gov. Tony Knowles and the pipeline's owners apprised.

Wight, as the final authority, authorizes a Wednesday morning restart for the pipeline.

"We were better off waiting for first light," Wight said, worried about worker safety. "It's a gut check. We didn't want to be in a hurry and make a mistake."

By 8 a.m. Wednesday workers at the seven operating pump stations, the Valdez operations center and the Fairbanks Emergency Operation Center are ready.

"In the office Greg called David Wight to brief him and got the final go ahead," Johnson said.

In a normal restart Pump Station 1 would be the first to fire up, but Alyeska's managers decide to start at Pump Station 9, nearest the earthquake damage.

If there are problems, they will know immediately.

A computer monitor with real-time data of crude flowing through the pipeline and passing pump stations is projected to a large screen in the war room.

"We were watching everything on that screen," Johnson said.

Startup goes smoothly, and by Wednesday afternoon--three days after the quake struck--ice cream bars are passed around in celebration. By the end of the evening 750,000 barrels of oil is flowing down the pipe, just 250,000 barrels shy of the normal daily load.

"Hopefully we won't get any earthquakes like that again," Wight said. "It was our unintended report card."


Business reporter Diana Campbell may be reached at or 459-7593.