Commentary: Anchorage Daily News, Nov. 30, 2002 (annotation added)


Public’s TAPS concerns ignored


By Richard A. Fineberg and Stan Stephens


Elation that no leaks were reported on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) after the earthquake Nov. 3 was followed by the state’s renewal of the pipeline operating lease Nov. 26.  While misplaced euphoria overshadows troubling questions about the earthquake, the public has been kept in the dark about major pipeline restructuring plans.  Known as “strategic reconfiguration,” the pipeline makeover has been described as “the most important decision on TAPS since the line was built” and “a single-hulled tanker with a paint job.”[1]

When the earth split open and the ground rolled in the Alaska Range Nov. 3, the pipeline slammed violently from side to side on its above-ground supports.  Near the Denali Fault, critical steel pieces supposedly designed to withstand an even larger earthquake were bent and broken like matchsticks.  Sixty-foot pipeline segments weighing more than 30 tons were temporarily left unsupported.  

The earthquake raised the following salient questions:

·        In light of  damage at the Denali Fault, how will the pipeline stand up to the more powerful temblor that is liable to occur in the southernmost portion of the pipeline?[2]  There, the stresses of the earth’s mantle have not been relieved since the largest earthquake in this nation’s history struck in 1964.[3]

·        The Nov. 3 quake set off alarms that were supposed to shut the pipeline down immediately in the event of a major quake; why did pipeline operators fail to complete shutdown the pipeline for one full hour?[4]

·        Wax that built up within the pipe during the shutdown in useasonably warm weather prevented Alyeska from running the damage assessment device through the pipeline for several weeks. [5]     If normal winter conditions had delayed repairs, would the temporary “cold restart” plan now in place have worked to clear the wax blockage safely?[6]

·        The TAPS leak detection system does not detect losses smaller than 84,000 gallons per day; should the pipeline have been restarted before running the inspection pig to assess the damage? 

·        Did the temporary repairs restore structural integrity or simply prop up a damaged support system?[7]

In a 2001 report,  the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility suggested that developments in the uncertain science of earthquakes, changes in geotechnical conditions and questions concerning the maintenance and physical condition of the aging pipeline deserved careful review.  We raised these and other issues during hearings on pipeline lease renewal held in six pipeline corridor communities and Anchorage last summer.  At those hearings, more than 100 Alaskans expressed concerns ranging from budget-cutting on TAPS to the safety of the 25-year-old pipeline.

The sham public review process has ignored these concerns.   For example, government officials renewed the right-of-way permit without establishing a citizens oversight group for the TAPS corridor requested by concerned citizens, Native, environmental and public interest groups.[8]

With a new, 30-year permit in hand, the TAPS operators now plans to close additional pipeline facilities, removing some of the remaining operating and maintenance personnel from the pipeline corridor in a massive effort to reduce costs. 

Alyeska’s strategic reconfiguration plans were kept from the public during the lease renewal process.  Documents released for public review failed to disclose that Alyeska was aggressively moving ahead with the plan, which will increase the time it take for emergency responders to reach many sections of the remote pipeline.[9] 

The importance of rapid response to pipeline emergencies was demonstrated in October 2001, when Alyeska was unable to stop a bullet hole leak for nearly 36 hours.    Now the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation plans to reduce requirements for public review of oil spill contingency plans.


The recent earthquake and the major changes to Alyeska’s organization, spill prevention and response plans all deserve greater public scrutiny.   Instead, the lessons of history and the warnings of the earth are being ignored while public review procedures are being eviscerated under a dubious mantle of secrecy.  

            With the announcement of TAPS right-of-way renewal, hope has all but vanished that public officials will take the meaningful action necessary to ensure safe oil transportation in Alaska.   Now it is up to the press and concerned citizens.




Stan Stephens of Valdez is President of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility and serves on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.   Richard A. Fineberg of Ester is the author of The Emperor’s New Hose:  How Big Oil Gets Rich Gambling With Alaska’s Environment, a June 2002 report for the Alaska Forum (


(Article appeared in  Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 12/1/02, as “Troubling pipeline questions remain.”)















[1]  According to concerned employees in late November 2002, the “most important decision” description was that of the head of the TAPS engineering program; the “Exxon Valdez with a new coat of paint” was the statement of a concerned employee.


[2]  TAPS is designed to withstand an earthquake of 8.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale in the Denali Fault area (MP 560-620) without oil leakage; from Willow Lake to Valdez (MP 710-Valdez), the pipeline is supposed to prevent oil leakage  in the event of a much more powerful quake of an 8.5 magnitude (Stipulation  Although an 8.5 quake is many times more powerful than an 8.0, according to TAPS design manuals, the resulting ground motion caused by these earthquakes that the pipeline must be able to meet (i.e., acceleration, velocity and displacement) are identical (DB-180, Ed. 4, Rev. 2, June 18, 2002, p. 1-15). 

[3]  Post-earthquake interviews with seismic experts.


[4]  Pipeline operations instructions for the pipeline controller at the Valdez Operations Control Center warn the operator that an earthquake alarm will shut down the pipeline automatically if not over-ridden manually.  However,  review of the relevant manuals reveals that the instructions are vague as to when and under what circumstances the controller should re-issue the shutdown command.  See “Quake Operating Procedures”  file memo, Nov. 19, 2002 (based on:   Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Controller Operating Manual  [DO-14-2 – Fifth Ed., Rev. O, July 17, 2001]; Trans-Alaska Pipeline Earthquake Monitoring System Operations Manual  [EM-50, 2nd Ed., Rev. 1,  Aug. 17, 1998]; and  “Known Seismic Events, Emergency Operating Procedure,” [Department Operating Procedure; No. OCC-13.02  Rev. 3, 7/1/01]).

One example of vagueness is the instruction to go to the EMS console, turn it on and “wait five or ten minutes.”     Another possible reason for the delay may be that the DSMA at PS-11 had been repaired the week before the quake.  Prior to Nov. 3,  Alyeska had not performed an RCM on the EMS system; a memo noting this suggested that one reason for this oversight might be that nobody at Alyeska “owns” (i.e., has formally designated responsibility for) the EMS.


[5]  Originally scheduled for the week-end of Nov. 9, the curvature pig run was delayed due to wax build-up that stopped the preliminary scraper pig at PS-7; the curvature pig run is now scheduled to be run in the first week of December.   


[6]  The temporary “Cold Restart” process, approved by JPO in Oct. 2002 for 12 months, appears to be a government approval of an untested system that may not meet design basis specifications (see discussion of cold restart in The Emperor’s New Hose, pp. 28, 68-72).


[7]  According to workers at the Denali Fault, at least two splayed VSMs could not be brought to vertical with normal chain and winching procedures so that cross-pieces could be replaced.  A side-boom cat was used to push them back together, but nobody knows whether this procedure damaged the structureal integrity of the supports by breaking the VSMs in the ground.


[8]  North Slope Borough Mayor amplified the NSB request that a  Citizens’ Oversight Group be established for TAPS in  written comments submitted to BLM Aug. 20, 2002 (FEIS,  Vol. 6, Part 1, Comment #55).


[9]  See, “TAPS Strategic Reconfiguration,” Oct. 27, 2002 (memo to Carl Wassilie, Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council), attached.