News: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 11, 2004, p. A1

 

Pipeline shutdown pinpointed: Error, faulty components halted oil flow in January

 

By DIANA CAMPBELL, Staff Writer

 

Human error and aging electrical equipment forced an unplanned four-hour January shutdown of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. reported to the Joint Pipeline Office.

 

Since then Alyeska has taken short-term steps and made long-term plans to correct the problems, it told JPO.

 

"I don't have a good answer," Alyeska pipeline manager Jim Johnson said of the failed electrical components. "This is the very first hidden failure we've had."

 

Alyeska critics say this is another example of Alyeska not identifying potential problems in a timely manner.

 

On Jan. 25 at 8:48 a.m., an electrician working for Alyeska contractor Houston/NANA on a new fire protection system at the Valdez Marine Terminal opened the wrong breaker. That caused a loss of power for the last valve in the pipeline before crude is offloaded to tanks and tankers.

 

The electrical boxes were side by side and identical, Johnson said. The electrician had opened the correct breaker many times during the week the company was working on the new fire system, he said.

 

"He meant to go into the other box," Johnson said.

 

The loss of power was signaled to Alyeska's Operational Control Center in Valdez with the message that the valve had an "invalid" status. That triggered an automatic response to shut down the pipeline at Pump Stations 10, 11, and 12, the report said.

 

Pump Station 12 is 65 miles north of Valdez and Pump Station 11 is 114 miles north of Valdez near Copper Center. Pump Station 10 is near Miller Creek, about 146 miles south of Fairbanks.

 

Only Pump Station 12 responded to the command and shut remote gate valves to keep oil from flowing within the pipeline, Johnson said. Controllers in Valdez tried several times to get Pump Station 10 and 11 to respond, pushing a button several times.

 

When it was apparent that the two pump stations weren't responding, Alyeska instructed the security guards at each station to go to the master electrical control terminals to manually push a button to close the pipeline down.

 

Only Pump Station 11 responded and shut the remote gate valves, Johnson said. Alyeska then sent a technician to Pump Station 10, where he shut down power to the master control terminal and restarted it, Johnson said.

 

"The thing came right back up," Johnson said.

 

In the meantime, North Slope crude oil began to build up pressure within the pipeline, Johnson said. Alyeska sought to relieve the pressure by sending the oil to a relief tank at Pump Station 12 and to storage at Pump Station 1. Helicopter and ground crews were dispatched to monitor the pipeline for leaks near Pump Stations 10 and 11. The pressure never reached a critical point and was only 4 percent over standard operating pressure, Johnson said.

 

"There was no pipe integrity issue," Johnson said.

 

Once Alyeska determined everything was working properly and there were no leaks, the remote gate valves were reopened and the pipeline was restarted at about 1:13 p.m. Alyeska engineers determined later in the day that 18-year-old capacitors--electrical components on only three-quarters of an inch long--were too old and failed.

 

The company will replace about 2,000 of them by September, said John Baldridge, Alyeska pipeline adviser. The cost is unknown at this point, he said. The electrical terminals at the pump stations will be tested weekly, Johnson said.

 

The electrical breaker boxes at the Valdez Marine Terminal were given distinguishing identifying features immediately after the incident happened, Johnson said.

 

Altogether about 40,176 barrels of oil were rerouted. The pipeline averages about 1 million barrels of oil daily.

 

Alyeska critic Richard Fineberg said that the unplanned shutdown seemed to prove several concerns he and others have had about whether current and proposed maintenance procedures are working.

 

"All of these are after-the-facts fixes that shouldn't have happened," Fineberg said. He and others testified at the 2002 pipeline lease renewal hearings that maintenance money has been consistently cut and pointed to specific examples found in JPO documents on how maintenance failed, he said.

 

"It appears that maintenance procedures are not identifying concerns in a timely manner," he said.

 

The thought that maintenance procedures are not working now provides little comfort when Alyeska overhauls the pipeline operation system, Fineberg said. The company will spend $250 million to remodel the pump stations and upgrade equipment but reduce 350 jobs out of 1,600 staff and contractor positions.

 

That means fewer eyes on the pipeline for safety, Fineberg said.

 

"The chronic concern is that Alyeska is too slow to identify problems, once identified, too slow to fix them," he said. "That's a double threat to the environment."

 

Alyeska did well in responding to the unexpected problems, although the contract electrician should have known what he was doing, said Joseph Dygas, JPO's acting branch chief for technical and design review.

 

"I would say at the present time I think they did a good job in catching onto what the problem was and reacting to it in an appropriate manner from a controller point of view," Dygas said.

 

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Diana Campbell can be reached at 459-7523 or dcampbell@newsminer.com.