Nearly 5,000 miles from the oil-spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, BP and its culture of cost-cutting are contributing to another environmental mess.
According to internal BP documents obtained by Truthout, and after interviewing more than a dozen employees over the past month, the Prudhoe Bay oil field, in a remote corner of North America on Alaska's north shore, is in danger.
After two serious oil spills and other mishaps, 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 problems, 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 January 27 letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), which has not been previously released, 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 "back pressure 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 a copy of the letter Minge sent to Murkowski in response to her queries about the spill.
The pipeline rupture at Lisburne is another example of BP Alaska failing to learn from its past mistakes. On February 19, 2001, a pipeline ruptured under similar circumstances. Like Lisburne, temperature monitors were placed on the pipeline inside the building, but 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.
A person who works closely with BP and reviewed Minge's letter to Murkowski said Minge's letter "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.