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Alaska state officials confirmed Wednesday that an oily mist sprung from a compromised oil pipeline and sprayed into the wind without stopping for at least two hours, covering 33 acres of the frozen snow field in the oil well's vicinity.
The discovery was at the BP-owned Prudhoe oil field on Alaska's North Slope, the northernmost region of the state where a number of profitable oil fields sit beneath the tundra. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) revealed that BP officials found the mist during a routine inspection on Monday.
Initial reports said that 27 acres had been covered, although that figure was updated later on Wednesday. The cause is still under investigation, according to the Associated Press, but officials know that the mist was made up of a mixture of gas, crude oil, and water. They also reported that while the noxious mist was distributed over such a wide area by 30 mph winds, no wildlife was impacted.
BP spokeswoman Dawn Patience said the company is "still assessing repairs" and will soon know what, if any, long-term effects the spill could have.
The Prudhoe Bay region, like elsewhere in the North Slope, is home to a great number of migratory birds and caribou, as well as other animals, such as a massive porcupine herd. Clean-up efforts are expected to be complete before birds pass through the region again in the coming weeks.
The company was at fault in at least two oil spills in the same region since 2006. That year, an estimated 267,000 gallons of oil seeped through a quarter-inch sized hole in a corroded BP pipeline. That accident went unnoticed for five days, until an oil worker smelled the aroma of crude when driving through the area, according to Think Progress.
The company spent $500 million on upgrading 16 miles of pipeline that transported oil into a processing facility dubbed Gathering Center 2.
Instead of acting as a warning to the company, though, the 2006 spill only served as a preview for a 2009 spill that sent approximately 14,000 gallons from a pipeline into the tundra and wetlands of Prudhoe Bay.
"The 2009 spill vividly demonstrates that BP has not adequately addressed the management and environmental compliance problems that have plagued it for many years," US government lawyers said in a court filing that sought to levy steep fines onto BP, as quoted by Bloomberg.
"This rupture was the result of a predictable and preventable freezing of produced water within the pipeline that caused the pipe to over-pressurize and burst. Eerily similar to the 2006 spill, BP ignored alarms that warned of the pipe's eventual rupture and leak."
Officials made the most recent finding less than a week after a report from the US National Research Council (NRC) announced that regulators are not prepared to effectively respond to an Arctic oil spill. The 198-page assessment authored by scientists at the request of the American Petroleum Institute and the Coast Guard found that while more research still needs to be done, the current situation is bleak.
"The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill," the report stated, as quoted by the Associated Press. "It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel."
Most of the information regulators have gathered on how to respond to oil spills comes from warmer areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico -- the site of another massive BP oil spill in April 2010. Yet the drilling areas far to the north remain largely isolated from the resources in the Gulf, with the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas located more than 1,000 miles from the nearest deep water port.
As such, the NRC recommended the US quickly institute "a comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program."