Trans-Alaska pipeline operator restarts pipeline after contained spill

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline system said late Friday it has restarted the 800-mile line idled after a contained spill this week.

The pipeline was shut down for 79 hours and 40 minutes, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. spokeswoman Michelle Egan said. That's its longest shutdown in at least a decade, surpassing the more than 66 hours it was down in November 2002 due to an earthquake.

The line from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez has been down since Tuesday, when Alyeska said a power failure during a planned shutdown allowed about 5,000 barrels of oil to spill into a containment area at Pump Station 9, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks.

"New oil has successfully been pumped through Pump Station 9 and we're doing that now steadily," Egan said Friday night. "That's a significant milestone after a shutdown."

There were no injuries and no impact to the environment due to the spill or subsequent oil recovery and restart operations, she said.

Alyeska has so far recovered 1,000 barrels of pooled oil from the containment area, Egan said.

Alyeska got federal approval for the restart after addressing questions and concerns raised by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The agency on Thursday issued Alyeska a corrective action order, seeking documentation and other details surrounding its plans to restart and mandating specific steps — including having personnel present 24-7 at the pump station where power was lost — once the line was back up.

Egan said a crew "will staff the pump station 24 hours a day until normal operations resume," adding about 200 people remain involved in managing the incident, including 125 people at the site and a team in Fairbanks.

The spilled oil flowed into a storage tank at the pump station, then into the containment yard. The extra staffing will continue until that tank is back in service, Egan said, adding she had no estimate when that might be.

Alyeska had ordered production levels drastically cut — eventually to 8 percent of normal output — to keep from filling storage facilities before the line could be restarted safely. The company estimated that bought it time until noon Friday, but after that deadline passed, Egan said there remained a "little margin" and no immediate need to order further cutbacks. Oil producers have been told they can resume 100 percent production, she said.

Damon Hill, a spokesman for the pipeline agency, described the corrective action order as routine for these types of incidents.

The letter required certain actions surrounding the restart and mandated monitoring of and reporting on the spill area after the line is back up. An agency official, in issuing the order, found that a failure to require such steps, in light of factors such as the hazardous nature of oil, the age of the infrastructure and investigations into the cause "would result in likely serious harm to life, property and the environment."

Both the pipeline agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are investigating the cause of the spill.

The trans-Alaska pipeline carries oil from the state's North Slope to Valdez, where tankers pick it up and deliver it to refineries. Last month, the pipeline moved 645,113 barrels of oil per day, on average. Average crude oil production in the U.S. is about 5.5 million barrels a day.

The system is owned by a consortium of companies. The largest, with a nearly 47 percent stake, is BP Pipelines (Alaska) Inc. Its parent company, BP PLC, has been dealing with the massive oil slick that resulted when a rig it leased in the Gulf of Mexico exploded last month. BP's work in Alaska has drawn attention since 2006 when 200,000 gallons of oil spilled at Prudhoe Bay.

The other major owners of the pipeline are subsidiaries of the North Slope's other main players, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.