Extensive corrosion threatens BP pipelines in Alaska, risking explosions, spills

By Abrahm Lustgarten
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 10:13 PM

The extensive pipeline system that moves oil, gas and waste throughout BP's operations in Alaska is plagued by severe corrosion, according to an internal maintenance report generated four weeks ago.

The document, obtained by the journalism group ProPublica, shows that as of Oct. 1, at least 148 BP pipelines on Alaska's North Slope received an "F-rank'' from the company. According to BP oil workers, that means inspections have determined that more than 80 percent of the pipe wall is corroded and could rupture. Most of those lines carry toxic or flammable substances. Many of the metal walls of the F-ranked pipes are worn to within a few thousandths of an inch of bursting, according to the document, risking an explosion or spills.

BP oil workers also say that the company's fire and gas warning systems are unreliable, that the giant turbines that pump oil and gas through the system are aging and that some oil and waste holding tanks are verging on collapse.

In an e-mail, BP Alaska spokesman Steve Rinehart said the company has "an aggressive and comprehensive pipeline inspection and maintenance program," which includes pouring millions of dollars into the system and regularly testing for safety, reliability and corrosion. He said that although an F-rank is serious, it does not necessarily mean there is a current safety risk.

Rinehart added that the company will immediately reduce the operating pressure in worrisome lines until it completes repairs. "We will not operate equipment or facilities that we believe are unsafe," he said.

Rinehart did not respond to questions about what portion of its extensive pipeline system was affected or whether 148 F-ranks were more or less than normal, except to say that the company has more than 1,600 miles of pipelines and does more than 100,000 inspections a year.

In 2006, two spills from corroded pipes in Alaska placed the company's maintenance problems in the national spotlight. At the time, BP temporarily shut down all transmission of oil from the North Slope to the continental United States, cutting off about 8 percent of the nation's oil supply, while it examined its pipeline system.

Photos taken by employees in the Prudhoe Bay drilling field this summer, and viewed by ProPublica, show sagging and rusted pipelines, some dipping in gentle U-shapes into pools of water and others sinking deeply into thawing permafrost. Marc Kovac, a BP mechanic and welder, said that some of the pipes have hundreds of patches on them and that BP's efforts to rehabilitate the lines were not funded well enough to keep up with their rate of decline.

"They're going to run this out as far as they can without leaving one dollar on the table when they leave," Kovac said.

BP Alaska's operating budget is private, so the picture of its maintenance program is incomplete. But documents obtained by ProPublica show that BP has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into maintenance and equipment upgrades on the North Slope since the 2006 spills. In 2007, BP's maintenance budget in Alaska was nearly $195 million, four times what it was in 2004, according to a company presentation. In 2009, $49 million was budgeted to replace and upgrade systems that detect fires and gas leaks alone.

Despite the investment, workers say that the capabilities of equipment of all types continue to be stretched and that maintenance plans set years ago remain incomplete.

BP employees told ProPublica that several of the 120 turbines used to compress gas and push it through the pipelines have been modified to run at higher stress levels and higher temperatures than they were originally designed to handle. They also said giant tanks that hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic fluids and waste are sagging under the load of corrosive sediment and could collapse.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company