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BP gets subpoena for leaky pipe in Prudhoe Bay


June 15, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- BP must turn over a section of leaky pipeline as evidence in a federal grand jury investigation of this winter's record oil spill at Prudhoe Bay, a BP spokesman said Tuesday.

BP received a subpoena for the pipe as well as an assortment of documents, BP's Daren Beaudo said.

Workers will have to cut a few feet out of the steel pipe and plug the openings on either side. It's quite an operation and one reason BP asked federal pipeline regulators to extend this week's deadlines to run testing and cleaning devices called pigs through the pipe, Beaudo said.




But the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration denied BP's request for more time to pig that line plus two other major pipes that drain crude oil out of Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field.

The agency's administrator, Tom Barrett, who formerly headed the Coast Guard in Alaska, said in a statement issued this week:

"Our objective is to ensure their pipelines are completely safe. We will hold pipeline operators accountable to their fundamental obligation to protect public safety and the environment where they operate."

The pipeline administration ordered BP to run the pigs after the March 2 discovery of a large pool of oil that had slow-leaked onto the tundra from an almond-sized hole in the pipeline, which had known corrosion damage.

At an estimated 201,000 gallons, the leak was the largest North Slope spill since crude began flowing in 1977.

The spill has drawn scrutiny not only from criminal investigators and federal and state pipeline and pollution regulators, but congressmen who have questioned BP's pipeline maintenance practices.

The grand jury wants the section with the hole, Beaudo said.

The pipeline administration, in a letter Monday to BP executives, denied the company's request to extend deadlines for running the pigs, which can detect weak spots in pipeline walls and scrape out sludge that can cause corrosion.

The agency, however, said it was not ordering BP to shut down the pipelines, though that's "subject to change." The letter adds the agency "reserves the prerogative to seek civil penalties." Fines can run up to $100,000 per day.

The pipeline that leaked is known as the Prudhoe Bay West Operating Area line, installed in 1976. A three-mile segment of the line, 34 inches in diameter, remains out of service pending a decision by BP on whether to repair or junk it.

Besides the hole where the oil leaked, inspectors found corrosion or other anomalies in at least six other places, according to BP and the pipeline administration.

The other two pipelines the regulators ordered pigged are the Prudhoe Bay East Operating Area pipeline and a key pipeline from the nearby Lisburne field.

All three pipes are important trunk lines that feed crude oil into the trans-Alaska pipeline, which stretches south 800 miles to the tanker port at Valdez.

BP wanted relief from the pigging deadlines not only to cut out the length of pipe for the grand jury, but to prepare a plan for how to handle the truckloads of sludge the cleaner pigs are expected to push out of the pipelines, Beaudo said. BP must coordinate that with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the trans-Alaska line. BP owns nearly half of Alyeska.

BP began pigging the Lisburne pipeline Saturday, Beaudo said. It won't pig the east Prudhoe line until next month and the west Prudhoe line until next spring, he said.

The company is pleased the pipeline administration is allowing the pipelines to keep operating and that it has given preliminary approval to alternative pipeline testing methods BP proposed, Beaudo said.

Inspections at more than 2,200 locations along the pipelines show they're safe to run, he said.

BP last ran a "smart pig" to test for weaknesses in the ruptured pipeline in 1998, the pipeline safety administration said in a March 15 "corrective action order" to the company. Also, the agency said BP had no schedule for running cleaner pigs.

BP is part owner of Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field, and runs it on behalf of itself and other owners including Conoco Phillips and Exxon Mobil.


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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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