Alyeska resists penalty; feds say improper restart after gas surge
Federal pipeline regulators want to fine Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for its actions following a dangerous surge of natural gas into Pump Station 1 in early 2009.
But Alyeska, which operates the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, is fighting the proposed $41,300 fine and has asked the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for “an in-person hearing.”
PHMSA on Feb. 2 sent Alyeska a notice of probable violation saying the company failed to follow its procedural manual for handling “abnormal operations.”
Alyeska failed to verify system integrity before restarting the pipeline following a Jan. 15, 2009, event that sent a burst of gas into Pump Station 1, located at the BP-operated Prudhoe Bay oil field where the pipeline begins.
The gas surge occurred as BP workers used a cleaning pig to swab oil out of a Prudhoe transit line the company planned to decommission because of corrosion. The workers were using pressurized gas to push the pig through the 34-inch line.
During the operation, the pig got stuck and a large volume of gas bypassed the tool and rushed to Pump Station 1.
The rapid influx of gas overpressured two breakout tanks at the pump station, and this caused relief vents and “blow out” hatches on the tanks to open and release flammable vapors, the Feb. 2 notice to Alyeska says.
“This event is an abnormal operation,” the notice says, a key finding that in PHMSA’s view triggered certain requirements for Alyeska under pipeline safety regulations.
Extremely serious eventThe gas release shut down Pump Station 1 for more than half an hour and forced the evacuation of some workers.
Jerry Brossia, a federal regulator in the Joint Pipeline Office in Anchorage, was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News on Feb. 7, 2009, as saying the event had the potential, at worst, to “burn Pump Station 1 down.”
PHMSA contends Alyeska failed to follow its required procedural manual for handling abnormal operations and emergencies. The manual provides that the Operations Control Center controller “will verify system integrity and dispatch linewide reconnaissance as appropriate,” PHMSA noted.
“After the overpressure of the … breakout tanks and subsequent vapor release, Alyeska did not verify and confirm system integrity before restarting the pipeline system,” the PHMSA notice of violation says. “Furthermore, Alyeska did not conduct a visual inspection of the tanks before it restarted the system. The vapor release and tank overpressure constituted a significant abnormal operation that could have harmed pipeline system integrity. Alyeska did not conduct a tank inspection until days after restarting the pipeline system.”
A compliance officer proposed a civil penalty of $41,300 for the “probable violation,” says the notice signed by Chris Hoidal, PHMSA’s Western Region director in Denver.
Alyeska disagreesIn a March 10 response to PHMSA, Alyeska says it believes it followed procedures.
“Alyeska disagrees that, as PHMSA alleges, ‘Alyeska’s Pump Station 1 breakout tanks, TK-110 and TK-111, were overpressured due to the rapid influx of natural gas into the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.’ Alyeska’s Incident Investigation Report, provided to PHMSA, specifically indicates that ‘All automated systems and operational protocols at TAPS PS 1 worked per design to shutdown the station and protect personnel and equipment.
“Further, Alyeska disputes that, as PHMSA alleges, ‘the breakout tank overpressure and vapor release event’ were abnormal conditions,” either under federal pipeline safety regulations or under Alyeska’s procedural manual.
Alyeska’s response concludes: “Alyeska respectfully requests that PHMSA withdraw the finding and the proposed civil penalty.”
Damon Hill, a PHMSA spokesman in Washington, D.C., told Petroleum News on May 26 he couldn’t comment beyond the notice of violation because “this case is still an open enforcement action.”
Alyeska spokesman Michelle Egan, however, said Alyeska recently was contacted to schedule a hearing on the matter.