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Vol. 12, No. 41 Week of October 14, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

30 STRONG: A tale of two leaks

Emergency response quicker, more effective in 23 years between oil spills at Alyeska

Rose Ragsdale

In 30 years, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. has only had to respond to oil spill emergencies caused by acts of sabotage against the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The first incident occurred in the Steele Creek area less than 25 miles north of Fairbanks on Feb. 15, 1978, just eight months after pipeline startup. Vandals planted explosives that blew a hole in the line, causing some 16,000 barrels of crude to spill before workers were able to stop the oil flow and make repairs.

The second incident occurred 23 years later on Oct. 4, 2001, when an intoxicated man fired a rifle at close range, ripping a bullet hole in the pipeline near Milepost 400, about 75 miles north of Fairbanks. More than 4,500 barrels of oil spewed out of the pipeline, and of that some 3,000 barrels were recovered and re-injected.

Alyeska’s emergency response to the two incidents, more than two decades apart, offers compelling evidence that technology has improved the company’s capabilities and performance to respond to spills and other sudden events.

Effective communications help

One key factor in how technology has changed emergency response at Alyeska is the company’s success in using an increasingly popular system, said Wes Willson, emergency preparedness and compliance manager at Alyeska.

Early on but not before the incident in 1978, Alyeska adopted the “incident command and control system” used by firefighters in battling blazes that flare up every summer in wilderness areas of the West. Over the years, the company has found ICCS to be very effective in dealing with emergencies. A key advantage: The system can expand and contract, as needed, during in an emergency.

Consider: The ICCS is so effective that Congress passed legislation after Hurricane Katrina, requiring all federal agencies and departments to adopt the system in responding to emergencies.

“The oil industry and Alaska agencies are actually leading the charge on this, helping the federal agencies with it,” Willson said.

Advances in telecommunications also helped Alyeska greatly in handling the two emergencies.

“During the Steele Creek incident, we had no cell phones. Information had to be relayed by land. We had no fiber optic telecommunications link with the pipeline. As a result, more decisions and more actions were left with the local group of responders,” Willson said.

“Where they struggled was when they needed additional resources, whether it was manpower or equipment,” he said. “Getting that information back to the central hub and bringing in the additional resources were definitely challenges.”

By comparison, Alyeska had good communications infrastructure available during the Milepost 400 incident.

“But even then, it was not as good as what we currently have,” Willson observed.

By 2001, Alyeska was able to employ the ICCS and better telecommunications links to get some 300 people on site within 24 hours at Milepost 400 along with a massive amount of pre-staged equipment ready to be deployed.

“We had the ability to respond a lot faster,” Willson recalled.

TEAM clamp used in 2001

Technological changes also influenced how the company repaired the leaks.

“The technology for how we dealt with the Steele Creek incident was a sleeve. That’s a standard practice that we still continue to use at Alyeska. If we have concerns about a dent or corrosion or wall thickness, we will add a sleeve over the spot to effectively fix it,” Willson said.

But one handicap at Steele Creek was that workers had to wait for the crude spewing out of the pipeline under high pressure to subside before they could cover the hole with the sleeve and weld it into place.

During the 2001 incident, Alyeska called on a nifty innovation it had added to its emergency response arsenal a few years earlier. Called a “TEAM clamp,” the device was installed on top of the leaking oil, Willson said.

Inspired by off-the-shelf technology used on smaller pipelines, the TEAM clamp was redesigned for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline’s 48-inch girth.

“Before the TEAM clamp was invented, no one had even tried to have that application for such a large-diameter pipeline,” Willson said. “We’ve had mixed success with it, so we’ve planned to use it as a temporary patch that allows Alyeska to restart the pipeline and make future repairs. We have better technology that we’ve developed recently.”

‘Pump-around skid’

Back at Milepost 400, Alyeska still had to reduce the pressure of the oil leaking out significantly to apply the TEAM clamp.

To do that, technicians brought in “pump-around skids,” basically large pumps that extract oil from one side of a valve and return it to the pipeline on the other side of a valve. These devices helped the company to quickly lower the internal pressure in the leaking section of pipe and apply the TEAM clamp.

Originally called “gel-block skids,” Alyeska purchased the technology in the early 1990s because it was one of few tools available on the market for aggressively sealing a valve, especially a check valve like those used on the pipeline.

A gel-block skid comes in handy when a leak occurs in a pipeline and a check valve designed to hold back additional oil from flooding the affected section of pipe won’t close completely upstream from the leak.

“We get what we call a ‘leak by’ or ‘leak through’,” Willson said. “In the worse case situation, you would have a spill. We designed the pipeline so we could have valves to minimize the potential for a spill. But if a valve isn’t working properly, you potentially could have an additional volume of oil leak out.”

The gel-block skid can inject a 200-foot-long plug of diesel gel into the pipeline and seal it so additional oil cannot seep through to a section with a leak.

“At Milepost 400 because of the way that section of the pipeline is designed and the way we injected the gel both upstream and downstream around the valve, we stumbled upon the idea of using the device to pump the oil around (the leaking section),” Willson said. “That’s why we now call it the ‘pump-around skid.’”

Since 2001, Alyeska has changed the design to increase the pumping rate of the device and purchased additional units. The company now uses them as contingency equipment and for valve maintenance, drain-downs and shutdowns.

Hydraulic clamp best yet

The company also set out to develop more efficient technology for dealing with such spills.

“We conducted a review with our stakeholders’ input from a procedural, safety and equipment standpoint,” Willson said.

After significant investment during the past five years, Alyeska has developed a new device and trained personnel to use it.

“The piece of technology we’re proudest of is the HC320 Hydraulic Clamp,” Willson said. “And what’s so neat about this clamp is it was designed and built here locally.”

That’s right. Mustard Engineering and Holaday-Parks Inc. metal fabrication shop of Fairbanks worked in partnership with Alyeska spill response experts to develop the device.

The HC320 clamp can quickly seal off a pipeline leak, and depending on the pressure in the affected pipe, actually serve as a temporary repair so Alyeska, under the right conditions, could restart the pipeline, Willson said.

The concept for the clamp was based on large excavators used in the logging industry. Those machines have an arm attached that is used to pick up huge logs.

“It has an articulated arm that you can move 360 degrees so you can really manipulate it,” said Willson. “We asked why couldn’t we take that same principle and instead of a tool to grab something, make a tool to fit on the end of the arm and clamp around something.”

It took two years to create the prototype, test it and put it to work. The resulting HC320 is smaller, more lightweight and maneuverable than the TEAM clamp. It can be used to quickly apply a clamp to a section of pipe, lock it in place and move away from the pipeline.

“It’s probably our No. 1 choice of how we would deal with that type of incident,” Willson said.

Mobile communications a hit

Another lesson that Alyeska learned from the Milepost 400 incident was that the company would benefit significantly from having a self-sufficient communications system on site.

“We had communications but it took a while to set up and we had to tie into the available fiber optic line that goes through the pipeline,” Willson said.

In response, Alyeska designed at a cost of $500,000 to $700,000 a “Mobile Command Post,” that is, a 50-foot expandable trailer equipped and dedicated to providing on-scene command and support for emergency personnel at an incident.

The MCP has eight workstations with computers, laptops, satellite phones, regular telephones and a dispatch center with air and ground radios as well as different repeaters.

Since the MCP was rolled out, Willson said it has made a measurable difference. Communications problems, previously a constant challenge, rarely crop up now that it is in use.

“The incident field task force is talking to the MCP and the MCP is presenting that (information) back to Anchorage or Fairbanks emergency operations centers. It has worked outstandingly,” he said.

One reason for the MCP’s success is its superior telecommunications, including satellite uplinks that enable workers to upload and download pictures and large amounts of data quickly.

“We can display a map drawn in the field through video-teleconference and download it onto a Web site,” Willson said. “All of a sudden, everyone in the room is using the same information the folks in the field have to make decisions about what resources need to be applied to the situation. It looks like something out of military movies”

Versatility key to success

The success of the MCP, which is typically hitched to a semi-tractor trailer to travel to the scene of an incident, is due in part to the versatility of its telecommunications system.

“Our preference is to tie into the fiber optic line along the pipeline. That gives us 100 percent full capability,” Willson said. “It’s like (being on scene while) sitting in our office in Fairbanks or Anchorage.”

The MCP also can tie into the communications system at a Pump Station.

“It gives us the capability, but depending on the location of the incident, we may not be as close to the scene as we would like,” Willson said.

That’s when a third method comes in handy. The MCP has satellite dishes on its roof and can work from a satellite feed. Instead of using regular phones, the staff simply switches over to the satellite phones.

“We can upload and download data, but the satellite is a little slower,” Willson said. “So we have to be a little more deliberate in sharing data and making sure we prioritize it appropriately. But if the fiber was out, this unit could still go where it needs to and function.”

Another reason for the MCP’s success is the core staff of 25 trained professionals who go with it when it rolls. They come from the computer systems, environment, safety, operations and resources departments at Alyeska and train regularly for the emergency response work.

“Clearly the biggest benefit is when these trained people go hand in hand with the Mobile Command Post,” Willson said.

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