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Opening ANWR to Dev. Could Lead To Disaster

Opening ANWR to Development Could Lead to 'Exxon Valdez' Type of Disaster, Activist Claims


By Jason Leopold

It's true that thousands of caribou and other types of wildlife will be displaced if Washington D.C. lawmakers pass a measure to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But there's an even bigger issue floating under the radar: the very real possibility of an environmental tragedy that could be as catastrophic as the 1989 oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker if swift measures aren't taken to address severe safety and maintenance issues plaguing drilling operations in nearby Prudhoe Bay-North America's biggest oil field, 60 miles west of ANWR-and other areas on Alaska's North Slope.

That's just one of many alarming claims that employees working for BP, the parent of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., the Anchorage company that runs the 24-year-old Prudhoe Bay on behalf of Phillips Alaska Inc., Exxon Mobil and other oil companies, have made over the years as a way of drawing attention to the dozens of oil spills-three of which occurred between March and April alone-that could boil over and happen at ANWR if BP continues to neglect safety issues and the area is opened up to further oil and gas exploration.

Now, as President Bush renews his calls for opening up ANWR to development, some of those very same BP employees are blowing the whistle on their company yet again and are turning to the one person who helped them expose oil companies' cover ups on Alaska's North Slope.

Chuck Hamel, an Alexandria, Va., oil industry watchdog has been leading the fight for the past 15 years against corporations' BP, Conoco Phillips and ExxonMobil shoddy crude oil operations in Alaska. The safety and maintenance issues that Hamel and the BP whistleblowers brought to the attention of Congress and the public four years ago were supposed to be addressed by the oil company. Back in the 1980s, Hamel was the first person to expose weak pollution laws at the Valdez tanker port and electrical and maintenance problems with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Hamel, who is protecting the identities of the current whistleblowers, says not only do oil spills continue on the North Slope because BP neglects to address maintenance issues, but the oil behemoth's executives routinely lie to Alaskan state representatives and members of the United States Senate and Congress about the steps they're taking to correct the problems. The company also denies its employees claims of safety issues at its crude oil production facilities on the North Slope.

Hamel, however, has got some damning evidence on BP: photographs showing oil wells spewing a brown substance known as drilling muds, which contain traces of crude oil, on two separate occasions. Hamel says he's determined to expose BP's shoddy operations and throw a wrench in President Bush's plans to open up ANWR to drilling.

"I am going to throw a hiccup into the ANWR legislation," Hamel said in an interview. "Until these oil companies clean up their act they can't drill in ANWR because they are spilling oil in the North Slope." If oil companies continue to fail to address safety problems at the North Slope "they'll have another Exxon Valdez" type of oil spill on their hands, Hamel said.

On April 15, Hamel sent a letter to Senator Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate energy and natural resources committee, saying there have been three spills between late March and early April, at a time when BP and two of its drilling contractors are under investigation for charges of failing to report other oil spills in late 2004 and in January of this year.

"You obviously are unaware of the cheating by some producers and drilling companies," Hamel said in the letter to Domenici, an arch proponent of drilling in ANWR. "Your official Senate tour" of Alaska in March "was masked by the orchestrated 'dog and pony show' provided you at the new Alpine Field, away from the real world of the Slope's dangerously unregulated operations." Domenici's office said the senator is reviewing Hamel's letter. In that letter, Hamel also claimed that whistleblowers had told of another cover-up, dating back to 2003, in which Pioneer Natural Resources and its drilling contractor, Nabors Alaska Drilling, allegedly disposed of more than 2,000 gallons of toxic drilling mud and fluids through the ice "to save the cost of proper disposal on shore."

Hamel has had his share of detractors, notably BP and several Alaskan state officials, who said he's a conspiracy theorist, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But Hamel was vindicated in March when Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed Hamel's claims of major spills in December 2004 and July 2003 at the oil well owned by BP and operated by its drilling contractor, Nabors, on the North Slope, which the company never reported as required by state law.

Hamel filed a formal complaint in January with the EPA, claiming he had pictures showing a gusher spewing a brown substance. An investigation by Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation determined that as much as 294 gallons of drilling mud was spilled when gas was sucked into wells, causing sprays of drilling muds and oil that shot up as high as 85 feet into the air.

Because both spills exceeded 55 gallons, BP and Nabors were obligated under a 2003 compliance agreement that BP signed with Alaska to immediately report the spills. That didn't occur, said Leslie Pearson, the agency's spill prevention and emergency response manager. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said the company did report the spills after learning about it and said the spill wasn't that big of a deal.

"In this case, the drilling rig operators did not feel this type of event qualified for reporting," Beaudo told the Anchorage Daily News in March. "Obviously the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation felt otherwise and that's what they're saying as a result of their investigation. It's a matter of interpretation."

Beaudo said the agency's findings are in line with BP's own investigation that the spills did not cause any harm to the environment, aside from some speckles on the snow.

But what's troubling to Hamel is that Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation has let BP off with a slap on the wrist. The agency is not penalizing BP; rather it said that it will ensure that the company reports other spills in a timely manner.

That plays into Hamel's other theory: that the state of Alaska is in cahoots with the oil industry and routinely fails to enforce laws that would hold those companies liable for violating environmental regulations.

Safety Issues and Poor Maintenance at North Slope Oil Facilities Ongoing For Years

In April of 2001, whistleblowers informed Hamel and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who at the time was touring the Prudhoe Bay oil fields that the safety valves at Prudhoe Bay, which kick in the event of a pipeline rupture, failed to close. Secondary valves that connect the oil platforms with processing plants also failed to close. And because the technology at Prudhoe Bay would be duplicated at ANWR that means that the potential for a massive explosion and huge spills are very real.

"A major spill or fire at one of our [processing centers] will exit the piping at high pressure, and leave a half-mile-wide oil slick on the white snow all the way" Hamel said at the time in an interview with the Wall Street Journal

That type of catastrophic scenario was wiped out of everyone's minds after 9/11 happened.

But then in March of 2002, a BP whistleblower brought up the very same issues and went public with his claims of maintenance backlogs and employee shortages at Prudhoe Bay that he said could worsen spills on the North Slope, particularly if ANWR is opened up to exploration.

The whistleblower, Robert Brian, who worked as an instrument technician at Prudhoe Bay for 22 years, had a lengthy meeting with aides to Senators Jospeh Lieberman and Bob Graham, both Democrats, to discuss his claims.

At the time, Brian said he supported opening up ANWR to oil exploration but said BP has imperiled that goal because it is ''putting Prudhoe workers and the environment at risk."

''We are trying to change that so we don't have a catastrophe that ends up on CNN and stops us from getting into ANWR,'' according to a March 13, 2002 report in the Anchorage Daily News.

In 2001, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found high failure rates on some Prudhoe wellhead safety valves. The company was put on federal criminal probation after one of its contractors dumped thousands of gallons of toxic material underground at BP's Endicott oil field in the 1990s. BP pleaded guilty to the charges in 2000 and paid a $6.5 million fine, and agreed to set up a nationwide environmental management program that has cost more than $20 million.

But Hamel and the whistleblowers', including Brian, said BP continued to violate environmental rules and then attempted to cover it up.

A BP spokesman said those claims "are an outright lie."

Still, despite the charges leveled against BP by the whistleblowers, which were aired as early as April 2001, the Senate never held hearings on the safety issues that over the years have caused dozens of oil spills at oil production facilities on the North Slope. Drilling in ANWR and President Bush's energy bill took a backseat following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing war in Iraq. Now, with gasoline prices soaring and Bush's claims that drilling in ANWR would reduce this country's dependence on foreign oil lawmakers are being urged to once again investigate the issue and hold hearings before approving any legislation that would open up ANWR to development.

BP has long been criticized for poorly managing the North Slope's aging pipelines, safety valves and other critical components of its oil production infrastructure. The company has in the past made minor improvements to its valves and fire detection systems and hired additional employees but has dropped the ball and neglected to maintain a level of safety at its facilities on the North Slope, Hamel said.

"Contrary to what President Bush has been saying, the current BP Prudhoe Bay operations -- particularly the dysfunctional safety valves -- are deeply flawed and place the environment, the safety of the operations staff and the integrity of the facility at risk. The president should delay legislation calling for drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Hamel told the Wall Street Journal.

*************

© 2005 Jason Leopold

Jason Leopold's controversial memoir, Off the Record was days away from being printed when his publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, abruptly canceled the book in February after receiving a complaint from an attorney representing Steve Maviglio, the former press secretary to California Gov. Gray Davis, over the way he was portrayed in the publisher's press release about the book. Visit Leopold's website at www.jasonleopold.com


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