A US congressman on Tuesday demanded that US officials explain their decision to waive a deadline for BP to perform high-tech maintenance and corrosion checks on Alaska pipelines, following a 270,000-gallon spill of crude oil from a corroded pipeline.
With BP's Alaska operations under grand jury investigation following the spill, the Department of Transportation (DoT) sought to play down the extension on Tuesday.
"BP won't be able to postpone testing requirements,'' the department said.
However, the department said it was letting its deadline to perform the high-tech testing by Thursday pass unmet, permitting BP to do the tests when it deems it "technically feasible" to do so.
"The Department of Transportation must explain why it is not requiring BP to meet all of the requirements of the corrective action order imposed after the spill," said John D. Dingell, senior Democrat on the US House of Representatives' committee on energy and commerce.
"Did DoT not mean what it said in the order?" Mr Dingell said. "Or are the BP pipelines in such a sorry state that compliance is impossible?"
The Michigan congressman had earlier said BP officials had told his staff there could be up to 2,000 cubic yards of sludge in the lines, after some went as long as 16 years without the high-tech scraper "pigging" to clean the sludge out of the lines and the "smart pigging" to check for corrosion.
The sludge only came to light following the spill on March 2 – the biggest ever at Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field.
The department responded by issuing a corrective action order requiring BP to "smart pig" key lines within 90 days, but BP admitted to the sludge build-up, and said it could not meet the deadline.
"We are still evaluating data and working to assess sediment quantities in these transit lines," BP said.
It said some lines were further affected by a grand jury subpoena requirement to remove a segment of the oil transit line, which made pigging impossible.
The federal grand jury criminal investigation was instigated after the March spill.
Not only is it embarrassing for the oil group, but if the grand jury indicts BP and it is convicted, it could face significant fines and heightened scrutiny, and individual employees could face prison terms.
"We are pleased DOT has authorised continued operation of Prudhoe Bay oil transit lines," BP said.
It said the DOT was satisfied that BP had done direct ultrasonic inspection of multiple locations where corrosion was likely.
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