Oil major BP's failure to maintain pipelines properly at its giant Prudhoe Bay field was a major factor behind Alaska's worst-ever onshore crude spill last year, a senior federal official said.
A year into an investigation of the spill, the U.S. Department of Transport continues to focus on BP's upkeep of facilities at the nation's biggest field as it awaits the final results of laboratory analysis on the corroded pipeline.
"The fundamental issue with these lines was that they were not properly maintained," Thomas Barrett, head of the DOT's pipeline safety office, told Reuters in an interview late on Friday.
"BP didn't understand the condition of the lines and they deteriorated from corrosion and then had failures."
Last March, workers discovered a corroded oil transit pipeline at the Prudhoe Bay field had leaked undetected for several days, spilling at least 200,000 gallons of crude onto the northern state's tundra.
The spill added to BP's troubles in the United States where a string of accidents and accusations of market manipulation damaged its carefully constructed image as a progressive energy company.
The discovery of further corrosion in another Prudhoe Bay transit pipeline in August sparked multiple investigations and led federal and state politicians to accuse BP of negligence.
"What was most unusual was to have an operator like BP not maintaining (these pipelines) to the standards we typically see in the industry," said Barrett.
Various state and federal civil and criminal investigations have so far not led to any fines or charges against BP. State and federal authorities may decide to file charges after the laboratory analysis of the corroded pipeline is completed in the spring.
Barrett contends that BP's failure to use internal cleaning and inspection tools inside the lines, a standard industry practice, allowed corrosion to build up undetected.
BP said late on Monday that its corrosion and leak detection program met or exceeded what was required under Alaskan law and that its own inspections indicated the integrity of the lines was satisfactory.
While DOT investigators await the final results of lab tests on the pipeline, early indications are that water accumulated in pipeline, causing the corrosion, Barrett said.
Accumulated sediment as well as microbial corrosion also appear to be factors.
"The fact that the lines were not being regularly cleaned allowed the moisture to get in there and work against the metal," said Barrett.
BP noted an appreciable buildup of sediment in an eastern segment of the line as early as 2002, but Alaska regulators accepted the company's argument that cleaning it was "impractical."
The segment was found to be seriously corroded and leaking small amounts of oil in August of last year following a government-ordered inspection, which forced the partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay for two months.
Following the discovery of the corrosion problems on the eastern transit pipelines, BP promised to replace the entire system amid an uproar from environmentalists and politicians.
The company began work on the replacement project with the onset of winter in Alaska and expects to have rebuilt the entire Prudhoe Bay oil transit system by the end of 2008.
Barrett said he was satisfied with the project even though it was taking longer than had originally thought, since the redesign was going to make inspecting and maintaining the pipeline much easier.
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