View Full Version : Under the volcano

04-27-2009, 11:52 AM
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(04/25/09 21:13:50)

When Mount Redoubt began erupting last month, the nearby Drift River oil terminal suddenly emerged from the obscurity of a low-key industrial facility to the potential source of an environmental disaster on the scale of the Exxon Valdez.

And with its place in the spotlight came an obvious question: How could such a hazardous facility have been built there, just 22 miles from Redoubt's cone?

"That is the most consistent question I hear on the street," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Cook Inletkeeper. "The everyday, walking-around person scratches their head when they hear there's an oil terminal at the base of an active volcano."

The precise details of why it's there are lost in the haze of history. The current owners, Chevron-managed Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co., say they inherited the facility in 2005 when Chevron bought out Unocal, the prior operator, and don't know its full history. State records show that officials from Mobil, one of Cook Inlet Pipe Line's original owners, initiated the purchase and lease of two state land parcels for the terminal in early 1966.

A workaday storage and transit facility for crude oil, tiny by comparison with industrial monsters like the Valdez terminal and accessible only by air or boat, Drift River usually operates with routine monotony. The oil comes in from platforms in Cook Inlet. The oil goes out in the hulls of tankers.

State records show it received its first permits in 1966 and was licensed to operate in 1967, but there's no record of a public discussion of the facility. The state file of its 55-year tidelands lease to Cook Inlet Pipe Line has not a single word justifying the use of that particular site. The modern environmental movement was just dawning then, and it would be three years before President Richard Nixon would sign the National Environmental Policy Act with its requirement for a detailed impact statement -- including alternatives -- on projects like Drift River.

Kevin Banks, director of the state's Oil & Gas Division, said the question of why the oil terminal was built at the foot of an active volcano has been the talk of his office too. While the risks are now obvious, it's easy to see the advantages of Drift River, he said. The land there is flat, the beach heads straight into the Inlet, then drops off. The Christy Lee platform, a loading dock a mile offshore in deep water, connects to the terminal by pipeline.

"You have to go miles (offshore) before it drops off -- everywhere except at Drift River," Banks said.

Walt Parker, a retired state transportation and oil official, said Drift River "was the first place they could get reasonable size tankers into" going south from the oil fields.

John Norman, a member of the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission with long involvement in the industry as an attorney, said that in the 1960s the state was so hungry for economic development that it sometimes accepted projects without question.

State land records show Cook Inlet Pipe Line bought 898 acres for the terminal for $36,000 on April 26, 1966. A separate lease governing 392 acres of adjacent tidelands for access and pipelines initially cost the company $500 a year when it was signed June 13, 1966. The current annual rent is $5,750. The lease expires in 2021.

At the time of its charter in 1966, the Cook Inlet Pipe Line was owned by Mobil, Unocal, Marathon and Atlantic Richfield.

Larry Smith, a long-term Homer activist who served on the federally chartered Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Committee when it was founded after the Exxon Valdez spill, said the Drift River terminal completely escaped his notice when it was built.

"There weren't any questions about it," he said.

Now that the terminal is in place and the Cook Inlet oil fields are in decline, it would be uneconomical to relocate the facility, said Santana Gonzalez, a spokesman for Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co.

"Several options are being studied but we cannot get into that at this time," he said in an e-mail message.

Petty Officer Sara Francis, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, one of the facility's regulators, said the owners are considering a workaround that would keep it open but would dismantle the current tanks. In their place would be a new tank and pumping system that could empty the tanks quickly in an emergency, she said. Now, the pump intakes are above the bottom of the tanks and there's no easy way to drain them dry.


When the Cook Inlet fields were in their prime in the 1970s, tankers would call at Christy Lee every other day. They'd sometimes be backed up in the lower Inlet for a chance to load. With production outstripping the capacity of local refineries, they'd frequently haul their cargo to the Lower 48 and sometimes to Asia.

Now a tanker arrives about once a month and delivers the oil a few miles away at Nikiski, where it accounts for about one-fourth of the crude refined there by Tesoro.

Or did.

Since March 23, when workers hastily retreated as a gush of cement-like mud and water boiled down from Redoubt's flanks, Drift River oil terminal has ceased normal operations.

At the time of the eruption, more than 6 million gallons of crude were stored there, but a dike built in 1990 held back the flood from the tanks. Since then, workers returned to drain off more than half the oil, but 2.5 million gallons of sludge and oil remain, with more in pipelines connecting it to tanks and processing facilities at Trading Bay and Granite Point to the north.

With no place to put oil, the 10 platforms on the west side of Cook Inlet have shut down, with an economic loss of millions of dollars in unproduced oil, uncollected taxes, reduced contractor services and possible layoffs.

Francis, the Coast Guard spokeswoman, said it could be months before Drift River reopens. The airstrip, outside the dikes, was inundated with mud and clearing it alone will take about 20 working days. The tanks will have to be drained and scrubbed before they can be used again, a process that normally takes four months, she said. Engineers are also thinking of raising the dike, which is up to 25 feet tall; while it held against the floods, some mud splashed over the top.

And Redoubt is still capable of exploding unpredictably over the next months.

"They're not focusing on moving oil," Francis said. "They're focusing on removing the (stored oil) while it continues to be in the shadow of an erupting volcano."


That Redoubt is an active volcano should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. Capt. James Cook, for whom the Inlet is named, noticed "white smoke but no fire" coming from Redoubt in 1778. Over the course of written history, geologists say it is the second-most active of Cook Inlet's four active volcanoes.

In 1966, even as Drift River was being considered as the site for the oil terminal, a 22-man survey crew camping at the lower river there had to be hastily evacuated when an explosion melted part of the Drift Glacier and sent a flood of mud downstream. The crew reported that the river rose four feet in 15 minutes and carried ice chunks the size of a D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer, according to an account published in the Daily News on Jan. 26, 1966.

The volcano produced six explosions between Jan. 24 and Feb. 20, 1966, and five more from Dec. 7, 1967, to April 28, 1968. Then the eruption ended and it quieted for two decades.

The first time that Chris Nye wondered why Drift Terminal was built beneath a volcano was as an undergraduate geology student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the 1970s. Nye, now a state geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, saw a film in class that was made during construction of the terminal.

Nye recalls the film showing workers operating heavy equipment suddenly brought to a halt by an eruption of Redoubt and a huge flood. When the waters subside, the crew goes back to work.

"Engineers, they probably had the expectation that when the terminal was put in, it had a lifespan of maybe 30 years or so," said Banks, the state oil and gas director. "In a 30-year period it would appear to be very unlikely that the volcano would blow up. It just happens to have done it twice in 40 years."

Redoubt exploded at 9:47 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1989. It exploded 22 more times until it began to quiet in late April 1990.

More than 37 million gallons of crude was in storage at Drift River at the time -- three times the amount of oil spilled from the tanker Exxon Valdez in early 1989. The Drift River shifted from one channel and into another, demonstrating how unpredictable it can be. Mudflows inundated the tank farm, but the tanks didn't leak.

The terminal closed and oil production halted in Cook Inlet. In response, Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. built a concrete- armored dike around the facility. Construction of the nearly two-mile wall began April 9, 1990, and concluded that August.

Art Wettanen, a heavy equipment operator in Talkeetna, was among the first construction workers at the site. His first job was to bulldoze a trail through from the airstrip to the beach through the mud.

"It was treacherous coming and going," he recalled in an interview last week. "I started digging a trench, slinging it both ways. I was sinking to top of the tracks" of the bulldozer.

"In that volcanic ash, there were a lot of equipment breakdowns," he said. "Everyone wore rubber boots, like the fishermen. It was so sticky, if you sunk into it level with the tops of your toes and you stood there long enough, it was like quicksand. It would take your boots right off. It was horrible."

At the tank farm, the high-water level was about 25 feet up the sides of the tanks, Wettanen said. Seeing the close call made him wonder: "Why in the hell? How in the hell did they come to built it right here in this particular spot?"

Despite the rush job -- "it was like a war zone" with more than 160 construction workers working overtime -- the dike was built "to perfection," Wettanen said.


Chris Waythomas, an Alaska Volcano Observatory hydrologist, said two big floods in the current eruption are comparable to the biggest ones 19 years ago, when output of the Drift River exceeded that of the Yukon.

"These flows are moving large boulders of ice, 30 to 50 tons. It's really an impressive scale of flooding," Waythomas said.

And there's still plenty of ice left -- 20 to 30 percent of what was originally on the mountain when it started erupting March 22, Waythomas said. While the volcano has been quiet since its largest explosion of the current string, on April 4, it's building a massive dome that could collapse or explode and generate another flood.

Nye, the state geologist, said the previous three eruptions are small compared to recent prehistory. About 3,000 years ago, a massive eruption created Crescent Lake on the south side of Redoubt.

"That was a much bigger deal than anything that's come down the Drift River in historic times," Nye said.

"The dikes that are out there obviously were tall enough, but just barely, that they didn't get overtopped this year," Nye said. What would happen if the next blast from Redoubt was as big an explosion as could be expected every thousand years, not every 20, Nye wondered.

"This whole thing, you're playing with probabilities -- the numeric probabilities of a bad situation you're willing to accept," Nye said. But there's been little public discussion about how the risks were calculated at Drift River, he said.

"I haven't heard the discussion about the level of volcanic hazard people are living with," he said.


When Redoubt, with its then-untested dike, began to rumble in January, scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory warned an eruption was possible. Shavelson, of Cook Inletkeeper, asked Cook Inlet Pipe Line, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for a report on the amount of oil stored. That number would tell whether nearby clean-up equipment was up to the task, he said.

He was told the information was a homeland security secret. Reporters got the same response.

Shavelson said he suspected the company just didn't want to reveal the risks to the public. It wasn't until the eruption started and the facility was abandoned out of fears for worker safety that Cook Inlet Pipe Line disclosed the tanks held 6.2 million gallons.

There's evidence to support Shavelson's suspicion that the company's concern about disclosure wasn't out of fear of terrorist attack. Despite the dangerous levels of oil in its tanks, the facility didn't have a single closed-circuit camera to monitor what was happening after the workers left. Francis, the Coast Guard spokeswoman, said cameras were finally installed two weeks ago, enabling real-time remote monitoring of access points and other areas of security interest at the facility.


Drift River would have been unnecessary if a large-enough pipeline had been laid across Cook Inlet.

Rod Ficken, Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. vice president, said such a project would have been a huge technological challenge in the 1960s, given the Inlet's ferocious tides and deep shipping channel. Divers report boulders the size of cars routinely roll along the bottom.

A former producer, Amoco, built a 10-inch pipeline across the Inlet from platforms near Trading Bay, but it failed repeatedly and was abandoned in 1977. Years later, it began burping residual oil, leading to a clean up by BP, the successor to Amoco, in 2002 that was expected to cost up to $7 million.

Rick Kuprewicz, an oil-facility consultant in Redmond, Wash., said pipeline technology has come a long way since the 1960s, but the small volume of production now would probably not justify such a project.

Kuprewicz, who's familiar with Drift River from his days as an Arco official on the Kenai Peninsula, said oil companies "get kind of crazy about cost reductions" when fields begin to reach the end of their lives.

"You have to spend money to ensure oil stays under control," Kuprewicz said, noting that a spill could pollute the entrance to the Kenai River.

Shortly after the first Redoubt explosions this year, officials said they couldn't easily drain the tanks because the pump intakes sat several feet above the bottom of the storage tanks.

Kuprewicz said it may be possible to construct new defenses by modifying the terminal and tanks, such as a self-draining bottom that would enable them to be speedily emptied.

"There's always more than one solution," Kuprewicz said.