Courts & Crime

BP worker found 'cold' pipe weeks before North Slope spill

The BP lead operator who found signs of a frozen pipeline on Alaska's North Slope back in November 2009 testified in federal court Monday that he stumbled on the problem accidentally when he was checking other equipment with a hand-held laser device no bigger than a calculator.

As a lead operator, Tony Jackson oversees daily operations at the Lisburne Production Center, where oil is separated from the water and natural gas produced from wells. He now also is a witness for BP as the oil company defends itself in Anchorage against government accusations that the circumstances surrounding a 2009 spill from that frozen pipeline amount to criminal behavior.

On the stand Monday in U.S. District Court, Jackson said he was working the night shift on Nov. 14, 2009, when he discovered that the pipe inside the heated facility was just 55 degrees, much colder than it should have been.

He and others began to troubleshoot. A crude oil heater for that pipeline was being repaired. BP soon determined that oil had stopped flowing and that the pipeline was frozen. Operators and managers took the issue seriously, Jackson testified. The plan was to try to thaw the pipeline.

No one realized just how big the problem was, according to his testimony.

"Rupturing was not on our radar at the time," Jackson said. Another BP pipeline that froze thawed on its own without rupturing, he said.

Two weeks after Jackson found the cold pipe at Lisburne, before BP could execute its thaw plan, the pipeline did rupture, spilling an estimated 13,500 gallons of crude on the snow and tundra. Excess pressure from expanding ice blew a 2-foot-hole in the metal wall of the pipe.


BP has been on criminal probation since 2007 for an earlier, much bigger spill. Federal prosecutors say that BP was negligent and failed to properly respond to signs of trouble with the Lisburne pipeline. They want U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to revoke BP's probation and resentence the company with an additional period of probation and new fines. BP argues that the line had worked properly for almost 25 years and that it couldn't have foreseen pressure building to the point of blowing it open. The spill was thoroughly cleaned up, BP says.

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