Courts & Crime

BP's 2009 Alaska oil spill case goes to judge

The question of whether the circumstances surrounding a 2009 BP oil spill on Alaska's North Slope amount to another environmental crime by the corporation -- justifying new penalties -- now is before U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline.

Prosecutors and lawyers for BP gave closing arguments Wednesday in a hearing that began Nov. 29.

A pipeline feeding into BP's Lisburne Production Center froze, then ruptured in November 2009, spilling more than 15,200 gallons of crude oil. That's a slightly higher figure than even prosecutors initially used but, according to a BP spokesman, includes oil recovered from the snow and tundra as well as what likely evaporated. BP has been on criminal probation since 2007 for an earlier, much bigger spill and was under order not to commit any new environmental crimes.

The hearing took almost seven days and included five lawyers, giant binders of exhibits, and videos of federal agents tromping through wetlands. One BP lawyer wondered the probation revocation case set a record, considering the underlying conviction was a misdemeanor. BP hasn't been charged criminally for the 2009 spill, but a criminal investigation is ongoing, prosecutors said.

Ten times in the summer and fall of 2009, a temperature sensor on the Lisburne pipeline triggered a cold alarm that sounded like a train whistle and flashed on a control room monitor. But operators at the Lisburne Production Center failed to act on the alarm beyond acknowledging it, which turned off the sound and blinking signal, assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward said in her closing argument. They never investigated why it kept going off, she said. By August, the pipeline stayed cold, according to a government analysis of the alarms.

"After that point, the alarm latched in and became buried on the board," Steward said. A buried alarm is so deep on the alarm list, operators no longer see it.

As temperatures dropped into the fall, ice plugs formed in the pipe, which carried a mix of natural gas, water and crude. When the ice expanded, excess pressure built from the gas and the thick metal pipe blew open with a two-foot hole.

"From operators all the way up to the area manager, it was agreed that had the plug been discovered prior to the freezing temperatures, it would not have been a problem and much easier to address," Steward said.

But BP operators testified that they didn't use the cold temperature alarms to warn that the pipeline was improperly cooling down, but rather to indicate a slug of natural gas moving through, information that would be conveyed to the drill site.

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