Cause of BP oil spill on Alaska's North Slope is unknown

More than 100 local, state, federal and oil industry employees have responded to a BP oil spill discovered early Sunday on Alaska's North Slope.

The spill covers about three-quarters of an acre. Cleanup supervisors have called in help from multiple agencies and have those on scene operating under intense safety measures as they begin to clear away the mess and investigate what happened.

Officials say they still don't know the basics: What caused the spill from the pipeline, which had been shut down weeks earlier because of ice plugs? How much oil leaked out onto the snow-covered tundra? All of that is being investigated, said spokesman Steve Rinehart of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

A unified command team was formed to deal with the leak, which doesn't happen for minor spills, said Weld Royal, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The team includes representatives from BP, DEC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the North Slope Borough. As of Tuesday, 108 people were working on a response to the spill, including 75 on the Slope and 33 in Anchorage. DEC alone enlisted 27 employees.

The spill comes at a difficult time for BP, which is on probation after pleading guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor violation of the federal Clean Water Act. That charge stemmed from a spill of more than 200,000 gallons of oil in 2006 from a corroded pipe. The corporation paid $20 million in fines and restitution and is in its third and final year of probation under a plea deal.

The circumstances of the latest spill are being watched by the federal probation office in Anchorage.

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