Shooting case puts focus on pipeline security
By Yereth Rosen

Reuters News Service
21 February, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - As the man accused of shooting holes in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline last October awaits judgment, also on trial is the security of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System itself.

If his statements to arresting officers, Daniel Lewis denied being at the site, claiming that he was at home asleep. "Ain't nobody seen me do it," Lewis, 37, described as being in an intoxicated state, told state troopers after the first of 285,000 gallons of crude oil began draining through the bullet holes near the mid-point of the 800-mile (1,300-km) pipeline.

Now Lewis, who has a long history of alcohol-induced crimes, faces two trials in state and federal courts in Fairbanks for a variety of charges stemming from his alleged role in one of Alaska's biggest oil spills.

The spill, which soaked about two acres of spruce forest, called into question the security of the oil pipeline system and renewed fears for its safety, already running high after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The pipeline delivers 1 million barrels a day, nearly a fifth of the nation's domestically produced oil. The single act of vandalism four months ago shut it down for two days, bringing North Slope oil production to a near-standstill.

The oil line threads through open tundra, rugged mountains and dense forests, and crosses hundreds of rivers and streams. Attempts to ward off potential saboteurs in such isolated areas can have only limited success, experts say.

"You can't watch every section every minute of the day. It's just not humanly possible," said Rhea DoBosh, a spokeswoman for the Joint Pipeline Office, the consortium of federal and state agencies that oversee the oil line.

Even its harshest critics concede that the operator, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., cannot be expected to guard all portions against potential attack. But they complain that Alyeska, despite its vows of vigilance, has shown itself ill-prepared to cope with emergencies that threaten the pipeline and its environment.

"It's much more vulnerable, in my estimation, because of the discrepancy between promise and performance," said Richard Fineberg, a Fairbanks environmental and economic consultant.

The pipeline shooting site was about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Fairbanks, near the tiny community of Livengood, Lewis' hometown. Prosecutors say that Lewis went on a drunken rampage on October 4, threatened his brother with a high-powered rifle, then pointed it at the pipeline and fired away until crude oil sprayed out of it.

Although the pipeline has been struck by stray bullets scores of times in the past, this was the first time a bullet had penetrated its thick layers of steel and insulation.

The resulting spill was the second-biggest from a breach in the oil line and the third-biggest in Alaska from the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.

Alyeska - a consortium owned by BP, Phillips, Exxon Mobil, Williams, Unocal and Amerada Hess - has spent $18 million so far on the cleanup, said company spokesman Tim Woolston. Cleanup is expected to continue through the summer and may require Alyeska to replace all the area's vegetation, he said.

Because of the shutdown, the state also lost an estimated $8 million in oil royalties and taxes.

The Joint Pipeline Office is completing a detailed study of how well Alyeska and regulators responded to the shooting.

Regulators and Gov. Tony Knowles, who toured the site, have praised Alyeska's actions. Still, it took more than a day for emergency workers to put a temporary, specially designed hydraulic clamp on the bullet hole and another day to weld it shut permanently.

Those repairs were done as quickly as possible, considering the safety risks, DoBosh said.

"There were vapors in the air. There was oil on the ground. It was not a safe work environment," she said, adding that Alyeska took time to ensure that the hydraulic clamp was installed safely.

But to Fineberg, a board member of a group called the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, that experience shows that Alyeska would be unable to respond to a better-planned attack.

"What would they do if they had somebody clever enough to shoot the pipeline twice? They have only one clamp," he said. "And what would they do if somebody shot it at a river or stream crossing, where they can't install the clamp?"

Pipeline security was heightened after the attacks on the World Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon.

The U.S. Coast Guard boosted its patrols of Prince William Sound, for example. And Knowles is seeking nearly $100 million in federal and state funds to enhance "homeland security" around Alaska, with some of it earmarked for pipeline safety.

Similar measures, many not detailed publicly, have been continued or increased since the October shooting.

"We were at a heightened level of security following September 11, and that's where we still are today," Alyeska spokesman Mike Heatwole said.

For the past two months, the state has operated a checkpoint at the southern end of the Dalton Highway, the utility road that parallels the pipeline and runs from the Livengood area to Prudhoe Bay.

The 414-mile (666-km) gravel trucking route is now open to limited public use. A surprising number of drivers have been turned away after weapons and alcohol were found in their cars, said Capt. Mike Haller of the Alaska National Guard.

As a further safeguard, Knowles has introduced a bill that would classify deliberate damage to the pipeline as a Class A felony, up from the current Class B status, potentially doubling jail time.

"Upping the penalty is not going to stop the al Qaidas of the world, but it may make others think twice," said Knowles press secretary Bob King.

That description might fit Lewis, a man who has spent about half of his adult life in jail. His record includes convictions for such offenses as assault, theft, burglary, harassment and drunk driving. In jail since his October arrest, he is scheduled to be tried in U.S. District Court in Fairbanks on February 25 on a charge of illegal weapons possession.

A broader trial on five other charges - criminal mischief, drunk driving, assault, oil pollution and misconduct involving a weapon - is scheduled for state Superior Court in Fairbanks in late September.

Convictions on the charges could carry a penalty of 20 years in jail.

Copyright Reuters News Service

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