A watchdog group is calling on the operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline to stop workers from removing snow piled atop oil tanks at the pipeline’s terminal in Valdez, alleging a series of hazards including unsafe practices, faulty equipment and risk of fire or explosion.
In a Monday letter addressed to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.’s interim president, Danika Yeager, leaders of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council wrote that their organization has “become aware of serious safety and environmental concerns” related to Alyeska’s snow removal effort.
“We are concerned that there is an imminent risk of an incident that could result in serious injury or loss of life for the snow removal crews and technicians while actively working on the tank tops,” the letter says. “There also remains an active, and credible risk, that the combination of vapor releases and sparking could cause a serious explosion or fire, that could result in an oil spill.”
In an interview, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said that the company will stop snow removal if it determines there is too great a risk to workers.
She said Alyeska stopped the work over the weekend to address contractors’ concerns. But the company has not yet determined how it will respond to the council’s request to stop all snow removal work.
“We will assess the concerns that are raised here, and then determine if we feel comfortable continuing to work,” Egan said. “And if we need to stop work, we will.”
Asked whether Alyeska agrees with the council that there is an “active and credible risk” of fire, explosion or an oil spill, Egan said, “we have assessed the risks and we have taken the steps necessary to minimize and mitigate that kind of risk.”
About 85 contractors are currently working nearly around the clock to shovel off the tops of the tanks at the Valdez Marine Terminal, the endpoint of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline that carries a half-million barrels of crude from the North Slope each day — some 2.5% of America’s daily oil consumption.
Alyeska, owned by affiliates of oil producers Hilcorp, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, operates the facility.
Valdez is one of Alaska’s snowiest communities, and while Alyeska has largely blamed its tank problems on unusually high late winter snowfall, accumulations are still far below record levels, according to federal data.
The company says the clearing process could take weeks due to the tanks’ massive size and the delicacy of the operation, which is done by hand.
[Previous coverage: Snow pileup damages Alaska pipeline company’s massive Valdez oil tanks]
Pressure from the head-high accumulated snow has broken off valves along the upper edges of the tanks. That’s allowed the release of petroleum vapors from at least seven tanks in violation of Alyeska’s Clean Air Act permit, according to state regulators.
The releases also pose risks to workers, who are equipped with respirators to protect them from hydrocarbons like benzene, which is dangerous to breathe at certain levels.
The council’s letter, obtained by the Daily News, lists six specific concerns about Alyeska’s management of the snow problem. They include the risk of explosion from leaking gases, the potential for contractors’ footwear to generate sparks, a faulty emergency evacuation system, inconsistent use of respirators and unreliable vapor detection equipment.
Citing a previous Anchorage Daily News report and information the council received independently from Alyeska employees, the letter also cites a “fear of retaliation” against workers voicing safety concerns.
In a phone interview Monday, the council’s executive director, Donna Schantz, and board chair, Bob Archibald, said they did not intend the letter to be released publicly so soon after it was sent.
But they said that after hearing from several concerned Alyeska employees, they felt compelled to draft it over the weekend, particularly, they said, because of the workers’ fears of retaliation.
“We don’t normally approach things like this. But we really felt we had a duty to raise these concerns in a direct and strong manner in order to get attention to them,” Schantz said. “The immediate risk really seemed to warrant this strong letter.”
There are 14 storage tanks at the Valdez terminal, where crude…