Oil terminal sits in harm's way

Tom KizziaLos Angeles Times
Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co.'s oil storage tanks, sandwiched by the Drift River in the distance and the river's flood plain in the foreground, were unharmed by the surge of muddy water that flowed past after Redoubt Volcano erupted in January 1990.
ERIK HILL / Daily News archive 1990
Dark pathways of a lahar, or mudflow, streak the snow-covered Drift River valley after a lava dome collapsed down the steep north flank of Redoubt Volcano on March 9, 1990. This relatively small lahar swept 22 miles down Drift River valley to Cook Inlet. A few of the lahars were large enough to inundate the entire valley floor, which is about a mile and a quarter wide in this photograph.
Photograph by J. MAJOR / U.S. Geological Survey March 1990

When Mount Redoubt erupted 20 years ago, massive floods and raining pumice raised immediate alarms over the Drift River Oil Terminal, with its storage tanks of crude oil sitting at the foot of the volcano.

After several weeks of growing explosions, a big blast hit the lava dome, oil workers abandoned the scene by helicopter and the oil terminal was swept by a flood that turned the Drift River, briefly, into the largest river in North America.

Federal, state and industry officials debated for weeks what to do about the 900,000 barrels of crude stored in the river's 100-year floodplain. Oil levels were eventually reduced, then the tanks were emptied. For more than a week, that meant shutting down production on 10 Cook Inlet oil platforms, because there was no place to send the oil.

Now Redoubt is restless again. Strong seismic tremors came and went Friday, as scientists said an eruption appeared still to be building.

So what's the situation at Drift River this time?

Sorry. Nobody will say.

Citing new homeland security rules, a spokeswoman for Chevron refused to say how much oil is normally stored at Drift River these days, how much is currently on hand and whether there are plans to summon extra tankers and drain the tanks.

"That's not public information," said Chevron's Roxanne Sinz. "We can't release any numbers."

State and federal oil spill officials will go a bit further. They say the storage at Drift River is being reduced this week. But they won't say by how much.

"All I know is that the operators are keeping their levels down," said Dianne Munson with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. She said the terminal has seven 270,000-barrel tanks.

Munson also said a new protective dike built around the tanks at Drift River is designed to steer waters away from the facility if another monstrous flood occurs.

The dimensions of the Jan. 2, 1990, flood at Drift River were only understood much later, after scientists had a chance to study the area. The massive eruption melted the glacier off Redoubt's north face and flushed trees out of the rocky valley.

For perhaps an hour at the flood's peak, the Drift River was pushing an estimated 8,000 cubic meters of muddy water per second into Cook Inlet, a volume bigger than the Yukon River, said Chris Waythomas, a hydrologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

For a few minutes at its peak, that volume may have been as high as 60,000 cubic meters a second, far exceeding the output of the Mississippi, he said.

What's more, the biggest river on the continent was boiling hot, he said.

That flood swamped the berms around the oil tanks. No oil leaked, but the power generation system at the facility flooded, hampering efforts to resume pumping oil.

Farther north, the Drift River flood cut into the channel of Montana Bill Creek, scouring out the creek bed and exposing a buried oil pipeline, Waythomas said. Fortunately the channel shifted again, leaving the creek empty and the pipeline high and dry, he said. The local pipelines are buried 30 feet deep and anchored by concrete, according to press accounts from 1990.

Sensitivities about oil spills were strong when Redoubt last erupted. So was oversight of the oil industry. The Exxon Valdez had struck the rocks in Prince William Sound nine months earlier.

When Redoubt erupted with little warning, Drift River was holding 900,000 barrels of crude. Eventually all that crude was ordered shipped out in tankers as a precaution, and the oil platforms had to close down briefly.

This time, Redoubt has been rumbling for a week, with the Alaska Volcano Observatory saying an eruption could come at any time.

National attention on the well-wired volcano is growing. On Friday morning, a burst of pre-dawn news coverage triggered an eruption of Internet traffic from the East Coast that shut down the Alaska Volcano Observatory's ultra-cool Web site. Scientists fired up a low-bandwidth version with more limited information, and gradually brought back features such as the online seismometers.

The secrecy surrounding Drift River this week was exasperating to Bob Shavelson, executive director of the environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper. What's a bigger danger to the oil terminal, he asked Friday -- the volcano or al-Qaida?

"It's a perfect example of using terrorism to mask a public concern," Shavelson said. "How do you have an adequate oil spill response if you don't know the volume?"

A tanker is now at Drift River taking on oil, U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis in Anchorage said Friday. The tanker will carry the product to Nikiski, where Tesoro has a refinery.

But Francis said she did not know how much oil would be left at the Drift River terminal.

State and federal officials referred specific questions about oil at the facility to Chevron.

"It's not our policy to give out information about facility operations, and I can't make them," Francis said.

She said the federal Maritime Transportation Safety Act recommended keeping such information under wraps. "In theory, that information could make them a target," she said.

Sinz, the Chevron spokeswoman, would only say that Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co., the terminal's owners, was cooperating with state and federal oil spill plans.

Chevron's subsidiary, Union Oil of California, shares ownership of Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. with Pacific Energy, a Cook Inlet producer, Sinz said. She identified herself as spokeswoman for Cook Inlet Pipe Line as well as for Chevron.

She said she could not say whether the terminal handled more oil these days than it did 20 years ago, or less.

Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 907-235-4244.