Feds charge Fairbanks man with lying about 1978 pipeline sabotage bombing

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- An arrest in the biggest sabotage case in the history of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline came Friday, 36 years after the fact.

Federal authorities said they can't charge Phillip Martin Olson, 61, of Fairbanks, with the bombing because of the statute of limitations, which is five years in most federal crimes, though there are exceptions. But Olson has been charged with three counts of making false statements about the bombing and falsely accusing another person, identified only as "C.D.," as taking part in it.

The bombing shut the pipeline down for 20 hours, covering the snow in a 4-acre area with oil. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. placed a sleeve over the damaged section. A 20-foot piece of slow-burning fuse was found at the site. News reports at the time said the hole in the pipe was 1-2 inches across.

Investigators said the evidence at the scene showed the sabotage was the work of someone with a "knowledge of how to do it."

The FBI and Alaska State Troopers arrested Olson Friday morning and he entered a plea of not guilty. He is to be represented by a public defender. He is jailed pending a detention hearing Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Scott Oravec.

The statute of limitations is designed to "protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time and to minimize the danger of official punishment because of acts in the far-distant past," according to a summary quoted by the Congressional Research Service.

The indictment against Olson said the FBI learned last November that Olson had been making statements that he was the pipeline bomber. Even though an extensive investigation followed the blast, no one was ever charged.

The indictment says Olson "consistently admitted" to the FBI and Alaska State Troopers that he set off the blast that spilled 658,000 gallons, or 15,667 barrels, of crude oil, which happened eight months after the pipeline went into operation. In recent interviews, "Olson described in detail how he had planned and prepared to attack the pipeline with an explosive device and explained exactly how he had ... carried out the actual bombing."

The indictment says that officers were able to corroborate his statements. But they could not prove that another person, referred to as "C.D." by federal authorities, was involved.

The indictment says Olson falsely implicated C.D., knowing that C.D. did not participate in the "actual bombing." Olson allegedly made the false statements in interviews Nov. 7, Nov. 21 and Jan. 9, the indictment charges.

The pipeline sabotage occurred Feb. 14, 1978, near Nordale Road and Chena Hot Springs Road in the hills about 10 miles east of Fairbanks. It remains the largest oil spill connected with the main part of the pipeline.

It was discovered by a pilot, and when workers arrived at the scene they found oil hitting the ground and "bounding about 20 feet into the air," an Alyeska spokesman said in 1978.

"The explosive charge, which consisted of a commercial explosive composed as a shaped charge specifically designed to cut metal, had been placed inside the insulation layer on the pipeline and next to the steel pipe itself," the indictment said.

Reach Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.