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Judge: 2009 BP oil spill in Alaska did not violate probation

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Alaska Dispatch photo

A federal judge ruled Tuesday in Anchorage that BP was not negligent in its handling of a 2009 oil spill and therefore did not violate the terms of its probation.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline found that the spill was not caused by corrosion or improper maintenance, as federal prosecutors in Alaska alleged.

At issue was whether the company should continue to be on federal probation, which it had been on intermittently since 2001. The latest term was due to end in November 2010, but BP's federal probation officer asked that it be revoked before then because of the 2009 spill that dumped 13,500 gallons of oil onto the tundra.

The line that ruptured at the company's Lisburne field on Alaska's North Slope near Prudhoe Bay had been completely or partially frozen as long as six months as the ice inside expanded. Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward alleged the company should have known the pipe was frozen and that cost-cutting measures resulted in improper maintenance and monitoring.

The judge agreed with BP's lawyer Jeff Feldman. Beistline found that the circumstances surrounding the spill were unique and that BP "was following accepted industry practices at all relevant times and could not have reasonably expected a blowout similar to the one that occurred."

A majority of the crude ended up under and near the pipeline, with the consistency of a "semi-solid surface," a "stiff Slurpee" or a "snow cone," according to an EPA agent on the scene at the time. But at least some of the oil ended up spreading across the Arctic tundra, in what was consistently described during the hearing as a "plume."

In addition to probation revocation, the government charged that BP violated the Clean Water Act because some oil found its way into U.S. waters. Beistline ruled that had the company acted negligently it would have violated the act, but he concluded that “BP’s conduct at the time of the 2009 incident was not negligent given the state of knowledge that existed” at the time of the spill.

BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the company is “pleased with the decision and appreciate the court's attention.” He said BP knows “that the privilege of working in Alaska comes with a responsibility to maintain high standards. We will continue our commitment to running safe and compliant operations.”

Beistline wrote that although the week-long hearing was “costly to all,” it was in the end “worthwhile if only to demonstrate the high regard society places on the environment as the nation’s natural resources are harvested.”

Had the judge ruled against BP, the company could have faced additional fines, and the government might have brought felony charges stemming from the spill.  

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com