Ten days after a natural gas leak was discovered at its Alpine oil development on Alaska’s North Slope, ConocoPhillips is still trying to identify the exact source and says it’s warming up a drilling rig that it could use to pinpoint it.
Officials from the company, along with leaders of the North Slope Borough and the local Native village corporation, continue to reassure residents of the neighboring village of Nuiqsut that the leak at Alpine, roughly 8 miles away, poses no threat to public safety.
And Conoco says the ongoing gas release has diminished to “below detectable levels” at the pad, CD-1, where it was first discovered.
But the village’s mayor, in a phone interview Monday, said she’s frustrated that the company ended daily calls with her this week and stopped taking live questions during its briefings for residents — instead referring them to a new company-sponsored website and hotline.
“The company ended direct communication with the community,” said the mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who’s also fought against Conoco’s projects in court. “We have no ability to ask questions.”
In a brief phone interview Monday, spokeswoman Rebecca Boys said the company takes the concerns of Nuiqsut’s residents “very seriously,” and is committed to providing “periodic updates to both the mayor of Nuiqsut and the community as we have new information.”
“The overall context of the entire thing is: There’s no injuries. There’s no impact to the tundra. There’s no impact to wildlife,” Boys said. “We want to make sure this community is safe. We want to make sure our workforce is safe, the surrounding community, the environment, all of that.”
Boys said Conoco employees traveled to Nuiqsut early last week just to make sure people were getting their questions answered. The company’s liaison in the village is also offering tours of its air monitoring site in the community.
Conoco, which owns and operates Alpine, says it has not detected any natural gas outside of the CD-1 pad, where oil production has since been shut off.
The company first observed the gas at a specific well house — a kind of shack enclosing the top of the well — but it’s still not known whether that well, or what part of it, might be the source of the leak, Boys said. The gas is coming from underground, below gravel, she added.
“Right now, we are investigating the source,” she said.
‘This is a pretty big deal’
Conoco has not explained how it thinks the leak began, what might have caused it or details of how the rig could be used to correct it — other than saying that the rig now being warmed up was drilling a wastewater injection well at the time the gas was first detected.
The company has also reported saltwater flowing out of three well houses at CD-1 — shack-like enclosures covering the tops of the wells — estimated at 600 gallons, according to a report filed with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The company has not explained how saltwater could be connected to the gas leak. But in a briefing for Nuiqsut last week, Ben Stevens, a Conoco vice president, said the content of the liquid seemed to be gravel and water and “not drilling mud.”
The fact that Conoco is readying a drilling rig to attend to the leak is likely an indication that there’s a problem somewhere below the top of the well, where problems could otherwise be addressed by repairing valves or pumping in cement, said Mark Myers, a petroleum geologist and former state natural resources commissioner.
“It says something’s severely wrong with the wellbore integrity,” he said. “This is a pretty big deal.”
State agencies — which Conoco met with earlier Monday — have released almost no details about their response to the leak, other than an acknowledgment from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that it’s investigating the situation.
The commission, as a “quasi-judicial agency,” cannot release details until its investigation is finished, said special assistant Grace Salazar. But the commission did send a letter to Conoco, obtained by the Daily News, outlining the scope of its investigation and ordered the company to supply an array of documents, data and reports — and reserves the right to pursue enforcement action.
The letter, dated Friday, says the commission’s investigation is focusing on the leak’s “root causes and contributing factors,” the extent of the gas release, regulatory compliance and determining whether waste has occurred. It said Conoco would be required to supply the commission with daily situation reports, plans to determine the source and cause of the leak, well details, gas sampling results, and a final incident report by April 4.
The letter also said Conoco has to preserve all documents which relate in any way to the gas leak.
Jason Brune, Alaska’s environmental conservation commissioner, said that his and other state agencies — including the health and natural resources departments — are also monitoring the leak closely.
“We are absolutely paying attention to this,” Brune said in a brief phone call Monday. “Multiple agencies are looking at it.”
Meanwhile, the Alpine Central Facility is continuing essential operations. And after 300 non-essential workers were evacuated last week, some are starting to return, with staffing expected to be at least 50% of normal operations by mid-week, Conoco said.
In Nuiqsut, meanwhile, there is no evidence that any gas from the leak is present in the village, according to Conoco. The company has placed additional air quality monitoring systems there to provide faster measurements for the community, and to monitor volatile organic compounds, Stevens said.
Company officials said they do not anticipate the need for any evacuation of Nuiqsut or other areas outside of the CD-1 pad based on current data. North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower also said in a statement last week that “no evacuation was ever considered” and “there’s no need to leave the community.”
Still, more than 20 Nuiqsut families, fearful of how the leak might progress, left the village last week, and many still haven’t returned, said Ahtuangaruak, the mayor.
“Many of them did state prior to leaving that they were concerned about their homes, that they had concerns about their family members,” Ahtuangaruak said. “Some of them were very concerned about the reactions that they were having.”
Some residents complained they were having headaches and felt nauseated, Ahtuangaruak said.
“They were worried that things would get worse,” she said. “And some of them are still very concerned about coming back.”
Bernice Kaigelak with the Arctic Slope Native Association said that not only residents left the village.
“I was just disheartened that we lost some key essential staff that needed to be here but chose to leave. Because of their family they had to leave,” Kaigelak said. “This event really impacted our community.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the saltwater spill was 600 gallons, not 600,000 gallons.