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Concerns Linger Even as Alaska Pipeline Becomes Routine

November 24, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

PRUDHOE BAY, Alaska — Ten years ago, the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline carried its first barrel of oil from these frozen wastelands of the far north to the ice-free port of Valdez, 800 miles south. It was a journey that would transform Alaska into the Texas of the Arctic.

The $8-billion pipeline--the most expensive privately financed construction project in history--had been bitterly opposed in Congress and the courts by what Alaskans called the "greenies" (environmentalists) and fervently supported by the "boomers" (those favoring development). Both sides could agree on only one point, that tapping North America's richest oil field would create a bonanza, the biggest Alaska had known since the Nome gold rush of the 1890s.

Congressional approval to construct the pipeline finally came in November, 1973, while the nation was in the grip of the Arab oil embargo. More than 70,000 construction workers poured into the state. Salaries for drillers reached $90,000 a year; kitchen helpers earned $40,000.

Eventually, when the Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Lisburne fields north of the Arctic Circle came on line, oil royalties would soar to constitute 90% of Alaska's income, making Alaska richer on a per-capita basis than any state.

"If God had to put oil some place on this earth, thank God he put it in Prudhoe Bay and not on Main Street in Los Angeles," Walter Hickel, a former governor and U.S. secretary of the interior, said. Hickel is now an Anchorage businessman and developer.

Since June, 1977, the pipeline has carried more than 5 billion barrels of North Shore oil--about 2 million a day--over three mountain ranges and across 800 streams and rivers to the port at Valdez, then on to the "Lower 48" via tankers. The North Shore now accounts for a quarter of the nation's total oil production and, although conservationists remain concerned about the long-term effects of development here on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, there is a consensus that the dire environmental consequences predicted a decade ago have not been realized.

Off to Rough Start

"The things we did at Prudhoe Bay proved to be good and they've gotten better as the oil fields evolved," said Jim Weeks, field manager for Arco Alaska Inc. "I don't know of any area here that has been permanently damaged by a spill, or any caribou that has died because of the pipeline. The lesson in all this is that development and the environment can coexist in harmony."

For a while it did not look as though that would be the case at all.

Even before the first tanker was loaded at Valdez, the pipeline had to be shut down briefly when cracks were discovered in the pipe at a pumping station near Fairbanks. Four days later, on July 8, 1977, an explosion attributed to human error killed one worker and injured five at another pumping station. On July 19, a construction truck hit a valve on the pipeline, causing a 42,000-gallon oil spill, and a few days after that a series of explosions set by saboteurs damaged 60 feet of installation brackets along the pipeline.

The mishaps followed a state report that said mismanagement and poor planning had caused the original estimate for the project to skyrocket from $900 million to $8 billion. "Quite clearly there are chinks in our armor," the president of the pipeline company, William D. Darch, told reporters as the mammoth storage tanks at Valdez began filling. He went on to promise that the pipeline operation would be so safe and so routine that, "I am sure you will lose interest in our operations."

The worst incident since then happened on Feb. 15, 1978, when saboteurs blew a hole in the pipeline, resulting in a spill of half a million gallons. But Darch's prediction was not far off the mark and the most heated environmental controversy of the 1970s has become something of a non-issue in 1987.

No wells have blown out nor have any major pipelines been ruptured. Of the thousands of spills recorded by the state since 1977, including about 500 last year, most have been small and have occurred on gravel roads or drilling pads, which protect the fragile ecosystem of the tundra. The effects on wildlife, the marine ecology and Arctic vegetation thus far have been minimal.

"In the fervor of the controversy, people talked about total destruction and that wasn't realistic," said Brad Fristoe, an environmental engineer with the Alaska Department of the Environment.

"But I think the environmental arguments put pressure on the oil companies that forced them to make concessions and look for ways to prevent harm. What really hasn't been looked at, though, is what the long-term, chronic effects of development are going to be."

Richard Shideler, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the effects of the pipeline--which is static and cannot grow--are less significant than those of the oil fields, which are still developing and expanding.

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