Citing 'serious' worker risks, watchdog group calls on Alyeska to stop snow removal work at Valdez oil terminal

·8 min read

Mar. 29—A watchdog group is calling on the operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline to stop workers from removing snow piled atop oil tanks at the pipeline's terminal in Valdez, alleging a series of hazards including unsafe practices, faulty equipment and risk of fire or explosion.

In a Monday letter addressed to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s interim president, Danika Yeager, leaders of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council wrote that their organization has "become aware of serious safety and environmental concerns" related to Alyeska's snow removal effort.

"We are concerned that there is an imminent risk of an incident that could result in serious injury or loss of life for the snow removal crews and technicians while actively working on the tank tops," the letter says. "There also remains an active, and credible risk, that the combination of vapor releases and sparking could cause a serious explosion or fire, that could result in an oil spill."

In an interview, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said that the company will stop snow removal if it determines there is too great a risk to workers.

She said Alyeska stopped the work over the weekend to address contractors' concerns. But the company has not yet determined how it will respond to the council's request to stop all snow removal work.

"We will assess the concerns that are raised here, and then determine if we feel comfortable continuing to work," Egan said. "And if we need to stop work, we will."

Asked whether Alyeska agrees with the council that there is an "active and credible risk" of fire, explosion or an oil spill, Egan said, "we have assessed the risks and we have taken the steps necessary to minimize and mitigate that kind of risk."

About 85 contractors are currently working nearly around the clock to shovel off the tops of the tanks at the Valdez Marine Terminal, the endpoint of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline that carries a half-million barrels of crude from the North Slope each day — some 2.5% of America's daily oil consumption.

Alyeska, owned by affiliates of oil producers Hilcorp, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, operates the facility.

Valdez is one of Alaska's snowiest communities, and while Alyeska has largely blamed its tank problems on unusually high late winter snowfall, accumulations are still far below record levels, according to federal data.

The company says the clearing process could take weeks due to the tanks' massive size and the delicacy of the operation, which is done by hand.

[Previous coverage: Snow pileup damages Alaska pipeline company's massive Valdez oil tanks]

Pressure from the head-high accumulated snow has broken off valves along the upper edges of the tanks. That's allowed the release of petroleum vapors from at least seven tanks in violation of Alyeska's Clean Air Act permit, according to state regulators.

The releases also pose risks to workers, who are equipped with respirators to protect them from hydrocarbons like benzene, which is dangerous to breathe at certain levels.

The council's letter, obtained by the Daily News, lists six specific concerns about Alyeska's management of the snow problem. They include the risk of explosion from leaking gases, the potential for contractors' footwear to generate sparks, a faulty emergency evacuation system, inconsistent use of respirators and unreliable vapor detection equipment.

Citing a previous Anchorage Daily News report and information the council received independently from Alyeska employees, the letter also cites a "fear of retaliation" against workers voicing safety concerns.

In a phone interview Monday, the council's executive director, Donna Schantz, and board chair, Bob Archibald, said they did not intend the letter to be released publicly so soon after it was sent.

But they said that after hearing from several concerned Alyeska employees, they felt compelled to draft it over the weekend, particularly, they said, because of the workers' fears of retaliation.

[ConocoPhillips prepares drilling rig to investigate and stop weekslong natural gas leak]

"We don't normally approach things like this. But we really felt we had a duty to raise these concerns in a direct and strong manner in order to get attention to them," Schantz said. "The immediate risk really seemed to warrant this strong letter."

There are 14 storage tanks at the Valdez terminal, where crude is loaded onto tankers to be shipped to market. Each holds 500,000 barrels, worth some $60 million per tank at current prices.

The council helps oversee Alyeska's operations. It was established after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Congress required Alyeska to fund the group.

In its letter to Alyeska, the council said it is "extremely disturbed that members of the workforce do not seem to have confidence in the internal Alyeska processes for taking timely and appropriate action on employee safety concerns and that this process is not trusted, and the fear of retaliation has returned to the culture at the company."

Several workers also spoke to the Daily News about safety concerns over the past week, but did not want to be identified by name, citing similar fears.

Egan disputed that workers are not free to raise their concerns to Alyeska.

"That's untrue," Egan said. She cited an incident over the past weekend when contractors temporarily stopped work after an individual raised questions about safety.

The council's letter makes a series of detailed allegations about steps not being taken to protect workers.

It says, for example, that snow removal crews are not consistently wearing respirators, and they are "only being worn voluntarily if near the vents." It also says that badges used to measure worker exposure to hydrocarbons are not being read in real time.

The council asserts that an emergency evacuation system for the tank farm is broken. And it says that explosive vapors are escaping tank farm walls, leading to pooling on "main roadways."

Finally, the letter asserts that tankers are still being loaded with oil from damaged tanks, "making it challenging to regulate tank pressure and avoid an oxygen-rich explosive atmosphere inside the tank."

Egan, in response, said that the situation in Valdez is "complicated" and not fully captured by the council's letter.

"There are some things in here that have occurred," she said. "But they're presented without the full context."

Workers, especially those repairing the vents, are wearing respirators "when there are detectable levels of hydrocarbons," but snow removal crews are not required to wear them at all times, she said in an email.

She and Alyeska's health and safety manager, Brian Beauvais, explained that workers wear benzene-measuring badges that aren't read in real-time because they're intended to assess cumulative exposure over an eight-hour period. During the initial response to the snowfall, each contractor was required to wear a badge every day, but after results showed no detectable benzene, Alyeska switched to random sampling of badges worn by at least one member of every crew.

Hundreds of badges have been analyzed, and none have exceeded limits set by federal workplace safety regulators, Beauvais said.

[Head of Alyeska pipeline steps down]

Egan acknowledged that an evacuation alarm did fail a weekly test last week. She said a secondary alarm worked and the faulty one was repaired two days later.

Another alarm went off last week after explosive vapors were detected outside the boundary of an earthen berm surrounding the tanks, Beauvais said. But he said the alarm was set at a low level — 10% of the concentration needed for an explosion — and the company says the incident has not been repeated amid increased monitoring.

While ships are being loaded from tanks with damaged vents, there's a separate system that Alyeska can use to control pressure, Egan said.

"Our engineers have identified criteria that provide for the safety of the workers and protection of the tanks," Egan said in an email. "There is redundancy built into the system and the criteria clarified the minimum number of vents to ensure the protection of the tanks."

Beyond Alyeska, the council sent copies of its letter to six federal and two state agencies: the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Occupational Safety and Health and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The wide distribution indicates a kind of "all hands on deck" call for attention from the council, said Lois Epstein, an engineering consultant who reviewed the letter at the Daily News' request.

"They are putting every safety agency on alert and asking for help on this," Epstein said. "It elevates the urgency of the situation."

Officials from Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, tasked with protecting worker safety, did not respond to a request for comment Monday, which was a state holiday.

A spokeswoman for the state environmental conservation department, Laura Achee, said her agency is aware of the "venting issue" at the Valdez terminal, which was verified by a site visit Saturday from agency staff.

An EPA spokesman, Bill Dunbar, said the agency had no comment on Monday's letter.