Daniel (whose long rap sheet included convictions for drunk driving, assault, burglary, and theft) aimed the rifle at his brother, then changed his mind and decided to take out his frustrations on the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which just happened to be located right next to the service road….”
The news trickled out slowly at first—appropriately enough, much like a slick of vile, viscous Alaskan crude oil, seeping slowly, sludgily, through acres of permafrost tundra in, oh, let’s say, the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And that was exactly what was happening less than 100 miles to the west of the refuge: on March 2, a worker at Prudhoe Bay, the nation’s largest oil field, got a whiff of “the acrid scent of hydrocarbons” while driving around the sprawling North Slope complex. Further sniffing around revealed “a pinprick-size hole” in a 34-inch above ground pipe which feeds crude oil to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The foul odor crinkling the nose of our intrepid oilfield worker turned out to be a 267,000-gallon, two-acre puddle of crude hiding beneath a blanket of snow. Nobody seems to know for sure, but it’s been estimated that the pin-pricked pipeline was shooting oil onto the tundra for at least five days before anyone realized anything was amiss. And it wasn’t until March 14, nearly two weeks later, that news of the spill began appearing in the U.S. media.
The New York Times led their story with “Large Oil Spill Went Undetected For Days,” a point that’s disturbing enough in itself. But in what has come to be known as “the pull quote from hell” in the Smokebox editorial offices, the story also included the following as a side note:
About 700,000 gallons [of oil] escaped the pipeline after vandals blew up a section of it in 1978, and about 285,000 gallons spilled in 2001 when a hunter shot the pipeline.
Reading this stopped me in my tracks—I hadn’t heard of either of these incidents, and the article didn’t go into any more detail that I’m quoting here. A google search using terms like “hunter+drunk+Alaska+oil+spill” revealed that the Times fact checkers need to dig a little deeper than they did in this case—the 1978 incident was a 670,000 gallon spill caused by plastic explosives set off on the pipeline at Steel Creek, near Fairbanks; no one has ever been charged in that case. In 1999, a crazed Canadian named Alfred Heinz Reumayr was charged with plotting to blow up the pipeline so he could make a killing in oil futures. Alfred’s trail goes cold after news that he was fighting extradition to the U.S. in 1999. But our mysterious hunter from the Times piece turns out not to be a nearsighted Elmer Fudd type at all—the 2001 spill was the handiwork of a drunken, heavily armed nitwit named Daniel Carson Lewis.
In an act that has gained him plenty of local notoriety, Lewis and his brother Randy (why, oh why, are these stories always so much funnier when they involve brothers?) thought it would be a great idea to load up their ATV with an assortment of alcoholic beverages and a .338 caliber hunting rifle—a piece which packs more than enough whallop to take care of any elk, bear, or moose the two might decide are tired of living—and take a cruise on a service road near their hometown of Livengood, Alaska. At about 3 p.m., after tying one on and getting to a loud, alcohol-fueled argument, Daniel (whose long rap sheet included convictions for drunk driving, assault, burglary, and theft) aimed the rifle at his brother, then changed his mind and decided to take out his frustrations on the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which just happened to be located right next to the service road. Four shots ricocheted off before Lewis managed to put a slug through the pipe. Oil began shooting out and coating the surrounding spruce forest; at this point a helicopter from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which maintains the pipeline, just happened to fly over the scene. Daniel Lewis jumped on the ATV and hightailed it the hell out of there, sensing even in his inebriated state that his actions may not be looked upon favorably the local fuzz. His brother Randy, however, stayed boozily put and explained what happened to the pipeline security officers when they landed and saw oil spraying from the pipe at 140 gallons per minute.
Daniel managed to make it home but he was arrested at about 6 p.m. When Alaska State Troopers gave him a breathalyzer exam at 10 p.m., he blew .148—still plenty soused. How all of this escaped the huge national exposure you would expect can possibly be explained by the date of the incident: October 4, 2001, barely three weeks after the September 11 attacks, a time when most Americans were still reeling from what happened that day. Such timing didn’t help Lewis’ case, though—he was held on $1.5 million bond, convicted of criminal mischief, assault, drunk driving, oil pollution, and weapons misconduct, sentenced to 16 years in prison, and, in April 2004, ordered by a Fairbanks superior court to pay over $17 million in compensation for cleanup costs. “The court acknowledged the unlikelihood that Lewis will ever be able to pay all of the money back,” according to a news release by the Alaska Department of Law, “but said that the judgment for the entire amount is appropriate in the event he ever comes into a large sum of money.”
Whatever perverse amusement I got from this story was tempered by background details I found in nearly every story about this incident. By one count, a spokesman for Alyeska indicated that the pipeline has been dinged by bullets more than 50 times over the years, mostly by stray hunters’ rounds or intentionally shot by drunken yokels, though Lewis was the first to manage to penetrate the pipe. According to a Wikipedia entry for the Trans Alaska Pipeline, there were 30 to 40 spills per year, on average, between the years 1977 and 1994, and then a total of 164 spills between 1991 and 1994, “although none were major.” Most of these stories never make it to the national news—it seems when it comes to the Trans Alaska Pipeline, “out of sight, out of mind” keeps things humming along nicely for BP, Exxon, Mobile, Ameranda, Phillips, and Unocal, the six oil companies who share ownership (and profits) of the pipeline.
I’d like to think all of that has changed since the Prudhoe oil field spill. It’s turned into a rough couple of weeks for the Alaskan oil industry since the story finally gained some attention—in a PR flack’s worst nightmare, all of this took place within a month of the 17th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. You know, the one that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in March 1989? The last thing anyone in the oil industry wants is to attract attention to the 29-year-old pipeline, which has pumped over 15 billion gallons of crude oil through its 800-mile length since it was completed in 1977. The juxtaposition with the Exxon Valdez disaster points up something pipeline officials would just as soon keep quiet: while oil tankers are far from foolproof, fallout from the Exxon Valdez disaster is directly responsible for improvements (such as double-hulled tankers) which shift the potential for disastrous spills to onshore facilities.
Strangely silent so far is the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which is “charged with designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining the Trans Alaska Pipeline System” according to their website . Not a word about the Prudhoe spill can be found there, but I was both highly amused and deeply horrified to see their attempts to present the pipeline as some combination of tourist attraction and eighth wonder of the world. Just take a look at their “A Matter of Fact” section, with gems such as “Pipeline? What Pipeline?,” “Talk About A High Pressure Job,” “Who Puts Pigs in a Pipe?,” and my personal favorite, “Imelda Marcos Has Nothing On Us” (the Trans-Alaska pipeline has 39,000 shoes—who knew?).
We seem to have dodged the bullet this time—the spill was confined inside the Prudhoe oil facility, no migratory animals have been impacted (yet), and the pool of leaked oil is supposed to be vacuumed up for resale by summer—but that’s no reason for Americans to just go back to sleep when it comes to what’s going on with the oil industry in our northernmost state. News of any sort of sanctions against the oil companies is scant so far. One story on CNN mentions state environmental regulators indicating that the spill “will likely lead to fines,” but keep in mind that Exxon has yet to pay one red cent of a $4.5 billion punitive damages judgment won on behalf of Native Alaskans and commercial fishermen, 17 years after the Exxon Valdez spill.
And what of the hotly contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, essentially a next-door neighbor to the Prudhoe oil field? Don’t think that repeated failures on the part of the Bush administration to open the refuge to oil drilling will go away any time soon. We’ll keep hearing the same assurances that oil can be taken from the ANWR safely and that our national security depends on it—in fact the U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution last month which again includes instructions to open up the refuge for drilling.
So the House of Representatives will hold the fate of the refuge in its hands yet again. I hope Americans will do themselves a favor and take a good hard look at how “safely” we’ve been sucking oil out of Alaska so far.
(toons: marc covert)