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Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration wants to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and says modern drilling techniques will protect the environment. But recent incidents at oil fields already open on Alaska's north slope raise questions about those claims. On April fifteenth, more than 92,000 gallons of oil mixed with brine spilled from a pipeline owned by Phillips Petroleum. And on Friday, April the thirteenth, more than 100 BP-Amoco technicians in Alaska posted a warning on the Internet. The technicians allege major defects in the safety and environmental protection systems in what is touted as a state-of-the-art drilling operation. For more on this story, we turn now to Jim Carlton, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who spoke with the BP workers.

CARLTON: Basically, the technicians that work up there say that BP has been cutting back on maintenance and staffing as a result of declining production. They say that basic things like emergency shutoff valves and other important equipment is not getting the kind of attention to maintenance and upkeep that it needs. To give you an example, when
Interior Secretary Gale Norton made her trip up to the north slope a few weeks ago, only five days before that visit state of Alaska inspectors documented that 30 percent of the surface safety shutoff valves at one particular drilling platform failed to close.

CURWOOD: Now, the technicians created a Web site to make these complaints public. There's a letter there, and part of it says if these concerns are not addressed, we feel a major catastrophe is imminent. What do they think could happen?

CARLTON: They're concerned both for their own safety, as well as the environmental integrity of the Arctic tundra. For example, they have processing facilities up there called gathering centers. And recently, they had a gas leak in one of these. And the problem is that one of the valves, called an emergency shutoff valve, is supposed to, if there's a leak, it's supposed to close and cut off the flow of more gas and oil into the facility. What happened is that this valve did not hold, the gas continued to pour in, and they, after several hours, were able to cut off the flow of gas and basically bleed off the gas and clean it up. But had there been an errant cigarette or an errant spark, even triggered by a radio signal, there could have been, they believe, a huge explosion.

CURWOOD: Jim, can you give us a sense of the history here? How far back does this issue go?

CARLTON: Well, Steve, they give you a good example. In 1989 I obtained a memo from the workers showing that there was a work order put in to fix the fire and gas detection alarms in one drilling pad. It's called
Z-pad. This is in 1989. BP acknowledged, okay, we need to fix it. And they ordered the equipment. Years went by. Finally, in 1997, a BP review, follow-up review, determined that no, we don't need that alarm after all, so the work order was reversed after almost a decade. The following year, 1998, part of the Z-pad exploded because the failure of that alarm, that faulty alarm, to detect a buildup of gas, resulted in a gas explosion that ignited a fire, exploded the facility, and burned it to the ground.

CURWOOD: Now that the workers have made their complaints public in this fashion, how is the company responding?

CARLTON: They, frankly, were offended that the workers went public with their complaints, because they believe that they have an adequate internal process. And they say that, you know, many of the concerns expressed have been rectified. Bob Malone, president of, you know, BP's U.S. region, pointed out that they do spend over $100 million a year in maintenance on the north slope.

CURWOOD: Now, the technicians say they've also filed complaints with state and federal regulators. How have they responded?

CARLTON: Well, that's another reason that the technicians say they wanted to publicize the problem. Because they don't feel that Alaska state regulators have, you know, the proper incentive to do the right job. For example, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is in charge of overseeing the safety valves, they had issued a recommendation in 1994 in an advisory to BP that the shutoff valves weren't being serviced properly. They weren't being tested enough. And they basically advised the company, you know, start testing them more. But the company didn't order them to. It was just very clear that it was just a recommendation. And now, seven years later, I talked to multiple technicians who say, you know, their job is to check safety valves every day at multiple wells. There can be 50 wells in each drilling platform. They say they don't have the time to do it. Bottom line, they say that the state of Alaska has not done its job.

CURWOOD: Why are the BP technicians going public with this now? I mean, are they saying they don't think their company should drill in ANWR?

CARLTON: You know, they want the company to go into ANWR, and they want
BP to be a major part of any drilling in ANWR. However, they don't want the company to go in there and then continue what they consider shoddy maintenance practices and cause a blowout that could ruin the industry's reputation and also imperil, you know, their own jobs. One technician told me he's not concerned just for himself because he's nearing retirement, but he just wants to make sure -- he's got some boys up in
Alaska -- he wants to make sure his boys can enjoy working in the oil industry, you know, as they grow older. And he's concerned that if there is a -- for example, an Exxon Valdez-scale incident in the Arctic, whether that be in Prudhoe Bay or in ANWR, that could just ruin the industry.

CURWOOD: Jim Carlton's a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal based in San Francisco. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Jim.

CARLTON: Thanks a lot.



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