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Oil Pipeline Spill Blackens Alaska's North Slope


On Alaska's North Slope the oil company BP is cleaning up the largest oil spill ever. An estimated 270,000 gallons of crude oil leaked onto the snow covered tundra a week and a half ago. And now as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports the Senate is once again planning to debate whether to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Along Prudhoe Bay on the northern edge of Alaska, clean up crews are working around the clock. They're sucking up the oil with vacuum trucks and collecting contaminated snow and gravel. The frigid arctic weather turns the oil to the consistency of molasses and slows the pace of the clean-up.

LINDA GIGUERE: It's been really cold. Over the weekend it was sixty three below zero Fahrenheit with the wind chill factor.

SHOGREN: Linda Giguere of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation says crews frequently take breaks to stay warm.

GIGUERE: At times workers will be limited to a maximum of twenty five minutes exposure to the weather.

SHOGREN: BP's Maureen Johnson says the leak was caused by corrosion inside the 34 inch pipe. The leak detection system didn't catch it.

MAUREEN JOHNSON: We believe that the leak probably started out as a pinhole and grew over time and was too small to be detected by that system.

SHOGREN: She says the company probably never will know how long the oil was spilling. The leaky pipe was buried under a gravel overpass built for Caribou to walk over. The contaminated area is the size of two football fields. But the oil spread underneath the snow so people couldn't see it.

JOHNSON: In fact the person who discovered the leak had to be standing virtually right on top of it to see it.

SHOGREN: Although this is the biggest spill ever on the North Slope where the oil fields are, it's tiny compared to the Exxon Valdez spill seventeen years ago in Prince William Sound. That was forty times bigger. BP and state officials say they expect most of the oil will be cleaned up within several weeks. They won't know for sure if the tundra has been damaged until spring comes. Thousands of miles away in the nation's capital, Congress is again addressing the question of expanding oil drilling in Alaska to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And Cindy Shogen of the Alaska Wilderness League says the oil spill shows you can't believe industry's claims that they can drill without damaging the environment.

CINDY SHOGEN: Drilling proponents say that, you know, we have this fabulous technology, you won't even know that we're drilling in a sensitive place, and God forbid if anything happens, we can clean it up and we'll certainly detect it. Well, we've just seen, you know, just a short ways away on the North Slope, that that's not the case.

SHOGREN: But the oil industry says it's important to put this spill in context. Oil production in the North Slope has fueled Alaska's economy and kept cars running in the lower 48 for almost thirty years.

BOB GRECCO: No oil spill is a good thing, but you have to put this in perspective of the amount of resources available and the amount developed today.

SHOGREN: Bob Grecco of the American Petroleum Institute says if Congress allows the industry to drill in the Arctic Refuge, oil companies will improve environmental protections, and he says the huge benefits are worth the risk.

GRECCO: I think overall, broader development of Alaskan resources can be justified and can be supported based on the industry's broader environmental record.

SHOGREN: But he admits no matter how careful companies are, wherever they drill, the oil can spill. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.