Engineering News

Status of Terminal Near Alaska Volcano Uncertain
March 27, 2009

A eruption of Redoubt volcano Thursday triggered a flood of mud-saturated water in the Drift River, but officials were at a loss to say whether it passed harmlessly by the oil facility near the mouth of the river or penetrated the protective dike there.

Rod Ficken, vice president of Cook Inlet Pipeline Co., said remote monitoring equipment on two tanks each containing 3 million gallons of crude oil showed no change in their level, good evidence that they remained intact.

But until observers can fly over the Drift River oil terminal, no one will know how high the river reached and whether water and mud got into the tank farm, Ficken said. The facility has no remote video or flood sensing equipment, he said.

An eruption-triggered flood early Monday safely swept past the oil storage area, though some muddy water appeared to have lapped over a protective dike. Deep mud was deposited on the nearby airstrip when the river receded.

Ficken said the engineer who designed the dike during Redoubt's last eruption cycle in 1989-1990, Jim Aldrich, paid a visit to the site Thursday morning by helicopter. He and others had to abandon the area quickly around 9:30 a.m. when the eruption started and the aviation safety code went to red, Ficken said, but Aldrich was satisfied that Monday's flood didn't damage the concrete-clad earthen dike.

"He felt comfortable that it did its job," Ficken said. "He feels right now, at this time, that the integrity is good."

But Aldrich still wants to take a more detailed look at the site. And if floodwaters reached the dike Thursday, that would be all the more reason for further inspection, Ficken said.

The 9:24 a.m. eruption Thursday at Redoubt occurred without the warning swarms of earthquakes that marked eruptions earlier this week, Alaska Volcano Observatory geophysicist Stephanie Prejean said at an afternoon press conference. That's to be expected at this stage in the eruption cycle, she said, and that means that a code-red alert can occur at a moment's notice.

Seismographic data gave strong indication that a muddy flow had started down the Drift River spurred by melting ice and snow, she said.

In an interview, Ficken said it takes an average of four hours for a flood to reach the Chevron-operated facility, more than 20 miles away.

Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said at the press conference that officials were planning to begin sounding operations at the Christy Lee platform, the offshore oil-loading facility for the Drift River terminal. A tanker had been due to arrive in early April to haul oil to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski, and officials wanted to ensure that sediment from Monday's flood hadn't made loading operations dangerous, she said.

If the tanker can safely dock, it might be used to reduce the amount of oil at the facility, Francis said. It's also possible that normal operations at Drift River could resume and that a larger load could be hauled out, she said.

Source: Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

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