Pipeline at 40: Remote control with mouse clicks

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The Trans Alaska Pipeline stretches 800 miles across the state’s wilderness, but it’s controlled from a relatively small room hundreds of miles away, in Anchorage.

The Operations Control Center, known as the OCC, went online in January, 2008, and is a key component of a program Alyeska Pipeline originally called "Strategic Reconfiguration," now known as "Electrification and Automation."

"The goal was to position ourselves to continue to operate kind of indefinitely," says Rod Hanson, Alyeska Pipeline’s senior vice president for operations and maintenance.

The company says the program was started in 2001, in order to reduce physical infrastructure and simplify operations and maintenance, and to address the challenges of less oil flowing in the pipeline.

When the pipeline first began operations in the 1970s, there were 11 pump stations along the line, and each had its own control room. That number has been reduced to four, and those pump stations have been automated by employees, at the OCC in Anchorage, who monitor the flow and control pumps and valves.

"The controllers here have everything they need to isolate facilities, to do emergency shutdowns, as well as safely start up the system,” says Clint Vanwingerden, who supervises the OCC.

Alyeska Pipeline says employees at the pump stations were reassigned to increased maintenance and spill response duties.

Kristen Carpenter, executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project, is worried that too much faith is being place in automation. She worries that fewer pump stations will mean response crews will have to travel longer distances, in order to reach spills.

"Now, they've got fewer people actually in the field, on the line, looking for incidents," Carpenter says. "So that's one of our big concerns - the automation of the pipeline."

Carpenter says with the pipeline crossing five tributaries of the Copper River, there’s a lot at stake.

"We're talking about potentially public loss of clean waters and clean public lands for the benefit of private gain," she says. "The people who live in the region have the most to lose."

Alyeska Pipeline officials say the automated system can react faster than human operators to potentially dangerous situations, along the pipeline, and it continuously monitors pressure and flow rates to detect leaks.

The company also says while there have been staff reductions at pump stations and along the line, the number of people assigned to spill response and emergency preparedness has not changed.

Additionally, Alyeska Pipeline says some of the pump stations that were removed from service were converted to spill response bases, with equipment that can be put into place quickly, if there’s a spill.

"I get the concern," says Vanwingerden. "But you look at the operation risks of how this system is operated today, we're in a much better place today, as a result of automation and training the folks we have in the field. We're working together, to ensure that we're operating this as conservatively as possible."

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