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Originally published March 31, 2009 at 8:31 PM | Page modified March 31, 2009 at 8:32 PM

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Alaska, US government file civil lawsuits against BP for oil spills on North Slope

Separate state and federal civil lawsuits were filed Tuesday against BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. over two spills at the nation's largest oil field in 2006.

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska —

Separate state and federal civil lawsuits were filed Tuesday against BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. over two spills at the nation's largest oil field in 2006.

The lawsuits were filed two years after the company pleaded guilty to federal violations of the Clean Water Act for one of the spills and agreed to pay a $20 million fine.

The federal government filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage alleging violations of federal clean air and water laws for the spills at Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's North Slope. It asks the court to order BP Alaska to take actions to prevent spills in the future and impose stiff penalties.

The state of Alaska followed with its own lawsuit in state Superior Court later in the day, alleging violations of state environmental laws and loss of revenue for the state.

The state is seeking penalties and restitution for revenue lost between 2006 and 2008 as production was first slowed because of the spills and then for reconstruction of the pipeline system.

Steven Mulder, chief assistant attorney general of the state Department of Law's environmental section, estimated there was a production shortfall of at least 35 million barrels of oil over the three-year period. About 90 percent of Alaska's state revenue comes from oil taxes and royalties.

Both lawsuits contend some of the penalties could be quadrupled if negligence was found to be a factor.

"We have taken significant steps to ensure that our operations are safe and reliable, and protect the environment. Those include building a new $500 million system of oil transit lines at Prudhoe Bay," BP Alaska spokesman Steve Rinehart said in a statement.

"We have no comment on the legal issues," he added.

A 212,000-gallon crude spill in March 2006 and a smaller spill five months later ultimately caused BP to halve production at Prudhoe Bay for several weeks starting in August 2006. The spill came from a leak the size of an almond, caused by erosion, in a pipeline that hadn't been examined by devices that clean out sludge and check for corrosion and wall thickness since 1998. The crude covered two acres of tundra and a frozen lake.

The federal lawsuit alleges BP Alaska illegally discharged more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil from pipelines onto the North Slope, failed to prepare and implement spill prevention and control plans in accordance with good engineering practices and didn't implement some required spill prevention measures under the Clean Water Act.

That lawsuit also claims BP Alaska violated the Clean Air Act by improperly removing materials containing asbestos from pipelines, and failed to comply in a timely manner with an order from the Department of Transportation to conduct certain testing, inspection, maintenance and repair activities.

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BP Exploration Alaska Inc. in 2007 pleaded guilty to one violation of the Clean Water Act for the March 2006 spill. The company agreed to pay $20 million in fines related to the spill, the largest ever in the vast, oil-rich region of arctic Alaska. It also admitted it didn't adequately assess the lines or mitigate the development of corrosion which led to the leaks, the state lawsuit says.

The company's "admitted failures were part of a pattern of practice of unlawful behavior in its oil and gas operations," the state suit says.

The federal lawsuit was filed by the Justice Department on behalf of the Department of Transportation-Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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