North to Alaska Part Four: The Shot That Pierced the Pipeline
Located less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, our resident agency in Fairbanks is one of the FBI’s most remote offices—but its three investigators cover an expansive amount of territory and help safeguard some of the country’s most valuable infrastructure.
Within the office’s area of responsibility is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an 800-mile engineering marvel that has carried billions of gallons of crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez since it began pumping in 1977.
“For as long and as exposed as the pipeline is, it is definitely not a soft target on the ground or in the air,” said Special Agent Bruce Milne. That’s because the pipeline’s owner, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, provides extensive security and maintains strong ties with local and federal law enforcement.
“We all take the security of the pipeline very seriously,” said Milne, a 25-year FBI veteran who was drawn to Alaska in part because of his interest in dog sledding (see sidebar). “Our Joint Terrorism Task Force coordinates closely with Alyeska and Alaska State Troopers to protect the pipeline,” he added.
One case that stands out for Milne occurred in October 2001, when a resident of Livengood—a town of less than two dozen people about 50 miles north of Fairbanks—shot a hole in the pipeline with a high-powered rifle.
A bullet would not ordinarily breach the pipeline’s exterior, which is constructed of thick steel and lined inside with several inches of high-density insulation. But the single shot from Daniel Lewis’ rifle somehow did penetrate the pipeline, and oil began streaming out with tremendous force. “If you would have put your hand in front of the leak,” Milne said, “the pressure would have taken it off.”
Lewis, described later in court as a career criminal, had been released from jail only weeks before the shooting incident. He was detained by troopers after he and his brother were spotted near the spill.
Milne and his colleague, Special Agent Mark Terra, were called in to investigate. They recovered the rifle—the scope had blood on it where it had recoiled against Lewis’ face—made plaster foot casts at the crime scene, and began interviewing people who knew the Lewis brothers. “Alyeska security and local troopers did a tremendous amount of work on this case as well,” Milne said.
Meanwhile, oil spewed from the pipeline for days before engineers could stop it. More than 285,000 gallons of crude were spilled as a result of that small bullet hole and—according to press reports at the time—the cleanup took many months and cost $13 million.
Lewis was charged with a range of federal and state crimes, from weapons offenses to oil pollution, criminal mischief, and driving while intoxicated. In 2002 he received a 10-year federal sentence; the following year in state court, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. His sentences are running concurrently.
Coming less than a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, the pipeline shooting served as a reminder that protecting the country—whether from terrorists or other criminals—requires constant vigilance. “Everyone here recognizes that the stakes are as high in Alaska as anywhere else,” Milne said. “That’s why we work so closely with our partners to maintain the highest level of security.”