ALASKA is, for many Americans, a symbol of their nation's pioneering tradition: the most rugged and unspoiled of the 50 states.
It has the nation's highest mountain - McKinley, at 20,320 feet - and harbors varieties of wildlife not encountered in the lower 49 states.
And Alaska has major oil reserves that are now being exploited. Crude oil is shipped via pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to the ice-free port of Valdez on the southern coast. From there it goes via tanker to ports on the United States West Coast and elsewhere.
Constant, stringent maintenance has to be be practiced. But major trouble first came from another quarter: The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in March 1989, resulting in a human, environmental, and financial disaster.
That event has resulted in tougher safeguards in the shipping process. However, criticism has lately arisen in regard to maintenance and safety of the 800-mile pipeline.
US Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of a subcommittee set up by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said: ``It is past time for the owners of the pipeline to commit to openness and to accountability for pipeline operations.''
Four former pipeline inspectors said they were harassed, and that their warnings of aging equipment, eroding pipe, and thinning welds were ignored.
Inspectors also have complained about a variety of safety problems at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline's marine terminal at the port of Valdez.
A former inspector said: ``I am extremely concerned about the integrity of the pipeline and possible loss of human life that could occur if there is a failure with the pipeline system, pump stations, or terminal operations.''
Washington State Gov. Mike Lowry (D) recently ordered all oil tankers serving Canada via western Washington's inland passages to file spill-prevention plans with the state. At this writing he had received no response. Federal, state, and private officials are obligated to see that remedial action is quickly taken.