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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pipeline Safety

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Niessen of member station KPLU in Seattle takes a look at the recent spate of accidents involving gas and oil pipelines. Some groups are calling for tighter controls on the industry.


CURWOOD: Oil and gas are dangerous materials that have to be handled carefully on their way to market. Big oil tanker accidents and spills tend to grab the headlines, but pipelines also have major safety problems. One reason is that pipelines go just about everywhere. They're found in residential neighborhoods, as well as in sensitive wildlife habitat. And a recent spate of pipeline disasters is raising public concern. Jennifer Niessen of member station KPLU in Seattle reports.


NIESSEN: Bellingham, Washington, is a quiet coastal community of 63,000 people along the U.S.-Canadian border. A fishing town with a working waterfront and snow-capped peaks along the horizon. On June tenth of 1999, the tranquility here was shattered.

MAN: Okay, my dog's in seizure now.

WOMAN: Your dog is having seizures?

MAN: The fumes are everywhere. My dog can't walk anywhere. We're getting the hell out of here. Something's bad.

WOMAN: All right.

MAN: The creek is full of oil. It's something toxic.

WOMAN: All right, we've got people on the way.

MAN: Yeah, well they better get here soon. You got a problem.

WOMAN: Okay. All right.

NIESSEN: An underground pipeline, which runs directly beneath a popular city park, suffered a catastrophic rupture. Two hundred thousand gallons of gas flooded a pristine creek filled with salmon and otters. The fumes sparked a flurry of calls for help and a frantic emergency response.

MAN: We've got explosive levels, could probably take out two, three city blocks. We've got to start here and start evacuating homes and getting people out of the area.

NIESSEN: Despite the evacuation, the fuel was ignited by two young boys, Wade King and Steven Tsorvas, who happened to be playing in the park with a barbecue lighter.

MAN: I need all officers here immediately! All officers here immediately! We have a big explosion.

NIESSEN: The fireball raced down the creek, killing the two boys and 18-year-old Liam Wood, who was fly-fishing downstream. For a mile and a half, everything in the water and along the banks was incinerated.

WOMAN: Okay, we're going to get people on the way.

NIESSEN: The Bellingham explosion is the worst pipeline disaster in recent U.S. history, and it's prompted an urgent call for stricter regulation of the industry, not only because it underscores the tragic consequences of a pipeline failure but because it's just one in a string of accidents nationwide.

EPERSON: About 3:30 I received a call from somebody that said there was oil all over his farm.

NIESSEN: Gary Eperson is with the local emergency response team in Winchester, Kentucky, where another spill fouled another creek with crude oil in January.

EPERSON: So, I responded and I knew the location where this particular person had called from. And I found a creek that was just totally saturated, covered with oil. And it was gushing out of some culverts and stuff, and I mean it just, you know, an ungodly amount of oil. And then I saw a couple of areas where there were some sinkholes, and this oil was literally gushing two or three feet out of the sinkholes.

NIESSEN: There are more than two million miles of pipeline in the U.S. linking oil and gas fields, refineries, and major distribution centers. Just like veins and arteries supply our bodies with blood, the vast network of pipelines is the circulatory system of America's energy-dependent economy. The problem is that many pipelines were built decades ago, before people thought about the risks of placing them in populated areas. And over the years, corrosion and general wear and tear have taken a toll on the pipes themselves. More than 300 ruptures occur in an average year, leaking an estimated six million gallons of oil. The situation has angered Bob Rackleff, a county commissioner in Tallahassee, Florida, who has founded a grassroots group called the National Pipeline Reform Coalition. He says that competition pressures in the oil and gas industry, along with weak government regulations, leave companies with no incentive to look out for public safety or the environment.

RACKLEFF: A responsible oil pipeline company that is conscientious about inspecting and repairing problems in its pipelines cannot compete against the rest of the industry, the norm for which is to let them leak.

NIESSEN: The pipeline industry says that's wrong, and despite the recent rash of spills the industry denies there is a problem. In fact, the Association of Oil Pipelines says the number of accidents has been cut in half over the past 30 years, even though the amount of oil flowing through pipelines has gone up dramatically. Ben Cooper, the Association's director, says there's no incentive to let a line leak.

COOPER: First, your business is not operating when you have a leak. Your reputation is damaged. You're going to have to repair the facility. It's much better to prevent a leak than to have to repair it afterwards, much less expensive to prevent it. And, you know, the penalties for not keeping oil in the pipe are severe.

NIESSEN: Mr. Cooper concedes the industry has suffered some black eyes recently. One company, Coke Industries, was fined $30 million for allowing 300 spills in six states. A fine like this, along with the deadly explosion of the Olympic pipeline in Bellingham, creates a strong public impression. But Mr. Cooper insists pipelines are safer than shipping oil in trucks or trains or tankers. And he claims what's needed is an effort to restore public confidence.

COOPER: The job for us as companies, the job for the federal government, the job for the state government, I tell you none of my company presidents wants to be having the conversations that the president of Olympic had to have with the families of victims of an accident like that.

(People mill about)

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the senator would like to start the hearings, if I could ask everyone to find a seat, please.

NIESSEN: The families of the three people who died in Bellingham aren't consoled by the industry's safety statistics. They're calling for stronger governmental oversight, and they've begun to share their grief at public hearings.

MAN: First of all, just imagine that you're going to go home tonight, and your child isn't home. And never will be. Then, add to this the experience that each time you go to a gas station to get gas in your car, and you catch a smell of the gasoline as you're filling that up, you imagine what it might have been like for your child as he was engulfed by a wall of gasoline vapor while fly-fishing on Whatcom Creek.

WOMAN: Safety measures can and must be taken. Taking a human life is not a business liability. It is murder.

NIESSEN: This Congressional field hearing was called by Senators Slade Gorton and Patty Murray of Washington, who are sponsoring a bill to give individual states greater authority to inspect and regulate interstate pipelines. Right now that job belongs to the Federal Office of Pipeline Safety, an agency widely criticized as ineffective. Among the critics is Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson.ASMUNDSON: If the Office of Pipeline Safety were doing its job, we wouldn't have a debate. Because we wouldn't be asking for delegation of authority to the states to protect our citizens, because it would have been done. But it has clearly not been done. It's not even come close to having been done.

NIESSEN: Switching control of interstate pipelines may not be as easy as it sounds. The industry opposes local control, as does Rich Felder, associate director of the federal Office of Pipeline Safety. He says local regulations would create little more than confusion.

FELDER: Let me give you an example of one pipeline. Colonial Pipeline, it runs from Texas to New Jersey, and its control center is in Atlanta, Georgia. I guess the question is, who would set the standards? And the way we see it, we would rather work with all of the states up and down that pipeline corridor, identify their concerns, and then put together a comprehensive program which we honestly believe we have, to make sure that that pipeline is operated safely.

NIESSEN: Whatever the obstacles to state control, it appears the call for pipeline reform is gaining momentum. Vice President Gore has seized it as a campaign issue, and the federal Office of Pipeline Safety has begun a new initiative to toughen inspection standards. Elected officials, environmentalists, and other activists hope to come up with other solutions during a conference this month to ensure that the kind of tragedy that happened in Bellingham, Washington, doesn't strike someplace else. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Niessen.



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