W A New type of test ordered for pipeline

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New type of test ordered for pipeline But critics not convinced it's the right one

Friday, March 10, 2000


Olympic Pipe Line Co. will have to use a new technology to test its 400-mile system before it can open the portions of the pipeline closed since a deadly accident June 10, federal regulators ordered yesterday.

"We want to make sure that every piece of pipe that Olympic has in the ground has been tested," said Patricia Klinger, a spokeswoman for the federal Office of Pipeline Safety.

The test, with a device known as a transverse flux tool, is supposed to check for defects in seams where sections of pipes have been welded.

Those welds also can be checked by injecting water into the pipe at high pressure for several hours, which is known as hydrostatic testing. This is an old and proven technology, and one that elected officials have been calling to be used to ensure the integrity of Olympic's pipeline. But it has its own problems.

The calls for hydrostatic testing became louder after Olympic embarked on limited water testing of 10 miles of pipeline in Bellingham. In September, the test resulted in a seam failure and a 6.5-foot hole blown in the pipeline in Bellingham.

Critics of Olympic had questions about the new test ordered yesterday and whether it represents an experimental technology.

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said he will continue to push for hydrostatic testing.

"I think it's good that the Office of Pipeline Safety has recognized the need for additional testing," Inslee said.

But he added, "We need to be convinced that this will provide the same level of confidence that hydrostatic testing will provide."

Pipeline consultant Richard Kuprewicz, who has worked with Bellingham and Bellevue on concerns about Olympic Pipe Line, said the region should keep an open mind about the test ordered yesterday and the technology used to perform it.

But he said questions should be asked.

"Is this still in the category of research phase or is it accepted technology?" Kuprewicz asked.

Klinger said regulators have seen the test performed successfully on a pipeline in the Midwest.

Olympic spokeswoman Maggie Brown said the company will leave it up to its own consultant to judge whether the transverse flux test is feasible.

Brown speculated that the order was in response to the repeated calls for hydrostatic testing, especially in the Eastside suburbs.

The order by the Office of Pipeline Safety comes at a time of renewed scrutiny for Olympic.

Last June 10, its 16-inch-diameter pipeline in Bellingham ruptured, spilling gasoline into a creek. The fuel ignited, killing two 10-year-old boys. An 18-year-old man was overcome by fumes and drowned.

Since then, regulators have issued detailed orders to improve Olympic's safety. Regulators also have kept the upper 40 miles of the pipeline in Whatcom and Skagit counties closed.

In January, the company asked the Office of Pipeline Safety for permission to open the upper section of pipeline. Its entire system runs from the Canadian border to Portland.

Olympic said it would ensure the integrity of the line by performing two internal inspections. The inspections are done by devices pushed slowly through the pipeline by petroleum.

The tests Olympic was planning would check for corrosion and external damage caused by construction and other activity.

Doing the tests and analyzing the results could take a year, Brown said.

Yesterday, the Office of Pipeline Safety ordered the third test with the transverse flux tool to look for problems in pipe seams.

Klinger said regulators decided that extensive hydrostatic testing could cause the pipeline to rupture or so weaken it that the line would fail later. At the same time, the tests would leave Olympic with contaminated water that it would have to dispose of.

Olympic's internal tests in 1996 and 1997 have become fodder for concerns about pipeline safety.

Bellevue and Renton have mapped where the tests showed potential problems.

The company will soon have a series of workshops around the state to explain the inspection data from 1996 and 1997 and to quell worries about it.

Monday, U.S. Sens. Slade Gorton and Patty Murray will hold a field hearing on pipeline safety at Bellingham's city hall.

Both Olympic and the Office of Pipeline Safety, which critics have long accused of being a lax regulator, will probably come under fire at the hearing.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 10, 2000

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