RHODE ISLAND - Pipelines Pose Unseen Hazards

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3.20.2000 06:30:01

Pipelines pose unseen hazards

Rhode Island experts say certain factors kept the Cumberland gasoline leak from becoming a bigger headache, but problems elsewhere in the nation have raised questions about pipeline safety.

By PETER B. LORD Journal Environment Writer

CUMBERLAND -- State emergency response experts say that 7,700 gallons of gasoline -- not the 5,000 gallons originally estimated -- spilled March 11 from the Exxon Mobil pipeline that was accidently punctured by a backhoe.

They also concluded that several bits of good luck contributed to keeping the spill from being a serious catastrophe:

When the backhoe blade pierced the 6-inch pipe, it didn't cause a spark that could have ignited the fuel.

The puncture occurred at a spot that had already been excavated for installation of utilities, so the spilled gasoline didn't flow far; instead, it created a small pond about 5 feet deep right next to the pipe.

The rain last weekend actually helped the cleanup because much of the gasoline floated on the water that pooled in the excavation, rather than seeping into the ground.

``We have well-trained people, but sometimes you get lucky and things go your way,'' said Michael Mulhare, head of the Department of Environmental Management's emergency response team.

While the damage caused by the break was limited and state officials said the 98-mile-long pipeline that carries gasoline from East Providence to Springfield, Mass., has generally been trouble-free, the incident occurred at a time when pipeline safety has become a national issue.

Last summer, a 16-inch pipeline ruptured in a park in Bellingham, Wash., and sent a wave of gasoline flowing toward two 10-year-old boys playing with a barbecue lighter. An explosion killed the boys and a teenager fishing nearby, destroyed the park and created a plume of smoke six miles high.

Congressmen from Washington state charged that the federal government fails to do enough to regulate safety with the 2 million miles of pipe that carry gasoline, natural gas and oil across America. They introduced legislation that would increase state authority over pipelines, improve inspection practices and guarantee the public's right to know inspection results.

At a hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the pipeline that exploded ran underneath the parking lot of the middle school where her twin sister teaches.

``The explosion rocked the school,'' she said. And when the teachers ran outside, they were met with ``a hailstorm of burning branches falling into their school parking lot, singeing their clothing and leaving them in fear.''

Murray said she thought such an incident was a fluke. But then she learned from the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, charged with regulating pipelines, that there have been more than 5,700 pipeline accidents since 1986, killing 325 people.

She said she asked the inspector general of the Department of Transportation to investigate the Office of Pipeline Safety. Its report concluded there was a critical lack of pipeline regulation.

Just a few weeks earlier, Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, reported to Congress that serious spills and accidents continue to occur because the pipeline operators are not being required to inspect their pipes for corrosion or other defects.

In a speech in December to a gathering of people in the pipeline industry, Hall was even more direct: ``There is nowhere today the sense that the Office of Pipeline Safety is in charge . . . or that its regulations, its inspections, its assets, its staffing, and its spirit are adequate to the task.

In that speech, Hall asked the industry members to reconsider their hostility to increased regulations.

To those who think it's cheaper to skimp on safety, Hall recommended getting copies of the settlement agreements between the U.S. Attorney and the Rhode Island attorney general and the operators of the North Cape barge that spilled 828,000 gallons of oil off Rhode Island four years ago. (The owners paid $9.5 million in fines and penalties.)

Patricia Klinger, spokeswoman for the Office of Pipeline Safety, said Friday that she went to Bellingham right after the accident, and again for the hearing this week.

``It is so sad,'' she said. ``We've done a lot, but not enough. It's going to be hard to restore public confidence in our program.''

She said her office did shut down the operator of the Bellingham pipeline. It plans to require more comprehensive testing. And it is gradually obtaining maps for pipelines across the country and putting them on its Web site.

As for the Mobil Exxon pipeline, she said, ``They are going to be inspected again this year, I can tell you that.''

Not everyone agrees that the public should be told about the location of potentially hazardous pipelines.

James Lanni, of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, said his agency once had maps of the pipeline's route, but it got rid of them about 20 years ago because people were asking for them.

``We do not maintain those maps, for security reasons, because our information is public,'' said Lanni. He said PUC officials were concerned about possible sabotage.

But the DEM's Mulhare said the pipeline's route is clearly marked on topographical maps readily available from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Michael said work will begin soon on determining whether there was any environmental damage caused by last week's spill. State inspectors are particularly interested in whether the gasoline seeped into the nearby ground water.

The accident took place on a section of a pipeline that runs for 98.2 miles from Mobil Oil Co.'s terminal in East Providence to Springfield, Mass. Along the way, the pipeline runs through Seekonk and Attleboro before cutting back through Cumberland, Lincoln and North Smithfield and then north through Uxbridge. One spur leads off to Worcester, Mass.

A backhoe operated by a subcontractor at Cumberland Crossings, a 288-unit apartment complex, reportedly hit the pipeline because of a mixup.

Representatives of Exxon Mobil were at the site all week to keep an eye on the pipeline, and they didn't think anyone would be working Saturday. The backhoe operator working Saturday was on his first day on the job, and dug in the wrong place, a company official said.

DEM personnel and private contractors worked all week cleaning up the spilled fuel. There was a minor fire late in the week when a backhoe scraped some gravel and ignited some lingering gasoline vapors, but DEM hazardous materials responder John Leo said ``it wasn't anything the fire department couldn't handle.''

The pipeline was laid in 1931 by the Standard Oil Co., using two mules and two gangs of hundreds of laborers working by hand to dig a trench and lay the pipe.

Standard Oil operated a refinery in East Providence at the time. It was the height of the Great Depression and the pipeline was the first of its kind in New England.

To pass under roads, the crews bored tunnels with giant augers. Each piece of pipe was welded to the next. Then the pipe was covered with two layers of hot asphalt wrapped with felt paper.

The mules pulled lengths of pipe into woods and fields where there were no roads. Even as construction was under way, the company warned that it would be difficult to steal gasline from the pipeline, because pressure gauges would alert the company that gasoline was being lost.

But within two years, several people were arrested for tapping thousands of gallons from the pipeline.

Following last week's break, state officials gave Exxon Mobil credit for identifying the loss of pressure from its control center in Dallas, and quickly shutting off the flow of gasoline.

``Mobil responded with its pipe patching crew and basically it was under control right away,'' said DEM's Leo. They restored the flow of gasoline the day after the break, and welded a patch as the gasoline coursed through the line.

``You don't weld an empty pipeline, because there could be vapors and that would cause an explosion,'' Leo said.

Copyright ) 2000 The Providence Journal Company Produced by www.projo.com


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