Pipelines:Out of Sight, But No Longer Out of Mind

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Out of Sight, But No Longer Out of Mind Source: Albuquerque Journal Publication date: 2000-08-25

Editorials Out of sight, out of mind energy companies bury their pipelines underground and most of us think little about the explosive fuels passing underfoot.

A bereaved Bellingham, Wash., father, Frank King, has been unable to think about much else in the year since his son perished in a flood of flames roaring along Whatcom Creek. That explosion was fueled by a ruptured gasoline pipeline run by a company that seeks to reactivate a line that runs through New Mexico.

King researched pipeline industry safety practices, told congressional committees about what he had learned and what he had lost and did what he could to push more stringent standards.

"What I've uncovered about this industry is we fix it when it breaks. They aren't required by federal law to even inspect their pipes. They don't have to tell the feds what they found." After learning of the pipeline explosion that killed 11 campers near Carlsbad early Saturday morning, King said, "I feel like I didn't do enough to change some laws in this country."

Properly installed, operated, inspected and maintained, pipelines are a safe way of moving the massive quantities of fuel the economy demands certainly safer than trying to move such volumes by rail or gasoline truck. But how many 50-year-old gasoline trucks are still making deliveries to stations? How many stations are pumping gas out of 50-year-old underground tanks?

Trucks, tanks and high-pressure pipelines, like all equipment and structures, have a useful lifespan. Toward the end of that span, failure is more likely. The pipeline near Carlsbad was built in 1950 or 1952. Inspections of portions of the ruptured pipeline indicate that corrosion had eaten away 50 percent or more of the 1//3-inch thick walls, though that may have had nothing to do with the explosion.

El Paso Natural Gas is not required to inspect its lines, but it does, sending devices known as pigs through the lines looking for corrosion or other problems. The pipe on either side of the section that ruptured was inspected in 1999. Pigs cannot be used in sections of smaller diameter pipe, or where the pipeline makes turns too tight for the devices to negotiate. The section that ruptured was not inspected in 1999, according to a company spokeswoman.

El Paso Natural Gas will be required to inspect and report on the pipeline that failed and two nearby lines before the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety allows it to put the lines back in service. El Paso also must identify areas along a 50- mile-stretch of each of the three pipelines that might be subject to internal corrosion similar to the ruptured section. That information could help determine safety measures for the rest of the company's 10,000-mile system.

The Office of Pipeline Safety itself may face more stringent demands in the wake of the Carlsbad and the Bellingham explosions. The U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the agency in May, reporting that it had not implemented congressionally approved requirements or National Transportation Safety Board recommendations. Rep. John Dingell said the regulatory agency puts too much "faith in the industry it is supposed to regulate."

Susan Harper of Fuel Safe Washington, a public interest group, said, "Corporations like gas companies respond to regulation and mandates. We've had this (pipeline) infrastructure in the ground for 50 years."

What hazards it represents are unclear and will remain so without requirements for thorough, system-wide inspecting and reporting.

May the explosion that shattered the predawn calm along the Pecos River also shatter the status quo of safety oversight, and the obliteration of three families assure that pipelines, though out of sight, are never again out of mind.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 25, 2000

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