Pipeline leak may cause fuel shortage at Sea-Tac

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Pipeline leak may cause fuel shortage at Sea-Tac

By Mike Lindblom Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The millions of passengers who take off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport each year depend on a single source of energy - the Olympic Pipe Line system.

So when one of that company's two regional lines sprung a leak during high-pressure water tests in Renton last week, the breach left operators anxious about whether they can assure a reliable flow of fuel to the airport for the heavy summer-travel season.

As it is, the airport has limped along with an unsteady flow of jet fuel for nearly two years, since a pipeline explosion killed three males in Bellingham. With the continued closure of that 16-inch pipeline for safety checks, the airport has been forced to contend with a smaller flow of fuel, at times coming close to running out.

The airport, which consumes about 1.5 million gallons of fuel a day, is expected to need around 1.75 million gallons daily within a few weeks, when the summer-travel season arrives.

So far, there have been no flight delays or cancellations, and airport officials are not warning of any this summer.

But BP Pipelines, which acquired the Olympic pipeline system last year, says there have been close calls:

In early August, jet fuel at the airport dwindled and the airport was within eight hours of running out. A crisis was averted in part because Alaska canceled some MD-80 flights for safety inspections, said Bobby Talley, a BP regional vice president.

Around Christmas, only a one-day supply existed in the tanks. The eight-tank fuel farm, which can hold a 15-day supply, usually contains two to 12 days' worth, with an average five-day supply.

After the Feb. 28 Nisqually earthquake, a resulting 30-hour pipeline closure for safety checks would have jeopardized the jet-fuel supply if control-tower damage at Sea-Tac hadn't reduced the number of flights, said BP spokesman Dan Cummings.

BP hoped to have the 16-inch line back in service by the end of this month, but last week's leak could disrupt those plans.

And the specter of potential summer power blackouts at pipeline pumping stations, the lack of a backup supply line in case of an emergency, and a steady increase in air travel all increase the sense of urgency.

"Until we get that segment of the pipeline back up, I think the system we have to supply Sea-Tac is still a very fragile system," Talley said.

After the Bellingham blast June 10, 1999, the airport was forced to get all its kerosene "Jet A" fuel from a nearby 20-inch line. That pipeline pumps petroleum from four refineries through Skagit, Snohomish and King counties, and aircraft fuel competes with automobile gasoline for space.

Test planned today in Renton

In Renton, BP already has replaced the recently damaged pipe and planned to hydrotest again early this morning. The company does not yet know how much of a delay the leak will cause and has not announced a restart date, Cummings said.

Airlines have skirted the supply problem by refueling some Seattle-bound jets in other cities, said Fred Ketzeback, director of fuel administration for Alaska Airlines. He said the water leak in Renton did not alarm him because the airline has managed for two years without the troubled pipe.

Mark Coates, Sea-Tac operations manager, said careful monitoring of fuel levels also has helped avoid problems. In some ways, the airlines have become more efficient in the past two years, he said.

But jet travel still requires immense volumes of fuel. A typical 737 takes off with 3,000 to 4,000 gallons on West Coast flights, while a 747 to Asia can burn up to 35,000 gallons.

Like a self-service gas station at rush hour, the airport's two fuel depots supply a constant rush of tanker drivers who pump the kerosene into the jets.

Every day, the airport's tanker-truck drivers, in slate-colored uniforms, clamp on hoses the size of an elephant's trunk and wait as the truck tires sag beneath the weight of surging fuel. With a full load, the truckers must navigate among planes, baggage caravans and catering trucks, while staying mindful of deadlines.

"There's 10,000 ways you can make a mistake. You've got to be accurate at what you do," said Everett Stewart, a driver for Signature Flight Support. A 747 alone contains 11 separate fuel tanks, and the correct ones must be filled, he said, holding a checklist.

Lobbying for federal action

Whenever bad news about the pipeline emerges, airline executives flood BP and trucking firms with phone calls, and at least once, rumors of a possible fuel shortage buzzed among tanker drivers.

"It's a concern of the airline community and a concern when we speak with elected officials. It's one of the top questions from them - what's going on with fuel for Sea-Tac?" Cummings said.

To help address the problems caused by pipeline ruptures, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, with Mayors Jesse Tanner of Renton and Chuck Mosher of Bellevue, gathered at the water-leak site in southeast Renton yesterday to urge the U.S. House to pass legislation requiring internal inspections of pipelines.

Inslee called on Vice President Dick Cheney to address the matter in a proposed national energy policy to be announced Thursday.

"This is not just a safety issue. This is an energy-reliability issue," said Inslee, mentioning that Sea-Tac lately "has limped by." By preventing accidents, strong safety rules would reduce supply disruptions, he argued.

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 15, 2001

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