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Pipeline Safety and Pipeline Company Attitudes

March 23, 2001
Seattle, Washington

State Bill SSB 5182, which would provide funding for the state of Washington to continue implementing the delegation of authority that was given it by the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, is in trouble in the Washington State House of Representatives due to intense lobbying by the pipeline companies who claim that more inspectors are not needed.

The following is Marlene Robinson's testimony in support of that bill before the Washington State House Committee on Environment and Agriculture:

My name is Marlene Robinson. My son, Liam Wood, was killed during the Bellingham pipeline spill on June 10th, 1999. Liam was 18 when he died. He had graduated from Sehome high school 5 days before, and was looking forward to entering Western Washington University in the fall.

If you've never been to Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham, I can tell you that being in the gorge where the creek runs was at one time a breathtakingly beautiful experience. It was a place of peace, recreation and reflection for many residents. Liam discovered the creek early on when we moved to Bellingham. From the age of 13 he began exploring the 4 miles of the creek from the Bay to Lake Whatcom. He knew every bend and waterfall, he knew where the otter fished, and when he came home from his times at the creek, he'd come into the house with a quiet joy. Liam knew what was important. He had a passion for, and paid a deep attention to, the natural world, and as a result grew into a young man who was happy and confident and excited about his future.

Liam was killed shortly after the Olympic pipeline burst. Apparently a known defect in the pipeline a short distance away had never been inspected because company workers deemed it too much trouble and there was no law to require an inspection. Thirty miles away, pumps and valves in a seriously flawed system failed and control room operators ignored alarms and turned pumps back on. There was no law requiring a fail-safe system, no law requiring that control room operators be trained to operate a safe system. Instead, a huge pressure wave ran 30 miles up the line to the defect in the pipe at Whatcom Falls park. The pipe burst and, with no technology or protocol in place to prevent it, a quarter of a million gallons of gasoline poured in the creek.

It poured down the steep canyon where Liam was fishing. A 20-foot wall of gasoline vapor displaced all of the oxygen in the gorge. Liam was overcome by the gas fumes, fell into the foot-deep creek and drowned. He held on to his fly rod, and though his body was burned beyond recognition, the rod, held under water, was preserved, as was Liam's watch, which I wear today.

As Liam lay drowning, Wade King and Steven Tsiorvas, two 10-year-old boys, were playing at the creekside. Wade and Steven were fatally burned, though they would suffer through an entire night before succumbing. Every living thing in the creek was killed for a mile and a half.

The horror of that day is unimaginable. The explosion, the black mushroom cloud, the fear and panic. And the impossibility of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and emergency workers trying desperately and fruitlessly to save our children.

It should never have happened. It was not a simple, inexplicable, isolated accident. We are all now well aware that aging pipelines run under streets, past houses, schools and parks in every town and city. We know that they are rupturing with alarming frequency and we know that the federal regulatory agency mandated to ensure the safe transport of fuel in this country has failed at its job.

Since Liam died, I've had to listen to a lot of declarations on the part of pipeline companies that safety comes first, that pipelines are very, very safe, that citizens and government should leave pipeline safety up to the pipeline companies because no one knows how to keep lines safe better than the companies themselves.

But no matter how many times those declarations are repeated, the reality of pipeline safety is plain to all of us in Washington State. Surely at this point I don't need to remind anyone of the ridiculous series of errors and omissions that led to the explosion in Bellingham, or to point out the fact that shortly thereafter a pipeline in New Mexico, which had gone uninspected for 40 years, blew up and killed 12 people. The reality of poor pipeline safety management and federal regulation has led us to this point today: that of state oversight and how to fund it.

I know that interstate pipeline companies are strongly opposing the safety fee bill. Even those that claim to support the bill are pressing to have the fees reduced. I have two things to say about that: 1) the fees are set, not to ensure maximum profit for the pipeline companies, but to ensure that our state can effectively oversee the transport of hazardous material, and 2) the proposed fees are a drop in the bucket to these pipeline companies. They know it, I know it, and you know it.

The WUTC is proposing to collect fees totaling approximately $800,000 per year. That amount of money provides the bare minimum of 4 staff providing inspection to prevent pipeline failures. From 1984 to 1999, the following companies - Chevron, Olympic, Trans-Mountain, Northwest and Pacific Gas - were responsible for pipeline failures in Washington that inflicted property damage in the amount of $759,000 per year. That's property damage only; not injury, not death, not environmental damage.

In 1999, liquid pipeline companies recorded average profits of 31.7% and gas pipeline companies recorded average profits of 17.4%. In 2000, Williams Pipeline reported profits of $741.5 million, up from $697.3 million in 1999. And Williams is fighting a fee of $400,000 per year.

I know what their concern is - that we may set a national precedent. I sincerely hope that we do. If Williams Pipeline were paying for such a program in all 50 states during the year 2000, its profits would still have been $719 million with a rate of return of 16.8%. An undeniably huge profit margin. What a small price for stockholders to pay to create oversight that can finally provide safe pipelines in our state.

BP reopened the Olympic Pipeline in Bellingham on Feb 8 of this year. BP's coyness around this bill makes me suspicious that BP's recent cooperation and statements of commitment to safety have been simply a tactic to get the pipeline open. If safety continues to be BP's number one priority, the company should publicly support the bill as currently funded and staffed. And BP should publicly encourage reluctant industry peers, like Williams Pipeline, to support the bill as well.

I am outraged that pipeline companies are protesting the provisions of this bill. I cannot tell you how infuriating and difficult it is for me to come here and re-live the horror of June 10, all because I have to counter the big bucks lobbying of irresponsible companies.

I miss Liam all day, every day. I am fortunate that Liam was a writer, and I can read his work to hear his voice at 18. I want you to hear Liam's voice as you weigh your decisions about pipeline safety in this state. This is an excerpt from something Liam wrote 6 months before he died:

"I value many things, life being the first and foremost. I also value good, long-lasting friendships and courtesy. I value beauty and honesty, and good food. I value our wilderness areas and all creatures walking on the earth. Ten years from now I want to be kayaking a beautiful river with a beautiful woman. I want to be happy. That's it. Before I die, I hope to have children, and I hope to have fulfilled my goals and ambitions to the fullest extent possible. I want to have fun and to love and be loved."

Every day, 24 hours a day, I live knowing I'll never see Liam again. Two other families mourn Steven and Wade every day. Whatcom Creek is a burned shell, and will never be the same, despite huge, expensive restoration efforts. The people of Bellingham still mourn.

Please continue the good work begun with Washington's Pipeline Safety Act. Pass this bill as written. Let Washington State be the place where we finally solve the issue of unsafe pipelines, where we insist on fair, effective regulation, and we create the means to make it a reality for every community in this state.

Marlene Robinson

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