A buried web of perils

Toledo Blade
24 March, 2002

Pipelines link nation and are largely unnoticed -- until someone dies

Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas were two little boys who loved to play in a park down the street from their homes in Bellingham, Wash., a coastal town between Seattle and Vancouver with a postcardlike quality to it.

But on June 10, 1999, the two 10-year-olds were caught in a fiery hell after a spark ignited vapors from 250,000 gallons of gasoline flowing from a ruptured underground pipeline beneath the park.

Flames shot 150 feet into the air and thick, black smoke blanketed the sky. Panic ensued as the city was engulfed by a series of fires that - in the words of one witness - "looked like a napalm drop."

The first to die was 18-year-old Liam Wood, a recent high school graduate who was fly fishing in Whatcom Creek, a normally tranquil stream known for its salmon. Overcome by the gasoline fumes, he drowned.

The two boys, in a desperate attempt to save themselves, jumped into the same creek. But the stream burst into flames because gasoline leaking from the Olympic Pipe Line Co. line rupture had poured out.

With burns covering 90 percent of their bodies, Wade and Stephen later died in a Seattle burn unit. The boys had lost all skin above their ankles.

Bellingham, Wash., is more than 2,400 miles from Toledo, but the explosion there sent a chilling message throughout America: Pipeline safety is an issue close to home, no matter where you live.

Ohio and Michigan have had serious scares, but have so far escaped the deaths and destruction of the nation's worst pipeline accidents.

On Aug. 22, 2000 - just three days after a natural gas pipeline exploded 25 miles south of Carlsbad, N.M., killing 12 campers - about 70 people on Toledo's east side were evacuated after crews installing a conduit for a fiber-optic cable punctured a high-pressure natural gas main. Twenty-two evacuees were children who attended a nearby day-care center.

Earlier this month, a leak from a huge natural-gas pipeline explosion burst into flames in a densely populated Cleveland suburb. Several days later, a gasoline pipeline ruptured in rural Van Wert County, spilling 2,000 gallons of gasoline. No one was injured in either incident.

"We've been so fortunate in that regard," said Bill Halsey, director of Lucas County's Emergency Management Agency.

Frank King, the father of one of the two boys killed in Bellingham, Wash., who has become a national activist for pipeline safety, cautioned against wishful thinking.

"Don't tell me it'll never happen to you," he said. "We lived next to this pipeline for 23 years and thought it would never happen to us." Any place, any time

About 2.2 million miles of natural gas and petroleum pipelines crisscross the United States, clustering beneath population hubs like giant spider webs. An estimated 609 billion gallons of crude oil and refined petroleum products such as gasoline and jet fuel are transported by pipeline each year, according to the Association of Oil Pipelines. More than 3,000 companies operate pipelines, trying to profit by meeting America's insatiable appetite for energy.

An investigation by The Blade into pipeline safety has found:

  • Since 1984, there have been 5,700 pipeline accidents resulting in more than 420 deaths and 1,500 injuries.
  • The federal Office of Pipeline Safety, an obscure division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that oversees the Alaskan pipeline and major transmission lines, does not know exactly where all the pipelines are located. The OPS had only 56 inspectors to carry out its mandate last year - roughly one inspector for every 50,000 miles of pipeline.
  • Many states leave most of their pipeline inspections to OPS. Eight states, including Ohio and Michigan, retain jurisdiction over most natural-gas lines within their boundaries. Some states, however, do not have their own inspectors to physically check the lines. Ed Steele, chief of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's gas pipeline safety section, said his agency reviews records of pipeline companies it regulates, but leaves the task of inspections to the companies that own the lines.
  • Texas, a major supplier of oil and natural gas with a huge network of underground pipelines, leads the nation in pipeline accidents with 1,654 from 1984 to 1999. Ohio and New York tied for eighth with 145 accidents each. Michigan was 11th with 132 accidents.
  • Federal records show there is roughly one pipeline accident a day. Many of the accidents are caused by contractors not knowing where to dig, sometimes because of faulty information. For example, a contractor building a noise wall along I-475 near Douglas Road in West Toledo struck underground pipelines twice in 24 hours in September, 2000. The accident disrupted traffic and forced evacuations on both days.
  • An average of 24 deaths a year were attributed to pipeline accidents from 1989 through 2000, the latest years for which cumulative figures are available.

But the risk of injury from pipeline accidents is increasing, experts say. And all it takes is one major accident to exceed any annual death toll: 33 people died and 69 others were injured when a natural gas pipeline ruptured on Nov. 21, 1996, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

A longtime investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said he is afraid more people will die before the issue of pipeline safety gets taken seriously. Many pipelines date to the early 1900s and are corroding. Not only are more pipelines being built - including one planned through northwest Ohio - there are more people living near them and a greater volume of fuel being transported through them.

Although not common occurrences, pipeline explosions are prone to happen any place and at any time, according to Charles Batten, whose 22-year career at the NTSB included a stint as chief of the division that oversaw all pipeline accidents.

"Most people who see a plane crash recognize it could happen everywhere. But when it comes to pipelines, they don't," he said.

Northwest Ohio could be vulnerable because of underground pipelines which serve the area's three petroleum refineries in Oregon, Toledo, and Lima.

Even if a pipeline accident does not lead to an explosion or injury, there is almost always a toll on the environment when the incident involves a petroleum-based product. More than $850 million has been spent since 1984 on environmental cleanup. Roughly 6 million gallons of pollutants have to be cleaned up each year.

Sometimes the costs are not confined to the ruptured lines and the cleanups. Just over an hour from Toledo in south-central Michigan, a potential disaster was averted on June 7, 2000, when 75,000 gallons of gasoline escaped from a ruptured pipeline in Jackson County's Blackman Township. About 1,200 people were evacuated from their homes, some for almost a week, while a faulty weld in a 16-inch line owned by Wolverine Pipeline Co. was repaired.

The pipeline involved runs between Chicago and Detroit and carries almost a third of the gasoline transmitted across Michigan. The service disruption caused a shortage that temporarily pushed Michigan gasoline prices above the $2-per-gallon mark.

One of this region's biggest evacuations occurred Feb. 17, 1988, when 5,000 residents of Fremont and surrounding areas were told to stay away from their homes for days because a broken underground pipeline in rural Seneca County allowed 200,000 gallons of the chemical toluene to flow into Sugar Creek and the Sandusky River. The chemical killed thousands of fish and polluted water used for drinking.

The last known fatality in this area because of a pipeline explosion occurred on Jan. 17, 1975, when a fire at the Mid Valley Pipeline Co. crude oil terminal in Lima, Ohio, killed one man and destroyed two buildings. The fire was attributed to a valve that was inadvertently closed, allowing pressure to build up and crack a pipeline.

Across the country, pipeline explosions have torn apart many lives. For example:

  • Eight apartment buildings were leveled and $25 million in damage occurred after a natural-gas line exploded in Edison, N.J., on March 23, 1994. About 1,500 people were evacuated, 250 of whom were left homeless. One of the evacuees died of a heart attack.

The explosion left behind a giant crater in a heavily populated area and caused an inferno visible in three states. Then-Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, who is now U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said at the time that the sight looked like "ground zero after a nuclear blast."

  • On June 9, 1994, one person died and 55 were injured in a fire that started after a natural-gas pipeline broke near an eight-story retirement home in Allentown, Pa.
  • Identical human tolls of two people killed and seven injured resulted when gasoline from a ruptured pipeline burst into flames on July 8, 1986, in Moundsview, Minn., and when a natural gas pipeline burst on March 13, 1990, in North Blenheim, N.Y.
  • Twelve campers - including five children - were killed after an underground natural-gas pipeline blew up on Aug. 19, 2000, at their campsite along the Pecos River, about 25 miles south of Carlsbad, N.M.

A corroded underground pipeline owned by El Paso Energy blew up, causing a crater 86 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. Heat from the explosion was so intense that sand melted into glass and turned part of a nearby bridge's concrete structure into powder.

  • Less than three weeks later - on Sept. 7, 2000, in Abilene, Tex. - a 42- year-old police detective was killed by a pipeline explosion on his way home from work.

Detective Jay Hatcher is believed to have driven into a haze of propane gas that had seeped across a rural road four miles south of the city after a contractor had accidentally struck a pipeline. He may have gotten out of his vehicle in an attempt to wave away oncoming traffic.

Rev. Jeff Hatcher said his brother received burns over 90 percent of his body from an explosion that ensued, but was conscious as he arrived at a hospital and was able to speak as an attending physician told him he would soon die.

His brother "just basically told me to tell all his loved ones that he loved them," Mr. Hatcher said. A natural gas explosion rocks Britton, Mich., in 1996. While some homes were damaged, no residents were harmed in the blast. (PHOTO BY JEAN JUDKINS)ZOOM 1 America relies on underground pipelines, given the need to move energy products to homes, businesses, factories, and airports.

Take natural gas. It supplies a fourth of all energy and reliance on it is growing: Over the next two decades, natural-gas usage is expected to increase by 60 percent, requiring the need for more than 250,000 miles of new distribution pipelines and another 40,000 miles of transmission pipelines, according to congressional testimony submitted Feb. 13 by Herman Morris on behalf of the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association.

Pipelines are used to transmit nearly all of the natural gas, plus about two-thirds of the crude oil and refined oil products.

The fuel is transported swiftly each day - at an affordable cost and, barring leaks or explosions, without the public taking much notice.

None of that sits well with Jim Harrison, a Fostoria farmer who has spent years fighting plans for a 400-mile natural-gas pipeline that would run from Defiance to Leidy, Pa., affecting 8,664 acres of land.

The Independence Pipeline, approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is to pass through northwest Ohio counties that include Defiance, Henry, Wood, Seneca, and Huron.

Mr. Harrison, vice president of a group called the Ohio-Pennsylvania Landowners Association, questioned why plans for more pipelines keep getting approved when it appears that federal inspectors have not kept up with what has been out there for years.

"It's like a patchwork quilt. They [the pipeline industry] just keep laying more pipeline," he said.

The chief regulatory agency - the federal Office of Pipeline Safety - admittedly does not know where all existing lines are built and does not require industries to reveal the location of all their structures to them.

A national mapping system that OPS started in 1993 continues to be an ongoing, voluntary effort with a lot of information lacking.

James P. Mitchell, the transportation department's public affairs director, admits that OPS was "pushed aside for years" when it came to funding and staffing. With only 107 employees, OPS is one of the smallest - and most poorly funded - agencies in the federal government, he said.

Even with people such as Mr. King clamoring for improved pipeline safety, OPS has but one inspector for every 50,000 miles of pipeline. That ratio is expected to improve ever so slightly with the Bush administration giving OPS enough funding to hire 20 more inspectors this year.

Stacey Gerard vowed to reform OPS after being named to head the agency in July, 2000, as an associate administrator with the transportation department.

While agreeing that OPS needs more than money, Ms. Gerard told The Blade that she is pleased that the latest White House budget request would allow her to expand her staff by 15 pipeline inspectors for a total of 90 inspectors by fiscal year 2003.

A former emergency disaster planner before being hired by OPS in the mid 1990s, Ms. Gerard pointed out that OPS gets assistance from 400 state employees who work as inspectors for their respective states.

"It's an enormous job. There's no question," she said, acknowledging that it's difficult to have that many federal and state inspectors act like a "seamless work force."

But Ms. Gerard said she is pleased by the progress. She claims OPS has finished the biggest task: Mapping pipelines in the most environmentally sensitive regions.

Locations on 90 percent of liquid pipelines have been reported. The greatest stumbling block is the location of natural-gas transmission pipelines: 45 percent of those have yet to be reported, she said.

The events of Sept. 11 have complicated the pipeline mapping issue as, for security reasons, previously public information was pulled off the Internet, Mr. Mitchell said.

Ms. Gerard said the priority is not finishing the pipeline inventory - but continuing to reform some of the most basic ways in which OPS monitors what is out there.

She said she is convinced pipeline safety will be improved by developing better inspection techniques, as well as doing a better job of coordinating records of air inspections made along pipeline routes with internal pipe inspections.

The 1994 natural-gas pipeline explosion that leveled a section of Edison, N.J., might have been avoided if that had happened, Ms. Gerard acknowledged.

"It's our foremost priority to develop a better capability to pull all that information together," she said.

In the eyes of many concerned with pipeline safety, the 1999 pipeline explosion that rocked Bellingham, Wash., was a turning point. It inspired Congress, as well as the transportation department's inspector general, to investigate OPS. A number of bills calling for reform subsequently followed.

"Bellingham was a tragedy, and we wish we could have had better regulations then. But it spurred us to act sooner," Ms. Gerard said.

What made Bellingham a focal point for action, observers say, is the fact that Wade King, Stephen Tsiorvas, and Liam Wood were not camping out in the middle of nowhere or working with a contractor digging around a pipeline. They were doing what millions of Americans do every day: enjoying the peace and quiet of their neighborhood.

After the gasoline line ruptured and an errant spark set off the huge fireball, the two youngsters had nowhere to go but the same creek where Mr. Wood drowned.

Amazingly, the boys emerged from the flaming water on their own power. As shell-shocked and terrified as they were, they were conscious and lucid enough to talk. That initially gave Mr. King so much hope for his son that - without knowing any better - he told him he thought he would survive.

A short time later, doctors told the boys' parents they had no choice but to let them die. The most aggressive form of treatment might have kept the boys alive in the burn unit up to two more weeks - but in extreme pain.

"I can remember shortly before he died, sitting by his bedside, telling him it was OK to go - that there was a baseball game going on up in heaven and they needed a left-handed hitting catcher," Mr. King testified to a congressional committee investigating the disaster. "I could see his eyes fill up with tears, and I began dabbing his eyes with a Kleenex."

"I lie awake every night because I can't get that picture of the two boys out of my mind," he said.

Now, as a pipeline safety crusader, Mr. King said he could not care less about OPS' promises for reform. He said he has become so cynical of government that all he wants is one simple thing: Huge, unprecedented fines. That's the only message industry will understand whenever it thinks about cutting corners on pipeline safety, he said.

To those who might wonder how far he will carry his battle for pipeline safety enforcement, Mr. King offered this: "Let them pull two little boys who have all of their skin burned off out of a creek next to their home. I'm not going away."

TOMORROW: With the growth of suburbs and energy needs, people can get hurt ... and do

Original Story (part 1), Toledo Blade

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