Pipeline risks, concerns run deep

Toledo Blade
25 March, 2002

Watchdog office, legislative efforts called too tame by some critics


Rita Franssen knew danger was lurking outside her house when she opened the door onto her back-yard deck and caught a breath of air.

Mrs. Franssen, who was alone at the time at her home four miles south of Abilene, Texas, immediately recognized the smell and the sound from her days as an office assistant at a Texas oil company: Propane gas.

A short distance away, a contractor had struck an underground pipeline, sending propane gas into the wind.

"It was just roaring out there," she said of the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2000.

Mrs. Franssen knew from her training not to start her car because any spark could set off an explosion.

What she did not expect was a shift in the wind. Mrs. Franssen was standing on her deck near her backyard pool when she sensed the drifting propane cloud moving back toward her.

In seconds, the propane gas cloud ignited - nobody knows for sure what triggered it - forming a giant fireball that consumed the Franssen home.

Mrs. Franssen held her breath as long as she could, popping her head out of the pool water to fight the fire for gasps of oxygen. Each time she emerged, the flames scorched her hair and scalp.

Mrs. Franssen believes she spent about 30 minutes in the water before the flames subsided enough that she could exit the pool, run through a hole in the fence that had been caused by the blaze, and meet firefighters near the highway.

Without her back-yard pool, there's "no doubt I would have been dead," she said.

Abilene police Detective Jay Hatcher saw the same cloud of propane while driving home from work. He stopped to divert traffic away, but instead got caught up in the explosion.

He died early the next morning in the burn unit of Lubbock University Medical Center.

The fact is most Americans are not fortunate to have the same training, instincts, or luck during a life-or-death situation as Mrs. Franssen.

About 2.2 million miles of natural gas and petroleum pipelines crisscross the United States. The federal Office of Pipeline Safety, an obscure division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that oversees the lines, does not know exactly where all the pipelines are.

An investigation by The Blade has found that since 1984, 5,700 pipeline accidents have resulted in more than 400 deaths and 1,500 injuries. Environmental cleanup costs for these accidents have exceeded $850 million and that does not include small accidents the industry is not required to report.

Many people are simply oblivious to the natural-gas and petroleum pipelines that run beneath miles of open land as well as beneath residential neighborhoods, businesses, churches, and schools.

Consider the major petroleum pipeline that runs beneath Perrysburg Township's Oakmont subdivision, where homes started going up in the 1970s.

Twenty-six years ago, Mary Lee Kovarik's family was one of the first to move in. Her property on Heatherford Drive and that of next-door neighbor Sharon Gross is virtually bisected by an underground petroleum pipeline. The line passes under their homes and continues beneath a portion of a large farm field to the east bounded by Thompson Road, Eckel Junction Road, and U.S. 20.

That property will soon house a Kohl's department store and other commercial development along U.S. 20 and a subdivision of homes and apartments on the southern half off Eckel Junction.

"For 26 years, I've never given [the pipeline] a thought," Mrs. Kovarik said. She said she's sure the pipeline wasn't always so prominently marked by large orange-and-white poles on either side of Heatherford, but cannot recall how many years it has been since the markers were installed, either.

Ms. Gross moved to the subdivision four years ago with her two children and now has a baby grandson living with them. She said the neighborhood's friendly atmosphere - one in which parents hang out on porches and watch children ride bicycles in summer - has made her feel "safe and at home here."

"I've never really had many concerns about it," she said.

The fact that people can co-exist with pipelines without even so much as taking notice speaks volumes about the reliability of those structures, according to industry officials.

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

"Our industry is justifiably proud of our excellent safety record," Herman Morris, president and chief executive officer of Memphis Light, Gas and Water, said last month while testifying before a U.S. House subcommittee on behalf of the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association. But some congressmen and government watchdogs believe that record is dubious at best. They claim the national agency in charge of protecting the public - the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety - has a cozy relationship with the pipeline industry and has been lax on enforcement.

They fear what could be in store, given that the need for pipeline expansion exists while the number of high-profile, deadly accidents increases.

The Office of Pipeline Safety was harshly criticized in a May, 2000, report by the General Accounting Office, the chief investigative arm of Congress.

Among other things, the General Accounting Office criticized the pipeline office for failing to comply with many National Transportation Safety Board requirements designed to improve pipeline safety, some of which were more than a decade old. The safety board makes these recommendations and sets policy based largely on its findings from accident investigations.

In a follow-up report to Congress last September, the General Accounting Office said the pipeline agency "continues to have the lowest rate of any transportation agency" for complying with safety board mandates.

The accusations are not new: A 1978 GAO report accused the Office of Pipeline Safety of failing to ensure safety.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn) requested the 2000 and 2001 GAO reviews. His interest in pipeline safety grew as a result of an explosion that occurred June 10, 1999, in Bellingham, Wash.

Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man died after a rupture in a gasoline pipeline triggered an explosion and fireball that barreled through a neighborhood park like a flame thrower.

After spending months sifting through government records, the General Accounting Office discovered a disturbing trend: A steady increase in major pipeline accidents, defined as those which resulted in injury, death, or damage exceeding $50,000.

The report acknowledged that pipelines are a relatively safe and affordable way of moving fuel, but noted that there has been an increase in major pipeline accidents of about 4 percent each year from 1989 to 1998. The 190 major accidents reported in 1989 had climbed to 280 accidents by 1998. On average, one pipeline accident occurs each day in the United States.

Just before Christmas, Mr. Dingell ordered the General Accounting Office to do another investigation. That report is forthcoming.

The Office of Pipeline Safety has cited three primary reasons for the increase in pipeline accidents:

  • A 10 percent expansion of the pipeline system.
  • An increased flow of products necessary to keep pace with America's rising energy demands.
  • An increase in population growth near pipelines.

Stacey Gerard, who took over the Office of Pipeline Safety in July, 2000, as an associate administrator with the federal transportation department, said she has hired nearly 20 inspectors and plans to hire 15 more next year. The additions would increase the total of inspectors in the department to 90.

A number of reforms are being initiated, she said, and her agency has resolved many of the open issues it had with the safety board.

During an interview with The Blade, Ms. Gerard said she is unfazed by the industry's aging infrastructure and reports that suggest as many as 25 percent of the nation's pipelines will soon be a century old.

"It might even be higher," she said. "The effects of time eventually have to be dealt with, that's true. But just because it's 50 to 75 years old doesn't mean it's not good steel," Ms. Gerard said.

The biggest philosophical reform - even in the GAO's eyes - is the new risk- based regulatory approach used by the Office of Pipeline Safety, called "integrity management." Operators must develop programs that focus on the greatest risks to the pipelines as a whole, not just doing the usual inspections to see if segments of pipes meet minimum standards.

Ms. Gerard compared that philosophy to the risk model approach used by the insurance industry to ensure safety in other industrial fields.

Another big change for the Office of Pipeline Safety was its decision to take up the General Accounting Office on its recommendation of getting states more involved with inspections and pipeline safety. However, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates natural gas lines in the state, leaves inspection of those lines to the companies that own them.

Ohio law requires people to know where pipelines are before they dig, although there are no penalties for those who do not, according Ed Steele, chief of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's gas pipeline safety section.

The information is usually acquired by calling one of two private companies that maintain databases, the Ohio Utilities Protection Service or the Ohio Oil & Gas Producers Underground Protection Service.

That system is not fail-proof, as parts of West Toledo learned during the first week of September, 2000. Traffic was disrupted and evacuations were ordered twice within 24 hours in the same part of town that week because a state contractor building a noise wall along I-475 near Douglas Road struck underground pipelines.

Both times the contractor, National Engineering and Constructing, Inc., of Strongsville, Ohio, complained that the lines were inaccurately marked.

In similar fashion, the Office of Pipeline Safety has drawn the wrath of another division of the federal transportation department - the Office of Inspector General.

In two reports in 2000 - both initiated in response to the Bellingham explosion - the inspector general's office said the Office of Pipeline Safety has failed to put together a comprehensive inventory of pipelines and has not lived up to a 1992 congressional mandate to improve inspections.

The inspector general's office urged more research and development of "smart pigs" - inspection devices that move through pipeline interiors and make grunting noises as their electronic sensors help detect cracks, dents, deformities, and corrosion. Smart pigs are the most reliable way of checking a pipe short of excavating it, officials say, but the mechanical pigs cannot get past sections of pipe that have sharp bends or obstructive valves.

Several officials have accused the Office of Pipeline Safety of bias, saying it has worked harder at accommodating the needs of the powerful pipeline industry than regulating it.

"OPS almost since its inception has been dominated and controlled by industry," according to Charles Batten, former chief of the National Transportation Safety Bureau's pipeline accident investigation division.

Ms. Gerard disagrees with such characterizations, although she acknowledged that pipeline inspectors invariably spend a lot of time with those employed by industry because of the nature of their jobs and the need to better understand the pipeline networks.

"It's a valid concern, but we have to know the industry we regulate," Ms. Gerard said. "Do we know who we work for? Yeah, we do. We work for those people in Bellingham, and there isn't a person in this agency who doesn't know that."

Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson once told a U.S. Senate committee he believed Office of Pipeline Safety "seems intent on ensuring that it takes no action without the agreement and concurrence of the industry it is charged with regulating."

The Bellingham case is widely viewed as the inspiration behind a move in Congress to improve pipeline safety, an effort which politicians agreed was long overdue.

The need was highlighted again the next summer. On Aug. 19, 2000, a natural gas pipeline near Carlsbad, N.M. exploded, killing 12 campers - five of them were children.

One attempt at legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) passed the Senate last year. The House has yet to pass a companion measure.

Regardless, the legislation has been called meaningless by reform advocates such as Mr. Batten and Frank King. Mr. King's son, Wade, was one of the three people killed in the Bellingham explosion.

Marlene Robinson, whose son, Liam Wood, also died in the Bellingham tragedy, said she has been dismayed by a series of "progressively weaker bills" that have been introduced, including one in January by U.S. Rep. Don Young. Mr. Young is an Alaska Republican who filed his own bill after working to defeat others he felt were too harsh on the pipeline industry.

"We are all now well aware that aging pipelines run under streets, past houses, schools, and parks in every town and city," Ms. Robinson testified Feb. 13 before a House subcommittee. "[Bellingham] happened because the Office of Pipeline Safety, mandated to ensure the safe transport of fuel in this country, instead has consistently protected the interests of the pipeline industry over the safety of communities."

Mr. Batten said he is afraid the situation will get worse before it gets better - that more lives will have to be lost to make the nation outraged.

"People need to recognize that what happens in Bellingham or New Mexico could happen to them," Mr. Batten said.

Mr. Asmundson agreed. In his testimony before the Senate, the Bellingham mayor said pipeline safety is not about legislation or bureaucracy reform.

"The effects of the rupture are not abstract or theoretical; they are real. They are practical," he said. "In Bellingham's case, it meant attending the funerals of three wonderful boys in one week, along with a community of thousands of mourners."

Original Story (part 2), Toledo Blade

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