Contractor Missed Pipeline Flaw
By Raymond McCaffrey

Washington Post
24 July, 2002

U.S. Report on Southern Md. Oil Spill Faults Companies, EPA

Federal investigators have determined that a massive oil spill from a cracked pipeline at a Potomac Electric Power Co. plant occurred after a flaw in the pipe went undetected because consultants misread inspection data.

A report approved by the National Transportation Safety Board yesterday also concluded that an "absence of effective pipeline monitoring procedures" at the Chalk Point facility in Aquasco served to delay the shutting down of the pipeline April 7, 2000, which led to what has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Maryland history.

Moreover, the report stated that the initial command structure put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency "was for several days unable to mobilize and control an effective response" after a storm blew in the following evening and swept the spill beyond containment barriers in Swanson Creek beside the plant. Ultimately, more than 120,000 gallons of oil spread into the Patuxent River, oiling 76 acres of wetlands and 10 acres of shoreline, killing hundreds of birds and animals and causing the loss of thousands of pounds of fish and shellfish.

As a result of its finding, the NTSB also recommended industry-wide reform in responding to pipeline defects. The NTSB recommended changes to the way "owners and operators" report spills, requiring "follow-up telephone updates to the National Response Center when they discover that the information they initially reported contains significant errors."

Pepco initially reported that 2,000 gallons of oil had been released instead of the far greater 2,000 barrels -- or 100,000 gallons -- eventually found to have been released, officials have said.

"We do know that the EPA arrived on the scene without adequate information," NTSB Chairman Marion C. Blakey said yesterday.

In its report, the NTSB recommended that the EPA "integrate the principles contained in the National Response Team's Technical Assistance Document," response guidelines for spills that were drafted as a result of legislation after the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989.

According to NTSB officials, the EPA took several days to initiate "a fully implemented Incident Command System" in which it assumes a more direct lead in making decisions.

A top EPA official told members of the Maryland Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee in 2000 that his agency was restrained in its first response to the spill "because the initial call to EPA indicated that the volume of oil was very small."

Pepco has acknowledged that there was an "obvious miscommunication" in its initial reporting, but what was most important was that the company reported the incident promptly, according to spokesman Robert Dobkin.

The inspection of the pipeline was done by a consulting firm, Dobkin said, which incorrectly identified a connective fitting as being near the spot where the pipe later cracked. Investigators failed to find that fitting when they dug up the pipe but instead found a bulge in the line where a five-inch crack occurred.

"We have to go by their results," Dobkin said. "As the NTSB said, we were not alerted."

Pepco has spent more than $65 million to clean up the spill. The company sold its Aquasco plant to Mirant Mid-Atlantic LLC. Mirant has since received permission from the U.S. Transportation Department's Office of Pipeline Safety to reopen the 51.5-mile pipeline. Restoration work on the line has included testing the integrity of the pipe and installing equipment to monitor oil flow through it.

When the pipeline reopened, it was governed by far more stringent regulations. Outraged Maryland legislators enacted a law mandating regular state inspections of intrastate pipelines.

Copyright 2002, The Washington Post Company
Original Story

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