Prison urged in '99 blast
By Ericka Pizzillo

The Bellingham Herald
14 June 2003

USA, WA, Bellingham

Prosecutors seek to send a message for liability in fatal pipeline explosion

Federal prosecutors are recommending prison time for two former Olympic Pipe Line Co. employees who pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the 1999 gasoline pipeline rupture and explosion that killed three people in Bellingham.

Frank Hopf, former vice president and manager, would spend six months in prison and Ron Brentson, former supervisor of product movements, would spend three months in prison under recommendations the U.S. Department of Justice filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Both men pleaded guilty last December to one felony violation of a federal pipeline safety law for failing to properly train Olympic's pipeline operators. The men face up to five years in prison.

District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein will make the final decision on their sentences Wednesday - eight days after the fourth anniversary of the Whatcom Falls Park disaster.

Kevin Dyvig, the former operations controller for Olympic who was at the pipeline controls when the rupture occurred, would be sentenced to one year of probation under the prosecutors' recommendations. Dyvig pleaded guilty in December to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, punishable by up to a year behind bars.

Though three youths died as a result of the disaster, the federal charges were based on environmental damage done to Whatcom and Hannah creeks and on violations of pipeline safety laws.

Frank King, whose 10-year-old son Wade died from burns, said he will ask Rothstein not to send Hopf and Brentson to prison.

"I don't feel that jail time is going to serve any purpose in this case," he said. "I maintain the sentence should be that they should work with these companies on pipeline safety programs. They're more qualified than anyone else because of their actions."

King said while sending Hopf and Brentson to prison would send a strong message to pipeline companies and employees, he's unsure the message would result in safer pipelines. King said if pipeline employees are scared away from the industry by potential liability, the industry could lose workers who make the industry safer.

King and his wife, Mary, have met personally with all three men charged in the case. Families of the other two youths killed could not be reached for comment Friday.

On the day of the rupture, a pressure surge caused the pipeline to rupture at a weak point, spilling 237,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom and Hannah creeks in Whatcom Falls Park. Liam Wood, 18, was overcome by fumes while fishing in the creek. He drowned. Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, were playing in the park when the fumes ignited. Both died the next day from burns over most of their bodies.

Case vs. Hopf

According to court papers, prosecutors would have recommended more than six months in prison for Hopf had he not agreed to testify truthfully if the case went to trial.

Prosecutors say that in addition to failing to keep pipeline controllers' training up to date, Hopf was personally involved with causes of the rupture identified by the National Transportation Safety Board. Those causes included making the final decision not to excavate and inspect possible pipeline damage in the area where the rupture eventually occurred.

In addition, Hopf was responsible for creating a corporate culture at Olympic that discouraged employees from pressing their concerns about operations and training, prosecutors wrote. And Hopf failed to address repeated uncommanded valve closures, one of which led to high pressure that built in the line and caused the pipeline to rupture at a weak point, say prosecutors.

Brentson & Dyvig

Brentson, prosecutors wrote, did not have as much ability to make changes in the company as Hopf did and so should face less prison time. However, Brentson did not demand that the uncommanded valve closures be examined and corrected, prosecutors wrote. Dyvig received permission from Brentson to restart the pipeline's pumps after they shut down automatically because of a possible rupture. But Dyvig did not follow the company's manual, which requires controllers to review logs of pressure surges and a field employee to visually inspect the line before pumps are restarted. Dyvig's restart of the pumps is blamed for letting an additional 75,000 gallons of gasoline spill into the creeks.

Prosecutors wrote that Dyvig was not recommended for prison time because his actions did not contribute to the initial pipeline rupture. In addition to prison time, prosecutors want Hopf to receive three years probation and perform 200 hours of community service. Brentson would receive two years probation and perform 150 hours of community service. Dyvig would perform 100 hours of community service. Each would pay a $1,000 fine.

Other pleas, fines

Rothstein will also rule Wednesday on plea agreements already proposed by Olympic and by Shell Pipeline Co., which owned a majority share in the pipeline at the time of the rupture. In a December agreement with prosecutors, Olympic and Shell agreed to pay a total of $36 million in civil and criminal fines.

A representative from Olympic pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the federal pipeline safety law and a misdemeanor count of the Clean Water Act. The company agreed to pay $6 million in criminal penalties and be under corporate probation for five years.

Shell Pipeline, formerly Equilon, pleaded no contest to a felony violation of the pipeline safety law and a misdemeanor count of the Clean Water Act. The company agreed to pay $15 million in criminal penalties and be under corporate probation for five years.

The companies also will pay a total of $45 million for safety improvements and programs not required under law, and pay another $15 million in civil fines for environmental damage to the park.

Send a message

Federal prosecutors wrote that their sentence recommendations put pipeline companies on notice that safety must come first. "It is the government's goal that this prosecution will serve as the baseline from which future conduct is measured to ensure that no other families will lose children and no other community will endure the tragedy suffered by Bellingham on June 10, 1999," prosecutors wrote.

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