Pipeline execs sent to prison for Bellingham blast
By Paul Shukovsky

Seattle Post Intelligencer
19 June 2003

Two were managers when accident killed 3 in 1999

Declaring that "companies are composed of individuals," U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein sentenced two former managers of Olympic Pipe Line Co. to prison for crimes that contributed to a gasoline spill and fire in Bellingham four years ago that took three lives.

Rothstein sentenced Frank Hopf Jr. -- who managed the leaking pipeline when it exploded into a ball of fire on June 10, 1999 -- to six months behind bars. He pleaded guilty to a felony count of failing to train workers as mandated by a federal pipeline-safety law. So did Ronald Brentson, who ran the pipeline's control center. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison and 30 days home detention. Kevin Dyvig, a control-center operator, was sentenced to one year of probation on a misdemeanor charge for negligent discharge of fuel into a creek.

Before sentencing, Hopf asked Rothstein for mercy saying that "any assertion that we made a decision against safety to enhance profitability is absolutely wrong."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Lincoln rebutted Hopf's plea for leniency by pointing out that the oil industry executive decided not to excavate and check the integrity of the pipeline at spots where it was known to have problems. "A significant sentence is needed to send a powerful message of deterrence to this industry," Lincoln said.

Rothstein upheld the prosecutor's request for a six-month sentence and declared that "the individuals who make these choices are going to have to realize that they are the ones who will be held accountable."

The companies that employed these men were held accountable yesterday as well. Civil penalties, criminal fines and mandated safety improvements levied by the court totaling $112 million mean that:

  • More than 2,000 miles of pipeline in the Midwest run by Shell, the managing partner of Olympic, will get an enhanced safety program that exceeds federal requirements.
  • Olympic's pipeline will undergo safety enhancements that go beyond federal requirements.
  • And $7.5 million will be paid in civil penalties for Clean Water Act violations. The money will go to the state for environmental and community projects in Bellingham.

Among those projects is one that is, in effect, a civic and political memorial to the two boys and young man who died four years ago.

When the pipeline ruptured June 10, 1999, and poured at least 225,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek, 18-year-old Liam Wood was overcome by the fumes near the spot where he was fishing and drowned. Ten-year-old pals Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas were playing when they were engulfed in the fireball and later died of burns.

The parents of Liam and Stephen joined together on the board of what was to become the Tsiorvas Wood Pipeline Safety Trust. About $4 million of the civil penalties will go to endow the trust that, according to Liam's mother, Marlene Robinson, will be an independent, non-adversarial source of pipeline-safety information that will seek to be a bridge among the industry, communities and regulators.

Rothstein told the oil executives in her courtroom yesterday that the millions going to Tsiorvas trust would give it nowhere near the "power of the oil industry. But they should be listened to because these are the people who paid the price."

That price was all too evident yesterday when Wade's mother, Mary King, left the courtroom sobbing and in tears as Hopf recounted how he had visited the family, seen the 10-year-old's room and expressed his sorrow for the death of their boy.

The Kings, who have granted forgiveness, sought mercy for the three men who stood before Rothstein, saying that instead of prison, they can serve as living examples to their industry of its responsibility to safety.

Rothstein said Brentson could serve such a purpose. But BP Pipelines, which is the current majority owner of Olympic, has said it will fire Brentson in accord with its policy against employing anyone with a felony conviction.

"He's a good man," Rothstein said of Brentson. "This is an individual who would help with any changes that need to be made."

BP executive Lawrence Peck told Rothstein, however, that a decision not to retain Brentson had been made at very high levels of the corporation. THE LAW AT A GLANCE

In December, years of lobbying after the Bellingham accident for tougher policing of pipelines culminated as President Bush signed a new safety bill into law.

Among other things, the law requires that:

  • Operators inspect pipelines at least once in the next 10 years and every seven years after that. Some pipelines near large cities would require more frequent inspections.
  • Pipelines with a history of problems be inspected first.
  • The maximum fine for pipelines with multiple problems be increased from $100,000 to $1 million.
  • The public's right to know about pipelines be expanded.
  • States have the authority to regulate pipelines along with the federal government.

P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or paulshukovsky@seattlepi.com

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