Pipeline Execs Earn Prison Terms
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Board

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
23 June 2003

USA, Seattle

A lesson must come from the agonizing end to the criminal proceedings in a Northwest tragedy. U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein has sentenced two former managers of the Olympic Pipe Line Co. to prison for crimes that contributed to a 1999 gasoline spill and explosion in Bellingham.

The pipeline disaster claimed the lives of 18-year-old Liam Wood and two 10-year-olds, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King.

Rothstein ordered Frank Hopf Jr., who managed the leaking line, to serve six months in prison. She sentenced Ronald Brentson, who ran the pipeline's control center, to 30 days in prison and 30 days home detention. Both pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to provide adequate training.

Their prison terms are the first under a long-standing federal pipeline-safety law. What's fair for corporate fraud convictions is appropriate for serious safety breaches. The Bellingham explosion also led Congress to strengthen pipeline safety law.

The companies associated with the pipeline are paying $112 million in civil penalties, criminal fines and safety improvements. The prison terms cannot have been easy decisions for Rothstein. Wade King's parents requested mercy and the judge asked that Brentson be kept on the job despite a recent statement by BP Pipelines, Olympic's current majority owner, that he would be fired under a policy against employing anyone convicted of a felony. But even the most rigorous legislation and fines might accomplish little if, in the future, executives think they face no personal responsibility.

The judge sent a warning that deserves to be remembered.

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