Natural-gas line bursts with roar, carves a crater
By Craig Welch and Sara Jean Green

Seattle Times
2 May 2003

AUBURN - Less than a year after state inspectors probed a natural-gas trunkline near here and gave it a clean bill of health, the 47-year-old underground pipe burst with a thunderous clap yesterday, shooting rocks and debris into the air and prompting evacuations of a school and a neighborhood near Lake Tapps.

Gas spewed from the line for roughly 90 minutes, but did not ignite. No one was injured, and the cause of the rupture was not immediately known. Residents returned to their homes within three hours.

In 1999 a fuel-line explosion killed three people in Bellingham, and yesterday's accident was an unnerving reminder of the potential risk underground.

"I had no idea we had that major cross-state line going through here," said Scott Ray, 37, who lives about a mile and a half from the rupture. "They are not obligated to tell us where they are. Does it make me mad? No. But cautious, yes."

After the Bellingham disaster, state pipeline inspectors took over responsibility from the federal Office of Pipeline Safety for monitoring interstate lines like the 26-inch diameter pipe that burst yesterday.

Marilyn Meehan, spokeswoman for the Pipeline Safety Division of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the Auburn line was inspected June 10, 2002.

"We investigate the whole pipeline - we look for anomalies, corrosion, possible weaknesses," she said. "We saw no violations in that area."

But, she added, this portion of the line that runs from Sumas in Whatcom County through Oregon is part of the same natural-gas artery that ruptured in fireballs with 100-foot flames after mudslides in February 1997 at Kalama, Cowlitz County, and Everson, Whatcom County, outside Bellingham.

Beyond that, she said, "We don't have a lot of history to go on. We've only had this program for two years."

In a rural area between Auburn and Sumner, the pipeline, under roughly 700 pounds of pressure, burst with what sounded like a sonic boom yesterday at about 2:35 p.m.

"I heard a big bang; I thought an airplane had hit the highway," said Patty Merryman, secretary at Lake Tapps Elementary. "I just saw the black smoke and then we could smell the sulfur."

The school immediately evacuated all 339 children, sending them out to a field where they filed onto buses with their teachers and were taken to Dieringer Heights Elementary.

Karla Wagner was in her front yard with her 4-year-old son, Ethan, when the line ruptured. "It sounded like a jet plane was hovering over the house. There was a huge whoosh, and I saw this brownish-orange dust cloud about a mile from our house."

Firefighters from East Pierce Fire and Rescue heard the explosion and could see debris cascading hundreds of feet above the treeline. The rupture left a crater and "severed the pipeline in half," Chief Dan Packer said.

About 40 homes and a supermarket were evacuated along the west side of Lake Tapps, and schoolchildren from that area were kept at Dieringer until parents arrived or the evacuation was lifted a few hours later. Because the pipeline runs parallel to overhead, high-voltage electricity lines, officials initially feared the gas could ignite.

The line is owned by Williams Gas Pipeline-West, a subsidiary of the Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Cos., which ferries gas through 14,000 miles of interstate pipeline, and supplies roughly 80 percent of Washington's natural gas.

The company dispatched crews from its Redmond office to switch off valves several miles north and south of the break. The gas was routed through a parallel Williams pipeline, about 20 feet away.

Although there was no evidence of foul play, the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were treating the accident as a crime scene, with forensic experts and canine units scouring the area.

And while most pipeline bursts are caused by damage - from excavation or construction crews - there was no immediate evidence of work being performed in the area.

Since 1984, there have been at least eight other natural- gas ruptures or leaks from transmission lines in Washington.

Damage was estimated at $5.3 million, including another explosion on a Williams line in 1999 in Stevenson, Skamania County, that accounted for $4 million. All of the incidents were attributed by the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to "damage by outside force."

Bev Chipman, a spokesman for Williams in Salt Lake City, said the company walks its pipeline weekly and regularly monitors it from airplanes.

State pipeline investigators will begin a more detailed review today of what caused the accident.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or

Seattle Times researcher Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

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(Original story no longer available online)