Pipeline in Fatal Accident Undergoes a Test Pumping
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 - Given clearance by federal regulators, engineers began pumping diesel fuel today into a section of an underground pipeline that leaked in June 1999, causing a large explosion that killed three young people in Bellingham, Wash.
BP Pipelines N.A., operator of the Olympic Pipe Line Company, received approval on Thursday from the Federal Office of Pipeline Safety to begin filling the pipeline with fuel as part of a test of the line's integrity and of the safety equipment installed after the accident.
"This is the last phase in the testing regime," said Patricia Klinger, spokeswoman for the agency. "They have internally inspected the line. They have hydrostatically tested the line. Now we want them to put product in it."
Dan Cummings, a spokesman for BP Pipelines, said the company, a unit of BP Amoco, would use diesel fuel, the least volatile of the petroleum products, to test new valves and sensors that have been installed since the accident. Before the accident, an array of products including gasoline and jet fuel for aircraft at Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, were pumped through the pipeline.
Mr. Cummings said he hoped that the test would clear the way for the resumption of operations in the pipeline in "the next few weeks."
On June 10, 1999, a section of the Olympic pipeline ruptured, spilling at least 229,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek that ran through a park in downtown Bellingham, about 90 miles north of Seattle. A spark ignited the gasoline, sending a fireball through the park, killing two 10-year- old boys and an 18-year-old youth.
A 37-mile section of the pipeline has been shut since the accident, and after federal investigators found numerous safety violations by Equillon Enterprises, which then operated the pipeline. The violations prompted the office of pipeline safety to levy $3 million in fines against Equillon, the largest fine in the agency's history.
The section of 16-inch pipe in question, part of a 400-mile pipeline running from two refineries near the Canadian border to Portland, Ore., has become a symbol of the contentious safety and regulatory issues surrounding the more than 2.3 million miles of interstate pipelines and countless other miles of intra-state pipelines that transport natural gas, oil, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products.
"We've known since the day the accident happened that the pipeline would open eventually," said Frank King, whose 10-year-old son, Wade, was killed. "I'm not upset about that. I'm upset that no one has put pressure on Olympic Pipe Line Company to get their employees to tell what they were doing on the day of the accident that might have caused it. Unless they talk, how do we know this won't happen again?"
The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to determine the precise cause of the accident, in part because some employees of Olympic Pipe Line, invoking Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, have refused to cooperate.
The Bellingham accident, and another explosion last year in Carlsbad, N.M., that killed 12 people, led to legislation in Congress to increase the number of pipeline inspections and the fines operators would face for safety violations.
That legislation passed unanimously in the Senate but failed in the House, in part because some safety advocates said it was not tough enough on pipeline operators. New legislation toughening standards for inspection and safety was introduced this week in the House by Representatives John D. Dingell of Michigan and James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, both Democrats.
Consumer and safety advocates note that 370 people have been killed in pipeline accidents since 1986; just last week, two people died when gas leaking from an abandoned underground storage facility set off explosions in Hutchinson, Kan.
At the same time, the Bush administration has suggested loosening regulations on pipeline operators as part of a national energy policy, though it has not specified how it plans to ease those regulations.