Pipeline Reforms Urged
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended industry-wide reforms for owners and operators of pipelines in the aftermath of the massive oil spill at the former Potomac Electric Power Co. generating plant in Aquasco.
The recommendations were issued Tuesday at an NTSB meeting in Washington. The federal investigators also concluded that the April 2000 spill occurred after a flaw in the pipe went undetected because consultants misread inspection data.
"Contributing to the magnitude of the fuel oil release were inadequate operating procedures and practices for monitoring the flow of fuel oil through the pipeline to ensure timely leak detection," the NTSB said in an outline of its report.
Pepco has since sold the Chalk Point power plant at Aquasco to Mirant Mid- Atlantic LLC. Mirant has reopened the 51.5-mile pipeline -- with the permission of the U.S. Transportation Department's Office of Pipeline Safety -- after completing restoration work that included testing the integrity of the pipe and installing equipment to monitor the oil flow through it.
After hearing the NTSB's finding on Tuesday, Mirant spokesman Steven Arabia said his company already had applied the principles in the board's recommendation to its operations.
Reacting to the oil spill, Maryland legislators in 2001 enacted a law mandating regular state inspections of intrastate pipelines.
The integrity of the pipeline was central in the NTSB's report. The federal investigators reported that the probable cause of the spill "was a fracture in a buckle in the pipe that was undiscovered because the data from an in-line inspection tool was interpreted inaccurately."
According to Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin, a consulting firm did the work -- a fact acknowledged by the NTSB.
"Their conclusion was that there was an incorrect interpretation," Dobkin said.
Ultimately, officials reported, more than 120,000 gallons of oil spread into the Patuxent River, fouling 76 acres of wetlands and 10 acres of shoreline, killing hundreds of birds and animals and causing the loss of thousands of pounds of fish and shellfish. Pepco has spent more than $65 million on the cleanup, and a restoration plan for damaged habitat is being developed.
The NTSB also concluded that the leadership set up by the Environmental Protection Agency at the scene wasn't prepared to respond quickly enough when a storm blew through the area the day after the spill and swept the oil beyond containment barriers in Swanson Creek beside the plant.
The NTSB recommended that the EPA integrate response principles drafted as a result of legislation enacted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.
NTSB Chairman Marion C. Blakey said the EPA response to the Chalk Point incident was affected by the initial under-reporting of the oil spill. Pepco first reported that 2,000 gallons of oil had been released instead of the far greater 2,000 barrels -- or 100,000 gallons -- later found to have been released, officials have said.
The NTSB recommended requiring pipeline owners and operators to give an update to the National Response Center when they discover significant errors in the information they originally reported.
Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company