Former pipeline officials going to prison for blast
Two former Olympic Pipe Line Co. employees will serve prison sentences and two companies will pay $36 million in civil and criminal penalties in connection with the 1999 pipeline rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park that killed three youths, a federal district court judge ruled Wednesday.
Frank Hopf, the former vice president and manager of the pipeline company, will serve the longest sentence - six months in prison and 200 hours of community service - for a felony violation of pipeline employee training laws.
Ron Brentson, the company's former supervisor of products movement, will serve 30 days in prison, 30 days of home detention on an electronic monitoring device and 150 hours of community service, also for the felony violation of training laws. Prosecutors had asked that Brentson get three months in prison.
Kevin Dyvig, who was at the controls of the pipeline at the time of the rupture, was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of community service for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act.
All three had pleaded guilty to the crimes in December in the first prosecution ever under the federal Hazardous Materials Safety Act.
Katherine Dalen, whose son Stephen Tsiorvas died after suffering burns over most of his body in the gasoline explosion, said she hopes prison time will affect the industry as a whole, but she isn't sure it will.
"I hope the memory of the industry is long enough, and when these men
go back to the industry they are reminders for others," Dalen said.
Hopf's wife and daughter gasped and began to cry as Judge Barbara Rothstein announced she would impose the sentence prosecutors requested and not the 30 days in prison and 60 days of home detention suggested by Hopf's attorney, John Wolfe.
Hopf told the court he will continue to work for pipeline safety with Frank and Mary King, the parents of Wade King, 10, who, like Tsiorvas, died from burns suffered when the gasoline ignited into a fireball and burnt 1_ miles of Whatcom Creek.
Liam Wood, 18, drowned when he was overcome by fumes while fishing in the park and fell into Whatcom Creek.
"I can't fully understand their loss ... I'm truly sorry," Hopf said.
Hopf denied any suggestion that he put profits ahead of safety through his actions. He said he was "scared to death" of facing prison time when previously he had only had speeding and parking tickets on his record.
Marlene Robinson, Wood's mother, said the decision sends a "very important" message to the industry. She said individuals should not be allowed to hide behind corporate logos.
Frank King, on the other hand, asked Rothstein not to send any Olympic employees to prison, a position he acknowledged was "odd" after losing his son.
"We're trying to change the industry, not the individuals," King said. "These individuals have already been changed for the rest of their lives."
But Rothstein said a number of decisions made by individuals came together to result in the rupture, and prison time sends a powerful message to the pipeline industry and the its employees.
"There is individual accountability at some point," the judge said.
Prosecutors said Hopf knew of repeated valve closures at a fuel facility in Skagit County, did not act to correct the problem and decided not to excavate a possible defect in the line in the vicinity where the pipeline eventually ruptured. They also said Hopf's management style did not allow employees to bring up issues and concerns about pipeline safety.
Brentson said he has already started volunteer work with the nonprofit group Earth Corps as a way to work on environmental restoration projects to give back to the community.
He asked the judge for mercy, saying he needed to take care of his wife and elderly mother, who both have health problems.
Brentson was supervising Dyvig in the control room when the rupture occurred.
Brentson was recently fired by Olympic Pipe Line's parent company, BP America Inc - a move the judge objected to. She said Brentson could work within the company for pipeline safety improvements and offered to write a letter to managers of BP supporting Brentson returning to his job.
Larry Peck, president of BP Pipelines North America, said the company's policy does not allow employment of those with felony records, despite officials' current opinion of Brentson's work. BP took over management of Olympic Pipe Line after the pipeline rupture.
Dyvig remains employed by Olympic as a staff assistant, said Bobby
Talley, Olympic's current president.
Rothstein also approved plea agreements for fines proposed in December by Olympic and Shell Pipeline Co., which owned a majority share in the pipeline at the time of the rupture.
Olympic agreed to pay $6 million in criminal penalties and be under corporate probation for five years. Shell, formerly Equilon, agreed to pay $15 million in criminal penalties and be under corporate probation for five years.
The companies will also pay a total of $45 million for safety improvements and programs not required under law, and pay another $15 million in civil fines for environmental damage to the park.
Rothstein also approved that $5 million of Shell's penalties would be split between two projects in Bellingham. The first $4 million will fund the Tsiorvas Wood Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent group led by the families of Stephen Tsiorvas and Liam Wood. The trust will review pipeline safety regulations and changes and provide public information.
"It's nowhere the lobbying potential that your industry has," Rothstein told the pipeline industry officials in the courtroom. "But they should be listened to. It's not even David and Goliath. It's more like Andy and Godzilla."
The remaining $1 million will fund the first stage in improvements to the construction of a Bellingham park at the former Pacific Concrete Industries on Squalicum Parkway.
Frank King said he would like other money from the fines to pay for
work at the park so the friends of his and Dalen's sons can play at the
park when they are still young.
Reach Ericka Pizzillo at email@example.com or call 715-2266.
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