Gas pipeline leak forces evacuations
AUBURN -- A natural-gas pipeline ruptured yesterday in woods northwest of Lake Tapps, spewing gas into the air for more than an hour before officials shut off the leak.
About 30 homes, a grocery and an elementary school within a quarter-mile radius of the rupture were evacuated. No one was injured. The gas never ignited.
Authorities from Salt Lake City-based Williams Gas Pipeline West, which owns the faulty 26-inch pipeline, were able to divert the south-flowing gas to Williams' 30-inch pipeline, which runs nearby.
The leak did not cause service to be interrupted to the two utilities that buy the gas, Puget Sound Energy and Northwest Natural Gas, according to Williams spokeswoman Bev Chipman.
Chipman said the cause of the rupture had not been determined.
The Seattle FBI Office dispatched agents to the scene, but agency spokesman Ray Lauer said they determined that "it doesn't look like it's been tampered with." He added that no terrorist threats had been made against Williams or other pipeline operators in the state in recent memory.
The incident was called in to the Auburn Fire Department at 2:35 p.m., after nearby residents heard a loud explosion, then a rushing of gas from the pipeline, Fire Department spokesman Pete Connell said.
No one was in the area when the rupture occurred, Fire Department officials said.
The children at Lake Tapps Elementary School immediately were shuttled to nearby Dieringer Heights Elementary, Connell said. Residents were able to return to their homes at 5 p.m.
"When that thing breaks, it's like a jet engine," Connell said. "It's very, very loud and very scary."
Eric McIver, who manages a nearby Blockbuster Video store, said it sounded as if something very heavy had dropped onto the top of his store. "It was something like a sonic boom, then I looked outside, and there were people running everywhere," he said.
"It looked like a mountain was erupting. And it sounded like water was pouring everywhere."
The gas continued to spew for about 90 minutes, when Williams officials were able shut off a valve a half-mile south of the rupture. A couple of hours after that, the closest valve north of the rupture, nine miles away, also was shut down.
Marilyn Meehan, spokeswoman for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, said commission inspectors looking at that portion of the pipeline June 10 found no violations or causes for concern. There were, she said, "minor violations" in other portions of the line, including some near Tumwater, where corrosion was found on the pipe. She said commission agents would start their own investigation into what caused the incident.
Williams officials said they planned to let the gas drain out of that pipeline section before inspecting and quickly replacing the pipe, which is about 5 1/2-6 feet underground.
The pipelines, which began operating in 1957 and stretch from Canada to New Mexico, supply about 80 percent of the natural gas used in the state, Chipman said.
In February 1999, the same line burst and exploded on the state's side of the Columbia River east of Portland. The blast sent flames shooting into the sky and created an orange glow that could be seen for miles. No injuries were reported.
The state's worst pipeline accident occurred later that year, when a fuel line ruptured in a Bellingham park. The gasoline ignited, killing two 10-year-old boys and an 18- year-old fisherman.
P-I reporter Sam Skolnik can be reached at 206-448-8176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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