Bellingham explosion led to stronger pipeline regulation

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2009 

A series of people errors and technology failures combined to cause the Olympic pipeline explosion that killed three people in Whatcom Falls Park.

The tragedy scarred Bellingham, physically and emotionally. But those who operate pipelines and those who vigilantly monitor pipeline safety say the incident changed the way such lines are regulated not only in Washington state but nationwide.

A slew of new regulations both at the state and federal level and a public interest watchdog group, headquartered in Bellingham, came in the aftermath of that June explosion. But there is still work to do, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and a Whatcom County Council member.

"It was very hard to figure out when the pipeline industry started and stopped and where the regulators started and stopped," Weimer said. "That's all changed."

Officials at the state's regulatory agency, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, agree.

"At the risk of sounding completely Pollyannaish, I really think the Bellingham explosion changed pipeline safety in Washington state dramatically," said Steve King, the UTC's director for Safety and Consumer Protection.

Investigation of the Bellingham explosion showed multiple factors contributed to the pipeline leak. Weimer said that regulations in place now provide vastly different protections that should catch at least one of those factors before an explosion.

Of course, there's no guarantee disasters will never happen again even with regulation, Weimer said, and there are still some aspects of pipeline safety that could be better.

LAWS AND SAFETY

The June 10, 1999, explosion in Bellingham was one of the major catalysts to increase regulation of pipelines, along with an explosion in Carlsbad, N.M., in 2000 that killed 12 people, including five children.

A 2000 state law sponsored by state Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, along with the rest of the local state delegation and 31 others as co-sponsors, charged the UTC with being the interstate agent for pipelines. That made the UTC able to enforce federal laws on pipelines in Washington state.

The UTC monitors safety compliance of 27 pipeline operators who oversee 24,000 miles of intrastate and interstate natural gas and liquid pipelines. Much of the regulation in place now has to do with liquid pipelines, though regulations are being phased in for other types as well.

A federal act in 2002, partially inspired by the Bellingham incident, created integrity management and damage prevention programs that pipeline operators must comply with.

In terms of Bellingham's incident, IMCO General Construction hit the pipeline five years earlier while doing unrelated work, according to the final findings of the federal investigation into the pipeline leak. But Olympic Pipe Line Co., which operated the pipeline in 1999, inadequately inspected data and failed to properly monitor excavation activity near the line. If it had, there would have been sufficient evidence to justify excavating and examining the pipe, according to the investigation.

Now integrity management rules are in place to ensure that the pipeline is sound internally. And though the technology wasn't available a decade ago, monitoring equipment sent down pipelines, known as "smart pigs," can check for minute anomalies in the pipe that might show a need for further manual inspection.

Since the explosion, the pipeline, which is now operated by BP, has been inspected internally eight times, some of those as part of a corrective action order. But the inspections are generally required once every five years, said Steven Maulding, president of Olympic and district operations manager for BP.

An operator qualification program, also part of the new laws, requires companies to show better training procedures and competency of employees. Three Olympic employees were convicted of crimes related to the 1999 leak.

Flyovers are required of pipelines every 21 days, though Maulding said that BP, which now operates the pipeline, flies over it weekly, weather permitting. The flyover allows a company to ensure the underground lines are still intact. Maulding said they can look for signs of trouble, like browning of vegetation or an oily sheen on the ground, that indicate there may be a need for excavation and inspection. It also helps a company check to see if anyone is digging around the pipeline.

Maulding said that, though not required by law, BP will send a worker out to watch any third-party crew digging within 10 feet of the pipeline until the work is done to ensure there are no issues.

BP also has a 13-person crew to assist contractors working near a pipeline with the state's one-call laws, which were created after the Bellingham incident. Once someone looking to dig calls 811, companies respond within 48 hours to help them ensure they won't hit any underground infrastructure.

MORE WORK

Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust is pleased with many of the changes that have taken place nationwide in terms of pipeline safety. But he also notes the state could do better in terms of enforcement.

In Washington, the state legislature has not created or directed any government organization to be the specific enforcement agency for the state's one-call system. That means there's nobody out writing tickets or ensuring that contractors have actually called the system prior to digging, per state law, said UTC Pipeline Safety Director Anne Soiza.

Third-party damage is the top factor leading to unexpected pipeline leaks in Washington, Soiza said. About 60 percent of the reportable incidents received by the UTC are due to that third-party external damage.

Nationally, Soiza said, more than 50 percent of the leaks due to external damage happen because no call was made to a one-call system. State officials believe Washington has similar statistics.

"We have lots of room for improvement going forward of getting awareness for this free locating service to users," Soiza said.

Annually, Washington has 2,700 damage hits. More than 300,000 calls are made to the one-call system annually, Soiza added, and officials believe that's only about 50 percent of the digs that occur in the state.

Because there is no enforcement agency, jurisdiction falls by default to the state Attorney General's Office or to local prosecutors. But for locals, it's a matter of priorities for violating a one-call system versus prosecuting other crimes, Soiza said.

King of the UTC said that within the next several years there likely will be an enforcement agency mandated by the state legislature.

Despite that and other concerns, so much has changed since that fateful June afternoon.

"The Bellingham incident, I can't stress enough how much it impacted pipeline safety in the world," Soiza said. "It should be a definite emphasis ... about the fact that really good things came out of this very unfortunate incident."

Reach SAM TAYLOR at sam.taylor@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2263.

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