Appeal blocks release of pipeline data

OLYMPIA — Oil and natural gas companies opposed to a court ruling ordering release of detailed pipeline data to the media were granted an emergency stay Monday morning.

The stay temporarily blocked the order of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard D. Hicks, who on Friday ruled the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission must release pipeline geographic information system data to The Bellingham Herald and a private citizen who had requested it under state public records law.

UTC officials did release data for Sumas Cogeneration, the only company that had not filed a lawsuit to block the information from becoming public.

Tim Sweeney, a UTC pipeline safety division spokesman, said the commission “chose not to” release the Sumas data until after Friday’s court hearing, despite the fact that no restraining order had been filed for the information.

Now the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and 14 oil and natural gas companies will be in front of the Washington State Court of Appeals. Motions are due at the end of March. The judges will issue a ruling “as soon as feasible” after arguments are turned in, said Clerk David Ponzoha.

Allied Daily Newspapers is representing The Bellingham Herald and several other newspapers across the state that have since filed requests for the data.

reporter who requested the pipeline data for Whatcom County arrived at the utilities commission office at 8 a.m. Monday to demand it following Hicks’ ruling. Commission officials, however, refused to release any data until noon, because they expected the energy companies to appeal and were allowing them time to do so for “due process,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney added that several attorneys advised the utilities commission that they have the right to withhold the information until the oil and gas companies could contact a court.

“All of our attorneys believe that it would be unconscionable for us to release the data at this time,” Sweeney said.

He said that as a “safety agency” the UTC was working with the energy companies on the data’s release because they had expressed concern about possible safety risks.

The data includes specific parts of the pipeline, like compression stations and valves. The information can be placed over other maps to see where those specific parts are located in conjunction with businesses or homes or perhaps environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands.

The data was made public by the Pipeline Safety Act of 2000, which was passed after a 1999 pipeline leak explosion that killed three people in Bellingham.

Shelley M. Hall, a lawyer representing the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said there was no legal justification for the utilities commission to withhold the data any longer since a judge ordered it to release the information.

“This is just not justifiable,” Hall said.