One Significant Pipeline Incident Every Day In The US

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Above: Spectra gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township, PA May 2016

An Interview With Carl Weimer on Pipeline Safety in America

There are about two pipeline incidents in the United States every day.

Half of those are significant incidents — incidents that kill someone, send someone to the hospital, cause $50,000 in property damage, or spill a large amount of fuel into the environment.

And the number of pipeline incidents has been increasing in recent years.

Currently, there is a major natural gas spill ongoing in Alaska.

An underwater Hilcorp Alaska pipeline is leaking up to 310,000 cubic feet per day of gas into Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

Environmental groups say the leak is creating a low-oxygen dead zone that threatens endangered beluga whales, fish and other wildlife.

Two major pipeline explosions — the 1999 Olympic pipeline disaster that killed three young people in Bellingham, Washington and the 2010 PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight — resulted in corporate criminal convictions.

In 2003, the judge in the Olympic pipeline explosion ordered the company to divert $4 million from the estimated $100 million it paid to settle the case to a fund a new watchdog group — the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Carl Weimer has been executive director of the trust since its inception.

How long have you been with the Pipeline Safety Trust?

“It was established in 2003. And I was part of the planning effort for that. I was hired as the executive director in 2004,” Weimer told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.

How did the Pipeline Safety Trust come into existence?

“It was born from a tragedy that happened in Bellingham, Washington in 1999. Bellingham was like most every other city we’ve seen when it comes to pipelines. They are out of sight and out of mind. Nobody was ever thinking about them.”

“In Bellingham, the pipeline ran right through the middle of a park. A salmon stream ran through the park. It was a June day in 1999, about four o’clock in the afternoon. And one of the pipelines ruptured, dumping 250,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline right into that salmon stream. The gasoline flowed downstream for almost two miles until it found an ignition source and blew up.”

What was the ignition source?

“It has never been determined for sure. There is some speculation that there were kids who were playing with a Bic lighter and they might have set it off. The Fire Department said it was going to explode one way or another, either from cars in the area, or whatever. And that it ignited sooner rather than later was a good thing because if it had gone a little farther, it would have gone right into the main part of downtown Bellingham.”

“Three kids were playing in a park. Two of them were burned to death. One of them was fishing in the stream when the unleaded gas came down the stream. He was asphyxiated by the fumes. He was in a canyon like area and couldn’t get out. He fell into the creek and drowned before it ignited. A couple of houses burned down. The entire salmon stream that the community had put a lot of time and effort into — it was completely destroyed. There was nothing living in the salmon stream after the spill.”

“It was called Whatcom Creek. People on the east coast would call it a river, but here they call it a creek.”

Are there salmon back in Whatcom Creek now?

“If there is a success story that grew out of this tragedy, the creek is part of that story. After the tragedy, property was bought around the creek. The creek was allowed to meander again. A lot of restoration work was done. To some degree the creek may be healthier now than it was before the tragedy.”

The company that owned the pipeline was —

“Olympic Pipeline. It was a partnership between a number of companies. Shell was the major owner at the time. They were operating under the name Equilon. British Petroleum was one of the other companies involved. There were a number of different oil companies that formed a partnership to operate the pipeline.”

There was a criminal prosecution in the case.

“It was one of the few pipeline failure cases that has gone criminal. Employees were named and prosecuted. Some of them spent a short time in jail. Like a lot of other pipeline tragedies, multiple things went wrong to cause this pipeline failure. Some of them were the result of negligence or criminal negligence. There had been a valve installed on the pipeline that had activated itself dozens of times in the previous few months, but they never fixed it. This valve was just shutting off randomly. It hadn’t been fixed. And that’s one of the reasons the pipeline failed.”

“There had been a ding in the pipe by some excavation work on the pipe. The company knew about it but the company hadn’t fixed it, even though they had been ordered to do so.”

“On the actual day of the failure, they had been working on the computerized control room system that allows them to see what is going on in the pipe. The control room went down, so they didn’t even know what was going on with the pipeline while the pipeline was in failure mode. They kept ordering the pipeline to be turned back on, so they were pumping more gasoline into the creek, instead of the shutting the pipeline down — because of the way they were dealing with their control room situation.”

“Because of those factors, the Justice Department took it to a criminal case. The families who lost their children made it one of their highest priorities to try and make sure that a pipeline tragedy like this happens nowhere else. The best way that they could think of doing that was to form an organization that would watchdog not only the industry, but the regulators who hadn’t caught a lot of these problems.”

“They went to bat for that idea. As the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted this case, they were aghast at the way the pipeline company had failed to operate and maintain this pipeline adequately. And they were almost equally aghast at the way the federal regulators hadn’t provided much oversight. The Department joined with the family to push for the idea of using some of the settlement money from the criminal case to help form a national watchdog organization. In 2003, that became the Pipeline Safety Trust.”

This was an initiative of the families?

“Yes. In particular it was one mother. This was really her thing. She thought that the best way to prevent tragedies in the future was to make sure there was an independent watchdog group to keep an eye on the industry, keep an eye on the regulators, work with whoever was trying to move pipeline safety forward. It was her push and she got a lot of community support.”

What is her name?

“Marlene Robinson. Her son Liam Wood died that day. He was the one fishing in the creek when he was overcome by the fumes of the gas.”

Olympic plead guilty and Equilon plead no contest. What were the fines?

“They settled with families. Much of that was never disclosed. There was a Clean Water Act lawsuit because of the pollutants going into the creek. That was something like a $30 million fine. There was a pipeline safety fine of a couple of million dollars. All told, the fines were $30 to $40 million. They had to spend a lot of money on the cleanups and the restoration. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million was spent after the tragedy.”

“Then the industry was suing itself. The refiners couldn’t move product because this pipeline was shut down for well over a year. They had their own lawsuit against the pipeline company. That was interesting because the refiners were partial owners of the company. We have heard rumors that the settlement of that case was in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The judge said that $4 million would go to form the Pipeline Safety Trust.

“Yes. And we were quite surprised. We knew that the Justice Department was in favor of this. The judge said it was a good idea. We suspected that there would be all kinds of caveats — we would have to report to somebody if this money came through. Then all of a sudden in June 2003 we got a phone call — we have a check here for $4 million. Does somebody want to drive down and pick it up? And we did quite rapidly. And there were no strings attached. The trust was created in June 2003.”

When you say — they called us to pick it up — the trust was already created before the check was cut?

“There had already been settlement discussions. And we knew that it was coming. The families hired some people to form a non profit so they would have the shell ready when the money arrived.”

The nonprofit  was formed just a couple of weeks before the check was deposited?

“Yes.”

What is the work of the Pipeline Safety Trust?

“We do a number of different things. We are small organization. Initially, the first ten years we were in existence, we focused on the national level. If you want to change pipeline safety regulations in this country, you have to do it in Washington, D.C. Congress sets minimum pipeline safety standards. We focused our efforts on Congress and on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within the Department of Transportation.”

“I’ve testified before Congress fifteen or twenty times. We spent a lot of effort trying to change rules at the national level.”

“When the tragedy happened in Bellingham, there was hardly any information available about pipelines or pipeline safety. You couldn’t easily find how many incidents there were, what companies were having more incidents than others, anything about enforcement or inspections. You couldn’t find maps of pipelines — where they were in your community or what they were carrying.”

“Another major emphasis we have is just getting information easily to the public. We’ve been really successful. There is so much information now that sometimes you don’t know which information to believe.”

What is the state of pipeline safety?

“Pipeline safety has progressed quite a bit. When the Bellingham tragedy occurred in 1999, there was no law on the books that once you put a pipeline in the ground you ever had to inspect it again.”

“One of the first things we did was to change that. Now, companies have to inspect certain pipelines in populated areas, where they never had to do that before. That was a game changer.”

“There are still way too many failures. There are about two failures a day somewhere in the country. We agree with the industry and regulators that the ultimate goal is getting to zero incidents. There are two a day occurring — something like 685 last year. All of those are not major failures. Some are minor. But a minor failure can become a tragedy fairly rapidly.”

How many major failures are there every year?

“There are different classifications. The federal government has a classification of significant incidents. And there are about 300 plus of those a year — a little less than one significant incident a day. That is an incident that kills somebody or puts somebody in the hospital or does over $50,000 in property damage or spills a large amount of fuel into the environment.”

What have been the most serious pipeline incidents?

“The Olympic pipeline tragedy was one of the first ones to catch the nation’s attention in 1999. It was followed in 2000 by a pipeline failure in Carlsbad, New Mexico. People were camped under a bridge near a river. And a natural gas pipeline failed and killed twelve people while they were camping in the middle of the night. As far as deaths goes, that was the worst incident in a long time.”

“Then there were a number of years that saw more normal types of incidents. And then all of a sudden in 2010, there was a spill right through the middle of Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a Chevron pipeline that dumped crude oil into a creek in the city.”

“Shortly after that in 2010, Enbridge dumped a million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. That was one of the biggest oil spills into a river in the history of the country.”

“That would have been a game changer by itself. But within a month later, a PG&E natural gas pipeline failed in San Bruno, California wiping out most of a neighborhood and killing eight people.”

“All of a sudden pipelines were a major concern nationally again.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Carl Weimer, 31 Corporate Crime Reporter 11(11), March 13, 2017, print edition only.]