Investigations continue on Olympic pipeline gasoline spill

Nov. 8, 1999
State and federal agencies are continuing to investigate a products pipeline rupture June 10 in Bellingham, Wash.

State and federal agencies are continuing to investigate a products pipeline rupture June 10 in Bellingham, Wash.

The Olympic Pipe Line Co. accident spilled about 250,000 gal of gasoline (OGJ, June 21, 1999, p. 34). The resulting fumes or fire killed three persons and injured eight.

Kelley Coyner, head of the US Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration, told a recent House transportation subcommittee hearing that the accident has prompted her to order a review of all pipeline operations in Washington state. RSPA also ordered Olympic to reduce operating pressure on its system, make some internal inspections, and test some sections hydrostatically.

The US Department of Justice is investigating the accident for possible criminal misconduct. And the National Transportation Safety Board is inquiring to determine the cause of the accident.

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has asked DOT's inspector general to review the Office of Pipeline Safety's (OPS) practices and regulations and how they might have averted the accident. And a Washington state task force is due to report on the accident by the end of the year.

What happened

NTSB Chairman James Hall said the 16-in. pipe ruptured at about 3:30 p.m. on June 10, spilling gasoline into two creeks in a city park. It was ignited, and a 1.5-mile-long area was burned.

Hall said a block valve had closed on the line, and the pressure at the rupture point rose to about 1,456 psig, well under the line's 2,000 psig rating.

He said the line had been excavated about 10-20 ft south of the rupture point in 1993-94 when a water line was installed to a nearby water treatment plant.

Long gouge marks were observed on the pipe near the rupture, he said, adding, "We suspect excavation damage."

Olympic ran a smart pig through the line in 1996 and found three anomalies in the vicinity of the rupture. Hall said a "possible wrinkle bend" was in the immediate vicinity of the rupture, and two other anomalies were noted a short distance away.

But, he said, Olympic officials "elected not to excavate and visually inspect or repair any of the anomalies located in the area of the water treatment plant. Olympic has indicated that these anomalies did not meet the applicable criteria for further action."

Hall also said pipeline operators "seem to have been unaware of the rupture for an extended period of time."

The NTSB chairman complained that his agency's investigation has been stalled by the DOJ inquiry. It has not been able to destructively test the ruptured pipe, and key pipeline personnel have declined to discuss their actions while the criminal investigation is continuing.

Hall also complained about the slow pace of pipeline safety improvements. "The industry knows all they need to know to keep these pipelines safe. They should have worked cooperatively with the [transportation] department for the last 10-15 years" on regulations.


Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.) complained that OPS's performance "has been dismal" regarding testing of pipelines for corrosion and taking actions to protect against accidents in highly populated areas.

He said that almost all of the pipe in the 400-mile Olympic line is over 30 years old. "A pipeline of this age needs to be tested periodically, both with water pressure and with smart pigs, to make sure it can still handle the load."

Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson said, "You need a license to drive a car. You do not need a license to drive a pipeline that pumps millions of gallons of hazardous material through your city.

"Although OPS has just published new rules for training of pipeline operators, there still is no requirement for objective testing of their capabilities by anyone other than the pipeline company itself."

Olympic Pres. Fred Crognale said, "The section of pipe that ruptured showed evidence of damage consistent with markings left by construction equipment."

He said the company is trying to determine if a database error caused a computer slow-down that denied controllers current operations data.

He said Olympic is testing all valves on the pipeline and has installed three new check valves (which prevent fuel from moving backward) and a block valve in the Bellingham area.

Olympic also has pressure-tested 22 miles of pipe in the Bellingham area and plans to run internal inspections when the line is restarted.

Crognale promised, "The company will dig up and visually inspect a number of anomalies that fall below the applicable standards for excavation."

Olympic also has begun a retraining and requalification program for pipe- line controllers.