NTSB blames fatal accident on company error

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the rupture of an Olympic Pipe Line Co. gas pipeline probably resulted from inadequate inspection procedures and poor oversight of valve testing.

Oct 14th, 2002

By OGJ editors

WASHINGTON, DC, Oct. 14 -- The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last week that the rupture of an Olympic Pipe Line Co. gasoline pipeline in Washington State probably resulted from several factors, including inadequate inspection procedures and poor oversight of valve testing.

Close to 237,000 gallons of gasoline from the break spilled into a creek near a Bellingham, Wash., park on June 10, 1999. About 1½ hours after the spill, the gasoline ignited and killed three people: two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man. Property damages amounted to at least $45 million, Olympia told NTSB. The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) took corrective action, but several related civil and criminal suits remain that could cost the company several hundred million dollars before legal actions are resolved.

In a statement immediately following the NTSB decision, the company vowed to continue safety improvements it made following the incident.

"We again express our deepest sympathy to the families. The factual report and investigation findings will help bring this matter to a final conclusion and bring closure for the families and the community said Olympic Vice-Pres. Bobby Talley.

"As a company, Olympic has cooperated fully with the NTSB throughout its investigation, and we are satisfied with the thoroughness of its factual report. "We have worked hard to gain the trust and confidence of the citizens of Bellingham and Washington State that we will operate a safe pipeline, and we will continue to work hard to maintain that trust. Our commitment to safety and the environment is a top priority and we will examine the recommendations set forth by the NTSB as part of our ongoing effort to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again."

BP Pipelines NA, which began operating Olympic about a year after the accident, said it brought on a "significant" series of safety actions since August 2000. BP said its actions address new federal pipeline safety rules and previous actions by the OPS, based on factors that may have caused or contributed to the accident as identified by federal safety regulators, company officials said. BP said among the steps it has taken include the following:

-- Comprehensive internal inspections of the entire Olympic system with three types of internal inspection

-- Field inspections of over 130 anomalies identified by the internal inspections and follow-up repairs, where necessary.

-- Valve effectiveness study and installation or conversion of 15 valves.

-- Hydro test of the 16-in. line from Burlington to Renton, Wash., completed in May 2001.

-- Extensive review of the computer system that the controllers use to operate the pipeline, resulting in modifications and upgrades to both the hardware and software.

-- Re-training of operations controllers and compliance with new federal guidelines.

-- Pressure surge analyses, using computer simulations to analyze conditions in the pipeline under a number of normal and abnormal operating conditions to establish that operating pressures would remain within allowable limits.

-- Extensive evaluations and upgrade of security procedures. Many of these upgrades took place prior to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

NTSB made two safety recommendations in its report. It called for better training for pipeline personnel, and for pipeline operators to develop new standards to test relief valves. Those recommendations also are included in pipeline safety legislation sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).

A version of that legislation was approved by House and Senate lawmakers, but the proposal is part of a larger energy bill still awaiting an uncertain future in Congress.

The pipeline legislation authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to "establish minimum standards for pipeline personnel training and evaluation." It also calls for the secretary to require pipeline operators to develop mitigation plans to "prevent and mitigate unintended releases, such as leak detection, integrity evaluation, restrictive flow devices."

"The NTSB report confirms the senselessness of this tragedy, that it was entirely preventable," said Murray. "The Senate and House have passed pipeline safety legislation that not only address the NTSB's safety recommendations, but also improves inspections, expands the public's right to know, and increases fines for violators. Congress must act so that no family will ever again have to lose a loved one to such a preventable tragedy."

Probable causes
NTSB determined that a construction crew modifying a water treatment plant in 1993 and 1994 weakened the line and made it more susceptible to a rupture later on. This was compounded by Olympic's "inadequate inspection" when the construction project took place.

"Investigators found that, had the pipeline not been weakened by external damage, it likely would have been able to withstand the increased pressure that occurred on the day of the rupture, and the accident would not have happened. In addition was Olympic Pipe Line Co.'s inaccurate evaluation of in-line pipeline inspection results, which led to the company's decision not to excavate and examine the damaged section of pipe, "NTSB said.

Other elements of the Board's findings of probable cause were: Olympic's failure to test all safety devices associated with its Bayview products facility before activating the facility, Olympic's failure to investigate and correct the conditions leading to the repeated unintended closing of the Bayview inlet block valve, and incorrect use of its in-house computer software system that was supposed to help manage product flow through the line. The last element led to the system's becoming non-responsive at a critical time during pipeline operations, NTSB said.

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