Negligence Caused Pipeline Explosion, Suit Charges

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, May 31, 2002 (ENS) - Gross negligence on the part of two pipeline companies led to a 1999 rupture and fire that killed three young people in Washington state, charges a lawsuit filed Thursday by the federal government. Shell Pipeline Company LP and Olympic Pipeline Company could face fines of $18.6 million each for their roles in the fatal explosion near Bellingham, Washington.

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday that the United States has filed a civil suit against the two companies over the June 1999 gasoline pipeline rupture. The suit alleges that the rupture was caused by gross negligence in the operation and maintenance of the pipeline.


The gasoline pipeline explosion near Bellingham, Washington sparked a fireball that killed three young men. (Photo courtesy Olympic Pipeline)
The rupture and resulting fireball killed three people, including two 10 year old boys, and injured eight others. The broken pipeline spilled more than 230,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom and Hanna Creeks, scorched a 1.5 mile stretch of streambank, and damaged several buildings.

The restart of the pipeline caused an additional 79,464 gallons of gasoline to be discharged.

"The gasoline spill in Washington state was a horrible, but preventable, tragedy that caused the death of three young people and endangered an entire city. We've filed this suit to ensure that measures are taken to help prevent such an incident from ever happening again," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division.

The government's lawsuit seeks civil fines of about $18.6 million against each company, an amount based on the quantity of gasoline that was spilled. The actual fines imposed will depend on the court's perception of the seriousness of the accident, the degree of each company's fault, other penalties already paid and each company's history of prior violations.

creek before

Whatcom Creek was a healthy ecosystem before the Bellingham pipeline explosion. (Two photos courtesy the City of Bellingham)
"We will do everything in our power to hold companies accountable for maintaining their operations in a safe and environmentally sound manner and will seek severe penalties against those whose operation practices endanger the public," said Sylvia Lowrance, EPA's principal deputy assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance.

The ruptured pipeline released enough gasoline to form a layer about three inches thick on the surface of Hanna and Whatcom Creeks over a distance of about 1.33 miles. Within 45 to 90 minutes of the rupture, the gasoline ignited, resulting in a fireball that traveled along Whatcom Creek for more than a mile, devastating everything in its path and generating a plume of smoke about six miles high.

The gasoline spill and fire killed more than 100,000 fish and other aquatic species in the area along with wildlife along the creek banks. Extensive restoration was needed to help heal the 2.5 miles of streamside habitat damaged by the accident - everything from grasses to mature trees was burned across 26 acres near the accident.

The government charges that the accident was caused by inadequacies in the design, construction and operation of a pump station on the pipeline system. The lawsuit states that the companies failed to supervise construction activity near the pipeline, which damaged the pipeline and contributed to the rupture, and failed to detect and repair the damage before the rupture.

creek after

After the explosion, vegetation on the creek banks was scorched and the creek ran gray with soot.
In 2000, BP/Amoco Corporation acquired ARCO and GATX's shares of Olympic, became Olympic's controlling shareholder, and took over operations. Shell still owns more than one-third of Olympic. The suit alleges that the two pipeline companies used an inadequate computer system to monitor and control the pipeline, and failed to sufficiently train its operators.

Olympic owns the pipeline. At the time of the rupture, Shell's corporate predecessor, Equilon Pipeline Company, along with ARCO and GATX, owned Olympic. Equilon managed the pipeline under an operating agreement with Olympic.

The civil lawsuit was filed under the Clean Water Act's oil pollution provisions, which were established after the 1990 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska to increase the civil penalties for oil spills. The Bellingham accident, in turn, prompted the U.S. Senate to pass the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2000, aimed at increasing penalties for safety violations, increasing state oversight of pipelines within their borders, and requiring pipeline companies to publicly disclose information about pipelines on the Internet.


The New Mexico pipeline explosion in August left a crater 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep. (Photo courtesy Office of Pipeline Safety)
The pipeline safety bill gained momentum after a pipeline explosion near Carlsbad, New Mexico in August 2000 killed 12 members of a vacationing family camped near the pipeline, including several infants and children. However, in October 2000, the U.S. House defeated the bill.

In March 2002, Senators John McCain, and Arizona Republican, and Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, offered the text of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act as an amendment to the Senate energy bill (S 517). The Senate approved the amendment, which must now be considered by the House Senate conference committee on the energy bill.

The government's lawsuit against Shell and Olympic seeks to impose pipeline management, maintenance and repair requirements to prevent or minimize future oil spills.

The civil suit is separate from the criminal charges against Olympic, Equilon and three pipeline employees that were filed in September 2001. The indictments included multiple federal charges, including violations of the Clean Water Act and the Federal Pipeline Safety Act. The criminal case is still pending.