Calif. pipeline explosion raises concerns in Pasco

By Pratik Joshi, Herald staff writerSeptember 27, 2010 

PASCO — Living a few hundred feet from a major interstate natural gas pipeline doesn't bother Greg Allenton of Pasco, even after a recent pipeline explosion in California that killed at least seven people and destroyed 50 homes.

"I'm sure it's all right," said the concrete worker, who can see the yellow stakes marking the Williams Northwest pipeline from his home at Reagan Way and Wrigley Drive.

But Allenton said he didn't know about the pipeline when he bought his home three years ago. His neighbor and friend Juan Gonzalez said he also didn't know about the pipeline when he moved into the neighborhood about the same time as Allenton. But he said there hasn't been a problem.

Both heard about the natural gas pipe explosion in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, but said they aren't alarmed about the potential for a similar disaster here.

Major pipelines carry natural gas and liquid petroleum products through the Tri-Cities, and a network of underground distribution pipes that serves local needs is connected to the main lines.

The pipelines are safe, according to Washington regulators who do periodic inspections.

Washington no longer has old cast iron pipes that could leak with age, said Joe Subsits, chief pipeline safety engineer for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. And Washington is one of several states that conducts state and federal inspections, he said, adding, "We are in a much better shape than other states."

But Subsits said people should know more about pipeline safety so they know who to call if they suspect a leak. Pipeline companies are supposed to send safety notices to residents living near a pipeline, but often people mistake these for junk mail, he said.

Some Washington nonprofit groups that promote pipeline safety also want local governments to be proactive in planning as land near buried pipelines is opened for development.

City and county planning officials identify any easements for underground utilities and notify property owners where they cannot build.

Benton County recently passed an ordinance that requires developers of properties within 150 feet of a transmission pipeline to contact pipeline owners, and it allows preliminary plat reviews by other public agencies.

That's a good first step, said Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham. He and Jim Doherty, legal consultant for Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, want municipal governments to require safe setbacks from transmission pipelines.

Weimer and Doherty have worked to promote awareness about the possible dangers and need for safeguards since 1999, when a liquid gas pipeline in Bellingham ruptured and exploded, killing a teenager and two 10-year-old boys.

Jeff Kossow, who is involved in planning and economic development for the city of Kennewick, said the city may soon consider an ordinance similar to Benton County's. Promoting safety is a good idea, he said. "We are all for it."

Local governments want to work with pipeline owners, but responsibility and liability for the pipelines must be with the companies that own them, Kossow said.

Weimer and Doherty have been giving presentations to city officials across the state to highlight the importance of improved communications between pipeline owners, municipalities and developers. "An easement is not a safety distance," Weimer said.

Whatcom County recently amended its zoning ordinance to not allow schools, hospitals or other essential public facilities within 500 feet of a transmission pipeline, Weimer said. Evacuating densely populated areas in an accident is not easy, he said.

A recent survey by Pipeline Safety Trust found about two-thirds of Washington's municipalities will likely need help in finding accurate maps of transmission pipelines in their area, and that fewer than 1 in 5 communities have well-marked pipelines.

But officials in the Tri-Cities say pipelines are mapped and marked.

Kossow, who participated in Pipeline Safety Trust's survey in July, said there's a need for balance. Municipal planners say they can't force developers to leave a buffer between pipelines and new developments larger than what's provided in city laws.

In Pasco, setbacks from easements are determined by the height of the building to be constructed, said Dave McDonald, city planner. "We don't allow any lots to straddle the gas line," he added.

Doherty said he understands cities can't buy lands near pipelines. But he said they can work with developers to make sure projects are built at a safe distance -- ideally 200 feet or more -- from a pipeline and incorporate easements into a greenway or walkway to improve safety.

Major gas pipelines in the area include the Williams Northwest pipeline, which runs from Sumas, Wash., near the Canadian border to the San Juan Basin in western Colorado; and the Chevron pipeline, which enters Washington from Salt Lake City via Walla Walla County and extends to the Pasco Terminal.

Both pipelines, which were built mostly in the mid-1950s, are safe, said Subsits, who inspects them once every two years. Improvements in metal quality and corrosion prevention technology have enhanced safety, he said.

Williams upgraded sections of its pipeline in the Tri-Cities in 1978-79, said Michele Swaner, a company spokeswoman. She said Williams follows stringent maintenance protocols, including weekly low-level aerial patrols and sniffer walks once every six months to detect any problems.

If gas is leaking, vegetation around the pipeline dies, she said. The pipeline also is routinely checked from the inside with a specialized device that looks for problems such as corrosion, she said, and pipeline pressure also is constantly monitored.

Chevron also has a vigorous monitoring and maintenance program for its pipelines, said Mickey Driver, Houston-based external relations adviser for Chevron U.S.A.

Subsits said underground pipelines often are damaged by people digging near them. He and Swaner said anybody needing to dig deeper than 12 inches for construction or landscaping must call 811 in advance. That ensures they will get help locating any underground utility lines to avoid accidental damage.

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