A new federal crackdown on pipeline firm
September 29,1999
Scott Sunde,Seattle Post Intelligencer

Prompted by a highly publicized failure a week ago, federal regulators imposed strict new requirements on the Olympic Pipe Line Co. yesterday that will mean shutting down and testing segments of the line that run through Woodinville, Redmond, Bellevue, Renton and other communities.

The federal order will indefinitely reduce the flow of petroleum products in 400-mile Olympic system by 1 million gallons a day.

At the same time, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety raised new concerns about the integrity of Olympic's system.

The order issued yesterday criticized how diligent the company has been in investigating possible defects in the pipeline.

Perhaps more important, regulators also noted that valves may have been closed incorrectly dozens of times in recent months.

Computer problems may have caused the valve closures, which can increase pressure in the pipeline and weaken it.

"We want to know why it (the valve closures) happened," said Patricia Klinger, spokeswoman for the Office of Pipeline Safety. "It's a number that we're concerned about."

In a prepared statement, Fred Crognale, Olympic's president, said the company is "willing and able" to conduct the tests that federal regulators want.

However, he expressed concern that the pressure tests ordered are at a level higher than those called for in federal regulations.

"There will be an inquiry to DOT (Department of Transportation) to further understand the basis of this order," he said.

The Office of Pipeline Safety is part of the Transportation Department.

Olympic did not indicate whether it will challenge the order, which marks the third time that federal regulators have imposed restrictions and requirements on the company.

Olympic operates the pipeline from Cherry Point near the Canadian border to Portland.

The orders follow a June 10 explosion that killed an 18-year-old man and two 10-year-old boys in Bellingham.

Part of the investigation into the accident has focused on Olympic's computer system.

The system, which operates and monitors the pipeline, crashed the day of the accident. Also that day, a valve closed near a terminal in Skagit County, increasing pressure in the pipeline in Bellingham.

Yesterday, regulators revealed that valves located upstream of the Skagit County terminal have closed 59 times since December 1998.

Workers did not close the valves, and Klinger said regulators are still trying to determine whether the computer system mistakenly closed them.

Closed valves can cause pressure to build up in the pipeline, ultimately weakening it.

As part of the order issued yesterday, Olympic will be forced to perform water-pressure tests on the entire upper 37 miles of pipeline, which has been closed since the June 10 accident.

Olympic already has begun those tests, known as hydrostatic tests, on a 10-mile section of the line that runs through Bellingham.

A week ago today, a segment of line failed during the Bellingham test, ripping a 6 1/2-foot hole in the pipe along a seam.

Part of the latest order also will require Olympic to close and perform hydrostatic tests on parts of the line that remain open in Skagit, Snohomish and King counties.

That includes a 16-inch pipeline that runs through the suburbs east of Seattle to Renton.

It also will require tests at the same pressures that the city of Bellingham had demanded. Bellingham has asked for tests at 133 percent of maximum operating pressure; regulators have typically required new pipelines to be tested at 125 percent of maximum operating pressure.

"We're probably being overcautious," Klinger said, "but we feel there is a need for this at this point."

The order was good news to officials in Snohomish County. This week, County Executive Bob Drewel and Rick Larsen, chairman of the County Council, wrote to federal regulators asking for hydrostatic testing of the pipeline in Snohomish County.

"This is clearly progress," Larsen said of yesterday's order. "The safety of this county's citizens is foremost in our minds."

He said Drewel has talked to county officials in Whatcom, Skagit, King and Pierce counties about urging testing in their jurisdictions.

Of concern to federal regulators is a type of pipe manufactured before 1970 by Lone Star Steel. It was that type of pipe that failed along a seam during hydrostatic tests a week ago today.

In their order yesterday, regulators said the pipe is vulnerable to failures at its seams.

Most of the 37-mile upper segment of the pipeline is made of that brand of pipe. So are parts of the 16-inch pipeline from near Allen in Skagit County to Renton and a 16-inch line from the Anacortes refineries to Allen. Those lines are still open.

Olympic says only small parts of the Allen-to-Renton and Anacortes-to-Allen lines are made of Lone Star pipe. But testing that pipe will require closing the entire line.

The Lone Star pipe has been the subject of 12 previous failures on other pipelines in 1988 and 1989, prompting regulators to issue nationwide alerts in those years.

What's more, if problems are found with other types of pipe used on the Olympic line, federal regulators may require further hydrostatic testing.

In fact, regulators noted yesterday that during the original hydrostatic test of the line from Renton to Portland in 1965, there was a failure.

That section of pipe was not made by Lone Star.

As part of the new requirements imposed on Olympic Pipe Line Co., the company must operate its pipeline at 80 percent of the maximum operating pressure.

According to the order, "a 20 percent reduction would provide (a) substantial margin of safety in this case."

Olympic began to operate its pipeline at the lower pressure this week.

It has reduced flow in the system from from 7.9 million to 6.9 million gallons a day. Before the June 10 accident, Olympic's pipeline was handling 12.8 million gallons a day.

Olympic must also come up with a written plan to respond to possible defects found during internal inspections of the pipeline.

Three years ago, those inspections turned up more than 250 "anomalies," but the company considered almost all too minor to investigate, regulators said. That usually requires digging up the pipe and visually inspecting it.

The Office of Pipeline Safety said yesterday its review of previous internal inspections suggests "that not all anomalies that should have triggered additional investigation for possible corrective action were located, investigated and corrected in a timely way."

P-I reporter Scott Sunde can be reached at 206-448-8331 or scottsunde@seattle-pi.com

Related Links
  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer-- Seattle Post-Intelligencer WebPage
  • Olympic Pipeline Company-- The Olympic Pipeline Company's Website
  • Office of Pipeline Safety-- The office of Pipeline Safety's webpage
  • Department Of Transporation-- Alaska's Department of Transportation


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