OPS Gives El Paso More Time to Dispute Proposed Fine, Violations

The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has given El Paso Natural Gas until mid-October to respond to "probable violations" in carrying out the required internal corrosion-control procedures and other measures prior to the fatal explosion on its system in New Mexico last August.

This marks the second extension that OPS has given El Paso to respond to the series of "probable violations" that the pipeline was cited for in late June, along with a record $2.52 million fine that OPS is seeking against El Paso. The pipeline initially was ordered to reply by late July if it wished to contest the "probable violations," but it sought and was granted an extension until Aug. 31. That deadline has since been pushed back to Oct. 15.

El Paso plans to challenge the amount of the proposed civil penalty, which has been billed as the "largest civil penalty" ever sought against a pipeline operator for federal safety violations, as well as the "probable violations" cited by OPS and the proposed compliance order.

Once El Paso submits its reply to the "probable violations" in writing, the OPS plans to hold a closed-door hearing in Washington DC to consider the pipeline's challenge. The agency had hoped to hold the hearing around Sept. 18-20, but it plans were dashed when El Paso sought a second extension.

"OPS believes that the allegations in this case, particularly those concerning the qualification of personnel in internal corrosion procedures, must be resolved quickly," said Roderick M. Seeley, director of the Southwest Region OPS, in a letter last month to El Paso attorney Michael R. Bromwich in Washington.

"We can't really say at this point" how long it will take for a decision to be issued in this case, an OPS spokesman said. "We won't know until after the hearing."

The probable violations that El Paso was cited for include: 1) failure to ensure qualified personnel had performed the required internal corrosion-control procedures; 2) transporting corrosive gas on several occasions without taking the proper preventive and mitigative steps; 3) failing to carry out continuing surveillance of El Paso's transportation system, which would have allowed the pipeline to control collection of liquid at low points, thus mitigating conditions which led to the explosion; 4) not possessing an accurate elevation map for the lines involved in the rupture, which would have revealed the low points where liquid could accumulate and corrosion could occur; and 5) neglecting to take steps to minimize the possibility of a pipeline failure recurrence following a similar incident in 1996.

OPS said it turned up the "probable violations" during its investigation of El Paso, which was conducted between Aug. 19 and mid-December 2000.

The OPS initiated its probe of El Paso immediately following the mid-August 2000 rupture on El Paso's South Mainline near Carlsbad, NM, which killed 12 and earned it the distinction of being the worst natural gas pipeline disaster in the United States. The 12 dead were members of two local families who had been fishing and camping alongside the Pecos River. They were consumed in the blast and fireball that ripped open an 86-foot long, 20-foot deep trench and left a mass of twisted metal pipeline. The explosion interrupted gas transportation service on the three lines that make up the South Mainline for weeks and months afterward.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) still is continuing its investigation into the cause of the fatal pipeline explosion. A spokesman would not say when a final report would be issued.

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