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DOT, Washington State Partner on Pipe Inspection

DOT, Washington State Partner on Pipe Inspection

Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater announced Friday that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has formed a partnership with Washington state --- the site of a major pipeline-related explosion a year ago --- to allow its safety inspectors to participate in the inspections of interstate pipelines.

Washington state would join about seven or eight other states that have similar partnerships with DOT's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS). Each state essentially has agent status and acts as a contractor for OPS. The states don't have any regulatory authority over interstate lines, however.

The announcement came one week after DOT said it would seek a $3.05 million civil penalty --- the largest ever proposed for a pipeline operator --- against Olympic Pipe Line for the explosion that killed three in Bellingham, WA, last June. Some believe the penalty may be just the tip of the iceberg for Olympic, a petroleum products pipe that is owned and operated by Houston-based Equilon.

"Tragic events like this pipeline failure must never happen again," said Secretary Slater. "This civil penalty is one of a series of actions we have and are taking to help protect the people and environment along this pipeline," which has been shut down since the explosion. Some question whether the DOT will ever allow the Olympic to open its pipeline again. The pipeline had asked the OPS for permission to start up its line last January.

Although the explosion involved a petroleum products line, observers in the natural gas industry have been watching events closely because of the fallout they have had on interstate gas pipelines, which critics have targeted as unsafe as well.

While "the penalty itself was significant," Terry Boss of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) said he was even more concerned by the fact that DOT levied the fine before the cause of the accident was officially determined.

Boss pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Justice Department were each investigating various aspects of the pipeline failure. This "makes me suspicious" that there might be additional action taken against Olympic.

The failure of the Olympic line and the three deaths has led to a number of pipeline safety proposals in Congress and from the Clinton administration seeking stricter federal and state oversight of hazardous product lines and natural gas pipelines, stiffer civil penalties and potential criminal action against violators.

Olympic declined to comment on the DOT penalty given that the accident still is being investigated by the NTSB and others. However, in a prepared statement, Olympic Pipe Line Vice President and Manager Carl Gast said that "during the past several months, Olympic has worked very hard to comply with all of the safety directives issued by the Office of Pipeline Safety, and even now is engaged in a comprehensive internal inspections program of its entire 400-mile network."

Susan Parker

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