The Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), which has come under attack for failing to collect penalties for major pipeline safety violations, reported Tuesday it settled with Shell Pipeline Co. LP this month for $250,000 in connection with the 1999 blast on Olympic Pipe Line Co. that killed three persons.

Shell is operator of the Olympic petroleum products line that runs through Washington state, where the fatal explosion occurred.

The OPS still is negotiating with Olympic, which was fined a record $3.05 million in 1999 for its role in the rupture and subsequent blast that claimed the lives of two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man in Bellingham, WA, according to OPS spokesman Damon Hill. He could not say whether the agency planned to collect the full penalty amount from the pipeline.

Last year, the Department of Justice collected $92 million in civil and criminal penalties from both Shell and Olympic, Hill said. “We [OPS] were a significant part of that settlement.” At the same time, OPS has required the companies to make $50-90 million in integrity improvements to the Olympic pipeline since the accident, he noted.

In another development, Hill told NGI that it referred recently the case involving the August 2000 blast on El Paso Natural Gas to the Justice Department, which he says has “better ability to assess larger fines” against companies than the OPS. The OPS has yet to collect the $2.52 million penalty it imposed on El Paso in 2001 for “probable violations” arising from the explosion on its pipeline system in New Mexico, which resulted in 12 deaths.

The OPS released the information on the Olympic and El Paso cases after two Pacific Northwest pipeline safety watchdog groups wrote to Transportation Secretary Normal Mineta last week, urging swift action by the federal agency to collect the $3.05 million in fines imposed three years ago against Olympic. The groups, The Pipeline Safety Trust and SAFE Bellingham, made their letter public Monday at the end of the holiday weekend.

Both the DOT’s Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), which oversees the OPS, and the “(federal) Office of Pipeline Safety have been widely criticized for lax enforcement by members of Congress, the National Transportation Safety Board, the General Accounting Office, and DOT’s Inspector General,” the safety trust said in the letter. The group went on to chide the federal agency for announcing with “great fanfare” in the past that the agency was going to penalize the responsible parties.

The Trust said it was “most distressing and disappointing” to learn recently that the RSPA has allegedly “yet to assess the much-heralded civil penalty against Olympic, or owners of the companies.”

Marlene Robinson, president of the Trust’s board, said the public generally looks to the OPS “as the sole enforcer of interstate pipeline safety rules,” and therefore it is looked upon as the protector of community safety and environmental protection. “The agency’s history of poor enforcement and resulting erosion of public trust can only be corrected and repaired when it follows through on its explicit promises to use enforcement to protect public safety as the DOT Secretary pledged on June 2, 2000.”

In a news release dated June 2, 2000, then-Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater said the $3.05 million civil penalty proposed then by RSPA “is one of a series of actions we have and are taking to help protect the people and environment along this pipeline.”

In joining in the Trust’s letter to Mineta, SAFE Bellingham’s executive director, Carl Weimer, said it was “incomprehensible” that a government agency that has been criticized for its alleged lack of safety enforcement “would make a huge public relations splash announcing ‘the largest civil penalty ever proposed’ only to quietly decide not to collect that fine three years later.”

SAFE Bellingham is a citizens coalition that was formed following June 1999 explosion on the Olympic pipeline. The group continues to push for “stronger pipeline safety regulations to ensure that a tragedy like the one in Bellingham never occurs again in this country.”

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