A New Mexico pipeline safety advocate has filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the departments of Justice and Transportation to find out the status of the enforcement inquiry against El Paso Natural Gas stemming from the fatal explosion on the pipeline in August 2000.

It’s been six years this month since a massive explosion and fire rocked El Paso’s South Mainline system near Carlsbad, NM, killing 12 members of two extended families who were fishing and camping alongside the Pecos River near the blast site (see Daily GPI, Aug. 22, 2000). But no enforcement action has been taken against the El Paso Corp. pipeline subsidiary to date.

In 2001, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it was seeking a fine of $2.52 million against El Paso for several “probable violations” that potentially contributed to the fatal explosion (see Daily GPI, June 22, 2001). El Paso challenged the claim that it committed any violations. As a result, the department was unable to collect the fine from the pipeline, and referred the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2004 because it has “better ability to assess larger fines.” But the DOJ has failed to impose any civil fines as well. In 2002, DOJ empaneled a grand jury in New Mexico to consider criminal charges, but that was dissolved and no charges were ever filed (see Daily GPI, Nov. 15, 2002).

Efforts by NGI to learn the status of the federal government’s case involving El Paso have been unsuccessful.

“I find it shocking that 12 people were burned to a crisp and nobody has resolved this case,” said Carol Parker, a Sante Fe, NM, lawyer who has been involved in pipeline safety issues since 1999. She said she filed an FOIA request with the DOT a month ago, and submitted a second FOIA request to Justice on Monday. “I have gotten no response from DOT yet,” Parker noted, but added that she has had a “trickling of responses” from DOJ.

“The OPS made substantial allegations that El Paso had violated the law…How many people have to die for the OPS to collect a fine?,” she asked. “The Office of Pipeline Safety does nothing to penalize them. I just don’t get it,” Parker said.

“It’s now been six years. I think at this point we have to assume that there’s something wrong with the process,” she noted.

“There has never been any announcement of the collection of the fine for the Carlsbad explosion or any other settlement details. We have inquired a few times but never received an answer because the case was still active,” said Carl Weimer, executive director the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, WA, in response to an e-mail from NGI.

“To us, six years seems like a long time without providing any information to the public regarding what is going on,” he said.

In February 2003, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the explosion was caused by significant thinning of the 1950s-vintage pipeline wall due to “severe internal corrosion,” It also found that El Paso’s inadequate corrosion-control program and lax oversight by the OPS were contributing factors to the fatal blast (see Daily GPI, Feb.12, 2003). El Paso disputed these findings.

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