In Memoriam

educating the public on environmental issues

Natural Gas Pipeline Safety is a Myth

Natural gas pipeline safety is a myth. The U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety records hundreds of incidents involving gas pipelines each year. You can easily check this by visiting the pipeline statistics page of their website at www.ops.dot.gov.

But statistics don't tell the story of pain and loss that occur when an accident happens. Last week, I interviewed a registered nurse, one of the first responders to a natural gas explosion in August 2000 near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Millyn Dolphin, RN, was working for an air ambulance company. She was paged at seven a.m. that morning, and simply told there had been a gas explosion.

The explosion was discovered when El Paso Natural Gas Company employees noticed a 25 percent drop in pressure on the line. They sent out a crew and found flames shooting almost 500 feet into the air. The crew also found six people dead. They called for emergency response to air-evacuate the six other members of two families, including one-year-old twins, who had been camping by the river together. All but one of them would be dead before day's end. The remaining family member survived a month.

Millyn described how an EMT carried a fully conscious, crying five-year-old girl, burned over 79 percent of her body, through 300 yards of brush to reach an ambulance. He told  Millyn he'd just seen a "little Hiroshima." In Millyn's care, the child survived a flight to Lubbock, but died while being flown to the Shriners Hospital burn unit in Galveston.

Millyn is now an activist, working to inform the public on pipeline safety issues so the child she cared for did not die in vain. She told me the gas pipeline was over-pressurized, causing the pipe to vibrate. The vibration caused the pipe to knock against a rock where a leak developed. The families' campfire turned the leaking gas into an inferno.

Millyn said these were prominent, well-known families in Artesia and Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the deaths shocked the community. "You could see it in their eyes for weeks," she said.

How does this pertain to you? Consider the devastation that accident caused in a remote area. What might the effect have been in a populated area?

Tuesday night there is a public hearing at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center on BHP Billiton's LNG Terminal Draft Environmental Impact Report, part of the application process to site one of two liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals off the shore of Oxnard. The project calls for a floating terminal moored 21 miles away from Oxnard and proposes to run a high volume gas pipe through the biologically sensitive areas of Ormond Beach, less than a mile from Pt. Hueneme's densely populated beach-front condominiums. Crystal Energy's project plan, the second one proposed for the area, is to be built on Platform Grace about 10 miles offshore. It calls for a high volume pressurized pipeline to run through Oxnard's residential neighborhoods, past churches and schools. Both proposed pipes would connect into the Southern California Gas network near Camarillo.

In an area as seismically active as coastal California, it's always just a matter of time before the next major earthquake causes gas pipelines to break. That is why one of the first things we're instructed to do in the event of an earthquake is to turn off our home's gas valve. And if you call the gas company telling them you suspect a leak, they'll send someone out immediately, day or night. That should tell you how potentially dangerous even a small amount of leaking natural gas can be.

If the plans for these LNG terminals are approved and implemented, the large pressurized pipes that bring in the gas may be a major disaster waiting for the right earthquake. The country's other LNG terminals are not in earthquake-prone areas. California has had incidents in the past involving gas pipeline ruptures during earthquakes and this equation brings a new set of variablesólarge pressurized natural gas pipelines crossing areas subject to liquefaction. Oxnard is being asked to be the guinea pig to test these variables. The companies building the pipelines will tell you they'll be safe, but there's no way they can absolutely guarantee it (see the pipeline safety website mentioned above).

If the safety of your community and its residents is something you care about, invest the time to go to the Oxnard Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night to voice your concern. It beats the prospect of someday attending a mass funeral knowing you passed on the opportunity to try to prevent it.

For information on the Carlsbad explosion, visit www.corrosion-doctors.org/Pipeline/Carlsbad-explosion.htm.

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by Janet Bridgers
Earth Alert