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Sunday, August 8, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Oregon Pipeline Gets A Closer Look -- Fatal Blast Could Happen Here, Fire Officials Say

AP

EUGENE, Ore. - A gasoline pipeline explosion that killed three people in Bellingham has prompted Oregon regulators to take a closer look at the state's gasoline network, particularly a line that runs from Portland to Eugene.

Two 10-year-old boys burned to death June 10 when one of them accidentally ignited fumes from a ruptured petroleum pipeline with a fireplace lighter. The line had spewed an estimated 277,000 gallons of gas into a creek bed where the boys had been playing. The explosion sent a huge fireball and billows of smoke into the air.

A 18-year-old man fishing nearby also was killed after he was overcome by fumes.

Fire officials in Oregon say such a catastrophe could happen there.

"It's by good fortune, and only good fortune, that we haven't had a major disaster," said Bob Garrison, Oregon's chief deputy fire marshal.

The Kinder Morgan Energy Partners pipeline, which carries gasoline and diesel fuel from Portland to Eugene, has had no major leaks or spills in recent years.

But unlike Washington and California, the Oregon Legislature hasn't given the state authority to oversee most of the Oregon pipeline. That is a mistake, said Department of Environmental Quality Director Langdon Marsh.

Without state regulation, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety is the only fail-safe for the rest of Oregon. Some lawmakers are raising questions about that agency's ability or willingness to act in the public interest.

The Portland-to-Eugene pipeline, 8 inches wide and made of steel, runs underneath neighborhoods and crisscrosses rivers and streams, carrying gasoline the length of the Willamette Valley.

Many residents in the Eugene area know little about the pipeline or where it runs.

Bill Kabiser, 64, has pictures from when the crews installed the pipe in 1962, but it took him awhile to remember exactly where the line goes across his front yard. As he tried to recall, he put a cigarette to his lips and lit it.

"That pipeline is probably where I'm standing now," he said.

Debbie Tilley knew a pipeline passed beneath her yard, but she had no idea that it carried over a million gallons of fuel each day.

The owner of the pipeline - Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a Houston-based firm with pipelines in 16 states - pumps 1.6 million gallons of gasoline a day from Portland to its tank farm just north of the Eugene city limits. The line supplies just about every car and truck on the road in the region.

Alaskan oil is refined into gasoline in Northwest Washington and shipped through a pipeline to Portland - the same pipe that exploded in Bellingham - where it enters the Kinder Morgan pipeline for the trip to Eugene.

The supply was threatened in the days after the Bellingham accident until operators began barging more gas around the break in the line.

"We kept that pretty quiet," said Garry Likens, Eugene field manager for Jerry Brown Co., which trucks fuel to 50 southwestern Oregon stations. "We were headed for trouble. That's something people don't understand. They think it's a faucet."

It would take 166 tanker trucks running the Interstate 5 corridor each day to replace the gasoline carried by the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Moving gasoline by pipeline is much safer than freeway transportation, said Sid Carr, who manages the Oregon pipeline for Kinder Morgan. But the potential for an explosion like Bellingham is always there. "You've got to live with the devil," he said.

U.S. hazardous liquid pipelines averaged 99 leaks a year during the past three decades, according to Office of Pipeline Safety data, as analyzed by Cutter Information, a private research firm. Oregon had 13 spills averaging 106,154 gallons each during those three decades.

Pressure is growing in Congress for a full-scale investigation of the agency and review of pipeline regulations. If the agency had adopted proposed standards to ensure pipeline integrity, the Bellingham rupture might have been averted, said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

If the public knew more about high-pressure gasoline pipelines, DeFazio said, they'd demand tougher regulations even if it meant paying more at the gas pump.

"If these measures would drive up the already outrageous price of our gasoline one-tenth of 1 percent - which I don't think it would - it would be worth it," he said.

Local operators of the Kinder Morgan pipeline are highly regarded by regulators. Carr, the area manager, has worked petroleum pipelines for 33 years.

"These guys keep a really close eye on the pipeline," said Mike Zollitsch, who oversees pipelines for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

In 1997, for the first time, operators put a "smart pig" sensing device through the length of the line. The damage they discovered caused them to dig up and replace about 6 miles of line in the freezing muck of February rather than take a chance that something might happen, Carr said.

"If it costs us more time and more money safetywise, we're going to do it," he said. "It's not in a pipeline's interest to have an incident like Bellingham."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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