Mayor garners overwhelming support for pipeline testing

Mayor Greg Nickels clearly had the home-court advantage last week when he held a town hall meeting in Holly Park to explain why he and other city officials believe the Olympic Pipe Line Co. should perform a high-pressure water test on a 12.5-mile section of pipe that runs through South Seattle.

Most of the people who spoke had no idea a pipeline carrying close to 9 million gallons a week of diesel fuel, gasoline and heating oil ran through South Seattle, and they were concerned about a repeat of the 1999 Bellingham disaster, when three people were killed following a leak in a section of Olympic Pipe Line's system there.

It's a controversy that pits city franchise rights against state and federal regulations, and Olympic Pipe Line has refused to perform the test, arguing that the so-called hydrostatic testing is unnecessary.

And in a lawsuit filed in federal court, Olympic Pipe Line argues that not only do so-called "smart pigs" do a better job of identifying faults in a pipeline than hydrostatic testing, the city has no right to tell the company to do anything.

Smart pigs are electronic devices that are run along the inside of a pipeline and identify areas of weakness in the metal, but Nickels doesn't buy the argument that the devices can identify all weaknesses and prove the line is safe.

"As mayor, my number-one duty is public safety, and I take that duty very seriously," he told more than 100 people who showed up for the meeting at Holly Place New Gathering Place on Tuesday, July 29. The pipeline company, now a subsidiary of BP Pipelines North America and Shell Pipelines, operates under a city franchise agreement that expired at the end of 2000, and Olympic Pipe Line filed for bankruptcy in March this year.

Following the bankruptcy filing, Nickels said, he told the company he wanted hydrostatic testing done on the pipeline, which runs from Renton through Beacon Hill, Holly Park and the Rainier Valley to Harbor Island.

Olympic Pipe Line has performed hydrostatic testing on sections of its pipe in Renton, Bellingham, Woodinville and Redmond, but the company maintains its line in Seattle is safe and doesn't need the hydrostatic testing, he said.

"Well, I am not going to take the word of a bankrupt pipeline company," the mayor added.

To ensure the system is safe, Nickels also wanted the company to dig up and visually inspect sections of the line, which also passes by two elementary schools and the Martin Luther King Jr. Apartments. "I will shut down the pipeline Aug. 26 if I don't get that proof," he said of both hydrostatic testing and visual inspections.

Olympic agreed to do excavation work last week, and plans to dig up and inspect a section of pipeline that is 170 feet from a New Holly child-care center and a section of pipe near the Ferdinand P-Patch on Beacon Hill, according to the mayor's office, which claimed credit for the development.

"Those excavations were part of a $20 million safety plan we had for this year," countered Mike Abendhoff, Olympic Pipe Line's new director of public affairs.

The cost of hydrostatically testing the Seattle line would be an estimated $75,000 to $120,000, according to Seattle Fire Department's Deputy Chief Jim Fosse, who also spoke at the town hall meeting. "Cost isn't an issue for us," Abendhoff said. "I think what we're trying to say is we're using better technology than hydrostatic testing." Furthermore, he said, the company is taking all possible steps to ensure the public is safe.

Seattle City Council member Jim Compton is doubtful. Speaking at the town hall meeting, he said a threat to the safety of the people in Seattle is something the city will not tolerate.

"We've got nine solid votes on the council backing the mayor 100 percent on this," Compton said. Fosse said smart pigs can test for thinning of the pipe's metal, dents and corrosion.

"However, these tests are not completely accurate," he said, adding that hydrostatic testing in the past has identified weld failures in parts of Olympic Pipe Line's system.

Mary and Frank King, whose 10-year-old son, Wade, died in the Bellingham blast also took the time to come to Seattle and speak at the meeting.

"We don't have a second chance. The rest of you do," said Mary, who broke down in tears after she spoke.

The Bellingham line that blew up was tested with a smart pig, according to Frank.

"The smart pig wasn't smart enough to pick up where the break was," he said. "The smart pig is not the best way to go, it's the cheapest," Frank added with some heat.

He also slammed BP Oil for not spending money on hydrostatic testing, allegedly because of the costs.

"They made $33 billion the first quarter of this year," Frank shouted.

Ken Meyer, an engineer from North Seattle, was critical of the city's stance. Other cities have tried to do what Seattle is attempting, "and they've been slapped down hard by the courts," he said.

"Your motivation may be good," Meyer added, "but the principle is you have no more right to tell Olympic Pipe Line what to do than you do to tell Medicare what to do."

Both Nickels and City Attorney Tom Carr disagreed with Meyer.

"We clearly have the right to do what we're doing," Carr said of the city's demand for hydrostatic testing. "The mayor has the right to say no (to a franchise agreement)."

Steve King, who was acting pipeline safety director last week for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the federal Office of Pipeline Safety agrees with Olympic that hydrostatic testing is unnecessary under federal regulations.

"We haven't taken a public position," he said of the WUTC, which is in charge of implementing federal regulations at the state level. At issue, King explained, is a jurisdictional turf battle.

The federal agency has authority over interstate pipeline activities, while Seattle is pursuing its case because the section of line in South Seattle is an intrastate system, he said.

Still, Olympic Pipe Line Co. argued in its federal lawsuit that the Seattle section ships fuel that is refined out of state, making regulation of the pipeline an interstate matter.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]