Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: What Every Local Government Should Know About Pipeline Safety
James M. Pates (City Attorney, Fredericksburg, VA)


The summer of 1996 has not been a good season for pipeline accidents. Tragedy has struck twice, first in South Carolina and then again in Texas. On June 26, an interstate oil pipeline along the Reedy River near Greenville, South Carolina, ruptured shortly before midnight, spilling almost a million gallons of diesel fuel into the river. For hours, fuel poured into the river, killing an estimated 34,000 fish and other wildlife and threatening public water supplies before an emergency crew of 500 workers could stanch the flow. By the time the leak was stopped the next day, the pipeline's owner, Colonial Pipeline Company, had experienced the largest spill in the company's 34-year history and the state of South Carolina, its largest ever. The state Department of Natural Resources later catalogued 23 fish species killed, including catfish, largemouth bass, suckers, shad, carp, bullhead, and warmouth, as well as turtles, muskrat, snakes, crawfish, and wood ducks. 1

On August 24, disaster struck again, this time in the small town of Kemp, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. A pipeline carrying liquid butane ruptured, creating a massive cloud of foul-smelling gas. Two teenagers, Jason Stone, 17, and Danielle Smalley, 18, jumped into their pickup truck to warn others. Sparks from the engine ignited the cloud of gas, causing an explosion that sent a fireball into the air that could be seen 40 miles away. Both teenagers were killed. 2

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. In 1994 alone, there were 465 oil and gas pipeline accidents reported in the United States, more than one every day. These accidents resulted in 22 deaths and 1,968 injuries in a single year. A conservative estimate of property losses from these accidents was $154 million, not including damages, fines, or cleanup costs. 3  Nor was 1994 atypical. Over a ten-year period from 1985 to 1994, there was an average of 448 accidents, with 24 deaths and 310 injuries, per year:

Gas and Liquid Pipeline Accidents and Casualties, 1985-1994 4
YEAR Number Deaths Injuries Number Deaths Injuries Number Deaths Injuries
1985 334 28 108 183 5 18 517 33 186
1986 225 35 124 209 4 32 434 39 156
1987 234 11 130 237 3 20 471 14 150
1988 290 25 125 193 2 19 483 27 144
1989 280 42 119 163 3 38 443 45 157
1990 199 6 69 180 3 7 379 9 76
1991 234 14 89 216 0 9 450 14 98
1992 177 10 80 212 5 38 389 15 118
1993 217 17 102 230 0 10 447 17 112
1994 221 21 110 244 1 1,858 465 22 1,968
TOTAL 2,411 209 1,056 2,067 26 2,049 4,478 235 3,105
Avg 241 21 106 207 3 205 448 24 310

The effects of these accidents on the affected localities can be devastating. For example:

  1. San Bernardino. California - In May 1989, a Southern Pacific train derailed in this city, plowing through a residential neighborhood and killing four people. The train landed on top of a pipeline operated by Calnev Pipeline Company, an interstate carrier that transported petroleum from California to Nevada. Thirteen days after the train derailment and train service had been restored, the pipeline exploded in the same location. The flames rose 500 feet in the air. Two people were killed, 10 homes burned to the ground, and dozens of people injured. 5
  2. Fredericksburg. Virginia - In 1980 and again in 1989, this city of 20,000 lost its public water supply for a week due to oil spills in the Rappahannock River. Both emergencies were caused by the failure of an interstate oil pipeline operated by Colonial Pipeline Company. The first accident resulted in 92,000 gallons of fuel oil spilling into a tributary of the river, the City's sole water source. Nine years later, the same thing happened again, with 212,000 gallons of kerosene flowing into the river. Both accidents took place 20 miles upstream of the city's water intake. Each time, fish and wildlife were killed, city businesses closed, and the city forced to haul water from neighboring jurisdictions.
  3. Houston. Texas - On October 20, 1994, Houston's San Jacinto River, already swollen by rains and flooding, caught fire when water gouged a new channel through the floodplain. Seventeen different pipelines in the nation's energy capital were left exposed; four ruptured. Gasoline from Colonial's 40-inch line ignited, sending flames down the river and burning houses, trees, and barges on the river. "It was like hell had opened up and swallowed the whole river," said Mike Norman, 34, who witnessed the explosion. 6
  4. Mounds View. Minnesota - At 4 o'clock in the morning on July 8, 1986, a gasoline pipeline owned by Williams Pipeline Company ruptured, sending vaporized and liquid gasoline into the streets of a residential neighborhood in this suburb of Minneapolis. Twenty minutes later, an automobile passed by, causing the gasoline to ignite. Two people were burned to death. When the City of Mounds View attempted to prevent the pipeline from resuming operation until their safety concerns had been met, company officials went to federal court to secure a permanent injunction blocking the city from taking any actions that might restrict their operations. 7

Given the vast system of pipelines crisscrossing this country, such accidents are hardly surprising. Roughly 1,800,000 miles of gas and liquid pipelines 8 carry hazardous products, including crude oil, refined petroleum, liquified natural gas, carbon dioxide, and anhydrous ammonia to urban areas and through environmentally sensitive regions across the country. As population growth and intense development intrude upon many of these pipelines, most of which were built 30 or 40 years ago, the environmental costs of accidents continue to skyrocket and local safety concerns increase daily.

Although gas and hazardous liquid pipelines have similar construction and safety standards, the size and pressure of these pipelines vary considerably, as do their risks. The nation's natural gas pipeline system is roughly eight times longer than its liquid one, extending to almost every street in most cities. Many municipalities operate their own gas systems. When these lines break, the gas tends to burn out of control until its source can be extinguished. The initial explosion often kills or injures people in the vicinity and destroys buildings by fire. Since the product is gaseous, it dissipates quickly and poses minimal environmental risk.

Liquid pipelines, on the other hand, were usually built in more remote areas in order to transport crude oil from the wellhead to the refinery or refined petroleum from Texas or offshore terminals to major urban centers. When these lines break, oil or other hazardous liquids flow into nearby streams and rivers, contaminating public water supplies or groundwater. Sometimes, when the product being transported is highly flammable, such as liquified natural gas or gasoline, the risks are both safety-related and environmental.

What is the safety record of the pipeline industry? This is difficult to assess for several reasons. As for the gas pipeline industry, no ready means of comparison exists since all natural gas is transported via pipeline. As for the oil pipeline industry, pipelines have an accident history that ranks better per ton-mile transported than that of rail or motor carriers, but worse than that of barges and other water carriers. For example, from 1982 to 1992, oil pipelines spilled a total of 109.7 million gallons of petroleum products, which is 240 percent more than was spilled by tankships and barges. 9

The author is unaware of any comprehensive studies that have quantified the cumulative environmental effects of oil pipeline spills, but a recent report by the Wilderness Society draws a parallel with the highly publicized Exxon Valdez accident in March 1989. As the authors of that report noted,
   [Pipeline accidents in the 12 months since the Valdez accident have] occurred every single day of the year. They occurred in every state of the union. They occurred at every stage of the industrial process. No one has final figures, but experts estimate that there have been roughly 10,000 spills since the Exxon Valdez tore open. Including the Valdez disaster, these accidents have polluted America's land and water with 15 to 20 million gallons of oil. 10

The report noted, however, that reliable data documenting the environmental impact of these accidents is nonexistent:
   The impact on our environment is enormous. The Valdez accident is believed to have led to the death of hundreds of thousands of birds, more than 1,000 sea otters, and untold numbers of other species. But no one will ever know the true death toll. After most spills, no effort is even made to gauge the cumulative impact on wildlife, drinking water, vegetation, and the rest of the environment. 11

The truth is that pipeline accidents generally do not attract widespread media attention or government reaction because their effects are generally local, the pipelines themselves are "out of sight, out of mind," and liquid pipeline accidents do not generally produce as sensational television footage as the blackened beaches and oil-soaked birds that accompany tanker accidents. But for communities such as Greenville, Fredericksburg, Houston, and Mounds View, these pipeline accidents will long be remembered, not only for their effects but also for how they could happen again.

Copyright © 1999 by Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc.
Updated: December 4, 1999