Fed Agency Attacks Pipelines for Lack of Disaster Planning

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WASHINGTON -- Pipeline operators have disaster plans to deal with oil spills -- but most haven't put on paper any preparations to prevent or minimize accidental releases, the National Transportation Safety Board says.

Members of the investigative board have renewed their appeal for more planning by the industry, pointing to the massive fuel spills and fires triggered by torrential flooding in southeast Texas in 1994.

While praising the disaster response to the October 1994 flooding, the NTSB found that numerous pipeline breaks in the San Jacinto River pointed up industry and government shortcomings. Some 1.5 million gallons of fuel from 39 ruptured pipelines gushed into the river after days of relentless flooding unearthed some of the so-called "spaghetti bowl" pipeline network. Lines buckled when up to 15 feet of soil washed out from beneath the pipes, leaving them exposed. Errant sparks ignited the oily sheen that stretched for miles along the swollen river's surface, giving birth to walls of flames that flared as high as 400 feet. Breathing problems or burns were suffered by 547 people. Damage from the spills and cleanup costs added $23 million to a flooding tab reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars. While pipeline operators and federal officials do have response plans to deal with oil spills once they've occurred, planning is woefully lacking on ways to prevent pipeline breakage and emergency fuel releases, NTSB officials said Wednesday. That's despite a requirement in the 1990 federal Oil Pollution Act that the Transportation Department's Research and Special Programs Office and pipeline operators develop plans to prevent accidental releases, said NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. "The time to look at the worst-case scenario is not when you're in the middle of a worst case," he said. …