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When gas begins flowing, will it be safe?

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - Months from now, when the final piece of the natural gas pipeline from Roseburg to Coos Bay is in place, the project still must pass a crucial test.

The 60-mile line will be filled with water and checked for leaks. A "smart pig" - a small robot - will snake its way through the 12-inch-wide tunnel to detect any flaws. Whenever the pig or the water finds a leak, even the slightest weakness in the pipe's integrity, that portion must be dug up, rewelded and buried again.

Since last summer, members of a citizen watchdog group have called pipeline integrity their foremost concern, even above the environmental and landowner issues that have prompted multiple lawsuits and threats of millions in fines from regulatory agencies.

A series of reports by pipeline inspectors working for Coos County's consultants affirms their worries.

Inspectors scribbled notes about bent and buckled pipe, deep gouges in protective pipe coating, welds done in the rain and other questionable construction methods.

Coos County officials have consistently held that the pipe is in good shape, pointing to a lengthy inspection by state and federal pipeline safety authorities last year that found only minor and fixable problems.

But if the inspectors are right, there are potentially miles of buried pipe that will have to come out of the ground for repairs.

The Bonneville Power Administration has its own problems with the pipeline's susceptibility to vandalism and terrorism, noting that a variety of weapons pierced above-ground portions of the pipe in a ballistics test.

"We are very concerned that the outside pipe was penetrated so easily by a majority of the ammunition types," wrote Rick Stearns, a manager with the BPA, in an e-mail to county officials.

Comments like that make resident Ken Cripe nervous.

"How would you feel with an 18,000 pounds-per-square-inch, 12-inch pipe going through your backyard?" said Cripe, whose cow died this winter when it got stuck in a muddy trench dug along the Douglas County portion of the line.

"They tell me how safe it is. The Titanic was safe, too."

Damage to pipeline coating

Members of the union-backed Coos County Coalition combed over the project territory last August, snapping photographs of cigar-sized gouges in the pipe's protective coating and videotaping attempts to jam it into the ground with such force that piles of the coating were left behind.

Randy Knop, founder of the group, sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety with a laundry list of concerns and excerpts from a welding inspector worried that no third party was reviewing the welds.

That prompted a visit from Steve Rieger, senior engineer with the Western Region Office of Pipeline Safety, and Michael Thompson, pipeline safety chief for the Oregon Public Utility Commission. They and two other experts spent 152 hours inspecting the project, Thompson said in a reply letter.

He dismissed most of Knop's questions, but did acknowledge damaged coating, which later was repaired. And he agreed that the smart pig will have a difficult time making it through some sections of the pipe bent at 90-degree angles. He wasn't specific about how many flawed sections inspectors found.

But beyond that, contractor MasTec Inc. of Miami was doing fine, Thompson said in a later interview. He said MasTec was X-raying 100 percent of its welds, when the law requires only 10 percent. "They're going above and beyond what's required," he said.

Inspectors not satisfied

Several of the project's inspectors disagreed. They worked for Industrial Gas Services and Pipeline Solutions, two consulting companies hired by Coos County to oversee pipeline construction and report back to county commissioners.

Inspector James Albritton said a construction foreman installed buckled pipe against his advice.

"(The foreman) told me that if it buckled that the smart pig would pick it up and they would have to come back and cut it out and fix it," Albritton wrote in an undated report. "So he did it anyway."

Another inspector, Rick Winters - who eventually resigned from the job after he was kicked off the construction site and had his title changed to "observer" - wrote in a November report: "Pipe is a snaky mess, pipe is not straight. This will be a sight to see!!" He described portions of the project as "unacceptable" and said some welds weren't X-rayed.

Inspector George Ferguson also wrote in November of "deep scratches thru black coating and into the green," with the words "thru" and "into" underlined. "Pipe is rejected as of now or in its present condition."

John Hanna, who worked for MasTec as a welding inspector before the company laid off most of its crew for the winter, said he spent his first days on the job last summer worrying about fire danger because welders didn't have adequate resources to put out spot fires as they worked.

Once the company addressed that issue, he started raising red flags about MasTec's reviews of the weld X-rays, he said in an interview. The X-rays weren't traceable because no one labeled where they were taken - if someone spotted a problem, there was no way to know where to dig up the flawed pipe, he said.

MasTec crews also were signing off on the X-rays with no independent oversight, Hanna said. Only its own employees reviewed the welds, as opposed to county consultants. If there were faulty welds, the company could easily ignore them, Hanna said. His reports also detailed multiple days when welding took place without any inspections.

Jack Collier, an inspector for the consulting companies, said he witnessed welding done in the rain, a practice he had never seen in 42 years working on pipelines. He raised concerns about this and other welding safety problems with his superiors, but they ignored them, he said.

"It'll kill people if it fails," Collier testified in a deposition for lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club of Oregon, which is seeking punitive damages for Clean Water Act violations. "It's right along a residential district."

Coos County attorney Jay Waldron said state and federal regulators will rigorously inspect the pipe before gas is allowed to flow through it. Northwest Natural, the utility that will manage the line and distribute natural gas to homes and businesses in the county, also will inspect the line.

But if the pipeline doesn't pass the test, crews will have to dig up the bad sections of pipe - adding more delays and cost to the project.

"Well over 50 percent of that pipe is going to have to come out of the ground," said Del Knight, president of the Coos County Coalition.

Pipe tested with bullets

While most of the pipeline will be underground, several sections are hung beneath bridges, which exposes them to vandalism or terrorism. Because some of those pieces lie on property owned by the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency took extra steps to make sure that they would be safe by requiring the contractor to fire high-powered guns at the pipe.

Several law enforcement officers and a representative from Northwest Natural joined BPA and county officials for the tests at a Coos County firing range in January.

Using a variety of weapons and bullets, police fired at sections of 12-inch pipe. Some of the pipe was surrounded by a steel casing, increasing the total diameter to 16 inches. While most bullets pierced only the casing and not the pipe, armor-piercing bullets penetrated both.

The county's consultants - Industrial Gas Services and Pipeline Solutions - didn't see the results as cause for alarm, noting only one recorded incident of attacks with guns or explosives on U.S. pipelines. It occurred in 2001, when a man shot a hole in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, causing $7 million in damage and spilling 285,600 gallons of petroleum.

Pipeline Solutions' Steve Shute also responded that even if a gun pierced the casing and the pipe, it would be unlikely to cause an explosion. For one reason, gas would be forced out of the pipe, preventing combustion inside it. And it would need a spark to start a fire, which would burn outside the pipe, not in it, he said.

"We do not believe it is feasible to protect the pipeline from all possible acts of vandalism or terrorism," Shute wrote to the BPA.

But BPA wasn't satisfied and suggested encasing the outside pipe in concrete. Before approving it, "we must insist on an improved design" that can pass ballistics tests," Stearns wrote. The issue has yet to be resolved.


A three-day look at the project:

Sunday: Environmental factors and trouble with the company that installed the pipeline

Monday: The county's battles with the contractor

Today: What's ahead for the pipeline and Coos County
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Title Annotation:Business; Despite county assurances that the transmission line is in good shape, inspectors and observers are concerned
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 27, 2004
Previous Article:COMMUNITY SPORTS.
Next Article:More than 5,000 will get the run of Eugene.

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