Plugging the leaks

Pipeline spill: Emergency response plans need tightening to contain future oil accidents.

May 02, 2000

THE OIL PIPELINE spill that fouled stretches of the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland last month raised questions about adequate prevention and cleanup actions.

Amid the accusations, apologies and excuses, there's a serious need to improve plans for all fuel pipelines that traverse such ecologically fragile areas.

The Potomac Electric Power Co. accident showed that spill emergency response plans, coordination and equipment were deficient, even if they met regulatory requirements.

Contingency plans must consider the possibility of changing, inclement weather, such as the gusty winds that overwhelmed the initial cleanup teams on site of the 110,000-gallon spill. Tardy deployment of booms to protect adjacent waters is too common in U.S. oil spill responses.

Cleanup and containment contractors initially lacked enough of the proper equipment, such as drum skimmers to efficiently suck up the floating oil and appropriate booms to block tidal creeks.

At least two approved contractors refused coordinator orders to react promptly and were fired on the scene. That should lead to regular review of contractor capability and liability.

The federal Office of Pipeline Safety charged that PEPCO workers, in preparing the 51-mile pipeline for maintenance, bypassed meters and pressure gauges and that monitoring for leak detection was inadequate. Qualified welders were not in place to make repairs, the agency added. PEPCO says its procedures followed approved practice and that bypassing the gauges did not delay detection of the leak.

Those contentions are still to be decided, as is the precise cause of the underground pipe rupture, now under study by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Meanwhile, federal legislation has been introduced to strengthen pipeline safety and inspection programs in environmentally sensitive areas, while expanding research on monitoring technology. That comprehensive bill could help to reduce the risk of such hazardous accidents here in the Chesapeake watershed and elsewhere.

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