Investigation identifies causes of Pepco spill

Employee communication, reporting system faulted

May 19, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

A lack of communication among utility workers contributed to the magnitude of the spill of 111,000 gallons of fuel oil at a Prince George's County power plant in early April that fouled 17 miles of Patuxent River shoreline in four counties, according to a federal document.

Workers at one end of a pipeline being prepared for an inspection read gauges only intermittently and did not record those readings or relay them to workers at the other end of the line.

In addition, a computerized reporting system that tracks oil flow in the pipeline isn't able to monitor the type of oil that was being used or automatically transfer information to a control center. Reports are stored for 30 days in the computer and downloaded on request.

Those and other complaints about Potomac Electric Power Co.'s operation of the pipeline that supplies the plant at Chalk Point are contained in federal orders for more tests at the plant and changes in operations.

The Transportation Department's Office of Pipeline Safety ordered Pepco to hire outside experts to review its logs and procedures to ensure that "procedures are in place" to properly monitor pipeline operations.

"Obviously, we're concerned about their communications, and we want another set of eyes to look at it," said Patricia Clinger, a spokeswoman for the Office of Pipeline Safety.

During its investigation, the Office of Pipeline Safety found that Pepco's operations manuals had no information about procedures for sending test equipment through the pipeline, which is part of the preparation for inspection; that one diagram of a set of valves was missing; and that a schematic for other valves was incorrect.

Pepco will "do whatever it takes" to improve the safety of its pipeline operation, said Bob Dopkin, spokesman for the utility.

The pipeline carries oil from a terminal at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to a transfer station at Ryceville in Charles County, then to Chalk Point or another Pepco plant in Charles County.

According to the federal orders, dated May 4, this is how the oil spill occurred:

About 2: 30 p.m. April 7, workers from ST Services were flushing oil from Chalk Point to tanks at Ryceville to clean the pipeline for inspection when the flow of oil suddenly stopped. The gauges showed a difference of 3,088.70 barrels of oil between what had been pumped from Chalk Point and what had arrived at Ryceville.

Within an hour, Pepco and ST officials shut down the operation and arranged for a flight over the path of the pipeline. They spotted the leak about 6: 30 p.m.

During the operation, workers checked the level of the oil in the tank at Chalk Point five times between 7: 15 a.m. and 12: 20 p.m., but Ryceville workers checked their tank only at the beginning and end of the operation. As a result, workers at Ryceville were unaware of the difference between how much oil was pumped and how much was received.

On April 12, federal officials ordered Pepco to meet several conditions before reopening the pipeline. They added more conditions this month.

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