Judge OKs plan to test pipeline

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Local News

Wednesday, April 19, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Judge OKs plan to test pipeline

by Steve Miletich Seattle Times staff reporter

Ending months of legal wrangling, a federal judge in Seattle has approved a plan to conduct crucial tests to determine the cause of a gasoline pipeline's rupture in Bellingham last year.

The order, issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, clears the way for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to cut apart about 20 feet of excavated pipe as part of its safety investigation into the June 10 rupture on the pipeline, owned by Olympic Pipe Line.

The accident spilled 277,000 gallons of gasoline into two creeks in a Bellingham park, leading to the deaths of two boys and an 18-year-old man.

Federal prosecutors initially halted the testing last fall, fearing Olympic might argue that prosecutors had allowed key evidence in a separate criminal investigation of the rupture to be compromised.

In an attempt to keep that from happening, prosecutors filed a sealed motion in February, asking Lasnik to approve an NTSB plan for the testing.

Lasnik approved the plan in a sealed order April 5. He released a copy of his order yesterday at the request of The Seattle Times, which had argued the public had a right to know about the testing.

A source familiar with the case said the NTSB had tentatively set May 8 to begin the tests.

The delay has created tension between the NTSB investigators, who want to determine what caused the rupture, and federal prosecutors, who are trying to protect the integrity of their grand-jury probe.

The grand jury is reviewing actions by Olympic and several of its executives who have been identified by their attorneys as potential targets of the criminal investigation.

In his order, Lasnik said the NTSB had proposed a test of the pipe that would include removing a piece to examine it with stereo and electron microscopes. In the tests, small amounts of pipe material would be lost when cut.

Lasnik said the Supreme Court has held that destroying evidence samples in a criminal case does not violate a defendant's rights unless the government acted on bad faith. There is no bad faith in this case, he said, saying the government "has exhibited caution in seeking this order."

Lasnik noted that attorneys for potential defendants don't oppose limited testing of this type but have proposed a variety of changes to the testing protocol, and some of the potential defendants have asked to participate in or be present during the testing.

Lasnik said that he did not have authority to allow them to participate in the testing but that if any were indicted, at trial they could challenge the way the testing was done.

Olympic maintains the rupture was caused by a construction company hired in the mid-1990s by the city of Bellingham to install water pipes in the area of the pipeline. Construction crews gouged Olympic's pipe, making it susceptible to a pressure surge, Olympic's attorneys say.

Olympic is seeking to make the company a third-party defendant in a wrongful-death suit brought against Olympic by the families of two 10-year-old boys who were killed in the June 10 accident.

Federal criminal investigators are looking into the possibility that the construction caused damage, but they also are examining Olympic's inspections of the pipe.

After the water pipes were installed, Olympic, during a 1996 test with a remote sensor that travels through the pipe, found a gouge on the segment of its pipe that ultimately ruptured. But at that time the company decided the gouge wasn't significant enough to investigate further by digging up the pipe.

Investigators also are looking at whether Olympic computer controllers' decisions and the suspected failure of a valve contributed to the rupture.

Olympic's training programs also are under investigation.


-- - (x@xxx.com), April 19, 2000


July 1999 news article.

"National alert from pipeline accident - Regulators urge review of computer systems" http://www.seattlep-i.com/local/pipe09.shtml

-- (SC@D.A), April 19, 2000.

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