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On June 10, 1999, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, both 10, were playing in Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Wash., when less than half a mile away, a pipeline carrying gasoline ruptured, sending 277,000 gallons of gas downstream. No one knows for sure what happened next. It is surmised that as the gas flowed into the creek, one of the boys unwittingly flicked a butane lighter. A spark lit the gasoline, causing an explosion and fire that sent flames 200 feet high and smoke 20,000 feet above the creek. The fire burned a massive swath through Whatcom Falls Park and the creek, killing more than 30,000 fish. It also consumed Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King. “They were seared by the heat, cooked from the inside out,” says plaintiffs’ attorney David Beninger of Seattle’s Luvera, Barnett, Brindley, Beninger & Cunningham. Both died the following day. An 18-year-old fisherman was also killed; several other children were injured as well. The Tsiorvas and King families filed wrongful-death actions against the owners of the pipeline, Olympic Pipe Line Co., and Olympic’s owners, charging the defendants knew there were defects in the pipe but had failed to remedy them. The plaintiffs also sued a local construction company, charging it had run over the pipe with a backhoe while working on an expansion of Bellingham’s water treatment plant several years before the fire. The defendants agreed to pay $75 million to settle the case in March. ‘FRIGHTENING FACTS’ The fire in Bellingham was not an aberration, says Beninger. “People think it’s like lightning striking, that these boys were just unlucky.” But, he adds, in investigating the lawsuit against Olympic, “we learned some absolutely frightening facts about the pipeline industry.” Nationwide, he charges, many of the pipelines containing gasoline, oil and other petroleum products and natural gas are aging and beginning to deteriorate. “The oil industry says these pipelines can last forever, but that’s not true.” The pipelines at issue include interstate lines and local lines carrying petroleum products and natural gas. “Many pipelines are more than 50 years old, some are 75 to 80 years old,” says Charles Batten, former head of the pipeline investigation division of the National Transportation Safety Board, which governs pipeline accidents. Some cast iron pipes used in distribution systems, he says, are more than 100 years old. “I’ve seen situations where the carbon in the cast iron is all that’s left of the pipe. When you move it it just crumbles.” There is limited regulation of the industry, Beninger contends. “There is no requirement to do internal inspections of the pipelines. It’s almost self-regulated.” The Office of Pipeline Safety in the U.S. Department of Transportation covers enforcement and inspection of interstate pipelines. But, these federal inspectors “do not inspect the pipelines, they inspect the documentation created and maintained by the pipeline companies,” says plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Wolfe, of Mesquite, Texas’ Ted B. Lyon & Associates. Since 1986, says Beninger, there have been more than 5,000 significant accidents reported by natural gas pipeline operators and hazardous liquid pipeline operators. These incidents caused, according to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, a total of 1,508 injuries and 318 deaths. But the pipeline industry maintains that America’s pipeline system is generally safe. “Anything that involves explosions or deaths or injuries is extremely rare,” says Michele Joy, general counsel of the Association of Oil Pipelines. In the oil and hazardous liquids industry, she says, there are 200,000 miles of pipeline but only 100 or so reportable leaks per year. About one-third of these are caused by third parties, often by construction companies. The age of the underground pipelines is not a factor, Joy adds. “Steel will stay in very good shape if it’s maintained. If it’s regularly inspected, it can stay in the ground indefinitely.” “There are problems with some pipelines, but these are exceptions to the rule,” agrees defense attorney Gordon Shapiro of Dallas’ Jackson Walker. Given the amount of product moving by pipelines, he adds, “this is the safest method of transportation. The level of accidents is very low.” While attorneys dispute how widespread the problem is, there have been clear disasters with certain pipelines — followed quickly by litigation. � In July 2001, in Knoxville, Tenn., Jerrod Lyon and Charles Mynatt, both 16, were walking to church to play basketball, when one of the boys struck a lighter. The flame hit a leak of natural gas coming from a corroded underground cast iron pipe, setting off an explosion, engulfing both boys in a ball of fire. Lyon died a week later; Mynatt survived despite extensive burns. Unlike the Bellingham incident, there was little other destruction, just the charring of a nearby tree, notes plaintiff’s attorney A. Thomas Monceret of Knoxville’s A. Thomas Monceret & Associates.In a public statement, the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB), which maintained and controlled the gas line, called the accident “a freak occurrence.” But the Lyon estate and Mynatt sued the KUB, charging that the utility had actual notice or knowledge of the gas leak and that it had failed to maintain, inspect and replace aged pipe lines in order to save money. Lyon v. Knoxville Utilities Board, No. 2-571-01 (Knox Co., Tenn., Cir. Ct.). � In August 2000, 12 members of an extended family were camping on the Pecos River, outside Carlsbad, N.M., when natural gas began escaping from a corroded 50-year-old pipeline only 200 feet away. The gas ignited, setting off a fireball which engulfed all 12, says plaintiffs’ attorney Turner Branch of Albuquerque, N.M.’s The Branch Law Firm. The survivors of the 12 who died sued El Paso Energy Corp. and El Paso Natural Gas Co., charging failure to maintain the pipeline. The Smiths settled their case; others are pending and scheduled for trial in September. Smith v. El Paso Energy Corp., No. CV00-1251 (D.N.M.). � In July 1998, 50-year-old construction worker Juan Muniz was cleaning off a right-of-way area in Victoria County, Texas, when the road grader he was driving ran over a pipeline. The pipeline ruptured, the liquid gas inside ignited, and Muniz was incinerated, reports plaintiffs’ attorney Danny Tower of Corpus Christi, Texas’ Perry & Haas. The pipeline had been installed in the 1930s and was buried, in some spots, less than 12 inches underground. The pipeline owner was aware that the pipe was exposed or too shallow in places and had been notified of a possible leak, Tower charges, but Muniz and his employer were never even notified that the pipeline was present. This case settled in August 2001, on confidential terms. Puga v. Coastal States Gathering Co., No. 98-38348 (Harris Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). � In August 1996, Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone, both 17, were attempting to report a gas leak in her home, when their pickup stalled. As they tried to restart it, they ignited butane fumes leaking from an underground pipeline. Both teen-agers were burned to death. Smalley’s father and estate sued the owner of the pipeline, Koch Industries Inc., and won a $296 million verdict in 1999. The plaintiffs contended Koch had, through testing, found 583 corrosive rust spots on underground pipelines, but fixed only 80 prior to the incident, Wolfe charges. The case was later settled confidentially. Smalley v. Koch Industries, No. 51458 (Kaufman Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). Not all the incidents involve personal injuries. In March 2000, a pipeline owned and operated by Explorer Pipeline Co. ruptured and released more than 560,000 gallons of gasoline near Greenville, Texas. Heavy rains carried the gas from East Caddo Creek into Lake Towokani, which “happens to be the major single source of water for Dallas,” says Wolfe. The city sued Explorer, charging the pipeline had been corroded and that Explorer was aware of the corrosion. Explorer has denied any negligence. The spill was caused “by a latent manufacturing defect in the pipe,” says Shapiro. City of Dallas v. Explorer Pipeline Co., No. 00-09678 (Dallas Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). REGULATORY ROUTE In the lawsuits filed against pipeline operators, there are several basic claims, starting with typical charges of negligence. But, notes Beninger, the plaintiffs in the Bellingham case added some less traditional charges, claiming the defendants violated environmental and utilities regulatory statutes. These statutes, he says, have different burdens of proof, but proved favorable to forcing a settlement. The laws didn’t allow for punitives or attorney fees, he says, but awards could be enhanced through the damage provisions of the utility statute. “If the defendant knew it and didn’t report it, it’s willful.” With several of the cases, particularly those that have drawn substantial recoveries for the plaintiffs, a key to winning has been finding documents showing that the pipeline companies were on notice that a problem existed. In the Bellingham case, reports plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Luvera, “they were aware the pipeline had defects.” The plaintiffs were able to acquire internal memos that the pipeline needed to be replaced, he says. One of the most common defenses for these lawsuits is to claim that a third party caused the leak. But blaming third parties does not take a pipeline company off the hook, says plaintiffs’ attorney Homer Reynolds of Plano, Texas’ Siebman, Reynolds & Burg. Reynolds is representing the estate of a 62-year-old woman who burned to death after a sewer-replacement contractor cut a gas line. The line was not fixed; gas seeped into Lou Ann Sagely’s home and ignited. The gas company contends it is not responsible, that the third party created the danger. But, says Reynolds, the law “requires gas operators to inspect excavation activities, if there is a reason to believe that the excavation may cause damage to its pipelines.” That case is scheduled for trial in September. Sagely v. TXU Gas Co., No. 401-925-00 (Collin Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). To defend these actions, attorneys are pointing to the pipeline companies’ maintenance records. Explorer Pipeline, which has been sued in the Greenville, Texas, pipeline rupture, has been “aggressively trying to prevent these incidents,” says Shapiro. “Its maintenance and diagnostic program is state-of-the-art. The plaintiffs’ strategy is to second-guess. The defense strategy is to establish what [the company] could reasonably do based on the facts of the time.” El Paso Energy, which was involved in the New Mexico incident, has also been continually upgrading its pipeline system, says Nora Dunn, a senior vice president. The company has been using “smart pigs” to check pipelines for corrosion. Smart pigs are devices with sensors sent through pipes that assess the thickness of the walls of pipes.

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