Previous Blasts Sparked Changes : Flaws Remain in Pipeline Safety Regulations

Times Staff Writer

When Peter De Laat first heard of the fatal fireball that engulfed a San Bernardino street Thursday, his thoughts flashed back to June, 1976, when a wall of flames erupted in front of him on Venice Boulevard.

“Boom, an explosion. The whole block was doused with gasoline,” De Laat remembered Friday. “Now this. It’s almost identical.”

In 1976, nine people were killed and a block of businesses were leveled in the Culver City-Palms explosion after a gasoline pipeline was punctured by a bulldozer.


This week, three people were killed and 10 homes destroyed when a pipeline ruptured after a train wreck at the same site two weeks ago. The train derailment is being investigated as a possible cause of the gasoline explosion.

Prevent Recurrence

De Laat, a retired auto mechanic, said he wonders whether anything has been done in those 13 years to prevent such a recurrence.

What new rules, he asked, protect those who live near the state’s greatest concentration of petroleum pipelines--the 2,000-mile maze of major lines that run into and out of the 18 crude oil refineries in Los Angeles County?

State and federal officials charged with ensuring the safety of petroleum pipelines say the Venice fire and a pipeline explosion that destroyed nine homes in west Long Beach in 1980 have prompted a raft of changes in pipeline-safety regulations.

The cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach passed laws requiring annual inspections for leaks in most pipelines, and those ordinances have since been folded into state and federal laws, state officials said.

Flaws Acknowledged

They acknowledge, however, that serious flaws remain in those regulations. For example, state law requires that before excavators begin digging at construction sites, they must check with a central utilities clearinghouse to find out where pipelines are located in the area.


But builders who ignore the law face no penalty, said Tom Lael, one of five engineers in the tiny unit for pipeline safety in the state fire marshal’s office.

“There is no enforcement provision. There is quite a bit of non-compliance,” Lael said.

Also addressing the problem of excavation damage, which accounts for about 60% of pipeline leaks, the U.S. Department of Transportation this summer will begin requiring that pipeline operators notify companies whose operations pose a danger to pipelines where the lines are located, said Jim Thomas, deputy director of pipeline safety for the Transportation Department.

Inadequate Rules

Serious problems detecting the corrosion of the oil pipelines, which is the second-biggest cause of leaks, have also emerged despite new testing requirements, according to state and federal officials.

The National Transportation Safety Board warned in 1987 that federal rules are inadequate to ensure that corrosion protection systems on the steel pipelines are working properly. In response, the National Assn. of Corrosion Engineers is reviewing the methods being used to evaluate such systems. The association’s recommendations are expected this year, said Thomas.

One Mobil Oil Corp. pipeline that runs through the San Fernando Valley illustrates the failure of tests to detect corrosion, Lael said. Even though the line has been found to be secure when tested under federal standards, it has leaked at least six times during the last three years. Last September, thousands of gallons of gooey, foul-smelling crude oil leaked onto valley streets from the line.

Congress has asked federal regulators to soon implement stiffer federal rules for corrosion testing, Thomas said.


For example, one new rule will require operators of all new pipelines to make the length of the pipelines accessible to a camera and ultrasound devices that will be able to detect erosion of the inner walls of the lines, he said.

Another concern on the Mobil Oil line was the lack of pressure-check valves at regular intervals. Regulatory agencies have suggested, but do not require, that such valves be installed to reduce the amount of oil lost during a break, Lael said. But the federal Department of Transportation has concluded that such valves would be prohibitively expensive.

Though government’s decade-long push toward safer oil pipelines has been only partially successful, Lael said, federal and state studies have repeatedly found that shipment of oil through pipelines is far safer than the alternatives.

Federal figures show that between 1982 and 1985, moving petroleum by pipeline was about 50 times safer than moving it by truck and 135 times safer than by rail.

For example, Mobil estimates that to substitute trucks for pipelines on its troubled San Fernando Valley line, it would take a fleet of more than 600 tankers making round trips each day to carry crude oil from production fields in Kern County to its Torrance refinery.