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Judge Says He Lacks Authority to Prevent Reopening of Fuel Line

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Tuesday rejected a bid by San Bernardino officials to block the reopening of a gasoline pipeline that ruptured and sparked a deadly fuel fire here last week, concluding that he lacked jurisdiction to issue the order.

The ruling by Judge Ben Kayashima means the Calnev Pipe Line Co. may resume pumping gasoline through the ravaged Muscoy neighborhood in west San Bernardino as soon as repairs to the line are completed and approved by federal inspectors.

“Once we get the green light, we’ll flip the switch,” said Charles Diamond, an attorney representing Calnev. Diamond said pumping on the line, which serves Las Vegas and several Air Force bases, could resume within the week.

Reaction to the judge’s decision was swift and angry among the dozen residents who attended the afternoon hearing. Some left the courtroom in tears while others accused pipeline company officials of placing their wallets ahead of their concern for public safety.

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“How can this be? How can this be?” Ruby Self, a 26-year resident of the devastated neighborhood, murmured repeatedly after the hearing. “The powers that be are more concerned about gasoline than about the lives of citizens.”

Like others displaced by the fire and a derailed train that flattened a row of homes just two weeks earlier, Elizabeth Courtney complained bitterly that she and her neighbors were being mistreated because of their low-income status.

“If this were Beverly Hills, you know they would shut down that line,” Courtney said. “But since it’s just us working people, they figure they can just run the gas on through again.”

City officials vowed to carry on their legal battle and to be back in court June 14 seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the pumping pending further litigation. But they concede the odds that they will prevail are slim.

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“We are in a heck of a quandary,” City Atty. James Penman said. “But we have to keep fighting because no one will give us assurances that it is safe for our citizens to return. So what do we do? Keep them out? Where do they go?”

The 14-inch steel fuel line, which parallels the railroad tracks along Duffy Street and lies four feet underground, ruptured Thursday morning, dousing surrounding homes in a shower of flaming fuel. Two people were killed and 31 injured in the inferno, and 15 homes were destroyed or damaged.

The eruption occurred 13 days after a runaway Southern Pacific train derailed at a curve, killing two trainmen and two children and burying a block of homes in a pile of twisted steel and rubble.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating both incidents. Among the key questions is whether the freight train damaged or weakened the gasoline line, making it vulnerable to the high pressure needed to pump 2.7 million gallons over Cajon Pass each day.

The city has asked the company to relocate the line to the west side of the railroad tracks. The realignment would place a 20-foot-high embankment between the fuel pipe and homes, but Calnev officials have said the relocation would cause a lengthy interruption of service.

“The bottom line is the line was initially adjudicated to be safe in its current location, and there is no reason to move it,” Diamond said.

In court Tuesday, San Bernardino Assistant City Atty. Diane Brue argued that the city would suffer irreparable harm if pumping resumed and asked for court intervention to ensure that Calnev officials complied with safety standards in repairing the pipe.

But Judge Kayashima ruled that the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act of 1979--a federal law--denied the state authority in such matters and preempted him from intervening.

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Residents who attended the hearing were in no mood to listen to the jurist’s legal reasoning.

“How can they do this to us?” said a trembling Mary Madrid, who raised five children in her Adams Street home and has been prescribed tranquilizers to deal with stress from the fire. “They say the people in Las Vegas need gasoline. Well, how about us? We lost our homes, our babies, and now they want to start that pipeline running again. It’s just not fair.”

Although San Bernardino fire officials have told 30 families on the outskirts of the charred neighborhood that they can return home, only 13 had chosen to do so by midday Tuesday. The remaining 150 or so families are scattered in motels around the Inland Empire, uncertain of their fate.

Roger Stacker has been living with his family at the Victory Motel since Thursday. His wife is shaken and cries easily these days, and his children toss and turn and talk in their sleep.

“We have four kids under 12, and we’re all piled into this motel room,” Stacker said. “My 10-year-old daughter is talking in her sleep, saying, ‘Get out! Get out!’

“I don’t want to take them back in there. It’s not safe.”


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