Preparing for the worst
For a brief shining moment last week, Wilsonville was the center of the universe.
Not in terms of the place to be for great livability, as most residents think of Wilsonville, but as ground zero for disaster preparedness. An alphabet soup of state and federal agencies converged on the city June 26 to practice what they'd do if the unthinkable did occur — if the high-pressure gasoline pipeline that runs through Wilsonville burst.
Representatives from Kinder Morgan, owner of the pipeline, sat down with folks from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Tualatin Fire & Rescue, Wilsonville Public Works, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Transportation and others to perform a "table-top" emergency response drill.
According to Andrew Holbrook, Pacific Northwest operations manager for Kinder Morgan, the pipeline was laid through Wilsonville in 1962 and begins at a terminal and pump station on the Columbia River near Forest Park. The 8-inch diameter pipe then runs south through Tualatin, Wilsonville and to Eugene. It carries refined gasoline for storage in Eugene, where tankers distribute the fuel throughout central and southern Oregon and northern California.
"Oregon has no refined capacity, so pretty much all fuel has to be imported," Holbrook said. Much of the fuel in Portland is piped in from the Puget Sound area, he added.
The pipeline pumps roughly 40,000 barrels of fuel to Eugene each day at 1,400 psi (pounds per square inch) at peak pressure (closer to 400 psi by the time it gets to Wilsonville), a quantity that would require 186 tanker trucks to transport it if it was not piped.
The 57-year-old steel pipe — ranging in thickness between one-half and one-quarter inch — is inspected every five years using a "smart pig" device that is run through the pipeline capturing images and using radar, X-ray and other technology to detect corrosion or other weaknesses.
According to Holbrook, the only Wilsonville incidents involving the pipeline he was aware of occurred a couple of decades ago when a gravel pit company performing unauthorized digging ruptured the pipe.
One of Wilsonville's biggest concerns with the pipeline — and the reason City authorities asked Kinder to install an automatic shut-off valve nearby — is the possible impact to the city's drinking water, which is drawn from the Willamette River. Other communities get their water from the City's intake as well.
The pipeline crosses the river a minimum of eight feet under the riverbed and the city's intake facility is just downriver from the site. According to Scott Smith with the Oregon DEQ, multiple methods are used to contain oil spilled in waterways, including diverting the oil to a spot where it can be better collected, or by using floating booms to protect environmentally sensitive spots from oil in the water.
Smith was the event's "dungeon master" who organized the drill's scenarios and pestered the teams throughout the day with new manufactured challenges, such as a call regarding a missing child in the disaster area, reports of noxious fumes from area residents, and farmers asking if they should shut off their irrigation.
The drill aimed to be as "real-time" as possible, including having team members man the phones to find all the heavy equipment in the region needed for the emergency response and updating those lists as ordinary citizens rented them for the day.
Priorities for the Incident Command Protocol system, Smith said, is safety first (both for responders and citizens), then water contamination, then environmental impacts. When the pipeline was installed by another company more than five decades ago, Wilsonville was mostly farmland and residents received water from wells. On average, the pipeline is buried four feet under the ground when it travels overland.
Kinder Morgan is required to perform "field exercises" twice a year to prove to the DEQ it is prepared for emergency response. The table-top drills are required every three years.
On June 27, Kinder representatives met with city residents for a town hall-type forum, where fewer than a dozen citizens and about the same number of public officials and city employees listened to a presentation from the company about pipeline operations and voiced their concerns.
Questions concerned seismic implications, location, what homeowners should know, and how quickly the company can respond to an emergency. Attendees heard some good news. Wondering if the pipeline is buried in your backyard? Holbrook said you would know because the company is required to reach out to property owners every two years — and information about the pipeline should be in the sales disclosure for impacted property owners.
On the good news/bad news front, the company does not know exactly how a major earthquake would impact the pipeline. But there's evidence from past incidents that pipelines, which are flexible and able to move with seismic events, fare better than a lot of infrastructure.
Regardless, Butteville resident Greg Leo reminded attendees the "danger" would come from the Portland terminal, which is expected to be irrevocably damaged by a major earthquake, along with the other fuel storage tanks located on the Willamette riverfront in Portland. So the pipeline would, no doubt, not be operating anyway.
In terms of regular safety, Holbroook said the company flies the length of the pipeline nearly every week, looking for signs of leaks or damage. And there are "ditch riders" who drive to key points on the pipeline regularly to inspect the line in person.
Wilsonville homeowners Susan and John Schenk, who live in Morey's Landing, one Wilsonville neighborhood impacted by the pipeline, asked Kinder Morgan representatives about pipeline location and depth. The 811 "call before you dig" number was mentioned as a simple way to ensure you don't encounter the pipeline when excavating or planting a tree.
Another citizen asked how much fuel would leak in the case of a break and Holbrook said worst-case scenarios estimated 1,000 barrels if the shut off were not activated for 15 minutes, which he described as very unlikely given the sensitivity of the monitoring equipment.
Leo inquired about cybersecurity and was told that the operations software the company used was "not connected to the outside world at any point." State Rep. Courtney Neron expressed concerns about the number of communities impacted by the pipeline and suggested Kinder Morgan work more closely with the state of Oregon on communications and response.