Florida Pipeline Breach Raises Questions of Accountability

Politicians demand full accounting for pipeline security


RIVERVIEW - Security for the nation's pipelines was highlighted by this week's major ammonia leak on U.S. 301. A U.S. congressman and a Florida state senator are after answers and accountability.

The toxic cloud that escaped through the punctured line prompted an evacuation Monday night of about 300 residents near the bridge over the Alafia River and forced one public and two private schools to close.

After being closed since Monday night, the bridge was re-opened to traffic shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday. Air quality tests ensured the area was clear of residual ammonia, and firefighters lifted the evacuation order.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says charges are pending against the 16-year-old boy who punctured the line with a drill. The boy, whose name was not released, was seriously burned over nearly 20 percent of his body.

The company that owns the pipeline has pledged to reimburse the affected residents and emergency responders for overtime costs, but Tampa Pipeline's gesture might not satisfy elected officials.

U.S Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said he wants information from federal transportation officials about security for the nation's 160,000 miles of aging pipelines that carry gasoline and other hazardous liquids.

Bilirakis took advantage of the Homeland Security Committee hearing to tell Edmond "Kip" Hawley, the assistant secretary of the Transportation Security Administration, that he will be seeking details about pipeline security.

"I want to let you know that I'm going to be contacting the TSA about the security of these pipelines, especially in the Tampa Bay area, and the role TSA is playing in their inspections and security," Bilirakis said.

"I hope that will direct the appropriate officials under your direction to take this matter very seriously," Bilirakis said.

There was no immediate response from Hawley.

Storm Rages At Company

At Wednesday's noon news conference, state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, expressed frustration over two leaks on the same ammonia pipeline in Hillsborough County. In 2003, the same pipeline was ruptured in the FishHawk subdivision, and the cleanup took 72 hours.

"Two times in four years is too many," Storms said.

She said she would work to bring accountability to the company that owns the pipeline, Sarasota-based Tampa Pipeline Corp.

Storms said residents and small-business owners have asked her for help. She said they had significant losses.

"We will hold this company responsible," Storms said.

She said she will ask that the issue be put on the agenda of the Florida Senate's next domestic security committee meeting.

Tampa Pipeline President Robert Rose said he has not heard directly from either elected official.

"The politicians have a full right to be upset and concerned," he said. "I'm upset and concerned, too, but [the vandalism] isn't because we didn't do our job."

"The company does everything possible to prevent accidents," including working with law enforcement and regulatory agencies, he said. "If some kid wants to make it his mission to drill into a pipeline, that's hard to stop."

Rose said the company improved security at valve boxes, where the first vandalism incident occurred, by installing heavier covers and securing them with thicker chains and locks.

The company's three ammonia pipelines total about 80 miles in length. Less than 1 percent of the lines are above ground and the rest are 2 to 3 feet below ground.

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