Florida Pipeline Breach Raises Questions of Accountability

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.

"We are not capable of monitoring every inch of pipeline," Rose said.

The company keeps surveillance cameras on its pumping and booster stations, he said. The point of origin at Port Sutton and points of destination at fertilizer plants are behind locked gates.

As for fencing on the bridge: "For over 25 years we've had a pipeline there and never had an issue."

Rose said company employees drive the pipeline daily to look for problems.

In the next days and weeks the company will see whether it can do more, he said.

"We will go through the pipeline inch by inch and look at these areas and see if there is anything else we can do," Rose said.

'Good Neighbors'

The company's office manager, Nancy Taylor, said residents affected by the evacuation can seek reimbursement - "within reason."

Residents living within the evacuated zone can bring original receipts for food and lodging costs they incurred to the company's office at 5802 Hartford St. in Tampa. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The number to call is (813) 368-6122.

The company will review the receipts before dispersing payments, Taylor said.

"This company is not saying we're responsible for all this; we're just trying to be good neighbors," she said.

No decision has been made about reimbursing the businesses located within the evacuated zone that were closed during the emergency, Taylor said.

"It would be a difficult problem to prove how much money they would have lost, but it's not out of the question," she said. "We will definitely take a look at it."

Costs Unknown

Aside from the teenager, who had ammonia burns, no one was seriously injured. A handful of firefighters were treated for breathing problems Monday night, but they were released from the hospital by Tuesday morning.

It is too early to start tabulating the cost to the county, said Steve Valdez, county spokesman.

"It is going to be astronomical, and it is still mounting," he said.

Valdez said there are expenses from various county departments that responded, such as the sheriff's office, fire and rescue and public works.

"We've been in the mode of getting the bodies out and signing off on their overtime slips," he said. "An accounting will come later."

The Florida Department of Transportation also sent crews; first to check whether the bridge was sound and then to help keep traffic moving once it was closed. Kris Carson, FDOT spokeswoman, estimates her department's costs will be about $20,000 and that the state expects to be reimbursed by the pipeline's owner.

There was little financial cost to the Hillsborough County school district, said Linda Cobbe, a school district spokeswoman.

She said keeping Riverview Elementary School open as a shelter would be picked up by the American Red Cross and that the effect to the district's bus system was minimal.

The school was to reopen today for classes. Cobbe said no make-up days were expected because the district already had leeway in the school calendar. The two private schools, The Center Academy and Children's First Academy, also were to reopen today.

Environmental Impact

The 7.2 million gallons of water sprayed by firefighters over about 40 hours absorbed the ammonia and kept the toxic cloud in a protective envelope.

The Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission got lab results Wednesday on water samples taken by scientists. The tests showed high levels of ammonia in the Alafia River about a half mile from the leak. That's not good, because ammonia contains nitrogen that can form algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water.

The tests showed ammonia levels at between 2.1 to 3.1 milligrams per liter.

"Our typical readings are about one-tenth to one-twentieth of that," said Tony D'Aquila, EPC environmental resources manager. "That gave us some concerns about the impacts on marine life."

Electronic tests taken Wednesday, which yield more immediate results, showed that previous high pH levels in the river had returned to normal. The pH level in water indicates whether it is acidic or alkaline. High pH can be indicative of high levels of ammonia.

"If the pH is back to normal today, you could jump to the conclusion that the ammonia is back to background level where it should be," D'Aquila said.

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