His hometown ‘blew up.’ Then he got involved

By Mike Lee | 02/03/2020 07:13 AM EST

When Carl Weimer first got involved with pipeline safety, there was no federal requirement that projects be inspected before being put in the ground.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, testifying before Congress in 2014.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, testifying before Congress in 2014. C-SPAN 3

When Carl Weimer first got involved with pipeline safety, there was no federal requirement that projects be inspected before being put in the ground.

That was before his adopted hometown of Bellingham, Wash., "blew up" in 1999 from a ruptured gasoline pipeline, killing three people.

Weimer has gone on to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, one of the nation’s most vocal nonprofits dedicated to educating the public about pipeline safety, emerging as a critical voice on the issue and a regular face on Capitol Hill. And while he’s seen both Republican and Democratic administrations implement regulations to protect the public to varying degrees, he’s worried that those safeguards could now fall to the wayside under President Trump.


"Now people are scratching their heads because Trump is perhaps trying to go the other way on some things that have already been passed," Weimer said. "They’re looking at all the regulations and seeing what to get rid of."

Weimer, a Michigan native, announced late last year that he was retiring and stepping down from his role as executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust after more than 15 years. His replacement, Bill Caram, is expected to take over as executive director in the second half of 2020.

For Weimer, the 1999 explosion was a pivotal moment. He had little experience in pipelines and safety, and there was no national group dedicated to the issue.

He spent the early part of his career establishing an environmental nonprofit, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, that worked on recycling and water issues and ran a store selling reclaimed building materials in Bellingham.

On the afternoon of June 10, 1999, a ruptured pipeline leaked 230,000 gallons of fuel into a creek that ran through one of the town’s parks and into the local harbor. When it ignited, a fireball raced along the creek for 2 miles, creating a roar that witnesses said sounded like a jet engine and sending a plume of smoke into the sky.

Three people died — 10-year-old Stephen Tsiorvas, 10-year-old Wade King and 18-year-old Liam Wood. Olympic Pipeline eventually paid $100 million in fines and damages.

Three years after the disaster — and after a natural gas pipeline ruptured and killed 12 people in Carlsbad, N.M. — Congress passed an overhaul of the federal pipeline safety system (Greenwire, Dec. 18, 2002). The 2002 law established an "integrity management" system that, for the first time, required companies to inspect high-risk pipelines.

In 2004, a federal judge set aside $4 million from a settlement with Olympic Pipeline to create a public advocacy group, which became the Pipeline Safety Trust. The trust was originally overseen by the families of the young people who died, and they invested the $4 million to create a long-term source of funding. Those investments are still the trust’s biggest source of income.

Weimer, who was already the director of SAFE Bellingham, an advocacy group that had sprung up in the wake of the explosion, would soon step up as the safety trust’s first director.

Today, the group takes a low-key approach to its work, building relationships in Congress and working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The trust’s website serves as a clearinghouse for data on the nation’s 2.7 million miles of gathering, transportation and distribution systems and the tangle of state and federal rules designed to keep them safe.

Weimer recently spoke with E&E News from the trust’s headquarters in Bellingham about protecting the public, climate change, the 2020 campaign and the Trump administration:

How big a role has politics played in either promoting pipeline safety or blocking pipeline safety improvements? Has there been bipartisan support, or has it ebbed and flowed?

It has been one of those issues that has been pretty bipartisan — nobody wants to be on the wrong side of a pipeline blowing up.

There’s a difference between the parties on how quickly they want to move on things. The oil and gas industry is so ubiquitous and so powerful in so many ways, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican; you don’t want to be on the wrong end of it. So you end up with kind of incremental steps.

In many ways, we were getting stronger and easier bills through the [George W.] Bush administration than we were able to get through the Obama administration. Now people are scratching their heads because Trump is perhaps trying to go the other way on some things that have already been passed.

What is the Trump administration doing? Is it trying to reverse what Congress has done?

They’re looking at all the regulations and seeing what to get rid of. They did slow down some of the rulemaking. The big hazardous liquids rule — the Trump administration grabbed it and pulled it back.

There’s an executive order out there now saying, "Thou shalt not create new advisory committees."

We’ve had discussions with PHMSA where they [have] been saying for years they’re going to create working groups or advisory groups to try to figure out how to move forward on things. Now, all of a sudden [they say], "We can’t do that; we’re trying to figure out what this executive order means."

Could the 2020 election change anything?

It’s too early to tell even who the Democratic nominees are going to be. I see some of them [Democratic candidates] making pledges about stopping fracking and pulling the Keystone pipeline out of the ground.

It’ll be interesting to see, if someone like that gets elected, how they’re actually going to do some of those things.

Certainly, some of the candidates who are running on the Democratic side are saying strong things about pipelines, which is pretty novel. Trying to get a presidential candidate to even mention pipelines 10 years ago was unheard of.

How much of that is due to the publicity about the Keystone XL pipeline and climate change?

I think that’s a lot of it. When we’re talking pure pipeline safety, keeping the products in the pipelines, there still are not a whole lot of groups or citizens involved in that. When you talk about all the involvement now, it really is more around climate change issues or fracking issues.

That’s clearly an important thing, especially when you start looking at natural gas and all the leaking methane.

That’s driving the presidential and even congressional politics. We see pipeline bills being held up now because of concerns that are more climate-related.

So, for you, this all began with the explosion in Bellingham in 1999. Where were you when that happened?

Our store was right on the banks of Whatcom Creek, right down where it comes into the bay. A customer came in and said downtown Bellingham just blew up. We closed up the store and evacuated, because after a while, they said there was gasoline in the creek, and we were standing within 25 feet of the creek.

Probably within a week, a bunch of citizens got together because the pipeline company was saying they needed to get the pipe back in the ground and operating again. That made no sense to anybody in town, because they had no clue why the pipe had failed.

So neighborhood associations, environmental groups, homeowners associations, lawyers got together for breakfast, and we formed a group called SAFE Bellingham. The point was to slow down the restart of the pipe until they at least knew what the problem had been.

Since I was director of an organization that had an office and had $5,000 in the bank and a copy machine, I became kind of the leader of that SAFE Bellingham group.

Were you surprised by the state of pipelines when you first got involved?

I think we were. There were lots of accidents around the country; the oversight was pretty minimal. At that point, you never had to inspect a pipeline once you put it in the ground. Now, for all the major types of pipeline, there’s some form of integrity management setup … for identifying risks and managing them.

What would you point to as some of the high points for the Safety Trust?

I drafted the part of the federal rules that deals with excess flow lines for distribution lines. That was just [a matter of] being in the right place at the right time.

I testified to the Senate Commerce Committee during the 2006 reauthorization. At that time, Frank Lautenberg [D-N.J.] was chair. He came down and introduced himself and said, "I was really impressed with what you said about those flow valves — if you can draft language in the next hour or so, I’ll make sure it gets in the bill."

I went to the local McDonald’s because they had free Wi-Fi; I called someone I knew at NTSB; and between the two of us, we kind of put together the framework of the language that ended up passing and has required those valves ever since.

Do you feel like there’s still work to be done?

Integrity management is a great thing, and theoretically, it’s very important, but if you look at the data, it’s questionable how well it’s working yet.

Everyone has kind of acknowledged, there need to be more tweaks to the system and maybe more specificity on what people do when.

2003 and 2004 were the beginning of the shale drilling boom. Were the feds ready for the influx of new pipeline construction?

I don’t think they were, and I think they would admit that.

Have you had a close alliance with the climate change groups, or have you tried to stay in your lane?

We try to stay within our lane — in the last five years, we’ve embraced some of that.

PHMSA and the industry need to start dealing with methane issues in particular, which are driving climate. Clearly, it’s related to pipeline safety, if you have methane leaking in the wrong place.

We get along with them [climate activists] fine — they don’t want to work on pure pipeline safety.

Since there are so many of them, we don’t spend much time on the climate issues.

I don’t detect any animosity there, just a difference in approach.

Right. Sometimes we get cross-threaded with some of the smaller groups because they see us working with the industry — they think we’re too close to the industry.

You’ve taken the long-term, incremental approach. How well has that approach served you?

I think it serves pretty well when you’re looking at the model we started with, which was really a purely pipeline safety approach.

People can argue about incident data a lot, but clearly, one thing that’s declining is how many people are being killed. I think our incremental approach on that has worked pretty well.

When you start looking at methane leaks and climate change, and, you know, we’ve got 12 years to save the world, whether a small, incremental approach is going to work on those issues I think is questionable.

We’re in an era where it seems like the loudest voices dominate politics right now — does that incremental approach have a future?

I hope we can adopt a different model where it’s not just the shouters that get the attention. You often get the shouters that are submitting comments on rules that are just copied and pasted from somewhere else.

You hear it from the people on the streets on the environmental side.

You certainly hear it from the big companies, too, who think there’s a moral imperative to expand the use of natural gas.

There’s always an argument that companies will flout the rules until the penalties are harsh enough to make them stop. Do you buy that argument?

We kind of embrace both the carrot and the stick.

If you look at our congressional testimony, we’re always testifying that you need to rise the fines; you need to change the criminal laws, so people can be prosecuted more easily; you need to reduce the reporting requirements, so incidents kick in sooner.

I think that does move the industry along.

The other comparison that you always hear is the airline industry, where there’s a lot more federal oversight and the goal is to get to zero incidents. Why haven’t the government and industry gone in that direction?

That’s kind of the direction we see the pipeline industry going now. They embraced safety management systems. It’s a recommended practice at this point, which is to a grand degree that’s based off their airline industry.

They’re looking now at safety culture — creating a voluntary information-sharing system which comes straight from the airline industry.

If there is this long-term transition away from oil and gas and fossil fuels in general, does that solve the pipeline safety issue, or do we have to take care of them going forward?

I think we still have to take care of them. No one that I’ve found has tried to define what the transition means.

Whether it’s 10 years or 100 years, you need to maintain what’s in the ground. There’s probably a good argument to be made about whether we need to put new infrastructure in the ground.

But what we’ve got, which is 3 million miles of pipelines, needs to be maintained.

Looking forward, what are the needs?

There needs to be greater clarity on some of the regulations — I think we provided the industry with too much flexibility or wiggle room.

I also think the pipeline industry as a whole needs to start holding each other accountable. I think change can happen fairly quickly — if, all of a sudden, API [the American Petroleum Institute] or INGAA [the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America] start making comments like, "We don’t understand why this happened, either. This company clearly screwed up."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.