PIPELINES

Hundreds evacuated as explosion in rural Texas renews safety concerns

MILFORD, Texas -- An explosion on a Chevron Corp. pipeline here forced more than 700 people to evacuate yesterday, and it could take another day before people can return home.

The explosion happened at about 9:30 a.m. when a Chevron crew was excavating near the 10-inch West Texas LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas, pipeline, according to a statement from the company. Details were sketchy, but the crew apparently punctured the pipeline and caused a release of liquefied petroleum gas. It wasn't clear what caused the gas to ignite, but the explosion could be heard for miles.

Lane Harris, an eighth-grader at Milford's one school, was walking across the campus with friends when it happened.

"All I heard is a boom, and you look up and there's black smoke and flames," Lane said.

The explosion was in a rural area about a half-mile from the nearest home, and there were no injuries. Local officials said several of the crew's vehicles were still at the scene and may have been damaged.

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Chevron cut off the flow of gas in the pipeline, and local officials planned to let the fire burn itself out, said Lt. James Saulter, a spokesman for the Ellis County Sheriff's Office. The fire and evacuation could last another 36 hours, officials said Thursday afternoon. Milford is about 50 miles south of Dallas.

The explosion was another reminder of the safety and regulatory problems that have plagued the U.S. pipeline network in the last few years. The country's 2.6-million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines is expected to expand by hundreds of thousands of miles to handle the increase in production. The U.S. may pass Russia to become the world's biggest oil producer by the end of this year, according to published reports.

The main federal regulator, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has been criticized for lax enforcement and a cozy relationship with the pipeline industry. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group, reported in October that PHMSA spends more money to send its staff to conferences than it does on travel to pipeline incidents (EnergyWire, Oct. 24).

PHMSA called the group's numbers misleading and said the report was "insulting" to its staff (Greenwire, Nov. 8).

A PHMSA inspector was en route to Milford yesterday, a spokeswoman said.

About 50 firefighters and emergency personnel from surrounding communities were standing by, said Ellis County Judge Carol Bush, who is the county's top elected official. Students from Milford's school were moved to classes in nearby Italy, and the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter in the local sports arena, Bush said. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tested the air in the vicinity but found no toxic fumes, a spokesman said.

Residents were asked to evacuate a 1½-mile radius around the scene, said Deputy Fire Marshal Josh Hibschman.

Chevron said it was monitoring a 14-inch pipeline near the fire.

Milford residents said they've learned to live with pipelines, which frequently run across private property and near homes and schools. Michelle Harris, who is Lane Harris' mother and has a pipeline across her farm near Milford, said she frequently sees crews from Chevron inspecting the pipeline from aircraft.

As for the potential danger, "You never think about it until something like that," she said.

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