TAMPA — The price tag for last year's Riverview ammonia leak just got larger.
Federal transportation officials have levied $398,000 in fines against Tampa Pipeline Corp., the company that owns the anhydrous ammonia pipe that burst Nov. 12, forcing hundreds of people from their homes and businesses.
Sheriff's detectives blamed the leak on a 16-year-old boy who drilled into the pipeline, convinced by urban legend that it contained money.
"We strongly disagree with the penalties when we were clearly vandalized," Robert Rose, president of Tampa Pipeline Corp., said Tuesday, vowing to appeal the findings and the fines.
In a May 7 letter to Rose, an official with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration listed a dozen federal regulations that he says the company violated.
Most egregious, according to the report:
• The company insufficiently trained its people to handle crisis.
• It failed to coordinate with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue to ensure a timely and adequate response. (This alone resulted in $310,000 of the recommended civil penalty.)
Rose said he disagrees and intends to "vigorously" appeal the DOT's findings. "Tampa Bay Pipeline (an affiliate that is the subject of the report) has a fully trained crew," he said, as well as over a half-million dollars in specialized equipment to deal with disasters.
But according to one DOT example, the company had hazardous material suits for workers to wear during an emergency. But when federal inspectors conducted an on-site investigation of Tampa Pipeline, they could find no records to indicate any employees were trained in how to use them.
The lack of trained workers contributed to emergency officials' slow response time, the report states. Hillsborough Fire Rescue personnel would not let company officials enter the leak site because they were concerned Tampa Bay Pipeline workers didn't have the proper training and equipment.
"Anhydrous ammonia is serious stuff," said Patricia Klinger, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipelines and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. "They need to work with emergency responders and make sure they know what's in their pipelines and how to deal with it."
Rose said in 20 years, the company has worked very closely with emergency responders. "It's very easy for someone to come in after the fact and say, 'This should have been done,' " he countered. "At the end of the day, we did a good job — we fixed the problem and no one got hurt."
Klinger said Tampa Pipeline originally had 30 days to appeal the findings and the civil penalty, but requested an Aug. 1 extension.
Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley wouldn't comment on the fine, but said he agrees with the federal agency's list of probable violations and findings.
"They reiterated what we already knew," Yeakley said. In January, county emergency management leaders conducted an "after action review" of the incident, which resulted in many of the same findings. Responders have been meeting regularly with company officials since then to remedy the situation, he said.
"We're just concerned that if it happens again we are ready to handle it," Yeakley said.
The boy who drilled into the pipe has been charged, though state prosecutors have released no details because of his age.
According to Klinger, the Pipelines and Hazardous Material Safety Administration last year proposed $4.3-million in civil penalties to companies nationwide. This year, that total has exceeded 2007: $4.9-million.
"We all live and breathe by the pipelines that transport all the products every day," Klinger said, "and it's our job to make sure those pipelines are operating as safely as possible."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.