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Gas pipeline puts "hot zone' through Land O'Lakes

Linda Winchester can't see the danger.

When she looks from her back yard in the Foxwood subdivision, all she sees is a serene cow pasture across County Line Road.

But she knows it's there, maybe 50 feet away.

The Florida Gas Transmission natural gas pipeline runs past her home and dozens of others in Foxwood on its way toward Interstate 75.

Chances are, she thinks, nothing will ever go wrong. Still, she worries.

"It scares me to death that I have to sit here and worry, day after day," Winchester said. "I don't dwell on it to the point that I make myself sick, but it is constantly on my mind."

Some fire officials worry, too.

Methane started flowing through the pipeline March 1. But Florida Gas still has not briefed the Land O'Lakes Volunteer Fire Department on some key safety equipment, Chief Wayne Kerr said.

That, he said, "makes me nervous as hell."

For much of its route through the Suncoast, the Florida Gas pipeline is restricted to isolated power line rights of way, railroad tracks and pastures.

Land O'Lakes is one of the rare spots on the route, pipeline officials say, where it comes near many businesses and homes.

In the heart of Land O'Lakes, it runs through Cox Lumber Co., past the Pinch-A-Penny pool supply store in Mariner Plaza, past Discount Auto Parts.

It's across U.S. 41 from two convenience stores with gasoline pumps. Not far down State Road 54 from the pipeline are two churches: Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic and St. Luke Episcopal. In nearby Pasco Plaza, there's a McDonald's restaurant.

The pipeline skirts a few strip shopping centers, Royal Lanes and the Club Paradise nudist resort on its way out of town.

How close is dangerous?

Within 200 feet of a pipeline explosion, Kerr predicted, anyone outside "would be history."

The damage would not stop there.

A house 300 feet away "might just burst into flame," said Amador Gonzalo, director of emergency services for Pasco County. The Hot Zone, the area in which a pipeline explosion on a calm, clear day would be expected to cause casualties and heavy property damage, runs at least 300 feet on either side of the pipeline.

Scores of central Pasco residents live or work that close to the pipeline. Tens of thousands drive past it every day.

Last year, a similar natural gas pipeline ruptured and exploded in Edison, N.J. It produced temperatures reaching 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Sand turned to glass. Windows shattered. Patio furniture melted. Apartment buildings caught fire more than 100 yards away.

The Land O'Lakes pipeline employs the latest in safety devices, which might prevent or mitigate the effects of any explosion.

But people like Cindy Albritton, whose family lives in a rental house on U.S. 41, south of the Dale Mabry apex, 10 feet from the pipeline, know they probably would not survive a blast that close.

"I don't really give it much thought," Albritton said. "But when I do, it's spooky. I just hope nothing ever happens."

Accidents happen

Pipeline explosions don't happen very often, but they're certainly not unheard of.

In the last 10 years, 2,709 accidents along 1.7-million miles of U.S. natural gas pipeline killed 229 people, injured 1,150 and caused $307.5-million in damage.

That averages out to about 270 accidents and 22 deaths a year nationwide.

Florida Gas has had 13 accidents in 35 years. The most recent, in March 1985, caused no injuries or deaths.

A 30-inch pipeline exploded near Interstate 95 in Vero Beach about 5 a.m., a time when few motorists were traveling the highway. There were no injuries and no reported property damage.

Pat Klinger, spokeswoman for the federal Department of Transportation, said pipelines are a much safer means of moving fuel from one place to another than trucks or trains.

When a pipeline does rupture, federal DOT statistics indicate, it is usually because someone working near the line gouges it with a backhoe or some other piece of heavy equipment.

Sometimes, this prompts an almost immediate explosion. In Colorado a few years ago, six motorists on Interstate 70 were seriously injured when a backhoe punctured a pipeline. A cloud of gas drifted across the highway and was ignited by electrical current in the passing cars.

In other instances, the pipeline is damaged but not punctured. If inspectors fail to discover and repair the damage, the high-pressure gas inside gradually weakens the pipe until it finally bursts.

That's what happened on March 23, 1994, when the Texas Eastern Transmission Corp. pipeline exploded near an apartment complex in Edison, N.J.

The Edison incident

Daylight returned to the Durham Woods apartment complex just before midnight.

A natural gas pipeline, which ran through a nearby asphalt plant, ruptured and exploded, sending a fireball into the sky that could be seen as far away as Manhattan, N.Y., about 50 miles away.

The National Transportation Safety Board traced the explosion to an incident about a decade earlier, when workers at the Quality asphalt plant inadvertently gouged the pipeline.

The blast created a crater 140 feet long, 65 feet wide and 14 feet deep.

Pipe fragments and rock chunks were thrown 800 feet. The gas, Edison firefighters said, most likely was ignited by a power line knocked down by the initial blast of pressurized gas.

The intense heat set fire to apartment roofs and damaged 250 vehicles in a parking lot 100 yards away. The roar and glow woke sleeping residents, who quickly evacuated Durham Woods.

"The radiant heat was virtually instantaneous," said Robert Campbell, deputy chief of Edison Township Fire Department. "As people would reach for their cars and touch door handles, they found the handles were too hot to touch. They saw patio furniture melting on porches and venetian blinds melting in windows."

About 90 people were injured. None died of their wounds, but an elderly woman with a history of cardiac problems died of a heart attack, apparently after seeing the 400-foot-high fireball.

Eight buildings were destroyed. Property damage totaled more than $20-million. The bill for the emergency response teams was $250,000.

The evacuation from the apartment complex went smoothly. But if the explosion had been 100 feet closer, the NTSB said, residents might have been trapped in burning apartment buildings. In that event, the report said, casualties might have been much worse.

It did not have as many safety features, but in other respects, the Edison pipeline was almost identical to the one that runs through Land O'Lakes.

Bethlehem Steel made the pipe segments. Class 3 pipe was used, the second highest of four grades. (Class 4 is used in big cities with tall buildings.) The diameter of the pipe was 36 inches.

The pipe in Edison was a little thicker, seventh-tenths of an inch, compared to five-tenths of an inch in the Land O'Lakes line.

What if

Friday afternoon. Rush hour. The pipeline ruptures at U.S. 41 and State Road 54, near where road crews with heavy equipment recently worked. The highly pressurized gas erupts and topples a power pole. That sets a live wire snapping, igniting the methane.

Boom!

At the very least, assuming it is a calm, clear day, heavy damage and injuries could be expected within about 300 feet in any direction from the blast, said Gonzalo, Pasco County's director of emergency services. (That's the Hot Zone, the yellow area in the map on Page 1 and the map of the Foxwood subdivision on this page).

If the wind is blowing, Gonzalo said, the heat might affect buildings as far away as 1,500 feet, depending on the direction and speed of the wind.

A gust to the northeast might torch parked cars and destroy the McDonald's at Pasco Plaza. The fire might spread to Florida Power's transformer complex behind the shopping center, knocking out electricity for thousands of central Pasco customers.

To the east, it could set the sheriff's substation ablaze.

To the west, two churches and scattered homes might burn, not to mention the woods and muck.

No matter which way the wind blows, the crucial intersection of U.S. 41 and SR 54 would be crippled.

Florida Gas officials refused to participate in the Times' exercise of defining on a map the area of greatest damage and injury. The Times' estimate was based on the Edison incident and estimates provided by Gonzalo, Kerr and Campbell.

"That's pure conjecture and speculation, and we don't want to get into that," said Elaine McCasland, spokeswoman for Florida Gas.

Besides, she said, not all natural gas pipeline ruptures lead to explosions.

True enough. Last June, a 30-inch pipeline ruptured near Culpeper, Va. The methane mix dissipated harmlessly in the air.

Of course, that pipeline was in a field, far from likely ignition sources such as power lines and automobiles, which are common in the densely populated Land O'Lakes corridor.

Safety in mind

Just because Florida Gas officials won't talk about the potential for disaster does not mean they haven't done anything to prevent one from happening.

They have.

The pipeline, which is buried 3 to 5 feet underground, can carry as much as 800-million cubic feet of compressed methane to 29 South Florida power companies _ enough to fill the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg about 50 times over. (None of the gas from the pipeline goes to Pasco, although Peoples Gas is considering a link to the pipeline that would serve central Pasco.)

The Florida Gas pipeline, which isn't even a year old, has several advantages that set it apart from the line in Edison.

It's newer. The Edison pipe was built in the early 1960s.

The pipe is higher quality. Although both lines are Class 3, before the explosion the Edison line did not have the corrosion-resistant epoxy coating featured on the Florida Gas pipe.

The most significant feature separating the Pasco pipeline from the one in Edison could mean the difference between a gas fire burning for two hours or 30 minutes.

Mike Teal, technical operations director for Florida Gas, works in Maitland.

Last week, he and McCasland met with a Times reporter at a "block valve" site at County Line Road and Cypress Creek, just south of the Pasco-Hillsborough line.

Block valves, spaced about three miles apart through the Land O'Lakes section of the pipeline, are equipped with computers that can detect drastic drops in pressure within the pipeline that would indicate a leak.

The gas inside the pipe is pressurized to as much as 1,200 pounds per square inch.

If pressure starts falling at a significant rate, the system automatically shuts down a 3-mile segment of the pipeline. That does not necessarily prevent an explosion, Teal said, but it does limit the amount of fuel that remains to feed the fire.

Campbell, the Edison firefighter, estimated that automatic shutoffs on that pipeline might have killed the fire in 30 minutes. Without the automatic shutoffs, the fire raged for two and a half hours while workers tried to manually shut down the line.

What else does Florida Gas do?

Workers in Houston monitor computers around the clock, looking for drastic pressure changes in the pipeline.

Workers are scheduled to inspect the entire pipeline twice a year, using electronic devices called "smart pigs" that are inserted into the pipeline to look for damage and defects.

Twice a week, Teal said, Florida Gas employees fly the pipeline route looking for new construction that might be close to the line.

After a heavy rain, they inspect the pipeline for erosion damage.

The steel pipe segments are coated with a special epoxy to resist corrosion.

"There's just a better steel, and a better quality of product than we've seen in the past," Teal said.

Two years ago, during the route approval process, Florida Gas acknowledged concerns raised by central Pasco residents by upgrading from Class 2 to Class 3 pipe through the commercial heart of Land O'Lakes, along U.S. 41 to the county line.

The company also gave the county $100,000 to buy new safety equipment, just in case.

"We're going to be here a long time and we want to be safe a long time," McCasland said. "It's in our best interest."

The company intends to send fliers to central Pasco residents, reminding them of the pipeline and its safeguards, McCasland said. Last week, she said, Florida Gas was compiling a mailing list.

Getting prepared

That $100,000 for safety equipment triggered a brief tug of war between the county fire department and volunteer firefighters in Land O'Lakes.

Eventually, each agency got half the cash.

The money means more equipment to cope with what could be one of Pasco's worst disasters, but it is a token amount considering the nature of the fire that rescue workers would have to deal with.

"You couldn't buy enough fire engines to put out the main fire on the pipeline," said Gonzalo, the county's emergency services director. "The best you could hope for is to fight the fires around the pipeline, rescue people trapped in cars and buildings, and let the gas burn itself out."

Another problem for firefighters: no fire hydrants along U.S. 41. County officials have estimated it would cost $500,000 to put them in.

Instead, firefighters would have to use pumpers that take water from lakes and swimming pools, or link to the nearest hydrant. When they battled a muck fire in Land O'Lakes a couple of years ago, firefighters ran a line almost a mile long to reach a hydrant.

Gonzalo and Kerr, the volunteer department chief, both expect they would get help from departments in neighboring counties, such as Hillsborough and Hernando. The Edison disaster involved about three dozen fire departments, Campbell said.

In two weeks, Kerr said, volunteer firefighters will learn how to fight hazardous materials fires, including natural gas pipelines, during a class at the station on Hale Road.

Tom Mock, assistant volunteer fire chief, said the pipeline poses a concern, but it is not the sort of thing he worries much about.

"We've got planes that fly over us every day," Mock said. "Are we worried one will drop on us? We train the best we can, so we're getting prepared in case something does happen."

Better cooperation from Florida Gas would make the volunteers' jobs easier, Kerr said.

Four months ago, during a public forum at the recreation complex on Collier Parkway, Florida Gas representatives said they would soon meet with volunteer firefighters. Presumably, they would talk about where to find the shutoffs and how to handle the initial response.

The gas started flowing in March; the meeting has never happened.

"It makes me nervous as hell that we've got a pipeline running gas through Land O'Lakes and we've got no idea where the automatic shutoffs are," Kerr said. "We should have had it a month before it got started, but it seems they really don't care because they've done their thing and the gas is pumping."

County firefighters and the disaster-preparedness department do know where to find the shutoffs, Gonzalo said. But he acknowledged that the volunteers probably would respond first to an accident and should have that information.

After an inquiry from the Times, McCasland, the Florida Gas spokeswoman, said representatives from her company should meet with volunteer firefighters this week.

Meanwhile, the county's disaster-preparedness director, Michele Baker, is working on a technological hazards evacuation plan that takes the pipeline into account.

Although the county doesn't have a specific plan yet, it responded quickly to a hazardous materials incident in Land O'Lakes in May. About 200 people were evacuated to the community center on U.S. 41 after unstable chemicals were found in an old shed.

The federal DOT resource manual, a handbook used in Pasco for dealing with emergencies, recommends in the event of a compressed methane leak that authorities evacuate residents within a half mile in every direction.

The county also has a computer program, called CAMEO, which enables emergency personnel to enter variables such as weather conditions, wind speed and gas pressure to determine how far a cloud or fire might spread.

Should disaster strike the Florida Gas pipeline in the near future, Baker said, "I think we'd do a good job of responding to it."

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.

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