El Paso Corp. will pay a $15.5 million fine as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice and pipeline safety regulators related to a 2000 natural gas pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that killed 12 people. El Paso has also committed to spend $86 million to modify the 10,000-mile pipeline system that was part of the incident. 

The Houston-based company has already spent $225 million on methods to better monitor and repair internal corrosion, which investigators say was the probable cause of the accident. The pipeline modifications El Paso will complete as part of the settlement "will help to ensure that the severe internal corrosion that resulted in such a tragic accident will not be repeated," according to Ronald Tenpas, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Apparently, the agreement resolves all outstanding issues raised by government officials following the accident. It appears that Justice Department officials have decided not to file criminal charges. The accident occurred on August 19, 2000, when a 30-inch pipeline operated by El Paso ruptured along the Pecos River in New Mexico. The gas ignited, producing a 1,200-degree fireball, resulting in the explosion. The gas escaping from the 50-year-old pipeline burned for 55 minutes.

At the time of the blast, 12 people were camping out about 350 yards away, under a concrete and steel bridge that supports the pipeline as it crosses the river. The campers were killed and their three vehicles destroyed. Two other pipeline bridges nearby were also destroyed. All of the property damage caused by the explosion and fire totaled nearly $1 million. The probable cause of the rupture, according to investigators, was a reduction in pipe wall thickness because of internal corrosion.

Pipeline safety regulators believe a combination of microbes, moisture and contaminants such as chlorides, oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide caused the corrosion. To clean out such contaminants, the pipeline industry often uses mechanical devices known as "pigs," which typically feature brushes or scrapers inserted in a pipeline and are sent downstream with the flowing gas. The company has claimed this segment of the pipeline could not accommodate a pig because of turns and bends in it. Among the requirements of the settlement, El Paso must:

• Modify its system to allow for better in-line inspections of pipeline wall thickness;
• Collect and analyze liquid samples whenever a part of the pipeline is opened;
• Conduct annual reviews of the company's plans and monitoring data; and
• Develop a training program for corrosion control specialists and engineers.

Apparently, the company has already complied with many of the requirements and has reached settlements with families of the blast victims, including making a $10 million contribution to a Carlsbad foundation "for the benefit of the community." One other civil case against El Paso, brought by firefighters who responded to the blast, is still pending.



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