WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department said Tuesday it has fined the El Paso Corp. and a Colorado subsidiary $2.3 million for safety violations in connection with a pipeline explosion in Wyoming three years ago that killed one worker and sent a giant fireball hundreds of feet into the air.
The fine is the largest it has levied against a pipeline company, the department said. The department initially proposed fining El Paso $3.3 million, but lowered the fine after an administrative appeal by the company.
On Nov. 11, 2006, a bulldozer working on construction of the Rockies Express Pipeline project struck and ruptured a buried 36-inch natural-gas pipeline owned by an El Paso subsidiary. The rupture caused an explosion and fire that scorched 600 acres. The bulldozer operator — Bobby Ray Owens Jr., 52, of Louisiana — was killed.
The accident took place southwest of Cheyenne about two miles north of the Colorado border in a rural area with no structures nearby.
An investigation by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found the pipeline hadn’t been located and marked according to federal safety regulations, the department said.
“Federal requirements are in place to provide protections for America’s most important assets, its citizens,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “The Department will hold pipeline operators accountable for the safety of those who live and work in the vicinity of their systems and negligence will not be tolerated.”
The department said it has also ordered El Paso to:
• Revise its procedures for making construction records, maps and operating history available to workers who might need them.
• Require managers or supervisors to conduct unannounced reviews of work performed by El Paso line locators to ensure procedures are being followed.
• Train managers and supervisors on surveillance procedures and improve their ability to understand and intervene in unsafe or hazardous situations.
Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for the Houston-based El Paso, said the company takes issue with the amount of the fine, but said El Paso has great respect for the department’s exhaustive work and guidance in pipeline safety. Wheatley said the accident spurred El Paso into developing an industrywide protocol for parallel construction of pipelines sharing the same corridor.
“Protecting our pipelines against third-party damage and encroachment is critical. Third-party damage is the leading cause of pipeline incidents,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley said federal officials failed to take into account errors on the part of construction company laying the pipeline or the complexity of the incident. Owens worked for Associated Pipe Line Contractors Inc. of Houston, a company hired to work on the Rockies Express pipeline.
The 1,663-mile Rockies Express pipeline carries gas from energy-rich areas of Colorado to the Midwest. At the time, the pipeline was being laid parallel to an existing El Paso pipeline.
El Paso has since developed better procedures in cooperation with the Interstate Natural Gas Association, an industry trade association, for identifying and marking existing pipelines and sharing that information with other companies, Wheatley said.
“We remain committed to pipeline safety,” Wheatley said.