3 lessons for fire chiefs from an oil pipeline break

The importance of preparation played out when a report of oil smell turned into a two-week-long response for an Ohio fire department


Question: Is your department located near an oil transmission pipeline? Let me rephrase that question. Does your department annually receive a notice of an oil pipeline safety seminar being held in your county?

If so, the chances are that you are located near one of these pipelines. Why? Because a quick search of the web indicates that there are over 55,000 miles of crude oil transmission pipelines and another 95,000 miles of refined petroleum transmission lines across the United States.

So, the chances are you may have one nearby and not know it.

Oil transmission pipelines can be anywhere from 8 inches to 42 inches in diameter. They have an excellent record of safety, and allow a variety of petroleum products to flow from oil fields or ports to refineries, from refineries to storage areas and storage areas to major hubs where the products are transferred to railcars or tanker trucks to their final destination.

The Colerain (Ohio) Fire – EMS has been aware for several decades that a major oil transmission pipeline skirted the western portion of their coverage area in Hamilton County.

The placards placed every half mile or so along the right-of-way not only cautioned of digging in the area, but also give the 800 telephone number for notification if something goes wrong.  

Heavy smell of oil
Late in the evening of March 17, Colerain's Engine 103, under Capt. Chris Ruwe's command, was dispatched for the heavy smell of oil in the area of a residence on East Miami River Rd. that runs parallel to the banks of the Great Miami River near its confluence with the Ohio River.

Initially, all the 103's crew could find was a small amount of oil in a creek bed that ran downhill about a ¼ mile away from the Great Miami. At first, the crew suspected that someone had illegally dumped waste oil in the creek. I'd suspect since it was dark, cold and muddy that most crews would have left it to that with a notification to the county EPA in the morning.

But the extent of the pungent smell indicated that it may be something more.

For nearly an hour, the fire crew and a Hamilton County Park ranger walked the creek uphill before finding a large pool of oil in a basin area. Capt. Ruwe requested Colerain's hazmat trailer with absorbent booms and "pigs" as well as Division Chief Brad Miller be dispatched to the scene.

Multi-entity reponse
Chief Miller, who has expertise in environmental emergencies, responded from his residence. Meanwhile the initial crew found the source of the oil as an approximately 5-inch crack in a 24-inch oil transmission pipeline situated on the hilltop above the river in a nature preserve.

Notification was made to the pipeline company, which then shut down the oil transmissions, and started a supervisor and crew to the scene from nearby Hebron, Ky. By daylight, not only were absorbents in place, but a small army of responders were being assembled using nearby Dravo Park as a staging area.

Representatives from Sunoco Logistics, the pipeline operator, U.S. EPA, Ohio EPA, Greater Parks of Hamilton County who was the property owner and Colerain Township initiated NIMS using a unified command structure. The Hamilton County EMA erected a three unit modular tent to act as a command post and to shelter the staff from the cold, snow and rain in the Dravo parking area.

Planning meetings were held twice a day to correspond with the operational periods chaired by the EPA's representative, Steve Renninger. Early in the operational periods, I visited the command post and observe the planning process. I had worked with many of the participants in the past including Mr. Renninger, who I knew had an inclusive, but no-nonsense approach at emergency incidents.

Enacting NIMS
While I had been a part of NIMS on several incidents including acting as the logistics section after an F3 tornado struck a nearby county, I had never seen NIMS used in a government/private industry setting.

I was very surprised, especially with Sunoco Logistics representative, Charlie Stewart, at his familiarity in the use of the system. I later learned that Sunoco had just completed a NIMS refresher the week before this incident.

The emergency response phase of the operation lasted over two weeks, and netted over 20,000 gallons of petroleum products from the creek and watershed. At its height, over 160 environmental contractors were used to clean more than a mile of creek and ponds from the site of the pipeline to the residences on East Miami River Rd.  

The pipeline crack was also sleeved in accordance with a plan approved by the Department of Transportation, and petroleum was once again allowed to flow.

Special care was also given to wildlife in the area. The creeks and ponds affected were home to several species of salamander that were awakening from hibernation with the change in temperature. These species, along with turtles and frogs were carefully collected, checked for any contamination and relocated so that they could spawn or mate without further interruption.

Three lessons
Currently, the site is in reclamation, a process that will continue for a few more months. In talking with Sunoco's Stewart, I was impressed with his concern. He told me, "We are a visitor to your community, and we will leave it better than it was before the leak."

So what are the lessons for fire chiefs? Here are three.

1. Fire officials shouldn't ignore an invitation to the annual safety training given by the pipeline companies to fire departments in the area.

2. The importance of practicing NIMS on regular basis can't be over-emphasized.

3. Prepare to have a fire department representative involved for the long haul. Colerain Fire – EMS chief officers were not only an integral part of the unified command, but the department also provided Capt. Steve Conn as the public information officer for the entire incident.

The actions of the initial fire officers and engine crew saved an environmental disaster to the area's water supply. Despite the adverse weather, had they not done a thorough investigation and made the proper notifications, this oil leak would surely have spread into the Great Miami River and onto the Ohio River impacting countless communities along the waterways. 

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