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When a Pipeline Breaks 

A recent drop in pressure in a pipe that carries diesel has locals scrambling.

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When pressure drops in a gasoline and diesel pipeline, located in wilderness of North Idaho, does anyone hear it?

Yes, as was the case when the Yellowstone Pipeline lost pressure last week, launching ConocoPhillips, its owner and operator, into emergency mode.

After more than a week of tests, no leaks have been discovered in the Yellowstone Pipeline, which runs from Thompson Falls, Mont., to Spokane. The cause of the pressure drop has yet to be discovered, but the company has gotten the go-ahead to restart the line.

After isolating a five-mile section between Cataldo and Enaville, Idaho, the company did a number of tests. Instruments were sent in while fuel was still in the line to check from the inside out. The fuel was drained and the line was filled with water, at one point to maximum pressure for eight hours.

“It held the pressure,” says Jeff Callender, a spokesman with the company. “And we’ve checked all of our instruments and all are working.”

For a week, the company had around 75 emergency personnel monitoring the line’s river crossings 24 hours a day.

“They’ve walked the line all they way from Prichard to Cataldo. They’ve done some aerials also,” says Sandy Von Behren, Kootenai County’s emergency manager.

But even with the positive news, Bart Mihailovich, the Spokane Riverkeeper, says it’s not good enough.

“I’m sure their response falls in line with what they said they’ll do,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s been adequate. I don’t think they’ve got information to the public. There’s been no official announcement about what they’re doing.”

Mihailovich says that a larger concern for him is the pipeline’s location on top of the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the region’s sole source of drinking water.

“Pipelines break. They’re faulty. It happens all the time. You’re seeing constant stories about this,” he says. “What are they going to do if it breaks here? Are they going to buy a bottle of water for everybody in the city forever if something happens?”

Marlene Feist, a spokesman with the city of Spokane, says the city is in the “final negotiation stages” of a contract with ConocoPhillips, which would allow them to maintain the pipeline over the aquifer for another 25 years.

“One of the final issues is appropriate and adequate insurance coverage,” she says. “We are monitoring how responsive they are to the community [concerning the recent leak]. It informs our decision-making.”

Feist says the city is “working with the Riverkeeper on this,” and that the city has plans to meet with someone from the organization soon to discuss the pipeline and other issues.

“No. I have no idea what that’s about,” says Mihailovich. “There’s no meeting about this at City Hall at all.”

But he’s willing to be heard.

“I don’t know what kind of insurance would make me feel secure,” he says. Asked what would make him feel secure other than moving the pipeline, he said there’s plenty to be done.

“They could move the [drinking water] wellheads further from the pipelines. We could have stronger third-party inspections,” he says. “Aside from simply not having a pipeline … there are some safety precautions they can put in place.”

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