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By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2007
White clouds of poison washed over eastern Hillsborough County last week, closing roads and closing schools, hurting firefighters and killing fish, chasing hundreds of people from their homes. All this terror from a boy with a drill.
The poison was ammonia. The ammonia was in a steel pipe, flowing east from a tank near the bay to a fertilizer plant in Polk County at a rate of 1,800 tons a day. Most of the pipe was underground or covered in a hard outer sleeve. But there was one section, about eight feet long, under the bridge on a bank of the Alafia River, that was unprotected. The boy seemed to believe it was full of money. The drill went to work. Kaboom.
The pipeline is operated by Tampa Pipeline Corp. and managed by a man named Glenn Howell. On Tuesday, I asked Howell why no one had done anything to keep meddlers away from that 8-foot section.
"There's no requirements for it," he said.
This surprised me, given the way we've changed since the towers fell. In a nation where we're told to remove our shoes before boarding a plane, could the security mavens in the federal government really have no requirements for safeguarding pipelines full of poison?
It was time to find out. Through some Internet research, I discovered that the U.S. Department of Transportation has a sub-section whose name suggests it would be responsible for such things. It's the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
I called up their press office, and near the end of the day a spokesman called back. His name was Damon Hill.
Do you have any regulations on pipeline security? I asked.
"We don't have any security regulations in our regulation book," he said. "That's now handled by the Transportation Security Administration."
All right. I dialed up the TSA and found a spokeswoman by the name of Sari Koshetz. I asked her about pipeline security with regard to the recent unpleasantness on the river.
"This week was a safety issue," she said, "not a security issue."
Really? So better security - or any at all - wouldn't have stopped the boy with the drill?
"There was no nexus of terrorism," she said. "Do we have regulations? No, we don't. There are guidelines, there are expectations."
"It's up to the private company to maintain a security plan," she said.
There had to be more to the story, someone else at the wheel. I decided to go to the top. I called the press office of the White House. A woman answered.
What part of the executive branch is supposed to be protecting pipelines full of hazardous materials? I asked.
She checked around and concluded it must be the Council on Environmental Quality. I was transferred. A man picked up.
Who's guarding the pipelines? I asked.
There was a pause.
The EPA, he said.
Are you sure?
Oh, he said. It actually might be the Department of Energy.
I'm not sure that's right, I said.
"Possibly," he said, "the Department of Homeland Security."
He gave me a number. I dialed it. I had already called them earlier, and now I spoke to the same woman.
Can anyone there talk about pipeline security?
She assured me that she had delivered my previous message, which was left hours before, and that the spokespeople had gotten it, and they might call back if they had the time. But they were awfully busy.
Now would be a good time to go back to the reason Mr. Howell of Tampa Pipeline gave for the failure to protect the pipe.
Not because it didn't make sense.
Not because it was too expensive.
"There's no requirements for it," is what he said.
Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3416.
[Last modified November 17, 2007, 20:06:54]