Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture Triggers Massive Mojave Desert Cleanup

A nasal-penetrating stench still rises from the sand a month after a ruptured pipeline spewed untold amounts of gasoline up to 80 feet high for hours over a patch of the fragile Mojave Desert.

Dec. 23—A nasal-penetrating stench still rises from the sand a month after a ruptured pipeline spewed untold amounts of gasoline up to 80 feet high for hours over a patch of the fragile Mojave Desert.

The Nov. 22 leak raised concerns among state, federal and county agencies because it occurred in an area known to harbor desert tortoises, a federally threatened species, and where groundwater is used by free-roaming cattle.

The potent gas, with cancer-causing ingredients, ate through creosote, salt bush and other desert scrub and sank at least 50 feet below the ground. The cause of the leak remains under investigation and pipeline owner Houston-based Kinder Morgan said it has yet to determine how much gas escaped the pipeline that runs from Colton to Las Vegas.

In the remote area between the copper-hued Soda Mountains and Interstate 15 west of Baker, gas streamed for 12 hours through a nickel-sized hole from a high-pressure pipeline four feet below the ground. It sprayed a three-acre area, tainting at least 7,500 tons of soil that are being removed by cleanup crews.

So far, none of the lumbering reptiles has been found near the site, said John Key, a hazardous materials specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who has been on site since the leak. Key also acts as the on-scene coordinator of several federal, state and San Bernardino County programs. The closest burrow where a tortoise could be hibernating, Key said, is about a mile away.

So far, tests show the gas has not sunk deep enough to taint groundwater that is used by cattle in the remote desert area and is connected to the Mojave River.

Still, rancher Tom Wetterman rounded up his 42 mother cows to move them away from a well within a mile of the leak site. Some are giving birth, he said.

"I've got them drinking on the back side five miles away," Wetterman said.

A biologist hired by pipeline owner Kinder Morgan tried to prevent any reptiles from being run over; she used a rake to flatten parts of berms raised above either side of a dirt road where 30 truck loads of tainted sand are being transported each day to a company in Adelanto.

"If they were to get down in there, they'd have a way to get out," Heidi Sickler said of the tortoise and other wildlife. So far, she's only seen jackrabbits, she said.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wary of the possible harm to the tortoises, inspected the site and suggested cleanup crews look under heavy construction equipment before moving them in case any reptiles wandered beneath them.

Judy Hohman, a supervisory biologist with the wildlife agency, also said she was concerned about any impacts to migratory birds that may land at the site. Key said cleanup crews each night covered a large pile of tainted sand to avoid any wildlife from coming in contact with it.

Because of the widespread impacts, the federal wildlife agency may pursue a so-called natural resource damage assessment that can lead to a monetary settlement for restoration efforts

"It looks at any injury as a result of the spill, which could be habitat impacts or water quality," said Denise Steurer, a regional environmental contaminant coordinator for the wildlife agency.

Two massive bulldozers last week continued to take huge gulps out of a mountain of tainted sand that piled up to 12 feet high at one point, Key said. The cleanup, he said, could last until mid-January.

But, Key said, it could take much longer to extract gas vapors deep below the ground. Kinder Morgan is using vacuum-like hoses to suck up the vapors, which are then ignited and burned off. Only a small amount of gasoline has been pulled from the soil, Key said.

Key said the tainted soil will be replaced with fill from a Barstow quarry. The area may then be reseeded with native plants, he said.

The section of the pipeline that ruptured was taken into custody by the California Department of Fish and Game and sent to a metallurgy lab in Menlo Park to be tested for stress and corrosion, said Dana Michaels, a spokeswoman for the agency's Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

"Based on the way the pipe looked," she said, "they said it probably was not Kinder Morgan's fault, but they're not sure."

The pipeline was built in the early 1970s, said Larry Pierce, a Kinder Morgan spokesman.

At the time of the rupture, the pipeline was carrying gasoline to Las Vegas from Colton. Some diesel, which was being transported earlier, also escaped, Key said. A parallel eight-inch pipeline was carrying jet fuel and did not break, Key said.

The company has been under fire lately, having been fined $157,500 earlier this month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to conduct emergency drills at its Sparks, Nev., petroleum storage facility.

The company denied the allegations.

Last April, a ruptured Kinder Morgan pipeline spilled more than 100,000 gallons of oil into a marsh near the Northern California city of Suisun, the EPA said. And last year, roughly 32,000 gallons of oil was released near Tucson, Ariz., from a corroded pipeline, the EPA said.

Kinder Morgan also owns the tank farm on the Colton-Rialto border where underground pollution containing a suspected cancer-causing chemical is moving toward two drinking-water wells. A system to clean up the pollution recently failed.

The company said it is working on fixing the problems, Pierce said recently.

Kinder Morgan and its subsidiaries operate more than 25,000 miles of oil pipelines nationwide.

The company transports more than 2 million barrels per day of gasoline and petroleum products.

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© 2004, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.