March 7, 2012 / 10:29 PM / in 7 years

Late-night car race that caused pipeline fire rare, not unique

CHICAGO, March 7 (Reuters) - The fatal wee-hours car race that sent a 2002 Ford Mustang careening into a major oil pipeline in Illinois at the weekend was a freak occurance, although vehicular accidents have caused other pipeline spills.

The accident occurred in an industrial zone of New Lenox township south of Chicago after the car, apparently racing with another, spun out of control and smashed through a chain-link fence before ramming into the pipeline operated by Enbridge Inc. , spilling 20,000 gallons of crude oil.

Preliminary reports indicated that driver of the Mustang was racing a 2006 Chevy Trailblazer, and both were “traveling at a high rate of speed,” said Kathy Hoffmeyer of the Will County Sheriff’s office that investigated the accident.

The accident was rare but not unprecedented.

Pipeline incidents involving vehicles other than excavators working in the area totaled 2.2 percent of 10,276 such incidents reported to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) from 1992 to 2011, according to the agency’s data.

Those incidents were responsible for 13 of a total 384 fatalities, the data show. The biggest cause of fatalities was excavation near pipelines, accounting for 38 percent.

Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes fuel transportation safety, said there should be better safety standards governing how closely a pipeline can be sited near a busy road, but he did not see any particular remedies that would have prevented the accident in New Lennox.

“This accident is kind of an anomaly,” Weimar said.

New Lenox Fire Chief Jon Mead, one of the first to arrive at the scene, said the vehicle hit an area of the pipeline used to launch remotely controled mechanical devices called pigs that check the pipes for safety or clean them.

“There was fire everywhere,” he said. He worked alongside about 20 firefighters and three tankers with 3,000 gallons of water each to fight the fire. “There were puddles of fire.”

“A fire at the pipeline that size is a rarity. We had it under control in about half an hour and it was put out after two hours,” said Mead, a 30-year veteran of the department.

The clean-up operations were continuing around the clock, with boxes of contaminated soil being removed from the scene on Wednesday, while nearby wells and air quality were being monitored, said Maggie Carson of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

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