Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion Renews Fears Among Homeowners in Subdivision Near St. Louis

Though natural gas pipeline explosions like the one that leveled a neighborhood and left several people dead in San Bruno, Calif., Sept. 9 are rare, having petroleum product and natural gas pipelines running through her yard still makes Shelley Miller of St. Peters, Mo., nervous and scared.

“I started shaking from the inside out,” said Miller, 47, describing how she felt upon watching initial news reports about the blast.  “The first thing I thought was, ‘That could be us.’”

When Miller says “us,” she’s not just talking about members of her immediate family.  Instead, she’s referring to more than 75 of her neighbors who have pipelines running through their properties in the sprawling Brookmount Estates subdivision in the St. Charles County community of 58,000 located a few miles west of St. Louis.

Miller and her husband Ray bought their modest three-bedroom home in the winter of 1993 and moved into it in January 1994.  At the time, they had one small child and no idea that any pipelines were running through their backyard.  It was during the fall of 1995 that they learned they had a fuel pipeline running a few feet below the surface of their backyard.

When Shelley Miller moved into her home in 1994, pipeline markers were not required.

During an interview at her home less than 24 hours after the California blast, Miller recalled how she found out about the existence of that then-unmarked pipeline.

“We found out that Williams Brothers pipeline had a pipeline back here,” she said, explaining that the company had sent letters to owners of approximately 75 other homes in the subdivision to notify them that the company would be conducting tests of a 9.5-inch natural gas pipeline.  Soon after the testing, company workers put a marker on Miller’s fence to indicate the location of the pipeline — less than 25 feet from the rear wall of her home.

“But I didn’t think too much about it,” she said, adding, “It’s a residential neighborhood in a populated city.”

Her fears increased during the fall of 2003 after a man from Explorer Pipeline Co. of Tulsa, Okla., came to her home.

The man, Miller explained, asked if he could see her backyard to get an idea of where the trees were.  His company was going to be cutting down and/or trimming trees to make the easement more visible from the air for flyover-inspection purposes per guidelines of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.  That legislation stemmed, in part, from security concerns after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I brought him into the backyard, thinking that was the same pipeline company that I already knew was here,” Miller said.  Before the man’s visit ended, she learned Explorer owned a different pipeline in her yard, this one 24 inches in diameter and carrying gasoline, diesel and jet fuel at a flow rate of more than 14,000 gallons per minute at 825 psi.  Soon after the visit, she also learned she had two more pipelines — both owned by Conoco Oil Company — adjacent her yard that had been in the ground since 1931, bringing to four the total number of fuel pipelines behind her home.*

Markers are mandatory after passage of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.

After receiving notices from Explorer about the tree-trimming efforts, neighbors along the pipeline begin to talk and ask each other questions, prompting Miller and a friend to go door to door to take the pulse of the neighborhood.  In July 2004, they began airing their concerns during meetings of the City of St. Peters Board of Aldermen.  And they got results.

“They did take action and listen,” Miller said, noting that board members made some moves to improve the safety of the pipelines in the city.  For instance:

  • One new ordnance stipulates a minimum 25-feet barrier be maintained between newly-constructed housing and existing gas and/or hazardous liquid pipelines;
  • A second ordnance requires the city be notified of any excavation near fuel or hazardous liquids pipelines; and
  • A third requires disclosures be made in connection with real estate transactions involving property located along such pipelines.

While the board members’ actions have done much to assist future and prospective homeowners along the pipeline and throughout the city, Miller thinks more needs to be done to help people who purchased property near the pipelines in the past without being informed about the pipeline’s existence.  After all, it was the actions of city officials in 1971 that lead to the current situation, according to Miller.

Miller has collected stacks of documents while educating herself on the pipeline issue.

“In 1971, Charlie Adams was a big developer in St. Charles County,” Miller explained.  “It turns out that Charlie Adams was not only the developer, but Charlie Adams was also the chairman of St. Peters’ planning and zoning (commission) at the time.”  Though city records fail to reflect any formal approval of the Brookmount Estates development plan by members of the commission after it was presented for consideration Nov. 10, 1971, the fact that the subdivision stands today indicates the plan received no less than tacit approval of the city.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that documents obtained by Miller show Adams, through his company R.G.S. Construction, also signed a right-of-way agreement with Explorer Aug. 6, 1971, nearly three months before the commission meeting.**  That agreement made it possible for Explorer to run the pipeline through the subdivision before homes were built there.

Though Miller doesn’t think any laws were violated when development plans for Brookmount Estates made it through the city’s planning and zoning commission, she said she believes bad moral decisions were made and that city officials should right the wrong that happened almost 40 years ago.

“Their predecessors were responsible and, just as a president assumes the previous president’s mess,” she said, “the city aldermen do the same.”

Asked what she would like to see happen in St. Peters in the wake of the California disaster, Miller didn’t mince words.

“I would like to see every homeowner walking into that city hall together and saying, “This is your mistake, you allowed this to happen, you permitted it to happen and, after having seen what happened (in San Bruno), we don’t want any part of it.  We want out.”

Miller points to a spot on a map where four pipelines converge in St. Charles County, Mo.

Miller noted that she’s aware of at least three other subdivisions in St. Peters are dissected by pipelines.  According to the National Pipeline Mapping System, at least a dozen pipeline companies operate in St. Charles County, and many of those pipelines carry product from the Wood River Refinery in Roxana, Ill., 40 miles to St. Peters and points west.  That means the issue of pipeline safety isn’t limited to St. Peters, and it isn’t going to go away soon.

More to come…

Editor’s Notes: *Originally installed to carry crude oil, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, the 9.5-inch natural gas line in Miller’s backyard is no longer owned by Williams Brothers.  Now, it is owned by Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline, Inc., of Owensboro, Ky.  **I attempted to locate Adams for comment.  Along the way, I was told by more than one source — but could not confirm — that he had passed away.  According to the Missouri Secretary of State’s web site, his company ceased operations in 1983.

7 thoughts on “Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion Renews Fears Among Homeowners in Subdivision Near St. Louis

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion Renews Fears Among Homeowners in Subdivision Near St. Louis | Bob McCarty Writes -- Topsy.com

  2. It is shame that these folks are living next to very large and potentially dangerous pipelines. However, the pipeline(s) easements would be declared in the legal description of the property. Most buyers do not read this. Read the small print. If you do not understand it find someone who does. If it’s not, use your title insurance. Home buyer beware. Do not trust the real estate agent to be knowledgeable in these matters; they only want to sell a house.
    Sounds to me like Miller and others made bad purchase decisions and want a bailout.

  3. I’m confused. I want companies to be free to do whatever they want. I also want enforced regulations to reduce the risk of people being blown up in their homes.
    I don’t know if I’m a libertarian or a communist.

  4. As the son of a retired petroleum geologist, I’m the biggest pro-oil guy around. The problem I see in this situation is not one of “Big Oil” behaving poorly; instead, it’s that people who purchased homes in the subdivision, prior to the requirement that lines be marked, were not told about the pipelines by either the developer or the city.

  5. Help! We are fighting to keep Lake Washington School District from building a new 900-student middle school on a 23-acre site flanked down one whole side by the infamous Olympic Pipeline, the same one that killed 3 boys in Bellingham in 1999. The district is acting as its own lead and has declared no environmental issues exist! This despite Redmond Ordinance 2136 which states: “Locating schools and multi-family housing or facilities exclusively for elderly or handicapped near the pipelines creates compatibility issues. Avoid risk by not locating new schools, multi-family housing just for elderly, and other high consequence land use near the pipelines.”

    To make it all much worse, the property is surrounded by 6′ fencing and there’s only one exit spot — way at the front. I keep picturing the whole building up in flames with 1000 people trying to climb that fence. There’s no safe evacuation plan possible.

    Has anyone had any legal luck when dealing with entrenched special interests such as real estate developers, construction management corporations, school boards (itching to spend the $234 million we foolishly voted to give them to improve education!) and stupid parents sucked into the fantasy of a “beautiful new school”? It’s hard to believe that some parents care more about a school’s looks than its basic safety, and am just beside myself with worry. Thanks for any help anybody can offer us.

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