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.
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.*
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.
“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 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.