Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Arkansas River pipeline blowout occurred on Sunday morning, cause still unknown

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2015 at 2:12 PM

BIG DISTURBANCE: This picture, taken at 9:40 a.m. Sunday morning, corresponds to the location of the ruptured pipeline. - TONY CASSADY
  • BIG DISTURBANCE: This picture, taken at 9:40 a.m. Sunday morning, corresponds to the location of the ruptured pipeline.

Based on eyewitness accounts, it appears the rupture of the auxiliary Texas Eastern Pipeline used to transport natural gas across the Arkansas River occurred around 9:40 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, May 31. However, neither the owner of the pipeline — Houston-based Spectra Energy — nor the U.S. Coast Guard became aware of the incident until sometime Monday, June 1, when Jeffrey Sand Company in North Little Rock called the energy company to complain about damage to a towboat it owns, the Chris M.

Clay McGeorge, president of Jeffrey Sand, wrote the Times today to say the Chris M. was tied up all day Sunday. "It was fine at the morning watch and damaged at the afternoon watch. No one was present at the time of the rupture," he said in an email.

Mike Metzler is a captain and general manager for Harbor Services, which contracts with the Little Rock Port Authority to handle barge traffic out of the port. Metzler said he received a panicked call from a boat captain at 9:40 a.m. on Sunday who said another boat had just reported a "huge wall of water" on the Arkansas River near the Clinton Center. The river has been near minor flood stage in recent days due to weeks of heavy rain.

"The captain [who] actually saw something said he didn’t know what it was. At first he thought the dam had broke. From where he was, about two miles [downstream], he no longer could see the bridges. He was terrified — just trying to make sense of what his eyes were seeing. He called us and said that this big wave of water was coming and we were all going to get washed away," Metzler said.

Then within a couple minutes, the turbulence dissipated and disappeared. Metzler said he drove down to the river that afternoon, but to his puzzlement could find nothing amiss. He and others talked about contacting the Coast Guard, he said, but decided against it because "we didn’t know what to tell them. Something had happened, but nobody knew what."

They considered the possibility of a pipeline breach, but that made little sense at first: "There was no oil pollution, and we didn’t see any bubbles." (We now know that no gas continued to bubble from the line because it wasn't in use at the time of the accident: Spectra said yesterday that the line was an auxiliary portion of pipe that is isolated from its main pipeline by cutoff valves.)

Then, around 6 p.m. on Sunday, Metzler received a call from the towboat operator at Jeffrey Sand. "He was all pissed off because he said some boat had ran over his boat and tore it all to hell ... He said, ‘they dumped a whole bunch of concrete on it.' " But due to the unsafe conditions of the river, there had been no barges or large boats operating in the area.

Metzler said there was concrete scattered across the deck of the Chris M, skid marks across the boat's surface,  and handrails and an exhaust stack knocked over. "The concrete still had the form of a pipe," he said, and parts of it were "covered in soot — I decided this thing must have been on fire." He is convinced the Texas Eastern exploded. "I believe a big piece of pipe blew out of the river and flew through the air," he said. 

Phil West, a spokesman for Spectra, said the company is still investigating the cause of the event, and can't yet speculate on what may have happened.  He did confirm that the Chris M. was not operating at the time it was damaged.

West said the company became aware of the incident on Monday. "[The operator of the Chris M.] called us, because they knew that our line runs through the area.". Spectra has not yet officially determined when the rupture occurred, but West said, "we believe it occurred on Sunday, possibly Monday morning ... we will narrow that window down for sure." On Wednesday, the company was scanning the river with sonar, but crews were still unable to dive into the water due to the current.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard out of Memphis said that they were notified of the rupture at 2 p.m. on Monday — again, more than 24 hours after the incident evidently occurred. 

Tony Cassady, a blog reader, sent in a picture he snapped with his phone on Sunday morning around 9:40 a.m. from his condo in the River Market Tower. He said he first heard "a loud roar that sounded sort of like a jet taking off," and looked out the window.

"My first reaction was 'oh my god, a plane has crashed into the river,' " Cassady said, before quickly realizing the water was being disturbed by something beneath the water. He said he saw "two huge water spouts gushing from the river just beyond the Clinton library ... As quickly as I could grab my phone and step out onto my balcony, I took a couple of pictures but by then the spouts had diminished somewhat."

He said he estimated the water had been bubbling for "a good 30 to 60 seconds" by the time he managed to snap the shot above, and the plumes of water were initially much higher. After another 60 seconds or so, he said the river "had pretty much died down."

"Looking back, I wish I had thought to call 911," he said. "I thought somebody at the Clinton Library would have seen it, but maybe not. When it died down so quickly, I assumed someone was taking care of it, but I should have called someone just to be sure. It really piqued my curiosity."

Here's a map showing the path of the Texas Eastern and other Spectra lines.

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