First responders review pipeline safety

BAXTER--Developing relationships with oil and gas pipeline operators and planning ahead were among the key points addressed in a pipeline safety event for first responders Wednesday.

BAXTER-Developing relationships with oil and gas pipeline operators and planning ahead were among the key points addressed in a pipeline safety event for first responders Wednesday.

Instructor Randy Leach presented on the topic at Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter to about 70 people, including police officers, firefighters, first responders, emergency managers and others with an interest in pipeline safety. Also in attendance were representatives from several oil and gas companies-including Enbridge, Centerpoint Energy, Viking Gas Company and others-and an official with the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety.

Leach said education and preparedness for local responders was very important, no matter how unlikely encountering a large-scale leak situation was. Leach spent 30 years in fire and EMS service in Kansas and said he had personally responded to various potential leak situations.

"There's a little bit of complacency we get," Leach said. "There's no such thing as routine calls. These incidents can change and grow for you very, very quickly."

Although there are 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States, more than 65,000 miles of which are in Minnesota, Leach noted responders are more likely to encounter calls involving local distribution and private systems than any others.


"Get to know the type of systems running through your jurisdiction," Leach said.

In approaching a potential leak situation, Leach said it's important for responders to use sight, sound and smell and to approach a scene with the assumption there is a leak until proven otherwise. This means evaluating wind direction and eliminating potential ignition sources, such as running vehicle engines.

If there is a leak, Leach suggested some relatively inexpensive and accessible options for temporary containment-particularly important to departments with smaller budgets in rural areas that might not have access to specialized containment equipment. To create a boom, he suggested snow fence and hay bales. Blocking drains can be done as simply as using a sheet of plywood and some sandbags, he said, and for storage containment, a series of pallets and a large tarp can form a makeshift pool.

The best source of equipment and knowledge though, Leach said, are local pipeline operators.

One of the major pieces of advice for approaching an active leak might also seem counterintuitive to those unfamiliar with emergency response in these situations-Leach said to let fires burn.

"If it's burning, let it burn. As soon as you put out that fire, you've got an invisible hazard that is going to migrate," Leach said. "Sometimes the best thing for us to do as emergency responders is absolutely nothing."

Leach pointed to examples where the gas or oil itself might not be the biggest concern-instead, it's some of the peripheral things on a scene. He used a video example of a fire department's response to a natural gas leak in Overland Park, Kan., to illustrate this point. A backhoe and a power pole were fully engulfed in flames when the department arrived on scene, along with the gas itself. Concerns included overhead power lines and the geography of the land. Fuel and hydraulic fluid from the backhoe were flowing down the street, creating a "flaming river" for a few blocks.

The information shared Wednesday night was just scratching the surface, Leach said, but was the start of ensuring local responders are well informed and prepared for many different situations.


The event was arranged by the Minnesota Pipeline Community Awareness Emergency Response Association. Another presentation is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 21 at the Forty Club Inn in Aitkin. Visit for more information.


Call before you dig-it's the law

Call 811 before completing any kind of excavation activities. Even relatively minor excavation activities like landscaping or fencing can cause damage to a pipeline, its protective casing or buried utility lines. Allow two working days before the work to be completed. The marking of underground lines is free and will allow for safe digging.

Recognizing a pipe leak

Sight-Liquid pools, continuous bubbling in wet and flooded areas, an oily sheen on water surfaces, vaporous fogs or blowing dirt around a pipeline area, dead or discolored plants in an otherwise healthy area of vegetation or frozen ground in warm weather are all signs of a pipeline leak. Natural gas is colorless, but vapor and "ground frosting" may be visible at high pressures. A natural gas leak may also be indicated by dust blowing from a hole in the ground or flames if the leak is ignited.

Sound-Volume can range from a quiet hissing to a loud roar depending on the size of the leak and the pipeline system.

Smell-An unusual smell, petroleum or gaseous odor will sometimes accompany pipeline leaks. Natural gas is colorless, tasteless and odorless unless odorants, such as Mercaptan, are added.


Most highly volatile liquids contain a slightly hydrocarbon or pungent odor. Most are non-toxic; however, products such as ammonia are considered toxic chemicals and can burn the senses when it seeks out moisture such as that in the eyes, nose or lungs. If inhaled, highly volatile liquids may cause dizziness or asphyxiation without warning.

What to do in the event of a leak

• Turn off any equipment and eliminate any ignition sources without risking injury.

• Leave the area by foot immediately. Try to direct any other bystanders to leave the area. • Attempt to stay upwind.

• If known, from a safe location, notify the pipeline operator immediately and call 911 or a local emergency response number. The operator will need a name, a phone number, a brief description of the incident and the location so the proper response can be initiated.

What not to do in the event of a leak

• Do not cause any open flame or other potential source of ignition such as an electrical switch, vehicle ignition or lighting a match. Do not start motor vehicles or electrical equipment. Do not ring doorbells to notify others of the leak. Knock with a hand to avoid potential sparks from knockers.

• Do not come into direct contact with any escaping liquids or gas.

• Do not drive into a leak or vapor cloud while leaving the area.

• Do not attempt to operate any pipeline valves. This may inadvertently route more product to the leak or cause a secondary leak.

• Do not attempt to extinguish a petroleum product or natural gas fire. Wait for local firefighters and other professionals trained to deal with such emergencies.

Information from a pipeline safety brochure distributed by the Minnesota Pipeline Community Awareness Emergency Response Association.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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