TECHNOLOGY

A deadly explosion

A pipeline leak leads to a fiery disaster

BARBARA WICKENS June 19 1989
TECHNOLOGY

A deadly explosion

A pipeline leak leads to a fiery disaster

BARBARA WICKENS June 19 1989

A deadly explosion

TECHNOLOGY

A pipeline leak leads to a fiery disaster

It was an explosion of devastating proportions. As two Soviet passenger trains passed each other in the Ural Mountains about 1,200 km east of Moscow, sparks from a train apparently ignited liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) that had leaked from a pipeline about one kilometre away. In the resulting fireball, at least 460 of the more than 1,200 of the two trains’ passengers—many of them children—were killed or reported missing. Soviet officials said that bodies were incinerated and that two railway cars melted in the blaze. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who briefly visited the site a day after the June 3 blast, told the Soviet parliament that he believed “irresponsibility, incompetence and mismanagement” were to blame. Reports that the Soviet Union’s KGB security service had sent investigators to the scene strengthened a conviction among Western pipeline experts that the disaster was probably caused by inferior equipment, dangerous pipeline practices and human er-

ror—a combination that they said was less likely to occur in Canada or other Western nations.

As well, Soviet pipeline workers may have ignored warning signs that could have helped to prevent the accident. Gorbachev said that three hours before the explosion, pressure in the pipeline started to drop because of a leak in the line near the city of Asha. The Soviet leader said nobody checked to see why the pressure had dropped. Instead, workers pumped more gas into the line, trying to raise the pressure. The liquefied gas—which changed back into a gas when it left the pipeline—apparently then leaked into a ravine and was ignited when the trains passed through.

The explosion raised a number of issues. The Moscow daily newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria reported that another explosion involving a Soviet gas pipeline in Moldavia, near the border with Romania, occurred just hours before the blast near Asha. The paper

quoted a railway ministry official as saying that the earlier blast did not cause any deaths. The report did not say why the explosion occurred—nor did it indicate whether it was connected in any way to the later tragedy.

At the same time, Western observers said that they were puzzled by the magnitude of the second explosion. According to Jonathan Stern, a specialist on Soviet gas affairs with London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, the leaking pipeline was not part of the main Siberian natural gas pipeline, but appeared to be a small trunk line running from Ufa, a city in the Ural region, to Chelyabinsk, 300 km to the east, to supply chemical plants with LPG, a mixture of various gases, including propane and butane, that is used in the manufacture of plastics. Stern said that the exploding LPG alone could not have caused such devastating damage. Said Stem: “The huge fireball that engulfed the two trains would suggest that natural gas was also involved. Our deduction is that the Soviets had laid a natural gas pipeline alongside the LPG line, so that when the LPG exploded, the blast ruptured the sister line, adding natural gas to the inferno.” Still, Canadian pipeline experts said that North American operators sometimes placed several pipelines in the same right-of-way, and that the practice was not inherently dangerous.

As well, Western experts said that poor maintenance practices and the quality of the steel used in the construction of the Ufa-toChelyabinsk trunk line probably were also factors in the accident. They said that the pipeline

was probably made of Soviet steel, which is heavier, less flexible and more susceptible to corrosion than steel used for pipelines in Western nations. For his part, Arild Moe, an official of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, an Oslo-based natural resources monitoring service, said that the Soviet Union had a serious problem with “slipshod maintenance” of its pipelines. Added Moe: “As for safety proper, the Soviets can be

extremely lax about what Western suppliers view as basic rules.”

Similar criticisms emerged within the Soviet Union. Eduard Volsky, senior engineer at the Soviet gas industry ministry in Moscow, said that the industry faced serious difficulties with equipment. Said Volsky: “Imported pipes are more reliable, require fewer repairs, weigh less and have better insulation.” Still, Arnold

Berzin, deputy chief of foreign relations at the same ministry, denied that lax safety procedures were at the root of the accident. Said Berzin: “There is, of course, no guarantee against an idiot mistake—an excavator punching a hole in a pipe for instance—but everyone is aware of the importance of checking.”

Because Western standards of pipeline operations are considered to be much higher than in the Soviet Union, the Urals disaster would not likely be repeated on the European section of the pipeline that supplies European nations with Siberian natural gas. The pipelines that carry Siberian gas to West Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey and Finland were built by Western firms and operate under strict safety control procedures.

Indeed, energy industry spokesmen in Canada claimed that it would be almost impossible for a disaster comparable to the Soviet blast to happen in North America. Alan Cassley, spokesman for Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, for one, said that in that province pipeline operators use computerized electronic monitors to survey major pipelines containing such high-pressure liquefied gases as propane every five minutes.

Meanwhile, gas transmissions through the Ural Mountains were suspended last week as Soviet officials pressed their investigation into an accident that raised serious questions about the safety of Soviet transportation procedures.

BARBARA WICKENS with PETER LEWIS in Brussels and KERRY DIOTTE in Edmonton

BARBARA WICKENS

PETER LEWIS

KERRY DIOTTE