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Monday, July 26, 2010

Who is at fault? BP? The Feds?

I have been having a running argument with a friend about who had the primary responsibility for the horrible mess in the Gulf of Mexico. He says it's the government and I say it is BP. That started me thinking about some personal experiences with government inspection. Here is a summary.

I worked my way through the University of Minnesota with the GI bill and summer jobs laying pipeline in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, etc. I was an apprentice pipeline welder and belonged to Pipeline Welders Union 267, Oklahoma City. The thing that made the job interesting is that we worked seven days a week, at least ten hours a day. That meant sometime on Thursday, you got paid time and a half, which was a pretty big number, for the rest of the week.

The pipe was 36" and 48", and the pipes were 30-40 feet long. Big pieces of steel! Here is how it works.

The surveyors go first, marking the right of way. Then the bulldozer guys clear the brush, trees, etc. Next comes the ditcher. A huge machine with a series of huge buckets mounted in a circle, and that dug the ditch. Then trucks brought the pipe and dumped next to the ditch. Next came the spacer and a dozer operator. Their job was to align the next piece of pipe with the last piece of pipe so there was a 3/16" space between the two pipes all the way around. It was amazing to watch. Think about the size of that pipe!! This guy was always the king of the crew. How fast he could work set the tempo for the entire crew. The tackers came next. One of each side of the pipe. They put eight to twelve tack welds to hold the two pieces together. Next came the first weld guys. They would lay down a bead over the tackers work all around the pipe.

We came next. Our job was to lay down two or three finish welds on each joint. Since this took time, there were usually five groups finish welders and we worked leap frog. I would drag the cables to the weld site, steel brush each weld as we finished it, and when we were done, drag all the gear back to our rig which would then get dragged to the front of the line.

Behind us came to huge machine that applied hot tar and wrapped tar paper around the entire pipe. When that was done, the government inspector examined the entire weld with an X ray machine.

O.K., got the picture?

Each job would start slowly, e.g., a quarter of a mile laid, etc. Then sometime toward the end of the week, the inspector would show up with a huge TV set, or a dozen cases of really good scotch in his truck or station wagon. When that happened, we would fly, a mile, a mile and half, or even two miles of pipe in the ground every day.

I can guarantee you that every weld my welders laid down was perfect, but I am telling you that some of those guys had the biggest hangovers, when we rode the bus to the job each morning, that I have ever seen.

Now there are thousands of pipelines crossing the U.S., through open fields and under cities. In total, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of such pipelines moving crude oil (as were ours), finished products, e.g., gasoline, and natural gas. And they were all laid just like I described above.

For ten years, I lived in terror that some pipelines somewhere would start blowing up and kill a lot of people.

It has now been fifty years, and to the best of my knowledge, there has only been a single pipeline incident. A long time ago, a pipe blew in a suburb of Philadelphia, but nobody got hurt.

So here is the thought problem. How did that happen? What made it work? When you have an answer, you will have solved our problem.

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