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Three decades of pipeline safety in Minnesota

July 13, 2017

Newspaper photo of a 1986 pipeline explosion in Mounds View, Minn.
Photo: The Mounds View pipeline explosion of 1986, with its deadly two-story walls of flame, changed the way Minnesota thought about pipelines and spurred the formation of the Office of Pipeline Safety, now celebrating its 30th birthday.​

If you lived in Minnesota in 1986, you very likely remember the Mounds View pipeline explosion. Who could forget the news stories about two-story walls of flame that spewed from the sewer line (into which petroleum had leaked) early that July morning, destroying everything in its path and killing a 35-year-old mother and her 7-year-old daughter? The explosion melted power lines, charred trees, and belched thick black smoke into the air as hundreds were evacuated from their homes.

It was a horror no one should have to experience, as Nyle Zikmund well knows: He was one of the first responders on the scene. At the time, Zikmund was a firefighter with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department. He says he and his partners had never even talked about pipelines and how to respond to an incident. They had no training. They had no idea.

That’s because, at the time, Minnesota “didn’t even have minimal oversight over pipelines,” says Zikmund. The pipeline that ruptured was owned by Williams Pipe Line Co. of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Mounds View pipe failed ''due to selective corrosion in two areas of the seam weld,'' according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The National Transportation Safety Board said corrosion was the primary factor behind the accident -- cold comfort to families who had lost homes and loved ones.

The silver lining was that the Mounds View explosion was a wakeup call on both the local and the national levels. It caused Sen. Steve Novak to become a champion for pipeline safety – Mounds View was in his district – and Gov. Rudy Perpich helped create a statewide commission on pipeline safety to review and recommend law changes at the federal and state levels that would enhance public safety.

The ultimate result was the 1987 Pipeline Safety Act, which provided for the founding of the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety. On its 30th birthday, MNOPS can boast a staff that carried out 7,550 hours of routine audits and construction inspections all over Minnesota last year.

Those are essential functions in our state, where we have 65,000 miles of pipeline (that’s more miles than Minnesota’s federal, state, and county highways combined). These pipelines carry fluids essential to our everyday lives: natural gas, gasoline, and propane, to name a few.

And just like they did for that Mounds View neighborhood, those miles and miles of pipeline make it possible for you to feed hot meals to your family, keep them warm at night, send your kids to school in clean clothes, and travel to and from work. But now MNOPS is there to make sure those pipelines are as safe as possible. Or, as Zikmund puts it: “MNOPS is here because of this tragedy. And that’s the good news, that’s the happy ending to this story.”​​​