Desert cleanup continues month after pipeline burst
BAKER, Calif. – A month after the Colton-to-Las Vegas gasoline pipeline rupture, a massive cleanup operation continues on three acres of fragile Mojave Desert that is home to threatened desert tortoises and where groundwater is used by free-roaming cattle.
Gasoline spewing 80 feet high for 12 hours on Nov. 22 from the burst high-pressure pipeline soaked into still-reeking sand, raising concerns among state, federal and San Bernardino County agencies.
The gas ate through creosote, salt bush and other desert scrub and filtered down at least 50 feet. Pipeline owner Houston-based Kinder Morgan still doesn’t know how much escaped over three remote acres between the Soda Mountains and Interstate 15 west of Baker.
At least 7,500 tons of soil are being removed by cleanup crews and, so far, no hibernating tortoises have been found in the contamination zone, said John Key, a hazardous materials specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The closest burrow where a tortoise could be hibernating is a mile away, said Key, who is also on-scene coordinator of several federal, state and county programs.
Tests show gasoline hasn’t soaked down far enough to taint groundwater supplies that are connected to the Mojave River and are used by cattle.
But rancher Tom Wetterman isn’t taking any chances. He’s rounded up his 42 mother cows to move them away from a water well within a mile of the leak site.
“I’ve got them drinking on the back side five miles away,” Wetterman told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan has hired a biologist to try to prevent any reptiles from being run over as 30 truckloads a day of contaminated sand is moved to Adelanto.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists also inspected the site and have suggested cleanup crews look under heavy construction equipment before moving it to ensure that no reptiles have wandered underneath.
Judy Hohman, a supervisory biologist with the wildlife agency, said she was also concerned about migratory birds that may land at the site.
The BLM’s Key said cleanup crews cover a large pile of tainted sand each night to keep any wildlife from coming in contact with it.
While the surface cleanup could last until mid-January, Key said it could take much longer to extract gas vapors deep below the ground. Kinder Morgan is using vacuum-like hoses to suck up the vapors, which are then ignited and burned off.
Fouled sand will be replaced with fill from a Barstow quarry and the area may then be reseeded with native plants, Key said.
The section of burst pipe was taken into custody by the California Department of Fish and Game and sent to a metallurgy lab in Menlo Park to be tested for stress and corrosion, said Dana Michaels, spokeswoman for the agency’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
“Based on the way the pipe looked, they said it probably was not Kinder Morgan’s fault, but they’re not sure,” Michaels said.
The pipeline, built in the early 1970s, was carrying gasoline to Las Vegas from Colton when it ruptured, Kinder Morgan spokesman Larry Pierce said. Diesel fuel was transported through the pipeline earlier and some diesel also escaped.
A parallel eight-inch jet fuel pipeline didn’t break.