Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard "Cork" Hicks will listen to arguments Friday on the public's right to see detailed oil and natural gas pipeline information.
It's noteworthy that the dispute over pipeline records is playing out in Hicks courtroom and also just across Capitol Lake in the halls of the state Legislature.
The public needs to pay attention to both cases because personal safety is at risk. If you are purchasing a home, don't you want to be able to search public records to see if there is a natural gas pipeline running through the property? Don't you want to know where the closest pump station and pressure valves are located? Those records are in jeopardy in the Legislature and Hicks' courtroom.
The utility industry is pressing lawmakers to pass a bill to exempt detailed information about pipelines from the state's public disclosure act.
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Tumwater City Councilman Pete Kmet is a bit of an expert on this issue. He serves on the state Citizens Committee on Pipeline Safety and is opposed to the sealing of public records. Under House Bill 1478 the release of data to the public would be limited to pipeline location maps at no greater detail than a scale of 1-to-24,000, which is equivalent to one inch to 2,000 feet.
"That's not enough data for neighborhoods in urban areas," Kmet said. Members of the public would be able to see the general location of pipelines, but not in sufficient detail to see how it impacts them and their personal property. The pipeline industry does not have a good track record in that regard. It's amazing that public officials would even consider less pipeline disclosure just eight years after 277,000 gallons of fuel leaked from a broken pipeline in Bellingham. The fuel was ignited and the fiery explosion of the Olympic Pipe Line Co. fuel line claimed the lives of two 10-year-olds and a teenager.
If anything, the pipeline industry merits more public scrutiny, not less. That's why HB 1478 should be scuttled by lawmakers.
In the wake of the bill's introduction, The Bellingham Herald newspaper requested pipeline geographic information system data from the state's Utilities and Transportation Commission. Three oil and natural gas companies and the Northwest Gas Association, which serves six different companies, sought a restraining order to prevent the release of the information. Judge Hicks temporarily blocked the utility commission from disclosing the information, but will take up the issue in full Friday.
Officials from the Northwest Gas Association have said they are willing to share detailed pipeline information with individual property owners, but not to everyone.
That's not how the public record laws work in this state. Public records are open to everyone - not certain classes of people.
Let's hope Judge Hicks and state lawmakers come down on the side of the public's right to know. For their personal safety, state residents should have access to pipeline records.