News

Olympic to city: Butt out

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Olympic Pipeline officials are asking a federal judge to enjoin the city of Federal Way from interfering in its operations, based on the company’s accusation that city officials tried to force it into signing a franchise agreement in exchange for a permit to inspect the pipe.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court July 16, alleges city officials withheld a permit to allow Olympic to inspect an anomaly in the pipe until Olympic agreed to sign a franchise — and pay what the company called an “unreasonable and arbitrary” franchise fee.

Officials with Olympic Pipeline, which has 670 feet of pipe running under Weyerhaeuser’s East Campus in eastern Federal Way, said the company sought assistance from the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to get permission to dig up the section of pipe and inspect it visually. Olympic officials said in the complaint, “Federal Way thus has used franchise negotiations to hold up safety repairs.”

City attorney Pat Richardson said the lawsuit came as a surprise to the city. She said Federal Way and Olympic have been negotiating a franchise agreement since 2001 “and we were very close to being done.”

Olympic officials “never indicated they disagreed with the amount” of the franchise fee, she said.

Richardson said the city was told by the Office of Pipeline Safety that the inspection Olympic wanted to conduct wasn’t an emergency, so the city continued with franchise negotiations. She added it’s not uncommon for cities to withhold permits until franchise agreements are reached.

Olympic Pipeline’s lawsuit includes complaints against the city of Seattle, which drafted a 33-item list of concerns it wants Olympic to address before city officials will sign a new franchise agreement, according to the complaint.

The sticking point, the pipeline company said in the complaint, is that Seattle doesn’t have the authority to demand additional regulatory checks, nor does Federal Way.

The Office of Pipeline Safety in the federal Department of Transportation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have regulatory authority over pipelines in the United States. But federal law allows them to designate oversight authority to state agencies.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission oversees pipeline operations and safety in Washington using federal standards and guidelines.

Because only the Washington commission has the authority to regulate Olympic Pipeline in-state, Olympic officials argue in the complaint, Seattle and Federal Way can’t require the company to meet additional demands or to sign a franchise agreement.

Federal Way’s “grant of permits to inspect and potentially repair Olympic’s pipeline seek(s) to regulate Olympic in areas reserved exclusively to the federal government,” the company claims.

But, Richardson said, the city does have the authority to negotiate franchises to determine how city right-of-way will be used.

City officials had 20 days from the July 16 filing date to issue its response, but Richardson said the city will seek an extension and won’t respond until next week.

Olympic’s pipelines came to attention in 1999 when part of a line exploded in Bellingham, killing three people.

Last month, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels accused the company of not doing enough to ensure the safety of a pipeline beneath that city. Olympic said it would inspect sections of the line.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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