Unauthorized digging causes natural gas pipeline rupture; news organizations label it a “leak”

In 2010, news organizations labeled the Deepwater Horizon explosion a “spill” even though it was an explosion.

This week, news organizations labeled as a “leak” the fact 37,000 customers in eastern Washington and northwestern Idaho have no heat or hot water and can’t cook meals.

Yes, the pipeline was “leaking” natural gas.

Why? An unnamed landowner in Whitman County, Washington, decided to install a drainage pipe. However, the landowner did not call 811 before digging, which is the law in every state.

Thousands in two states are without natural gas service for up to five more days.

In each case, news organizations minimized the extent of the man-made disaster with weasel words. In the case of the rupture in Washington on Wednesday, news organizations have also named no names and minimized or ignored the gross negligence involved.

No one has explained how a plow, per the Lewiston Tribune, might have punctured a pipeline 41″ deep.

farm plow
Agricultural plow close-up on the ground, agricultural machinery.

The Lewiston Tribune insists the landowner was merely “pulling a plow” through a field. (Maybe the reporter has never seen a plow?)

The Washington State Patrol closed U.S. Highway 195 between Colfax and Pullman after the “gas line was struck along” the highway shortly after noon.

“Through a field” does not evoke an image of a tractor alongside a road.

google map

Describing the cause as a “plow” implies the pipeline was very shallow. It wasn’t. It also suggests the person operating the tractor was not at fault. They were.

Q? How deep does a plow dig?
A: Moldboard plow depth is 4-6 inches.
A paraplow breaks up the soil to a depth of 15-20 inches.


According to Washington RCW 19.122.055: “Any excavator who fails to notify a one-number locator service and causes damage to a hazardous liquid or gas underground facility is subject to a civil penalty of not more than ten thousand dollars for each violation.”

Read that again. Maximum civil penalty: $10,000.

Seriously insufficient, especially since this is the “largest natural gas outage in Avista’s history.”


How have news organizations reported the incident?

Shutdown. Mishap. Leak. Damaged pipeline. Break.

I saw no news story that made it clear the landowner had broken the law. All minimized the cause.

Fifth-generation Iowa farmer Tom Geake told EPA: “Farming the land is a privilege. It’s not a right.” As someone who spent the early part of her career working with and for farmers, I can assure you that our laws too often treat farming as a right not to be infringed upon.

I could not contact the PUD today for follow up questions on possible penalties; it’s a holiday.

PSA: never-never-never operate an outdoor grill inside, whether to cook or heat an indoor area.

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Featured image: illustration by author.

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