The Day the Bay Almost Blew

Filed in Archive, Blog by on July 31, 2013 3 Comments

GasPipelineRuptureFINAL

On the afternoon of 13 December 2008, a storm lashed Melbourne. Out in Port Phillip Bay, a container ship, the APL Sydney, dragged its anchor. And kept going. Right into the high-pressure ethane gas pipeline that crosses the bay between Mordialloc and Altona.

The ship’s anchor ripped apart the pipeline and the gas erupted. Someone managed to take the above photo, blurry as it is, from the bridge of the APL Sydney. The harbourmaster ordered that a tug with fire-fighting capability be placed on standby.

However, the general populace of Melbourne didn’t really notice. It rated a small column in The Age the next day with no picture.

But the Commonwealth Government understood what a disaster this could have been and investigated. The accident also quietly made history in other places – the above photo comes from the Maritime Accident Casebook. Fortunately, the high winds helped to disperse the gas before anyone was blown up.

Just as well the Spirit of Tasmania wasn’t passing by at the time loaded with Xmas holidaymakers. Going out on deck for a quick smoke would have added a whole new meaning to the term ‘family barbecue’.

So why am I bringing this up almost five years later? Because my dad, Malcolm, predicted the rupture back in about 1970. He wasn’t the only one to see it coming, but he was the only one to cop a record defamation fine at a protest rally against the pipeline. The fine nearly broke our family financially, but we admired him for sticking to his conservation principles.

At the time, Malcolm was on the Brighton City Council representing the Brighton Foreshore Protection Committee. The community activism stopped the oil pipeline because eventually the state government realised a ruptured oil pipeline in Port Phillip would be the death of the Bay.

So the oil pipeline went around the bay (underground) at no extra cost in 1972. But later that same year the ethane pipeline went across the bay, hidden from sight underwater. If the pipe burst, the government hoped the gas would go up in the air and be dispersed before anyone nearby lit a cigarette.

Malcolm passed away on June 24. And I’m pleased he had a chance to say ‘I told you so’ before he went.

However, it looks like not everyone has heard, judging by an historical article on the City of Kingston’s website (see the last paragraph that claims – as of 31 July 2013 – the ethane pipeline has operated “without incident for over thirty years”). Perhaps someone will update this article before another five years pass.

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  1. Alex King says:

    This was a serious incident, in the current days of risk management the ethane pipeline may not have been approved due to this significant risk

    It should be noted that the case has had a significant downstream commercial implications and like the disruption to the gas pipeline at Longford in Gippsland and

    http://www.theage.com.au/business/global-ripples-in-port-phillip-mishap-20100323-qu7i.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Western_Australian_gas_crisis

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esso_Longford_gas_explosion

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Alex, these are fantastic articles that broaden the implications and clarify the context in which this “snapping” of the pipeline occurred. In short, consequences that resonated globally. It is amazing so few Melburnians heard about it, especially given the millions of dollars at stake in lengthy court proceedings. So I’m particularly glad it didn’t escape the attention of someone with your naval and maritime logistics experience. Nice work, Commander!

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