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Pipeline fuels tunnel safety fears

The pipeline runs through the tunnel just one metre below the road's surface Keystone

An oil pipeline is to be moved out of the Great St Bernard tunnel following security concerns in the wake of the Gotthard and Mont Blanc disasters.

The pipeline transports oil 340 kilometres from the Italian port of Genoa to a refinery at Collombey in canton Valais. But what most people using the tunnel don’t realise is that it runs just a metre below the road surface.

Now the company responsible for the 6km-long Great St Bernard tunnel is to undertake safety work. Like the Mont Blanc and Gotthard, it is a single-bore tunnel.

“In 38 years, 20 million vehicles have passed through the tunnel and we’ve never had a major accident, but security questions have become acute,” says Bernard Bornet, president of the company.

“On the whole, the pipeline doesn’t pose a danger,” he adds, pointing out that the pipeline is encased in protective sand and concrete. “But if there was a really big fire, it’s an additional risk we have to take into account.”

Some safety work – improved ventilation and rapid intervention teams – has already been carried out. But a second road tube was deemed too expensive.

Security gallery

Instead, a security gallery will run parallel to the tunnel. The pipeline, which was built with the tunnel in 1964, will be moved from the main tube and into its own gutter, running alongside the gallery.

Despite being the cheaper option, this move will still cost more than SFr70 million. An agreement has now been reached whereby the owners of the pipeline will pay more than half the costs – effectively out of the royalties they get for transporting the oil.

It is the only pipeline that serves the Tamoil refineries at Collombey. It provides 2.5 million tons of crude oil a year, three quarters of it from Libyan oil fields. The refinery’s production represents 17 per cent of Switzerland’s annual output.

Tamoil played no part in the negotiations. “We have a contract with a company to supply us. It’s none of our concern how it gets to us,” said its director, Frank Topin.

Eleven people died after fire broke out in Switzerland’s Gotthard tunnel in October last year. Two years earlier, a similar accident in the Mont Blanc tunnel led to the deaths of 39 people.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR