Sissonville blast highlights pipeline safety concerns

December 12, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this photo from West Virginia State Police, a fireball from a gas explosion erupts across Interstate 77 on Tuesday afternoon. At least five homes were burned.

It’s good news that the state was able to get Interstate 77 open by this morning, but it’s sobering to think about how big of a tragedy yesterday’s huge natural gas pipeline explosion in Sissonville, W.Va., could have been. And the incident only goes to highlight growing concerns nationwide — especially in light of the shale-gas drilling boom — about the safety of the giant web of pipelines that crisscross West Virginia and the nation.

We had a quick overview on this in today’s Gazette, reporting:

Nearly 15,000 miles of natural gas pipelines are spread across West Virginia, enough to stretch from Charleston to Morgantown and back 50 times.

Such pipelines are considered by many experts as the best way to transport fuel, much safer than railroads or tanker trucks.

But serious dangers remain, as West Virginians were reminded Tuesday with scenes of a wall of fire above Interstate 77 from the huge gas-line explosion in Sissonville.

And despite numerous efforts at reform, recent investigations and audit reports show that many gaps remain in the oversight of the nearly 2.5 million miles of pipelines that crisscross the United States.

Nationwide, concerns about pipeline safety have grown, amid a boom in natural gas drilling in several states and in the wake of a string of serious accidents, including explosions in San Bruno, Calif., and Allentown, Pa., that killed a combined 13 people in 2010 and 2011.

“While many stakeholders agree that federal pipeline safety programs have been on the right track, the spate of recent pipeline incidents suggests there continues to be significant room for improvement,” the Congressional Research Service concluded earlier this year.

You can read that Congressional Research Service report for yourself online here, and might also want to check out a U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this year.   The National Transportation Safety Board, which has launched an investigation of yesterday’s near-disaster, includes improvements in pipeline safety among its “most wanted list” of transportation system reforms:

The first key to enhancing pipeline safety is to improve oversight of the industry. Many of these accidents occurred because the pipeline operator’s safety program was insufficient to identify potential problems. With hazardous materials coursing through pipelines, it is vital that pipeline operators be routinely evaluated according to effective performance-based standards. These standards should address the adequacy of an operator’s integrity management and inspection protocols. Federal and state oversight agencies should work together to identify deficiencies in a pipeline operator’s safety program and ensure that those deficiencies are corrected. Oversight also means testing involved employees for drugs and alcohol when an accident occurs.

When there is a problem, timely response to shut down pipelines is critical. In both the Marshall and San Bruno investigations, we identified a delay in the operator’s understanding of the nature of the rupture and leak and therefore a delay in activating an appropriate response. Pipelines delivering products like natural gas into residential areas must have automatic excess flow valves that terminate the flow of product upon reaching a certain threshold. On the industrial side, remote shutoff valves serve the same purpose, though these could be manual or automatic. With such valves installed, companies would have the ability to stop the flow and isolate a rupture sooner, minimizing both the potential damage and the potential for an explosion.

Emergency response in the event of a leak is also critical. Pipeline operators can help ensure adequate emergency response by providing local jurisdictions and residents key information on pipelines in their areas. When a rupture occurs, operators should notify 911 emergency call centers as part of the standard response. Pipeline operators should also review their internal emergency response procedures and conduct periodic drills. Preparing for a robust emergency response will translate into faster and better response, less damage, and fewer injuries.

There have been interesting recent examinations of pipeline safety by The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as a great overview of the issue by the non-profit news organization ProPublica, which reported:

While both air travel and pipelines are safer than their road alternatives, the analogy only extends so far. Airplanes are replaced routinely and older equipment is monitored regularly for airworthiness and replaced when it reaches its safety limits. Pipelines, on the other hand, can stay underground, carrying highly pressurized gas and oil for decades – even up to a century and beyond. And while airplanes have strict and uniform regulations and safety protocols put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration, such a uniform set of standards does not exist for pipelines.

Critics maintain that while they’re relatively safe, pipelines should be safer. In many cases, critics argue, pipeline accidents could have been prevented with proper regulation from the government and increased safety measures by the industry. The 2.5 million miles of America’s pipelines suffer hundreds of leaks and ruptures every year, costing lives and money. As existing lines grow older, critics warn that the risk of accidents on those lines will only increase.

While states with the most pipeline mileage – like Texas, California, and Louisiana – also have the most incidents, breaks occur throughout the far-flung network of pipelines. Winding under city streets and countryside, these lines stay invisible most of the time. Until they fail.

Since 1986, pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people, injured over 4,000, and cost nearly seven billion dollars in property damages. Using government data, ProPublica has mapped thousands of these incidents in a new interactive news application, which provides detailed information about the cause and costs of reported incidents going back nearly three decades.

Pipelines break for many reasons – from the slow deterioration of corrosion to equipment or weld failures to construction workers hitting pipes with their excavation equipment. Unforeseen natural disasters also lead to dozens of incidents a year. This year Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the natural gas pipelines on New Jersey’s barrier islands. From Bay Head to Long Beach Island, falling trees, dislodged homes and flooding caused more than 1,600 pipeline leaks. All leaks have been brought under control and no one was harmed, according to a New Jersey Natural Gas spokeswoman. But the company was forced to shut down service to the region, leaving 28,000 people without gas, and it may be months before they get it back.

One of the biggest problems contributing to leaks and ruptures is pretty simple: pipelines are getting older. More than half of the nation’s pipelines are at least 50 years old. Last year in Allentown Pa., a natural gas pipeline exploded underneath a city street, killing five people who lived in the houses above and igniting a fire that damaged 50 buildings. The pipeline – made of cast iron – had been installed in 1928.

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