Some key issues already beginning to emerge in probe of near-disastrous NiSource pipeline explosion

December 14, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Flames burn from a gas line explosion across Interstate 77 near Sissonville, W.Va., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. At least five homes went up in flames Tuesday afternoon and a badly damaged section of Interstate 77 was shut down in both directions near Sissonville after a natural gas explosion triggered an hour-long inferno that officials say spanned about a quarter-mile. (AP Photo/Joe Long)

As the week ends, and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board officials continue to collect evidence in their effort to figure out what happened on Tuesday out in Sissonville, some key issues have already begun to emerge about the huge NiSource natural gas pipeline explosion and fire that could have easily turned into a massive disaster.

During a briefing last evening, NTSB investigators revealed part of what will undoubtedly become a central focus on their probe into the incident. As my colleague Travis Crum reported from board member Robert Sumwalt’s briefing:

It appears the pipe was about 70 percent thinner than it should have been to sustain pressure of 921 pounds per square inch measured at the time, he said.

An area along the bottom of the pipe, running about 6 feet long, was measured at less than one-tenth of an inch thick, he said. This thinning indicates that some segments along the pipe wall were about 30 percent thinner than required.

“There are many things that can cause pipe wall thickness to deteriorate and that is exactly what we will be looking at . . . ,” Sumwalt said. “What caused this pipe wall to become deteriorated? What caused it and what finally led to the actual rupture and explosion?”

You can watch that briefing for yourself here:

So far, the NTSB has declined to provide the information it has gathered about when this particular piece of 20-inch-diameter pipeline was made and installed, or its preliminary information about recent examinations of the pipeline by either NiSource or government inspectors. But as investigators move forward, they will be looking not only at this particular pipeline, but also at the entire system NiSource is supposed to have in place for “integrity management” of its thousands of miles of pipelines.

One local television station has hyped its report alleging recent safety violations on “that very pipeline” that ruptured and exploded. But a closer look at the records involved suggests that some of the violations highlighted in that report actually involved a 30-inch-diameter section of the NiSource pipeline network that is “upstream” or west of the Lanham compressor station, where the company’s “SM-80” pipeline scaled down to 20 inches. On the other hand, other local media have dismissed incidents involving leaks — and allegedly not reporting those leaks — as not “directly related to the structural integrity of pipes.” That ignores the possibility that leaks are a warning of something more serious that’s wrong (and the idea that leaks in and of themselves aren’t good things), and also wrongly downplays questions that have already emerged about NiSource’s ability to respond to an incident like this one.


NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt views the site of the pipeline explosion. Photo from NTSB

As NTSB investigators have already outlined (see story here and a briefing here), no alarms went off in the NiSource/Columbia Gas Transmission control room here in Charleston, despite a drop in pressure upstream from the scene of the explosion. It’s not clear yet the chain of events, but NTSB officials obviously are going to be raising serious questions about this, given the findings of the agency’s probe of the deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., about serious weaknesses in Pacific Gas & Electric’s response to that incident.

In a story posted online yesterday and appearing in print this morning, we outlined the troubling fact that the NiSource line in question was not equipped with automatic or remote control shutoff devices that would have allowed the company to cut the flow of fuel to that huge natural gas fire much more quickly than the 64 minutes that doing so manually took. What really happened is quite a contrast to the way West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it sound when he spoke to reporters hours after the incident on Tuesday:

Then again, the progress on requiring automatic or remote shutoff valves on natural gas pipelines isn’t nearly as great as what some lawmakers — including West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs a committee with oversight of this issue — have said. As we explained in our story:

Safety advocates have long argued for mandated installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves on such pipelines, but that requirement is still not on the books – and remains years away under a much-touted new law signed by President Obama in January.

Last year, legislation introduced by House and Senate Democrats – including Rockefeller – would have mandated the PHMSA within two years issue a rule to mandate automatic or remote shutoff devices. But the final bill, approved and signed into law, includes language from a competing Republican measure that requires such a rule only if the agency determines it is “appropriate,” and applies it only to new or rebuilt pipelines.

As Rick Kessler of the Pipeline Safety Trust told lawmakers in an October 2011 Senate subcommittee hearing:

How is it that we shut off our televisions, close our garage doors, and lock our cars by remote control, but somehow we still find it acceptable to shut off a large pipeline spewing fire into a populated neighborhood by finding someone with a key to a locked valve and have that person drive to the valve to shut it off manually?

On the state level, the West Virginia Public Service Commission has yet to explain the figures on this chart, which indicate quite a decrease in enforcement activity by their agency’s pipeline inspectors. [UPDATED: PSC spokeswoman Susan Small says today that the chart shows incomplete figures. While the complete figures also show declines in enforcement activity, she says, that’s partly because of staffing difficulties at the agency] And it’s interesting to note that the PSC did not take part in a major U.S. Department of Transportation summit that the Obama administration organized to discuss how to speed up improvements in the nation’s aging pipeline infrastructure.

Part of the NTSB’s probe of this explosion will focus on examining the PSC’s pipeline regulatory efforts, and whether the state is doing a good job or not. In its San Bruno, Calif., investigation, the NTSB found:

The investigation also determined that the California Public Utilities Commission, the pipeline safety regulator within the state of California, failed to detect the inadequacies in PG&E’s integrity management program and that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration integrity management inspection protocols need improvement. Because the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has not incorporated the use of effective and meaningful metrics as part of its guidance for performance-based management pipeline safety programs, its oversight of state public utility commissions regulating gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines could be improved. Without effective and meaningful metrics in performance-based pipeline safety management programs, neither PG&E nor the California Public Utilities Commission was able to effectively evaluate or assess PG&E’s pipeline system.

It’s worth remembering that when a similar federal agency — the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — came to West Virginia and investigated major chemical plant accidents at Bayer CropScience in Institute and DuPont Co. in Belle, West Virginia political leaders showed little interest in taking up that agency’s recommendations for improving how our state government protects the public from potential disasters.

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