NTSB report says 12 minutes passed before company learned of West Virginia pipe blast

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 3:44 p.m.

Federal officials said Wednesday they're learning more about a huge gas pipeline explosion last month in West Virginia, but terrified residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged are just trying to figure how to reassemble their lives.

“It's like a ghost town around here,” said Ken Whittington, 50, of Sissonville, whose home's roof, siding and foundation were damaged in the Dec. 11 blast. “Some people have moved out. Nobody's rebuilt. It's kind of dead around here.”

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released its first preliminary report on the explosion, full of facts but short on conclusions.

The explosion, just north of Charleston, grew into a raging fire 1,100 feet along the pipeline and more than 800 feet wide; it destroyed three homes and damaged several others.

It took 12 minutes from the first 911 calls at 12:41 p.m. for the line's owner, Columbia Gas, to learn about the explosion, according to the federal report.

During that time, the company's gas control center got 16 automated alerts from its data monitoring system that indicated pressure dropping on three pipelines. Columbia did not learn of the explosion until 12:53 p.m. when a worker from another company saw the wall of fire and reported it, according to the NTSB.

“We will continue to work with the NTSB and (federal pipeline safety officials) — as well as state and local officials — to take all steps necessary to ensure the continued safety of our pipeline system,” company executive Jimmy D. Staton said in a statement.

The company paid more than $231,000 to Kanawha County to reimburse costs of emergency responders and crews that rebuilt a section of Interstate 77 charred in the blast.

Sue Bonham, who dove under her dining room table when debris from the explosion crashed through her roof, said her family settled with Columbia. She did not disclose the terms, but said, “We feel they treated us fairly.”

She and her family remain in a Charleston hotel. They bought a new house in Sissonville. While house shopping, they were careful to ensure no gas pipelines would be nearby.

“Absolutely, that was very important to us,” she said.

Whittington said the company has not paid him for damages to his house. His walls and ceiling are riddled with cracks and the siding, which melted, hangs on the outside walls.

He was not home when the blast occurred, but his elderly stepfather, Ed Goff, was in bed. Good Samaritans pulled Goff from bed and brought him to a waiting ambulance. Goff suffers nightmares since the explosion, dreaming that he's covered in blood, Whittington said.

“Everybody's talking about how, right after blast, Columbia Gas was all gung-ho and acting like they're worried about everybody,” Whittington said. “But now it seems like they've repaired their damages and are not worried about us. I don't know. Maybe it just takes a while.”

Chevalier Mayes, Columbia Gas' communications manager, said the company “wants to do the right thing.”

“We're definitely committed to helping affected residents recover and get their lives back to normal,” she said. “We are actively working with these residents and have folks in the community to provide housing and financial assistance.”

The ruptured pipeline segment was 45 years old and corroded to as little as a fourth of its original thickness, according to the NTSB. The explosion blew off a 20-foot chunk of the line, a segment with no welds, and simply fractured through the metal along the entire length of that segment, the report said.

When installed in 1967, the 20-inch diameter pipe was 0.281-inches thick. A 6-foot long and 2-foot wide segment of the chunk that blew off had corroded to as thin as 0.078 inches, the report said.

It can be difficult for gas companies to pinpoint problems, even with system notices such as the 16 pressure-loss alerts Columbia saw after the blast, said Frank Kranik, a local consultant with Ecology and Environment Inc., which has worked with Columbia. The alerts don't come with explanations, he said.

“They just know that something is going on,” he said.

NiSource Gas Transmission & Storage owns Columbia Gas. The company announced a five-year, $4 billion infrastructure investment plan in September.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, Inc. launched a $750,000 pipeline improvement project in Darlington in Beaver County, officials said. The company will replace approximately 4,300 feet of existing steel pipe with state-of-the-art plastic pipe there.

In Sissonville, many residents moved away from the blast site.

Heather Haynes and her husband lost their home and several dogs in the explosion. They won't return, even though the land was passed down from her grandfather to her mother and to her.

“I lived in that location all of my life,” she said. “It is a very hard move for us.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com. Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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