ShareThis Page

NTSB: Better oversight needed to prevent natural gas pipeline accidents

| Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, 6:24 p.m.
In this image Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, provided by the West Virginia State Police, shows a fireball erupting across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W.Va. Accident investigators issue a report and safety recommendations based three powerful gas transmission line explosions in California, Florida and West Virginia. In each case, the gas company failed conduct inspections or tests that might have revealed weaknesses in the massive pipelines.
In this image Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, provided by the West Virginia State Police, shows a fireball erupting across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W.Va. Accident investigators issue a report and safety recommendations based three powerful gas transmission line explosions in California, Florida and West Virginia. In each case, the gas company failed conduct inspections or tests that might have revealed weaknesses in the massive pipelines.

Operators and regulators of the country's largest natural gas pipelines need to beef up safety to prevent major accidents such as the explosion that torched a section of Interstate 77 in Sissonville, W.Va., the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report issued Tuesday.

The frequency of transmission pipeline accidents has leveled off in the 10 years since the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration issued its most recent set of safety rules, but there is “no evidence” of a decline in the accident rate, the NTSB found. The 2004 rules required gas companies to monitor the integrity of transmission lines in populated areas.

“The authors sought to answer a fundamental question: Are there areas where integrity management programs need improvement? If so, the time for improvement is now, before another tragic pipeline accident occurs,” acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in prepared remarks opening the board's meeting in Washington on Tuesday.

The goal, Hart said, is to “prevent catastrophic gas transmission line accidents from ever happening again.”

The report found intrastate pipelines — those most often regulated by state agencies — had an incident rate 27 percent higher than the interstate pipelines usually inspected by federal regulators.

A Tribune-Review investigation found that state and federal regulators employ far too few inspectors to monitor the country's gas lines. The federal pipeline agency employs 135 inspectors, and state regulators have a total of 400 to cover more than 2 million miles of pipelines.

Gas companies conduct most pipeline inspections. Government inspectors mostly go over the companies' inspection logs, the Trib found. But many inspectors lack the training to effectively verify gas company records, the NTSB report found. The report urged the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration to tighten qualifications for inspectors and make mentors and training more available.

The report focused on transmission lines, the large, high-pressure pipes that transport natural gas across the country and feed local utilities.

Three major explosions in the past five years drew the NTSB's attention: Sissonville, where a corroded pipe that hadn't been inspected in 20 years destroyed at least five homes and melted a portion of I-77 in 2012; a 2009 rupture in Palm City, Fla., that released 36 million cubic feet of natural gas; and a 2010 explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif.

The San Bruno blast killed eight people, injured more than 50 and destroyed dozens of homes. No one died in the other two, but the Sissonville explosion blew a 15-foot crater in the ground and scorched a path 1,100 feet long and 800 feet wide.

Pipeline operators might have prevented the accidents with better inspection programs, the NTSB report said. According to the report, 28 percent of intrastate pipelines are inspected using the best technology — in-line inspections, in which sensors are fed into the pipeline to check for corrosion, cracks and other problems.

The report's 28 recommendations include asking the American Gas Association and Interstate Natural Gas Association of America — industry groups that represent gas companies — to help increase in-line inspections.

The American Gas Association said it will review the report when NTSB releases it. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said many of its members are voluntarily doing what the report recommends, and will work with government and industry groups “to identify ways to make our systems as safe as possible.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.