NTSB: Better oversight needed to prevent natural gas pipeline accidents
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.