Lack of government inspectors leaves gas pipeline inspections to utilities
Two men dangled in a metal bucket off the West End Bridge, suspended more than 60 feet above the Ohio River by a long, hydraulic arm attached to a truck on the roadway.
The contracted truck driver threaded the extension bucket arm between two of the steel supports that hold up the span. One worker watched for trouble from the bridge deck; another floated in a small boat on the water, just in case.
“We want the public to be safe. I want my guys to be safe,” said Mark Murtha, a foreman for Peoples Natural Gas, which owns a 20-inch gas main that's attached to the underside of the bridge. Below him, the inspectors checked the steel gas line for holes, rust — anything that might let the explosive gas into the air.
Murtha's crew inspects gas mains on 200 bridges each year, some of them several times if temperatures drop low enough.
A Tribune-Review investigation found that state and federal regulators employ far too few inspectors — about 500 total — to cover the country's 1.3 million miles of mains that distribute natural gas directly to customers. Nearly 500,000 leaks were reported on those lines last year.
The federal government has 135 inspectors responsible not only for those customer distribution lines but high-pressure, interstate transmission lines. Texas leads the nation with 48 inspectors; California is second with 35. But some states, like Delaware and North Dakota, have just one or two inspectors.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates about 48,000 miles of gas mains, has 12 inspectors. By comparison, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania — the largest of the state's 35 gas utilities — has 13 full-time inspectors and 21 contractors to oversee 7,400 miles of company mains.
“No state would have enough inspectors to inspect every single leak,” said Paul Metro, the state PUC's manager of pipeline safety.
That makes the companies that own those lines primarily responsible for inspecting them.
“We own it. We fix it,” said Steve Redding, director of leak management for Pacific Gas & Electric, whose 43,000 miles of gas mains adds up to the second-largest distribution network in the country.
The consequences of failure can be catastrophic. Since 2004, accidents involving gas distribution networks have killed more than 120 people and caused more than $775 million in damage, a Trib analysis of records from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found.
State and federal inspectors audit utilities' inspection records to make sure they're following the law, then backtrack through company logs to find the paperwork that should accompany the work they say they have done. Then there's the physical verification.
In Pennsylvania, inspectors show up at random job sites to monitor utility workers. In Arizona, they might head out to a recently finished job site to check for evidence of work.
“If they tell me they conducted action in the field and there's no physical evidence, or there's evidence to the contrary, I'll see it,” said Robert Miller, supervisor of pipeline safety for the Arizona Corporation Commission and chairman of the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives.
“You always get caught, in one context or another. Either my staff or somebody else's staff catches you, or you have an incident,” Miller said. “The consequences of cooking the books are too high to make it worth your while anymore.”
Gas companies paid about $90 million of the $123 million in fines that states assessed during the past 10 years, federal data show.
Gas-fueled catastrophes in recent years in Allentown, Philadelphia, New York and San Bruno, Calif., sparked a nationwide push to replace aging cast iron and bare, unprotected steel lines, which are the oldest types of pipe and the materials most likely to corrode and rupture.
“I think you see that across the nation now,” Metro said. “People are putting more resources into gas safety.”
That necessarily includes inspections, said Mike Davidson, general manager of operations for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania utilities will spend decades and billions of dollars replacing their oldest pipes. Leak inspections help determine the worst sections of pipe so utilities can replace them first, Davidson said.
“We've had a hard time keeping trained inspectors,” said Brian Kalk, chairman of the state utility commission in North Dakota, which is being reshaped by its colossal oil and gas boom.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires government inspectors — many of whom are trained engineers — to go through up to five years of training.
Those who complete the training become “a hot commodity” in an industry flush with cash, Kalk said. The North Dakota Legislature in its last session increased the salaries for the state's two inspectors by about 50 percent, to about $75,000, Kalk said.
“A few years ago, we were paying them $40,000 to $50,000, and they were getting hired (in the private sector) for twice that,” Kalk said.
To Mars and back
Water and sewer utilities have used robotic and remote cameras to inspect their pipes for years, but that equipment does not translate well to natural gas pipes, said Mike Grabowski, vice president of Electro Scan Inc., a Sacramento-based firm that makes remote cameras.
“It's not a real easy task to inspect a natural gas pipeline. The reason is No. 1, there are not a lot of access points, so you've got to make access points,” Grabowski said.
That usually means cutting a hole in the pipe. Some natural gas networks were built before regulations required them to have shutoff valves, so clearing them of gas can involve digging through pavement and soil, cutting into the pipe and capping one end before purging natural gas from the disconnected portion of pipe.
That's why gas detectors are the main tools of leak inspectors. They can't see the pipes, so they look for evidence of their failure by sniffing for leaking gas — usually on foot.
Columbia Gas workers spend 21,000 hours a year searching for leaks, Davidson said. The company in 2007 switched to annual inspections of its cast iron and bare steel lines, though federal regulations require those pipes to be checked only once every three years.
The company recently replaced some of its traditional gas sensors with infrared detectors, Davidson said. Traditional sniffers falsely detect gas more frequently than the newer infrared sensors, he said.
Pacific Gas & Electric worked with a Silicon Valley firm three years ago on a vehicle-mounted sensor that allows inspectors to cover as much ground in an hour as a foot patrol would cover in a week, Redding said.
After just incremental change in detection technology during the past 40 years, the state of the art has suddenly leapt ahead, he said.
Mars gets some of the credit.
Lance Christensen, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., spent the past year and a half working with PG&E to modify a methane detector that was built for the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012.
The NASA detector sucks air into a cylinder and shoots a laser beam through it. If the laser — which NASA spent about five years perfecting — bounces off any methane molecules, a sensor at the other end of the chamber detects it, Christensen said.
The best gas detectors available cost more than $50,000 and register methane levels in parts per million; this one, which Christensen believes will one day cost one-tenth as much, measures parts per billion.
Vehicle-mounted detectors can weigh nearly 70 pounds; the most recent version of Christensen's detector weighs less than a third of one pound — light enough to someday mount on a small drone for unmanned inspections.
“It's sort of a new frontier,” he said.
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.