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Salem residents wonder why gas lines don't have automatic shutoffs

Paul Peirce
| Thursday, May 12, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

While Spectra Energy and some Westmoreland County first responders applaud energy company workers' 55-minute response to manually turn off gas entering a ruptured line after an April 29 blast in Salem, some residents question why the lines don't have automatic shutoff valves.

Lisa Segina of Boggs Hollow Road, one of about 200 people who attended a town hall meeting this week, was among residents who said some damage could have been averted if the 35-year-old line had been equipped with automatic shutoffs that block gas immediately after detection of a rupture.

Spectra officials said workers had to manually close two valves on the 30-inch line, one at a compressor station in Delmont, the other 15 miles away along the Conemaugh River near the Indiana County border.

Company spokesman Creighton A. Welch addressed the issue in a statement Thursday.

“There is currently a proposed rule-making on this issue that is being discussed at a national level by industry and PHMSA (federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and emergency responders currently recommend a one-hour response time to shut off valves during a pipeline incident,” Welch said.

The massive explosion in Salem was felt by residents miles away, shot flames about 300 feet into the air and scorched about a half-mile of farmland. A nearby resident was severely burned, and the fire destroyed one house and damaged several others.

A portion of Route 819 near the explosion remains closed because of damage.

Officials at the Houston, Texas-based energy company said a joint investigation into the cause with the federal safety agency is ongoing and is focused on weld coatings along the length of an interstate pipeline.

Officials said preliminary findings suggest tape coating on the exterior of the welds may have caused corrosion at the joints, and that could have been a factor in the explosion.

“Automatic shutoff valves on transmission lines were recommended to be adopted ... back in 2011 (by the National Transportation Safety Board), but nothing's ever been done,” Segina said at the meeting. “It's a shame.”

The NTSB urged its safety department to require automatic shutoff valves on pipelines in “high-consequence areas” where people, property or the environment could suffer serious damage. The suggestion followed an investigation into a gas line explosion in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2010, that resulted in eight deaths and more than 50 injuries.

After five years, the PHMSA announced this spring that it is updating pipeline safety regulations, but a requirement that automatic shutoff valves be installed isn't among them.

The proposed regulations include a recommendation that pipelines built before 1970 be tested. Pipelines built before 1970 currently are exempted from certain safety regulations because they were in operation before those regulations existed.

The 30-inch transmission pipeline in Salem that failed would not have been impacted because it was constructed in 1981 and was regularly inspected. A 36-inch line was installed in 1991.

However, two of three other pipelines in the right of way would fall under the mandate, as they were constructed in the 1950s and late 1960s.

According to company officials, the ruptured pipe was last inspected in 2012, and the others are inspected every seven years or less.

The four lines are part of Spectra's Texas Eastern Pipeline, which runs from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Eastern Pennsylvania, and are considered a major source of natural gas for power plants and home heating throughout the Northeast.

“It's too early in this process to determine the specific actions we will take on that line,” said company spokesman Welch. “No incident is acceptable, and our focus is on incident prevention and the safety and integrity of our pipelines.”

Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash.-based group promoting pipeline safety through education and advocacy, is disappointed that PHMSA did not include a requirement for automatic shutoff valves or remote shutoff valves in the new regulations.

“This has not been an issue for just the past five years, but I'd say there have been discussions for at least 20 years. Despite numerous endorsements including the NTSB, we never seem to quite get there,” Weimer said.

Some gas industry and pipeline industry groups oppose stricter shutoff regulations. The American Petroleum Institute and Association of Oil Pipeline submitted research to the NTSB showing the cost of retrofitting valves to be remotely controlled could be $1.5 million per valve.

“When they announced the new regulations, they said this one will be done in the future. We're wondering when will that be ... three, four or five years from now?” Weimer said.

“There is an argument whether an automatic shutoff valve or a remote control shutoff valve controlled by a company employee in a control room somewhere would be better, but either one would certainly better than having someone have to drive to a site to manually shut off a valve,” he said.

While Salem resident Tammie Smillie said she appreciated Spectra officials answering questions at the public forum, she thought residents' concerns about manual shutoff valves and the continued detour around Route 819 “are valid.”

“I felt the blast and I saw it. We're a very close-knit community and stick together,” Smillie said. “In these type of situations, a minute can cost a life.”

Andy Drake, Spectra's vice president of operations and environmental health and safety, said the company is focusing on the immediate needs of the community and learning what happened so another incident can be averted.

“This incident and the impact it has had on this community is completely unacceptable to us,” Drake said.

Drake said company officials realize they have to earn back trust in the community.

“Right now, we realize we need to bring ourselves back. If you believe something happened to your property that may have compromised it, we want to know about it,” he said. “No incident is acceptable to us.”

The comment period on the new regulations ends July 7. Details are available at www.phmsa.dot.gov.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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