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Federal agency orders testing of 3 more natural gas pipelines in Westmoreland explosion area

| Wednesday, July 20, 2016, 1:36 p.m.
Charred trees surround a chimney that remains after a home was destroyed as a result of natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township near the intersection of Route 819 and Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.  The occupant was injured.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Charred trees surround a chimney that remains after a home was destroyed as a result of natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township near the intersection of Route 819 and Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016. The occupant was injured.

The federal agency investigating a natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem has found similar corrosion on a parallel pipeline and ordered Spectra Energy to verify the integrity of the entire transmission line from Delmont to Lambertville, N.J.

Investigation by Spectra and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has shown that in addition to the failed line, three others in the same right of way at the site potentially were damaged or adversely affected by the explosion and fire.

They “pose a serious risk to life, property or the environment if returned to normal operation” unless the operator takes additional corrective actions, Alan K. Mayberry, acting associate administrator for the pipeline agency, wrote in a 13-page order.

The rupture of the 30-inch line the morning of April 29 sent a massive fireball hundreds of feet into the air, scorching about 40 acres of farmland, destroying a home, damaging several others and leaving nearby resident James Baker, 26, with extensive burns.

The amended order from the federal agency said assessment of a 24-inch pipeline that shares a right of way with the 30-inch exploded pipe “has shown a pattern of external corrosion with characteristics similar to the condition that caused the failure,” the federal agency said in its updated order.

The two other pipelines that share the right of way, another 30-inch line and a 36-inch line, comprise a significant segment of the infrastructure that delivers natural gas to the northeastern U.S.

Texas-based Spectra operates the Texas Eastern Pipeline.

Spectra officials said this month the company had begun an assessment of the entire Penn-Jersey pipeline system of the four parallel pipes.

“The work described in the amended (order) is well-aligned with the work plan we developed as part of our thorough assessment of the entire Penn-Jersey system, including anomaly investigations, in-line inspections and hydrostatic testing. We have begun or completed many of the action items in the amended (order),” Spectra spokesman Creighton Welch said.

“Spectra Energy continues to support PHMSA's ongoing investigation,” Welch added. “We expect the root cause analysis will likely be complete by late summer or early fall.”

Carl Weimer, executive director of the advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, said federal safety regulators have required other operators to verify the safety and integrity of large sections of pipeline after several other serious accidents.

“Oftentimes when a pipeline fails, they will find similar problems on other pipelines in the system. It may be that they found corrosion on enough pipelines where the failure was that they want them to take a deeper look at that whole system,” Weimer said.

Spectra said experts are reviewing inspection data and construction records, performing field investigations, and scheduling additional interior and exterior inspections, including excavating the pipeline in certain areas to examine it from the outside.

“While this is a significant part of U.S. energy infrastructure, we intend to be methodical in our evaluation and take the time we need to do a thorough assessment,” the company posted on its website “We recognize the increased demand for natural gas during the winter heating season and are executing on a plan designed to return to full service by Nov. 1.”

Kim Kelley, owner of Kelley's Pizzeria near the blast site, said she isn't surprised to hear there could be issues with lines adjacent to the one that exploded. She said it's a nagging worry for her and many customers.

“If that one blew, I think the odds on the other ones going is pretty good, and that's kind of scary,” Kelley said. “I know it's a ‘must' that we have to have. I just think there needs to be greater (scrutiny) on them.”

Kelley said she lost customers after the line exploded, but an influx of pipeline workers made up for it. And Spectra made a point of ordering 12 to 14 pizzas at a time to feed its crews.

“I can't complain on that note,” she said.

Next door, at My Sister's Bistro, a sit-down Italian restaurant, the lunch crowd is only just picking up again, owner Theresa Mele said.

“That explosion was devastating — for the (James) Baker family and all the people in the area who have been afraid of something like this happening,” Mele said. “If they're talking about corrosion in the same area ... it's a scary situation.”

The federal pipeline agency said preliminary findings indicate the Salem explosion was caused by corrosion at tape-coated welds along the pipeline, but officials have yet to officially determine the cause.

Investigators from Spectra, third-party scientists, engineers and federal officials are still investigating.

A 24 12-foot section of 30-inch pipeline buried in the right of way was sent flying 100 feet in the blast. Pieces of the damaged pipeline were forwarded for analysis to an independent metallurgist in Columbus, Ohio.

Within 60 days of Tuesday's order, Spectra has to submit a remedial work plan to the agency for approval, Mayberry said.

Reporter Kari Andren contributed to this article. Debra Erdley and Paul Peirce are staff writers for the Tribune-Review.

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