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WV explosion highlights pipeline safety

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A fireball raises to the sky Dec. 11 following a natural gas pipeline explosion near Pocatalico and Sissonville. A fireball raises to the sky Dec. 11 following a natural gas pipeline explosion near Pocatalico and Sissonville.
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A massive explosion this week of natural gas line at Sissonville is raising questions about natural gas pipeline safety in West Virginia and elsewhere.

The Dec. 11 explosion of a NiSource/Columbia gas pipeline leveled several houses and wrecked a section of Interstate 77, closing the roadway for several hours. The explosion was the 38th natural gas pipeline explosion in the nation this year. But despite the blast and 80- to 90-foot wall of fire that enveloped everything around it, no one is believed to have died from the explosion.

More than 15,000 miles of pipelines lie under West Virginia's surface, including 14,959 devoted to gas transmission, gas gathering and gas distribution. But the explosion this week has some people asking whether those pipelines are safe.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said pipelines are common all over the country, but incidents related to pipelines aren't that common.

"The incidents are very rare. I don't think that it's a cause for any citizen to be alarmed. These pipelines are inspected routinely and they have a very high level of inspection and this particular pipeline would be a USDOT jurisdictional pipeline. The US Department of Transportation oversees the inspection process on this particular line, on lines of this particular type," he said.

Burd said pipelines, such as the either 20-inch or 30-inch pipeline running near Sissonville, operate out of sight out of mind.

"Its only when you have some sort of catastrophic event such as this that people are even truly reminded that they're there," Burd said. "But they're there for a purpose. Without these types of pipelines, we don't energize our nation. That's what brings volumes of natural gas to the state of West Virginia, through the state of West Virginia and to other locations."

NiSource said on its website that natural gas pipelines are highly regulated and must meet rigorous federal and state requirements and oversight.

NiSource staff keeps operating facilities under 24/7 watch. Those staff members gather and monitor data from pipelines and related facilities across the operating system and can control the flow of gas throughout the pipeline network, according to the website.

Employees also physically inspect pipelines to detect potential problems. Many of those inspections are required by law, according to the website, and they include analysis of underground corrosion protection systems along the pipelines in addition to above-ground surveys that detect signs of leaks or other potential problems.

Inspectors also regularly view pipelines from the air to help spot changes or conditions that could pose a threat to the pipeline.

NiSource's procedures are in line with federal requirements. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more than 100 full-time federal inspectors operate out of regional field offices across the country and implement a "comprehensive inspection and enforcement program to verify that pipeline operators comply with pipeline safety regulations." The Office of Pipeline Safety is responsible for overseeing interstate pipelines that cross state boundaries, such as the one that exploded in Sissonville, as well as intrastate pipeline systems in states where there is no certified state partner.

West Virginia has four full-time pipeline inspectors and one manager. According to Susan Small with the West Virginia Public Service Commission, the PSC proposes an annual inspection plan to the PHMSA. The PHMSA then tells the PCS what to inspect. In certain instances, the PSC will inspect the actual lines, but once those lines are buried there's nothing to inspect.

"We do compliance reviews, we do audits, we review the safety procedures that the company is following, we review their record keeping, we review what testing of lines they have done and we will do incident investigations," Small said.

Almost immediately after this week's explosion, Columbia Gas brought in a team of inspectors to assess the situation and determine a possible cause for the explosion, which took place in the vicinity of the Lanham Compressor Station near Sissonville just before 1 p.m. Dec. 11. According to NiSource spokeswoman Anna Kaplan, the fire was quickly contained.

"The site where the incident occurred has been secured and the fire — on a 20-inch transmission line — has been contained," she said. "We have a team of employees working with first responders to assess damages and we'll be working to accommodate the needs of affected residents."

The National Transportation Safety Board later said the pipeline that exploded was 30 inches in diameter, though that remains unclear. Either way, Burd said a 20-inch or 30-inch pipeline is a significant size transmission line.

"They make them bigger than (20 inches) — 30 and 36 inch — but as far as pipelines go, 20 inches is very big."

The NTSB arrived in West Virginia the night of Dec. 11 to begin investigating the cause of the explosion. Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB, said at a Dec. 11 press briefing that the board was investigating a probable cause, but was focused on collecting perishable evidence.

"We are just in the fact-finding phases of this investigation," he said. "This is just the very beginning of the investigation."

Sumwalt pointed out that the NTSB usually gets called to the scene of aviation accidents, but its mission is to investigate all transportation-related accidents. Pipelines transport goods, so it is the NTSB's responsibility to investigate this incident. However, he pointed out, the NTSB likely would not determine the cause of the blast.

"We will not determine the cause of the accident, and we will never speculate," he said. "We will always try to deal with facts."

Sumwalt said a section of the pipe would be cut out and transported to NTSB labs in Washington, D.C., where it would be scrutinized under a microscope. He expects NTSB to remain in Sissonville for up to a week.

Tom Miller, training officer with the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, said the gas line was large, and gas was violently released.

"It creates quite a concussive-like force," Miller said.

According to the NTSB, the maximum allowable pressure for a pipe that size is 1,000 pounds per square inch. At the time of the rupture, the pressure was 929 psi. The pipeline is part of Columbia's network of transmission lines that transports and delivers natural gas primarily to local utility companies, according to a statement from NiSource. Service to those local utilities was not affected by the explosion.

Miller said there were no fatalities associated with the blast as of 5 p.m. Dec. 10, but the fires damaged several homes. No vehicles were on the interstate as the blaze swept through, but a car on Route 21 was damaged and first responders were working to locate possible occupants.

Both NiSource and the fire department were working to gather information.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued a statement saying the explosion was "clearly terrible and dangerous." He said as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he wants to know what went wrong.

"I'm in close contact with state and federal officials, as well as the company involved," Rockefeller said. "It's important that the National Transportation Safety Board is launching a team imminently to conduct a thorough investigation into how and why this happened, and that the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will soon have someone on the scene. I will continue monitoring today's developments, with hope for everyone's continued safety, as we await a determination of the cause of this accident."

Rockefeller introduced legislation that was signed into law in January that strengthened pipeline safety oversight by the federal government and addresses safety issues. The Commerce Committee has held three hearings in the past two years on pipeline safety, and Rockefeller highlighted pipeline safety as part of a field hearing in West Virginia last year on shale gas development. He has also requested a Government Accountability Office study on the safety of onshore gathering pipelines that are currently not subject to federal regulations.

The legislation calls for the installation of automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on new transmission pipelines. It is unclear if the pipe that exploded had such shut-off valves, but reports say gas continued to flow for about an hour, at reduced pressure, after the blast. It is also unclear how old this pipeline is or what material was used to construct it.

This isn't the first time a natural gas pipeline has exploded in West Virginia. On Aug. 5, 2002, a pipeline exploded and caught fire west of Route 622 on Poca River Road near Lanham. Emergency workers evacuated some families who lived close to the explosion, and Kanawha and Putnam county residents in the area were asked to shelter in place. Parts of the pipeline were thrown hundreds of yards away, around and across Poca River. Crews could not contain the fire for several hours because valves to shut down the line did not exist. The glow of the flames could be seen for several miles.

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