Most days the millions of miles of the nation's natural gas pipeline operate "without a hitch," but major incidents like a recent explosion at Sissonville call attention to problems that could be lurking below.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., hosted a field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee in Charleston on Jan. 28 to look closer at pipeline safety and what is being done to ensure Americans' safety. Rockefeller is chairman of the committee, which oversees transportation safety, including pipelines, as part of its vast duties.
"Everyone in this room knows all too well what can happen when something goes wrong," Rockefeller said in opening statements of the field hearing. "Last month's incident in Sissonville was a startling reminder of the destruction that can occur when a pipeline ruptures. Houses were destroyed and portions of the nearby interstate were literally disintegrated by the overwhelming heat of flames from the rupture's pipes."
Multiple homes were severely damaged by the blaze that followed the explosion, however no one was killed or injured.
Columbia Gas Transmission and NiSource owned the 20-inch pipeline that exploded Dec. 11. Inspectors with the National Transportation Safety Board who came to West Virginia immediately after the explosion said the blast was caused, at least in part, by corrosion. Inspectors said at least one section of the pipeline had eroded to less than a third of its original thickness.
The force of the explosion sent a 20-foot section of pipe more than 40 feet from its original location. The released gas created a crater about 75 feet long, 35 feet wide and up to 14 feet deep.
The Jan. 28 field hearing came not only in the wake of the pipeline incident, but also in a period of great expansion in the natural gas industry. Increased activity in the Marcellus and Utica shale gas plays means more gas is being transported, and the need for pipeline infrastructure is growing.
Local emergency officials have been supportive of Columbia/NiSource, claiming that if the pipeline had been owned by a different gas company, the damage from the explosion might have been worse. That's because emergency responders say Columbia had open communication with them before, during and after the incident.
However, better communication with emergency responders has been singled out as a concern.
"While Columbia Gas had been engaged with the local community, we were informed that cooperation and coordination between the local community and other pipeline operators could be improved," said Cynthia L. Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. "We will do what is necessary to ensure that this is corrected as quickly as possible."
Some of the biggest challenges facing operators of the pipeline system were repeated by many of the guests. On older pipelines, stopping the flow of gas after an incident and detecting leaks are a major challenge.
"For years, after each new pipeline tragedy, we have been invited to testify about what's needed to prevent more such tragedies," testified Rick Kessler, president of the Pipeline Safety Trust. "Unfortunately, here we are again after the very recent failure of a pipeline in Sissonville."
Kessler said an operator's ability to quickly respond to an incident — either with automatic or remote valves — is crucial. Many older pipelines don't have this technology, meaning gas workers must physically turn a valve off, a process that can take a crew 30 minutes or even more than an hour.
Leak detection systems, Kessler said, also rarely detect a leak prior to incidents.
"In the case where the natural gas ignites, such as in Sissonville, the closure of these valves is what can halt the blowtorch effect on the neighborhood and allow emergency responders to access the area to do their jobs," Kessler said.
Kessler said he also advocated for stronger integrity management plans. Right now, only about 7 percent of gas transmission lines are required to have an integrity management plan, he said. Sissonville was one of the areas that was not required to have such a plan to ensure the quality of the pipeline.
The Senate committee inquired into the process for determining "high consequence" areas during the hearing.
"You have pipes that are considered of high consequence, that means they are potentially very dangerous, very central to potential danger," Rockefeller said. "… What was interesting in Sissonville, was that the pipe that went up was not considered of high consequence. That obviously wasn't correct. There were two close by that were considered of high consequence."
Rockefeller said identification as a high-consequence would have brought more scrutiny to the pipeline.
While federal regulations have strengthened pipeline safety measures in the past year, Rockefeller said more needs to be done.
During a media briefing before the event, Rockefeller chided one federal agency, the Office of Management and Budget, for holding up important rules.
"There's a really worry on my part that the Office of Management and Budget, totally unknown to the American people," Rockefeller said. "Totally unspeakable about by federal folks, because they can't, is slowing all this process down, maybe anti-rules and regulations in some cases that could affect things like this from not happening again."
Rockefeller said the OMB "bothers me greatly," because it frequently has pre-approved agency testimony and otherwise held up the implementation of rules.