CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — For years, critics have recommended that natural gas companies be required to install automatic or remote shut-off valves on pipelines to avoid just the kind of explosion that leveled homes and melted a West Virginia interstate this week.
And yet ever since a similar blast destroyed eight apartment buildings in New Jersey 18 years ago, the accidents keep happening. And fires rage — sometimes an hour, sometimes longer — while someone struggles to cut off the flow of fuel.
Federal investigators said it took Columbia Gas Transmission more than an hour to manually shut off the gas that fueled Tuesday's inferno near Sissonville, about 15 miles from Charleston.
An investigation is under way to determine what caused the explosion and whether Columbia responded quickly enough. Four homes were destroyed and an 800-foot section of Interstate 77 had to be replaced, but no one was seriously injured in the explosion that sent flames as high as nearby hilltops.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the West Virginia investigation, has long advocated requiring valves that could shut off gas in such situations within minutes.
Instead of requiring someone on the scene to manually shut off the flow of gas, an automatic valve closes when a sensor detects fluctuations in pressure or other criteria. A remote switch can be triggered from afar if an engineer sees questionable data. Currently, manual valves are required at intervals — from every 2 ½ to 10 miles — based on population density.
Safety officials argue the automatic or remote valves allow the gas to be shut off much quicker, giving firefighters access to the damaged area much sooner. But industry officials complain they're too expensive to install on the more than 2.6 million miles of pipeline already crisscrossing the U.S.
"Safety costs money, and it can either cost money up front, or it can cost innocent lives and untold tragedy to others who are in the proximity of these pipelines when they explode," said Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB from 1994 through January 2001. "The price is set. It's just do we pay it up front now or pay it later?"
Hall has been pushing for the change since 1994, when the Edison, N.J., explosion injured 29 people and left hundreds homeless. One person died of a heart attack. That was the first time emergency and automatic shut-off valves were proposed, he said.
"The industry has failed to step up," Hall said Friday. "The companies' attitude is, in many cases, unless it's required, they're not going to do it."
While Congress signaled support for the automatic or remote valves in a law signed by President Barack Obama this year, it remains uncertain what final regulations will look like and whether they will target only new or completely replaced pipelines, or also include the existing ones.
"I suspect we'll see something coming forward. How inclusive it is will be the key," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, which supports requiring the valves, especially in more populated areas.
The law gives the U.S. Secretary of Transportation the final say in the regulations, and it would mandate them only when it's "economically, technically and operationally feasible" to do so.