WV gas explosion comes amid line shut-off debate

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 15, 2012 at 12:35 pm •  Published: December 15, 2012
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West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who has proposed even stronger restrictions, said recent high-profile gas explosions like that in his home state underscore the need for stronger oversight. The investigation into the Sissonville explosion may reveal that further steps are needed, he said.

"Pipeline safety is a serious matter, one that shook West Virginia quite literally this week," said Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which overseas transmission pipeline safety.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is studying the issue, but it has seen pushback from the gas industry over concerns the costs are too high and the benefits too uncertain.

In its 300-plus-page draft report submitted in October, researchers found installing the automatic or remote valves could be feasible and even cost-effective in some circumstances, but not all. A final report is due in 2013.

In public comments to the draft report, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said valve automation "can help protect some property by allowing earlier firefighter access, but does little to protect people." Most of the deaths and severe injuries are caused in the first few seconds after an explosion, the group argued, rather than after prolonged exposure.

In his comments, American Gas Association counsel Philip Bennett said his organization supported installing the valves when it was feasible, but argued it should be determined on a case-by-case basis. "Rapid, indiscriminate, mandatory installation" would not improve safety, he said.

But Hall said that "flies in the face" of the evidence from the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people. The NTSB determined the damage could have been significantly reduced with the use of automatic or remote shut-off valves. In that case, it took the company more than an hour and a half to shut off the gas.

"The industry record on this has been dismal," he said. "And now, with the amount of new pipe that's being put in place in the U.S., as well as the age of the pipe that is in the ground, it is important that government and industry come together to effectively provide safety programs that address some of these outstanding recommendations."

Meanwhile, the NTSB is looking into whether Columbia's pipeline was shut down properly.

Columbia alone transports 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day through nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines snaking through 10 states. The company's owner, NiSource Gas Transmissions & Storage, refused to answer questions on how many of its pipelines were fitted with automatic or remote shut-off valves, with a spokeswoman saying it was too busy cooperating with investigators to provide such information.

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Smith reported from Morgantown, W.Va.

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