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Pipeline defects were missed by operator prior to fatal 2019 explosion

23 June 2020

A federal report has revealed that a natural gas pipeline in Kentucky, US had several defects which its operator had missed during nine years of self-inspections prior to it suffering an explosion in August 2019. The pipeline, which is operated by Enbridge subsidiary Texas Eastern Transmission LP, exploded in the early hours of the morning, killing one person and injuring six others.

Aerial view of the accident area - Image: NTSB
Aerial view of the accident area - Image: NTSB

Although the federal officials who have been investigating the incident did not say the defects caused the explosion, the findings meant that Texas Eastern has been ordered to review 20 years of tests and figures to see if similar defects are likely to be present in other parts of the 775-mile (1247km) long Line 15.

Texas Eastern’s Line 15 ruptured and exploded in the early hours of August 1, 2019 in Moreland, around 40 miles (65 km) south of Lexington. The blast destroyed railroad tracks and several homes in a nearby mobile home park where a woman was killed, and six people were hospitalised. It was the second incident to occur on Enbridge’s Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline in 2019 after two people were injured by an explosion in Ohio on January 21. The Texas Eastern pipeline measures 30 inches (76 cm) in diameter and runs from the Mexican border in Texas up to New York City.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the incident and is yet to determine the exact cause of the blast.

The details of undetected defects in Texas Eastern’s pipelines were revealed in a corrective order which was amended by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in April 2020. The order was first given shortly after the August 2019 explosion and aimed to ensure that the rest of Texas Eastern and Enbridge’s pipelines were safe.

The PHMSA’s order showed that Texas Eastern inspected the inside of the pipeline in 2011 and found no evidence of ‘hard spots’ which can develop into failure points. However, a review of the data from that inspection by the PHMSA showed that there were in fact 12 hard spots in the section of the pipeline which failed in 2019.
In another inspection in 2018 conducted by Texas Eastern, the pipeline operator found a “small dent with metal loss” on the part of the pipeline which failed a year later in August 2019. However, federal pipeline safety regulations meant that the defect did not require corrective action because too few people lived in the vicinity of the pipeline, the PHMSA order shows.

Following the review of the hard spots, the PHMSA said that continued operation of the line would result in the likelihood of harm to life, property, and the environment. As well as resulting in the review of 20 years’ worth of pipeline inspection data, the amended corrective order also requires surveying for leaks along the entire line and for Texas Eastern to report all actions that it is taking to fix the problems.

A spokesperson for Enbridge said that neither Enbridge not Texas Eastern will comment on the investigation or corrective order while the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation continues.

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