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US Senate debates country’s pipeline problems

31 January 2013

The US Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation relocated to Charleston, West Virginia, on January 28 for hearings on issues affecting the country’s pipeline network. This follows the December 2012 natural gas transmission pipeline explosion at Sissonville, West Virginia, which destroyed several homes and a section of interstate highway. 

The Sissonville incident destroyed ten houses and a stretch of interstate
The Sissonville incident destroyed ten houses and a stretch of interstate

There have been a number of other high-profile pipeline failures in the last few years, including the September 2010 gas pipeline explosion which killed eight people and destroyed more than 100 homes in San Bruno, California, a suburb of San Francisco.

Also speaking at the hearings were Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Cynthia Quarterman, administrator, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA); Susan Fleming, director, physical infrastructure issues, United States Government Accountability Office (GAO); Jimmy Staton, executive vice president and group CEO, NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage; and Rick Kessler, president of the board, The Pipeline Safety Trust.

The NTSB has already made public some of its findings about the Sissonville incident, including the conclusion that corrosion of the Columbia Gas Transmission (CGT) underground pipeline there had thinned the walls to dangerous levels. The pipeline, and many like it in the state, was built prior to 1970s pipeline safety legislation, and is exempt from many modern regulations.

Another problem was that it took the operator nearly an hour to stop the line’s gas flow by manually closing shutoff valves, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said.

She said that like earlier investigations of the pipeline failure at San Bruno, NTSB had concluded that operators at CGT’s nearest pipeline control center at Charleston had trouble recognising there was a problem.

“At Sissonville, pressure was falling on two other lines as well,” Hersman said. “But the control center received its first notification of the problem at 12:53 p.m. from Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which heard about it from a field technician who was driving by the accident site…. Whether it’s in the control room or with valves, we know it’s taking too long to shut these pipelines down where there’s a problem.”

Although it has not completed its investigation, Hersman said NTSB believes several recurring factors it identified in previous inquiries were involved at Sissonville. Those safety issues include replacing manual shutoff valves with automatic or remote-controlled units, deploying in-line inspection tools, developing strong integrity management programs, and providing better Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system training, Hersman said.

PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman said the US Department of Transportation agency worked closely with NTSB and West Virginia’s Public Service Commission in investigating the Sissonville pipeline explosion. “We are also taking immediate action to determine what additional steps need to be taken to prevent accidents like this from occurring in the future,” she said.

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