With deaths from exploding residential-area pipelines on the rise, the federal government has launched an initiative to repair and replace aging pipelines across the nation’s 2.5 million-mile network.
In a press conference Monday in Allentown, PA, where five people were killed Feb. 9 in a natural-gas pipeline explosion, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called on the nation’s 3,000 pipeline owners and operators to conduct comprehensive reviews of their systems to identify high-risk areas and accelerate critical repair and replacement work. DOT will provide technical assistance in that effort.
“I want to be able to say to people, when you throw a light switch, you shouldn’t cause an explosion in your front yard,” LaHood said earlier in a published interview. “We ought to have the decency to tell people there’s a pipeline in the front yard, if they want to know that.”
LaHood also called for federal legislation aimed at strengthening pipeline safety oversight, proposed increased fines for violations, and announced plans to convene a Pipeline Safety Forum on April 18 in Washington, DC.
Fewer Accidents, More Deaths
The number of U.S. pipeline accidents causing injury or death has declined nearly 50 percent over the last 20 years, to a current annual average of 42, according to the Department of Transportation. There were 36 such incidents in 2010.
However, the number of deaths has increased steadily—from nine in 2008, to 13 in 2009, and 22 in 2010—and three pipelines have ruptured nationwide just since July. U.S. pipeline accidents now kill an average of 15 people per year.
San Bruno Fire Department
Balls of flame rise over San Bruno, CA, after a natural-gas
pipeline explosion Sept. 9 killed nine people and leveled
scores of homes and businesses.
The disasters “highlighted the need for pipeline operators to accelerate the repair, rehabilitation, and replacement of their highest risk lines,” DOT said in a statement Monday.
DOT says the three major causes of significant pipeline failures resulting in oil spills or gas explosion are corrosion; damage from digging; and failure of the pipe material, welds or equipment.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been leading the investigation into the deadly explosion of a natural-gas pipeline Sept. 9 in San Bruno, CA. NTSB is focusing attention on bad welds in the pipeline, which Pacific Gas & Electric had said was seamless, and on pipe coatings issues.
In the San Bruno, CA, explosion, the National Transportation
Safety Board noted large areas where coating was lacking
on the underground pipe.
The NTSB is so taxed by the San Bruno investigation that it is leaving the Allentown investigation to Pennsylvania state officials.
Meanwhile, a ruptured pipeline last July in Marshall, MI, dumped more than a million gallons of a petroleum mixture based on Canadian tar sands—an alternative fuel that experts are increasingly saying is far more corrosive than conventional fuels to the pipelines that carry it.
Increased Fines Proposed
Also Monday, LaHood urged Congress to increase the maximum civil penalties for pipeline violations from $100,000 per day to $250,000 per day, and from $1 million to $2.5 million for a series of violations.
He asked Congress to authorize DOT “to close regulatory loopholes, strengthen risk management requirements, add more inspectors, and improve data reporting to help identify potential pipeline safety risks early.”
DOT said the initiative would address immediate safety concerns, such as ensuring that operators know their systems’ age and condition; propose new regulations to strengthen reporting and inspection requirements; and make information about pipelines and operators’ safety records easily accessible to the public.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will also create a new web page to provide clear information about local pipeline networks.
The United States has more than 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, operated by about 3,000 companies.
While PHMSA directly regulates most hazardous liquid pipelines, states oversee intrastate natural-gas pipelines. Each state, except Hawaii and Alaska, is responsible for inspecting and enforcing its own safety laws for the natural-gas systems within the state. About 20 percent of states also regulate the hazardous liquid lines within their borders.
DOT notes that many cast-iron pipelines were installed more than 50 years ago and that most state plans do not require replacement for decades. For example, DOT says:
• Pennsylvania’s systems, which include pipes that are 80 years old, do not have to be replaced until 2111;
• New York’s oldest cast-iron pipes need not be replaced until 2090; and
• Connecticut’s pipelines won’t be completely replaced until 2080.
In an interview with the New York Times, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman said her office lacked the authority to order pipes replaced unless the agency found an “imminent hazard.” Pipes have only to be “fit for service,” she said.
On the other hand, LaHood said, people “don’t care who has jurisdiction” as long as it is coordinated, which is the purpose of the upcoming Forum.
“The point of this is to get everybody around the table and say, ‘OK, another 100 years in the ground is not going to cut it.’”