Poorly maintained gas pipelines put increasing numbers at risk

Original Reporting | By David Cay Johnston |

Gas transmission pipelines operate at pressures of up to 1,500 pounds per square inch. By way of comparison, many home power washers emit water at roughly the same pressure.

The outlet on a home power washer, however, is but a fraction of an inch across, whereas pipelines are up to 42 inches in diameter, propelling massively more volume and generating enormously higher overall force. (The San Bruno pipeline, which was 30 inches in diameter, actually did its damage operating at the lower pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch.)

For natural gas pipelines the size and pressure of the one in San Bruno, the fatal fire zone for flat land is 660-feet in every direction, with buildings and trees giving the fleet footed at the outer edges some chance of escape.

Potential impact in a high-density area

In Manhattan, the entry points for high pressure natural gas pipelines include the tip of the island, the Lower East Side and near Tudor City in midtown, as well as near the mouths of the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the George Washington Bridge — all areas with multi-story apartments and some with high rise office buildings.

Imagine a natural gas line erupting here.

The good news is that buildings would limit the range of the fireball, Dan Nigro, retired chief of the New York Fire Department, said.

But flames would pour from the cratered area so long as the gas flowed, igniting flammable materials in the streets.

Professor Glenn Corbett, who teaches fire safety management at John Jay College in Manhattan and is also a fire captain in New Jersey, said when a ruptured pipeline exploded in Edison, N.J., in 1994 it took more than 600 manual turns of a valve to shut off the gas, a process that took six hours.

“There is no question you will ignite some surrounding buildings,” Professor Corbett said.

His colleague, Professor Charles Jennings, said a Manhattan pipeline blast “could be much worse than San Bruno just because it is a much denser area.”

Fuel tanks in vehicles, underground heating oil storage tanks, and urban furniture could all add to the flames.

Once the electric power stopped, those in elevators would be trapped.

People in tall buildings would have to navigate emergency stairwells, a difficult task for the elderly and disabled. “The chance of this happening is very small, but if it does happen, the costs in life, in services being shut off and reconstruction would be enormous,” Corbett said.

New York City building codes exempt buildings built through the 1980s from having to incorporate many design features that for decades have been standard in many other cities.

These include high-rise apartment buildings that do not have sprinkler systems, and other multiple dwellings that have fire escapes that are behind locked doors.

Con Edison, which distributes natural gas in much of Manhattan, conducts annual training drills with the New York Fire Department in case one of the high-pressure transmission lines ruptures. The most recent training was last weekend, spokesman Chris Olert said.

There are another 200,000 miles or so of petroleum pipelines that also use high pressure to move gasoline, kerosene and jet fuel, often heated to a scalding temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far most transmission pipeline blasts have taken place in rural or suburban areas, but transmission pipelines also run into all big cities.

“Imagine a pipeline blowing up in Manhattan with its high rise apartment buildings and hospitals,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit financed with damages from a pipeline rupture, (see sidebar).


From unregulated to lightly regulated

Until 2002 America’s roughly 2.5 million miles of natural gas and liquid petroleum pipelines were not subject to any mandatory safety inspections. Even now, regulation is mostly left to trusting pipeline owners. They must develop “integrity management plans” and inspect the entire pipeline every seven years, with some exceptions. The government employs only 88 auditors nationwide, about 20 fewer than authorized in its budget, to review pipeline safety reports and conduct some field inspections.

The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act that President George W. Bush signed in 2002 was expected to cost the industry $11 billion over 20 years, but instead its actual implementation will cost just $4.7 billion because, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said, the law gave the Office of Pipeline Safety “some discretion” in deciding what actions pipeline companies must take. The discretionary actions include requiring fewer and less expensive shut-off valve systems, and exempting some pipeline segments from internal inspections that use inline information tools. These tools, known as “pigs,” travel down pipelines and use lasers to measure damage to pipeline walls.

Just 7 percent of natural gas lines and 44 percent of petroleum lines are subject to mandatory inspection under the 2002 safety rules, which are supposed to apply to densely populated and environmentally sensitive areas.

The principal problem with the 2002 law, critics including engineering experts say, is that it relies too much on self-reporting, allows inadequate safety warnings, and lacks teeth when it comes to penalties. From 2002 to 2008, PHMSA collected 294 fines averaging almost $55,000; in 2009, the agency collected 12 fines averaging almost $145,000.

To put the scope of the fines in context: in 2006, the most recent year for which full data are available, the collective net income of the transmission pipeline industry (gas and petroleum) totalled more than $5 billion.

The 2002 law was seen by supporters as a first step, which they anticipated would lead to more encompassing regulations of transmission pipelines. But no further substantive changes to transmission pipeline regulations were ever put in place.

The Department of Transportation insists that it and PHMSA — its pipeline office — take safety issues seriously. “Safety is the number one priority,” wrote department spokesperson Maureen Knightly in an email reply to Remapping Debate’s inquiries (a request for an interview was denied). Knightly’s email stated that PHMSA conducted 800-900 inspections a year, and provided generalized assurances that PMHSA “reviews all available data to determine inspection frequency and focus.” But she did not respond to questions about the reasons PHMSA is seeking expanded authority to grant safety waivers, or about what steps it has taken to inform people who are not property owners (such as workers, shoppers and children) that they are near a pipeline granted a safety waiver.

Pipeline Safety Trust’s Weimer considers the Transportation Department’s safety-first claims almost laughable.

“The overarching problem with the current pipeline safety regulatory system is the undue influence that the pipeline industry has on every aspect of how those regulations are designed and enforced,” Weimer said. “The industry deluges rule making processes with their public relations people and lawyers, and most regulators have either come from the industry they now regulate or plan to go to work for that industry once they leave government service.”

At pipeline safety conferences, Weimer said, he is often the only one present who is not an industry advocate or regulator.

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