Poorly maintained gas pipelines put increasing numbers at risk

Original Reporting | By David Cay Johnston |

Utility workers across the country said in interviews that they believe they and customers are being put at risk by cost-cutting that they say began with the deregulation of gas distribution.

“All the gas utility companies are basically playing the odds,” said Charlie D. Rittenhouse, president of the Utility Workers of  America Local 98 in West Virginia. “They’ve cut the workforces and cut the workforces and cut the workforces while at the same time keeping the CEOs and top executive wages going up and up and up. A major concern for our group and many other groups we deal with [is that] there’s not enough people there to do the work.”

Documents in rate cases filed by several utilities show that they have reduced spending on pipeline maintenance or, in the case of Pacific Gas & Electric, have diverted money approved for increased pipeline maintenance to what the company considered more pressing needs.

PG&E gave Remapping Debate data showing it spent $698 million over the past seven years on its 6,400 miles of transmission pipelines or about $15,000 per mile annually. It costs about $3.7 million per mile to build onshore transmission pipelines in 2010, the Oil & Gas Journal reported, indicating PG&E spends about four-tenths of one percent of construction costs per mile on safety. Just how that money was spent and whether it was adequate are among the issues being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission and a State Senate committee.

PHMSA does not analyze data on safety spending, spokesman Knightly said.


“De-rating” a pipeline

Shutting down a pipeline for repairs or replacement is costly, so pipeline owners prefer a different approach as corrosion eats through pipeline walls and water, earth movements, and “dings” from earthmoving equipment damage exterior walls and welds. The pipeline companies just reduce the pressure in the pipeline, explained Gordon Allen Aaker, Jr., a pipeline engineer in Kingwood, Tex., who consults on safety issues to both pipeline companies and those who sue them.

“It’s called de-rating,” Aaker said. He and others say by allowing pipelines to lower the maximum rated pressure at which gas and petroleum can be moved, the rules discourage maintenance and all but completely unavoidable repairs.

He said if engineers determine that a pipeline wall must be an inch thick to operate at maximum pressure the pipeline may be built with steel that is an inch and 3/8ths thick.

Can you find the pipeline?

Technically PHMSA does disclose where safety waivers are granted. But the language is cryptic. Here is a typical description, for a third of a mile segment of the Empire State Pipeline in Western New York:

Special Permit Segment 2 - 24-inch Empire State Pipeline mainline, approximately 1,715 feet in length, located in Monroe County, NY from Survey Station 4018 + 73 to Survey Station 4035 + 88; (MP 76.09 to MP 76.42)

Just where is this pipeline? Unless you know the proprietary mile marking system the pipeline company uses you cannot determine the area exempted from the safety regulations.

How about getting map coordinates, street intersections or street addresses at the start and end of the section?

Empire Pipeline’s president, Ronald C. Kraemer, was very helpful in explaining some fine points of the regulations, but he would not tell me just where the pipeline and the safety waiver segment are located because the government and the company treat that information as confidential.

The federal Office of Pipeline Safety publishes maps of pipelines, but only state and local government officials who register can get access and then only for the area within their jurisdiction. Citizens can look, but at maps of such low resolution as to be almost useless.

I called the Office of Pipeline Safety at the Department of Transportation as a resident who wanted to locate the segment of gas transmission pipeline cited in the safety waiver above so I could determine if I or my family were affected. I was put through to the standards office, where a very genial government worker listened to my request and said, “I don’t think there’s a way you can do that.”

The public affairs office would not take my call. Instead spokeswoman Patricia Klinger had a clerk call me to ask me to email questions. Getting no response, I went to Transportation Secretary LaHood’s office. Maureen Knightly, a LaHood spokeswoman, said exact pipeline locations are withheld because of concerns that Al Qaeda and similar organizations might use maps showing where pipelines are buried to blow them up.

In fact, pipelines are marked with yellow posts at various points along their route. Any would-be terrorist with a little time, therefore, could follow the markings to determine where blowing up a pipeline would do the most damage.

Residents, on the other hand, are not very likely to engage in that kind of scouting mission. Knightly said that if you want to know if you are near a pipeline, and whether it is covered by a waiver, then you “would need to contact [your] state’s one-call center or local underground utility locator.” That number is 811 or, to get a toll-free direct-dial number for the nearest one-call center, 1-888-258-0808.

Calling those numbers will let you find out if you are near a pipeline, but not whether that pipeline has been granted a safety rules waiver.

How reliable the information will be is uncertain, The Houston Chronicle, in 2006, reported that many pipelines were located far from where they were shown on maps and some were not on maps at all.

If the Transportation rules making it difficult to identify pipelines were in place because of concerns about terrorists, Pacific Gas & Electric, the operator of the San Bruno pipeline that exploded in September, may have some explaining to do. After the explosion, it released to the public detailed pipeline maps, including transmission maps. The company said it did so as part of an effort to restore trust in its pipeline operations.

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