AP: Explosion highlights lax pipeline rules

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Since 1969, NTSB has called for the more-sophisticated valves on natural gas or hazardous liquid pipelines eight times.

The first followed a 1970 propane pipeline explosion that injured 10 people in Franklin County, Mo. The NTSB said a fire that raged for an hour and 40 minutes after the initial blast “would have burned out much sooner” if there were valves.

In response, the Transportation Department proposed requiring remotely operated valves on some types of lines. The proposal, however, was later withdrawn. Agency officials concluded in 1981 that such valves were “not an effective means to reduce the accident effects” following a pipeline rupture, saying most damage in pipeline failures comes from the initial blast.

“I made the recommendations for automatic valves because I thought they potentially could have prevented that fire. But nothing happened,” said Henry Shepherd, who was chief of NTSB’s pipeline safety division in the 1970s and lead investigator on the case.

The DOT “would pass around their studies on our safety recommendations to industry to get their feelings on it and it would inevitably come back that our recommendations for valves were too costly or infeasible, which we never felt was valid,” he said.

NTSB again recommended valves after a 1986 gasoline pipeline accident in Mounds View, Minn. Fuel poured through the town for 20 minutes before it ignited, killing two people. The fuel then fed the fire for another hour and 20 minutes.

Congress told transportation officials to study the cost and feasibility of remotely operated or automatic valves for hazardous liquid pipelines. Pipeline companies questioned their reliability — although one company later said it had used automatic shut-off valves since the 1940s with few problems.

By the time the Transportation Department finished its report in 1991, two more pipeline accidents had occurred in which the NTSB concluded closely spaced remotely operated valves could have limited damage.

In one case, it took crews 55 minutes to close the manual valves on a gas line that ruptured following a train crash in San Bernardino, Calif. In the second, propane flowed from a broken line in Blenheim, N.Y., for 21 hours. Although remotely operated valves were in use, the closest one was 47 miles away.

Still, after soliciting industry comments, transportation officials concluded the valves offered “no significant benefit.”

NTSB officials railed against the study, saying it was seriously flawed for not considering the consequences of pipeline accidents in urban areas and because it overlooked new technology that made the valves more reliable.

The issue resurfaced in 1994 with a gas explosion in densely populated Edison, N.J., sending a 400-foot-high column of flames into the sky. It took two-and-a-half hours to shut the manual valves on the spewing 36-inch pipeline. The blast caused $25 million in property damage and two serious injuries.

The NTSB renewed its push for more remotely operated valves.

Transportation officials agreed to another study, but citing industry suggestions, left out the cost of potential damages or lives lost. Instead, the agency factored in the cost of lost fuel when pipelines break. The officials ultimately declined to require the valves, saying that they were not cost-effective.

The agency cited a study commissioned by the industry-supported Gas Research Institute. It estimated costs of $32,332 per valve for a transmission pipeline such as the San Bruno one. The report put a price tag of at least $300 million on installing valves across the nation’s 300,000-mile gas transmission system.

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