- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

A federal report released yesterday blamed a damaged gas pipeline for a 1998 fatal explosion in South Riding, Va., and recommended that natural-gas companies nationwide be required to install shut-off valves on their pipelines.
The report has prompted federal safety regulators to reconsider safety rules that have been rejected for the past 25 years as dependent on ineffective technology.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all gas companies nationwide be required to install "excess-flow valves" on their pipelines. The valves shut off the flow of gas when it begins leaking, similar to the way circuit breakers shut off electrical current in a home when a short circuit occurs.
The recommendation stems from the investigation of a July 7, 1998, explosion at the home of the Jacobs family in Loudoun County.
Andrea Bea Jacobs, 40, was killed. Her husband, David Jacobs, then 44, was seriously injured. Their two children were slightly injured when leaking gas from a nearby pipeline accumulated in their basement and exploded as it hit the pilot light of their home heater. The family was asleep while spending the first night in their new home. The blast blew the children out of their bedroom windows onto the grass below.
The NTSB has made similar recommendations several times since 1976. However, the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), the federal agency that regulates gas pipeline safety, rejected them. RSPA requires only that gas companies inform new homeowners, or homeowners whose service is being repaired, that the excess-flow valves are available as an option.
If RSPA adopts the NTSB recommendation, the valves will be mandatory for all gas companies rather than an option that customers purchase individually. The valves cost about $100 apiece.
"In the past, we had a hard time justifying their usefulness as far as whether they would work," said Patricia Klinger, RSPA spokeswoman.
Often, the valves would automatically shut off gas during cold weather in Northern states or when soil shifted during land movements along the West Coast. Meanwhile, customers would be left without gas while the distribution companies worked to restart the flow.
"The debate has been ongoing for well over 20 years," Miss Klinger said. "Technology has improved and we are going to look at the issue again."
About half the nation's gas companies have installed excess-flow valves on their pipelines, according to the NTSB.
The American Gas Association, which represents local gas utilities, said it is still studying the NTSB recommendation.
"It may not be useful in all situations," said Peggy Laramie, American Gas Association spokeswoman. "Excess flow valves do not prevent incidents from happening. They can help to stem the flow of natural gas following an accident."
Although the gas company does not dispute the NTSB recommendation, the valve is only one of several safety procedures needed, said Tim Sargeant, Washington Gas spokesman.
"It takes a series of safety measures to prevent accidents, including separation standards, inspections, worker training, odorants and also reduction of third-party damage," Mr. Sargeant said. Odorants refer to chemicals added to natural gas to give it an easily detectable scent.
Since January 1999, Washington Gas has installed excess-flow valves on all new and repaired service. It offers the valves as an option to customers with existing service who wish to pay for them.
The board's recommendation would not require gas companies to retrofit all pipelines that already are installed. Instead, the valves would be phased in as new or repaired gas lines are connected. Officials acknowledged the process would take years to make a significant safety improvement nationwide.
The NTSB reported the South Riding explosion was caused by corrosion on electrical conduit that ran next to the gas pipeline. Construction workers digging in the area at an undetermined date apparently had damaged the electrical wiring, leading to the buildup of corrosion. The corrosion caused a short circuit, which melted a hole in a section of gas pipeline only 1 inch away. The gas seeped throughout the neighborhood, including the 150 feet to the Jacobs' basement.
A neighbor returning home late at night smelled gas, walked up and down the street trying to find the source of it and then reported the leak to Washington Gas. Half an hour later, before repairs could be made, the Jacobs' home exploded.
The NTSB also recommended that gas companies be required to leave a minimum safe clearance between their pipelines and electrical conduit to prevent similar accidents.
As the NTSB debated yesterday whether to approve the excess-flow-valve recommendation, board member John Goglia lamented the possibility of another conflict with the RSPA, saying, "Are we going back to where we were?"
Bob Chipkevich, NTSB's pipeline safety director, said, "I believe RSPA is in a position where they are willing to re-look at that issue."
Both the NTSB and RSPA are agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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