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El Paso, CIG Fined $2.3M for 2006 Pipeline Blast

The Department of Transportation (DOT) last week levied a $2.3 million civil penalty on El Paso Corp. and its subsidiary Colorado Interstate Gas Co. (CIG) for violations of federal pipeline safety regulations that led to a fatal explosion on a CIG-operated pipeline in Wyoming in November 2006. The fine was the largest ever assessed against a pipeline company under the administrative authority of DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The civil penalty against El Paso and CIG was initially set at $3.3 million, but the DOT agency scaled it back following a hearing with El Paso in October 2008, said DOT spokeswoman Patricia Klinger.

El Paso has "great respect to PHMSA and for the exhaustive investigative process" that it undertook, but it "takes issue with the penalty. We don't believe the penalty reflects the complex facts surrounding this incident and does not take into effect the errors of the constructing pipeline and its contractor, which led to the tragic results," said El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley.

An explosion and fire occurred when a bulldozer struck the Dumas-to-Amarillo natural gas transmission pipeline owned by Wyoming Interstate Co. Ltd. and operated by CIG, both affiliates of El Paso, killing a contract worker in Laramie County, WY, and injuring three (see NGI, Nov. 20, 2006). The blast created a crater approximately 100 feet long and 15 feet deep, and resulted in approximately 60 feet of damaged pipe.

The driver of a bulldozer was working on the Rockies Express Pipeline when the CIG-operated pipeline was hit, according to officials.

In addition to the penalty, the PHMSA issued an order requiring El Paso to take necessary corrective actions to protect the public, property and the environment from potential hazards associated with a failure involving the 24-inch diameter natural gas pipeline. Wheatley said El Paso had yet to see the corrective order, but noted that many of the actions had already been done and implemented.

The PHMSA order limits the operating pressure of the affected pipeline to 80% or less of what it was prior to the explosion; requires El Paso to complete mechanical and metallurgical testing and failure analysis of the failed pipe; and to document the chain of custody when handling and transporting the failed pipe from the failure site.

The order also requires El Paso to perform additional field testing, inspections and evaluations to determine whether and to what extent the conditions associated with the failure, or any other integrity-threatening conditions, are present elsewhere on the affected pipeline.

Wheatley said El Paso and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America have developed a "parallel construction work plan agreement" to protect incumbent pipelines as well as other pipelines coming into an area. It spells out clear responsibilities for pipeline markings, locations and calls for improved communications between pipelines. "We are using it," he said.

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