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NTSB: Pipe Safety Top Transport Challenge in 2013

In the wake of key natural gas pipeline ruptures and explosions in the past two years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has placed pipeline safety on the list of the 10 top transportation challenges that will face the nation in 2013.

The agency's so-called "Most Wanted" list, which it issues each year, identifies problem areas in 10 transportation modes, including pipeline transmission. According to the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 34 serious pipeline incidents in 2010 in which 19 people were killed, 104 were injured and 3,104 bbl of hazardous liquid were spilled. In 2011, 12 people were killed and 55 injured in 34 serious pipeline incidents.

The most serious pipeline blast occurred in September 2010 on the Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) system in San Bruno, CA, where eight people were killed (see NGI, Sept. 13, 2010). An explosion involving a gas pipeline in Allentown, PA, in February 2011 killed five people (see NGI, Feb. 14, 2011).

In the final report on the San Bruno rupture, the NTSB said that the probable cause was a combination of "inadequate quality assurance and quality control" in 1956 when the failed part of PG&E's Line 132 was relocated, and a failed pipeline integrity management program (see NGI, Sept.5, 2011). Along with the utility's poor pipeline management, the federal board also singled out the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for criticism of its oversight of PG&E. The investigation of the Allentown blast is being handled by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which has not yet finalized its report.

"The first key to enhancing pipeline safety is to improve oversight of the industry. Many of these accidents occurred because the pipeline operator's safety program was insufficient to identify potential problems," the NTSB said last Wednesday in its "2013 Most Wanted List.".

In both the San Bruno explosion and an oil pipeline rupture in Marshall, MI, in 2010, "we identified a delay in the operator's understanding of the nature of the rupture and leak and therefore a delay in activating an appropriate response. Pipelines delivering products like natural gas into residential areas must have automatic excess flow valves that terminate the flow of product upon reaching a certain threshold."

Onshore and offshore natural gas transmission lines and gathering pipelines in the United States account for 321,000 miles of the delivery system, while gas distribution mains and services total more than two million miles, the NTSB said. With respect to hazardous liquids lines, there are more than 175,0000 of onshore and offshore pipelines.

In response to the NTSB's "Most Wanted" list, Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), said, "INGAA members are addressing all of the issues that the NTSB has outlined as concerns about the pipeline industry, and more. We are ensuring that all pipelines, regardless of their age, are fit for service. We are working to ensure that safety practices are top-notch."

In 2010, following the San Bruno incident, Santa noted that INGAA created a board-level pipeline safety task force to pursue ways to further improve the industry's safety performance. In early 2011, it also established five guiding principles of pipeline safety, anchored with an overarching goal of zero pipeline accidents. That goal was not met that year, given there were 34 serious pipeline accidents, according to the PHMSA.

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