OPS Takes Action Against El Paso After Another Pipe Failure

The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has issued a "corrective action order" to El Paso Natural Gas in the wake of a pipeline failure on its North Mainline system in mid-August near Flagstaff, AZ.

This latest incident on the El Paso system occurred on Aug. 11 on its Line 1200 near Williams, AZ, and resulted in the discharge of natural gas that later ignited. There were no fatalities or injuries as a result of the failure on the line, which is routed through predominantly rural areas of Arizona. The fire was visible to residents three miles away from the site, who voluntarily evacuated as a precautionary measure, the OPS said. The mishap, which occurred on a Saturday, apparently had no noticeable effect on the spot market.

The 24-inch Line 1200 -- one of four lines that make up the North Mainline -- originates in New Mexico and enters Arizona south of Window Rock, AZ, then moves in a westerly direction towards Flagstaff and continues to Williams, which is located about 36 miles west of Flagstaff.

Immediately following the accident, El Paso personnel "isolated and repaired the failed section," replacing 56 feet of pipe on Line 1200, the OPS said. The line was restarted on Aug. 12 at a reduced pressure of 50 psig, and still is operating at the level. The line had been operating at about 817 psig prior to the failure, said El Paso spokeswoman Kim Wallace.

"It's not having any effect on throughput," she noted, adding that it was "just a small section of line" that was affected. She said Line 1200 will operate at the reduced pressure until an investigation is completed.

"It's really just not anything out of the ordinary," agreed a DOT spokesperson. "I'm not making light of it, but [OPS] didn't feel the need to do anything big and loud" since there were no fatalities, injuries or damages. ""Every [pipeline] leak is important, but unfortunately there are a lot of them and they don't generate the same attention as the big leaks," the spokesperson noted.

A preliminary investigation of the failure, which resulted in an 11-foot long fracture, was inconclusive, according to OPS. The failed pipe has been sent to a metallurgical laboratory for further analysis, the agency said, adding that the probe was continuing. It noted that El Paso had failed to internally inspect the affected section of pipe.

The latest incident came almost a year to the day that an explosion erupted on El Paso's South Mainline in New Mexico, killing 12 members of an extended family (See NGI, Aug. 28, 2000). The blast involved Lines 1110, 1100 and 1103 on El Paso's South Mainline, and constrained transportation service to the Southwest and California gas markets for weeks and months afterward. The OPS is seeking a record fine of $2.52 million for several "probable violations" stemming from the fatal explosion, while the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation. El Paso is appealing the OPS decision (see NGI, June 25).

The corrective action order -- which was issued to El Paso Aug. 14, but not publicly disclosed by OPS until last week -- limited operation of the failed line segment to 50 psig for an indefinite period. "This restriction shall remain in place until written approval...is obtained from the regional director [of the] Southwest Region" for the OPS, the agency said.

It further directed El Paso to conduct a "detailed metallurgical analysis" of the pipe to determine the cause and contributing factors of the failure, and to submit the results to OPS. In addition, the OPS ordered El Paso to submit a written plan to verify the integrity of the line from the Williams Compressor Station to the Seligman Compressor Station.

El Paso "may request approval from the [Southwest] regional director to remove or modify the pressure restriction of the line segment...based on a showing that the hazard has been abated or that a higher pressure is justified based on an analysis showing that the pressure increase is safe considering all known defects, anomalies and operating parameters of the pipeline," the order said.

El Paso has the option to request a hearing to appeal the OPS decision.

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