The Department of Transportation (DOT) on Friday gave El Paso Natural Gas the go-ahead to re-start on a restricted basis the South Mainline line that ruptured and caused the fatal explosion in New Mexico nearly a year ago (see NGI, Sept. 4, 2000), interrupting supplies to the southwestern and California gas markets for weeks and months afterward.

The DOT said El Paso could immediately begin operating the 30-inch Line 1103, one of three parallel lines that make up its South Mainline system, at 80% of its rated capacity, while it conducts some internal safety inspections in order to return the line to full service. El Paso has restored the line to a near-80% level already, said El Paso spokesman Kim Wallace.

But this will not mean more capacity for shippers, Wallace noted, because the company will be taking the adjacent 30-inch Line 1110 out of service at the same time to make it more piggable and conduct some tests. The throughput of the South Mainline will stay at 920 MMcf/d.

“I don’t really know” when the South Mainline will return to the pre-explosion capacity level of 1.1 Bcf, Wallace said. Before this can happen, she noted the DOT’s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) first has to approve the entire section of Line 1103 — starting at the Pecos River Station and two miles upstream — that was affected by the explosion. The two-mile section has been out of service since last August.

The clearance to re-start line, albeit at a reduced level, comes almost 11 months after Line 1103 ruptured near Carlsbad, NM, last August, triggering an explosion that resulted in the worst pipeline disaster in U.S. history. Twelve members of an extended family were killed.

The DOT last month said it was seeking a fine of $2.52 million against El Paso for several “probable violations” that potentially contributed to the deadly explosion last year. It was said to be the “largest civil penalty” every sought against a pipeline for federal safety violations. El Paso said it plans to challenge the OPS findings (see NGI, June 25).

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