March 2019, Vol. 246, No. 3

Editor's Notebook

Unwanted Night Moves

Whenever the subject of internal corrosion in pipelines comes up, it rekindles some unpleasant memories from my extensive time as a pipeline company spokesperson. Being part of an emergency response team for over 12 years was rewarding in many ways, but there was always an uneasy feeling when the phone would ring in the middle of the night.

Being on-call 24-7 wasn’t ideal and those 2a.m. phone calls were rarely wrong numbers. On the contrary, they almost always reached the person intended. The majority of calls I received during that time were categorized as a Class I emergency, which was nothing more than “a heads up” notification that something had occurred at a specific location but was currently under control and probably wouldn’t receive any media attention.

There were others though that snapped me out of a sound sleep and stuck with me for the rest of my life. A Class II, or worst-case Class III emergency call, really got the heart-rate going and classification of the incident would determine procedural next steps that dictated how high up the chain of command it would go.  I worked a total of 15 years in the pipeline industry and during that time 15 people died from pipeline incidents at the companies I worked for.

The majority of those occurred from a natural gas pipeline rupture in Carlsbad, N.M.  In late summer of 2000, a 30-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline operated by El Paso Natural Gas Company ruptured near the Pecos River. Three family generations, 12 in all, had been camping on the east bank of the Pecos underneath a concrete-decked steel expansion bridge.  All were fatally injured. The expansion bridge supported several lines across the river. The National Transmission Safety Board (NTSB) determined the pipeline ruptured as a result of severe internal corrosion, which caused enough of a reduction of wall thickness that the remaining metal could no longer contain the pressure in the then 50-year-old pipe.

While 13 years of covering big city (Houston) news, helped prepare me for dealing with incidents like that; I still carry images from those catastrophic events.

Nearly 10 years later to the day, I received a phone call one evening from a national media outlet asking if it was my company that owned the pipeline that was burning in a residential neighborhood in California. It wasn’t, but the media, quick to listen to anyone with a voice initially, and incorrectly, identified the natural gas pipeline rupture as a plane crash.

In reality, an PG&E 30-inch natural gas line had ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., killing 8 people. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the accident was due to inadequate quality assurance and quality control, which allowed the installation of a substandard and poorly welded pipe section with a visible seam weld flaw that, over time grew and caused the pipeline to rupture. Incidents like these have fueled the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) movement, along with supporting the opposition to all other future pipeline projects.

Pipeline companies continue to pursue the elusive goal of zero-incidents.  It is encouraging to note that safety technologies and techniques continue to improve, and many have realized that there are advantages to spending money now to enhance pipeline safety rather than wait and spend following an incident.

Recently some pipeline organizations, including the Pipeline Safety Coalition, Pipeline Safety Trust, American Gas Association, American Public Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America wrote to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to express support for the Department of Transportation’s pending gas transmission pipeline safety rule.  

PHMSA’s rule will advance gas transmission pipeline safety by defining specific requirements to facilitate the use of 21st-century pipeline safety technologies and processes. The rule provides a foundation upon which PHMSA can better promote the utilization of modern pipeline inspection technologies, recognizing the safety, environmental, and consumer benefits that such technologies can provide.

The rule also sets out requirements for operators to test certain existing pipelines to ensure that they meet today’s safety standards. Pipelines will continue to be the safest form of transportation but like everything else, they get older every day. It is imperative that we continue to look for ways to protect and enhance the safety of pipelines.

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