Kanawha County officials wary of safety of pipelines
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The president of the Kanawha County Commission and the county fire coordinator are worried about Columbia Gas Transmission's plan to restart a natural gas pipeline that exploded earlier this month near Sissonville.
"We escaped the other day, we don't want to push our luck," said county fire coordinator C.W. Sigman.
Sigman and Commission President Kent Carper plan to call for strong safety measures by Columbia's parent company, Indiana-based NiSource, and the regulators who oversee pipelines, the state Public Service Commission.
On Dec. 11, one of Columbia's 20-inch diameter transmission lines ruptured and filled the sky with fire, scorched the earth and nearby homes and ruined a segment of I-77. Miraculously, no serious injuries were reported.
Carper and Sigman worry the company has other dangerous pipes still in the ground.
Late last week, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, said the company could plan to restart the 26.2-mile segment of pipe.
But first Columbia has to take a number of steps, including making repairs and inspecting critical valves.
Once the company is ready to restart the segment, it can send only 70 percent as much pressurized gas through the pipe as it did before the explosion.
Once the pipeline, known as SM-80, has gas going back through it to the eastern gas market, federal regulators want the company to take long-term steps to ensure the segment is safe.
Among other things, the company has a month to run a "smart pig" through the pipe segment, which starts near Cross Lanes and runs northeastward. These metal pigs - which look like a piston but can also vaguely resemble a metal jellyfish - travel through a pipeline to check for irregularities, including cracks and corrosion.
It is unclear how long or how expensive the process will be. A Columbia spokeswoman did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.
But, Sigman is concerned about other pipes.
That's because federal regulators say the SM-80 system dates to the early 1950s and the piece of pipe that exploded dates to 1967, which is before the enactment of modern federal pipe safety regulations.
A top NiSource executive told state lawmakers behind closed doors that the pipe was from the 1990s. Pipelines are a bit like old cars: there can be old parts and new parts on the same line.
While some of the SM-80 pipes in the ground are that new, federal regulators said last week the one that blew up was not. In fact, nationally Columbia has more miles of aging transmission lines than any other gas company, according to a federal regulatory filing from earlier this year.
The pipe that exploded had corroded and thinned to 70 percent of its original thickness, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the explosion.
"How do we know that there's other areas that's not that thin?" Sigman said. "We don't know."
Carper, who has called for stronger safety measures in response to previous area emergencies, said he wants to make sure the pipeline is safe now and in the future.
"We know it exploded - they (Columbia) say 'rupture' - I say, 'Blew up and exploded,' and the place looks like a deserted town thanks to that," Carper said. "It was just a miracle people weren't killed.
"Are they going to test the whole line or just a little bit of it and how do we know it's safe?"
Columbia has already restarted two pipes within 200 feet of this month's explosion. Officials believe neither was damaged in the blast.