CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials plan to meet today with Columbia Gas Transmission representatives about their effort to send high-pressure gas through pipelines near the one that exploded last week.
Doing so could involve partially closing Interstate 77 or Kanawha 21 (Sissonville Drive) for some period of time -- but the state Department of Transportation opposes this idea, which Columbia has floated.
Columbia is a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource.
Last week, one of its 20-inch diameter transmission lines ruptured and filled the sky with fire, scorched the earth and ruined a segment of I-77. Miraculously, nobody was injured or killed.
The company owns two other nearby pipelines: A 30-inch line and 26-inch line are both within 200 feet of the exploded pipe, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating last week's incident.
The lines help supply demand to customers near Washington.
The 26-inch line, known as SM-86, was back in service the night of the explosion, state Public Service Commission spokeswoman Susan Small said.
Columbia has now developed a plan to return the 30-inch line known as the "SM-86 loop" to service early this week, Small said Sunday.
To do so, Columbia has floated the idea of rerouting traffic near Sissonville while it returns the flow of high-pressure gas to the line. The state Department of Transportation is not a fan of the idea.
"We would prefer that they not shut down the road, either of them, 77 or 21," DOT spokesman Brent Walker said Sunday.
The department was widely praised for its unprecedented overnight repair of an 800-foot section of highway scorched in the blast. The department was able to do that even though its crews had to clear the area for several hours Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning while Columbia began flowing gas back through the 26-inch line.
A Columbia spokeswoman returned an email seeking comment but said only that "our team is committed to fully cooperating with federal, state and local officials."
Is it safe?
County officials want Columbia's full explanation of the safety of its other area pipelines.
"I think everyone still needs to know what's going on and get some clear information that it's safe," Kanawha County Commission President Carper said.
The pipe that exploded last week had thinned in places to about a third of the size it ought to have been and showed signs of external corrosion, the NTSB said.
In an email Friday night to NiSource representatives, Kanawha County fire coordinator C.W. Sigman wanted to know what the company had done to make sure the other pipes had not also corroded.
Sigman said the company told him it ran two "smart pigs" through both of the non-ruptured lines in 2008. These metal pigs -- which look like a piston but can also vaguely resemble a metal jellyfish -- travel through a pipeline to check the pipe for irregularities, including cracks and corrosion.
It is unclear if the pipe that ruptured could handle a pig, which can only maneuver through certain kinds of pipelines.
About 75 percent of Columbia's roughly 12,000 miles of national pipeline cannot accommodate smart pigs, according to a federal regulatory filing by the company. Most of the company's pipes were built before the creation of federal pipeline regulations.
It is unclear if the ruptured line had also been "pigged" -- or if it even could accommodate a smart pig.
"They told me they had done smart pigs in 2008 on those other two lines; they did not mention about the 20-inch line (that ruptured)," Sigman said. "I don't know."
NiSource Vice President Jimmy Staton told Kanawha County legislators last week that the ruptured pipe near Sissonville was laid in the 1990s -- a relatively young line for the company.
But NTSB member Robert Sumwalt cautioned last week that in past accident investigations, companies had given out incorrect information about pipes.
The NTSB is investigating Columbia's response. It took the company just over an hour to shut off the flow of gas to the exploding line.
The NTSB has already determined the company had to do this manually.
If the company had a working automatic shutoff system or a system that allowed it to shut off a pipe remotely, it could have stopped the flow of gas instantaneously, if not very, very quickly, the NTSB has said.
Gas companies use automatic or remote shutoff valves on most new pipelines but argue replacing all old, manual valves would not be cost-effective and false alarms would unnecessarily shut down fuel supplies, according to Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
The NTSB is also investigating other elements of the company's reaction time. Namely, no alarms sounded in Columbia's Charleston control room, despite the inferno that was raging 15 miles away in Sissonville, according to the NTSB.
And Columbia's control room operator had to learn about the Sissonville explosion from a person at another gas company, according to the NTSB. That happened about 10 minutes after the explosion, according to the NTSB.
It may be that few of these things are unusual, according to a federal report on transmission line incidents by Ohio-based Kiefner and Associates, Inc.
The draft report suggests Columbia's no-alarm, had-to-be-told-by-somebody-else, hour-long reaction are not unusual.
Kiefner and Associates reviewed data on natural gas transmission line incidents from January 2010 to July 2012 and found:
* A company's control room identifies the release of gas only about a sixth of the time. The control room is supposed to be the brains of a sophisticated pipeline operation. But, most of the time, company air patrols, ground crews, contractors, members of public or emergency responders identify leaks first.
* Companies took more than an hour to respond to 61 of the 101 transmission line incidents studied.
Carl Weimer, head of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said those were "eye-opening" findings. The Bellingham, Wash.-based group is devoted to improving pipeline safety.
"For the most part, unless it is a complete rupture, leak detection systems don't detect much, at least in the control room," Weimer said. "It's somebody living out along the pipeline that usually sees the problem."
Weimer said external corrosion -- like the kind the NTSB said afflicted the exploded pipe near Sissonville -- has several causes.
Usually, pipes have some type of protective coating, but some older pipes have what is essentially a tar-based wrap coating that can fail.
Newer pipes have a different kind of coating.
Some pipes also have what's known as "cathodic protection." That's a small electrical current that runs constantly along a pipe and helps prevent the escape of steel atoms that can gradually thin a pipe.
It is unclear what, if any, corrosion protection the exploded pipe near Sissonville had, though a company spokesman said last week it was a "coated steel" pipe.