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Keeping Gas Pipelines Safe

December 22, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

How many bombs are waiting to go off in West Virginia and Ohio? Is enough being done to, in effect, defuse them?

The answer to the first question is that no one really seems to know. And, of course, the answer to the second question is no.

A 20-inch gas pipeline that exploded earlier this month near Sissonville, W.Va., had deteriorated severely to just 30 percent of the thickness required to handle the gas pressure, federal investigators found.

And after the line broke, sending a blowtorch of flame across all four lanes of Interstate 77, gas company workers had to be notified of the accident. Then, they had to shut off gas to the line manually.

Five houses were destroyed by the fire and a few others were damaged, as was the highway. Luckily, no serious injuries were reported.

Both our states, as well as many others, are crisscrossed by natural gas pipelines. New ones are being built constantly.

But it is not the new lines that are of concern. It is the old ones that are a worry.

Some of those lines are decades old. Not infrequently, they fail. Both West Virginians and Ohioans have experienced major pipeline blasts and fires during the past several years.

Officials of the Columbia Gas subsidiary that operates the line near Sissonville admit "something went terribly wrong." They have pledged to take steps to avoid similar accidents in the future.

National Transportation Safety Board officials say some gas pipeline safety regulations are in place but have yet to be implemented fully. They add that some safety proposals still have not been finalized.

Among rules already approved by Congress are some requiring automatic shutoff valves for major gas lines and others on monitoring the condition of pipe used in them. Neither of those steps had been taken at the line near Sissonville.

How many other pipelines have deteriorated to the danger point? Again, no one really knows.

Clearly, the gas industry needs to be doing more to monitor its transmission lines and replace those that are not in safe condition. Just as obviously, regulatory agencies should be paying more attention to the problem. The next major accident could be worse.

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