Why pipeline safety is one of Pennsylvania’s next big energy challenges

On the morning of April 29, a natural gas transmission line exploded in a field in Salem Township in Western Pennsylvania. The blast was so powerful it ripped a 12-foot crater into the landscape, burned a section of the field with a quarter-mile radius and threw a 25-foot section of the 30-inch steel pipeline 100 feet away. At the time of the explosion, a 26-year-old man was in his house, a few hundred feet away. He was badly burned, and his home destroyed.

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When local fire chief Bob Rosatti arrived at the scene, the flames were so hot, he had to stay in his truck.

“They were massive—I would say 300 feet at the least,” Rosatti says. “That was the biggest fireball I’d ever seen in my life. Thank god it was in a rural area. It could have been a lot worse if it had been in a more populous area.”

Investigators think external corrosion on the pipe is to blame for the blast. But they are still poring over a decade’s worth of pipe inspection reports to determine exactly what caused it.

The explosion comes as the federal government is undertaking a new effort to make gas transmission pipelines safer. It has become an even more urgent issue now that the country is building more pipelines, especially in the Northeast. The fracking boom in the Marcellus and Utica shales is a big reason for that. The Department of Energy predicts Pennsylvania and Ohio will nearly double their natural gas production by 2030.

These natural gas transmission lines carry gas at high pressure across long distances. Currently, there are 300,000 miles of these lines in the U.S. And many residents who live in the path of these new pipelines are asking if they should be worried about accidents like the one in Salem Township.

“They need to find a safe way to move gas,” says Lisa Segina, a Salem Township resident who leases her land for $20 a year to a company that stores gas under her property. “I understand we need it, we need energy. But there are safe ways to do it.”

Segina says what upsets her the most is how long it took for the company to shut off the gas in the pipeline after the explosion.

“It was active for almost 55 minutes before they were able to shut it down, because someone had to drive 15 miles to shut this valve off,” she says.

Officials from Spectra Energy, the company operating the pipeline, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an email, company spokesman Creighton Welch says the industry standard is to shut off pipelines within an hour of any incident. He says the company also performed all federally mandated inspections—including an in-line inspection (ILI) in 2012, which tests the strength of the pipe from the inside. According to Welch, that inspection “revealed no areas requiring repair or remediation before the next inspection.”

Overall, pipelines have steadily gotten safer over the past few decades—though more than 300 serious pipeline incidents have resulted in 132 deaths in the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Suburban Pittsburgh resident Rob Brown is among those who are uncomfortable with his home’s proximity to a pipeline. Brown lives in Murraysville, where Dominion Transmission wants to put a large natural gas pipeline through his property, about 200 feet from his back door. When Brown first heard about the pipeline, he thought about moving. News of the explosion jolted him—and raised the alarm for people in his suburban neighborhood.

“Something like that happens to a neighbor, the word spreads,” Brown says. “It’s not safe. There’s a definitely a risk.”

But Frank Mack, a spokesperson for Dominion Transmission, says that—by the numbers—moving natural gas via pipeline is the safest form of energy transportation in the U.S.—far safer than transporting other fuels by rail or truck. He says the company uses various methods, including aerial and ground inspections, to keep its pipelines safe.

Earlier this year, the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety proposed new rules that add more protections for areas like Brown’s Murraysville neighborhood. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed the rules in response to a 2010 explosion in San Bruno, California that killed eight people. A draft of the new rule noted that “the nation’s existing, and in many cases, aging, pipeline system is facing the full brunt of this dramatic increase in natural gas supply and the shifting energy needs of the country.”

As the rules are currently written, pipelines in densely populated areas undergo the most stringent safety inspections. But the agency is proposing to extend some of these protections to suburban and less-populated areas. PHMSA also wants to add more pressure testing for older lines. A separate rule could mandate increased use of automatic shutoff valves, which would have stopped the Salem Township fire sooner.

Earlier this year, the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety proposed new rules that add more protections for areas like Brown’s Murraysville neighborhood. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed the rules in response to a 2010 explosion in San Bruno, California that killed eight people. A draft of the new rule noted that “the nation’s existing, and in many cases, aging, pipeline system is facing the full brunt of this dramatic increase in natural gas supply and the shifting energy needs of the country.”

As the rules are currently written, pipelines in densely populated areas undergo the most stringent safety inspections. But the agency is proposing to extend some of these protections to suburban and less-populated areas. PHMSA also wants to add more pressure testing for older lines. A separate rule could mandate increased use of automatic shutoff valves, which would have stopped the Salem Township fire sooner.

This story is part of The Allegheny Front's series Follow the Pipeline, which explores the health and environmental impacts of the region's expanding natural gas infrastructure. Data visualizations by Dave Mistich, West Virginia Public Broadcasting.