The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board told a congressional field hearing Monday the aging line that ruptured and exploded in Sissonville in December wasn’t the only antiquated piece of the gas transmission system.
Deborah Hersman told U.S. Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, and those gathered at the federal courthouse in Charleston, the entire gas transmission system is running on 50-year-old technology.
“These systems that have been set up to operate these pipelines are really operational systems, they are not leak-detection systems,” Hersman testified. “These systems are not sophisticated. These are older systems based on operations.”
Hersman cited three incidents in which the NTSB noticed a critical lack of timely information reaching pipeline operators: A gas leak and explosion at San Bruno, Calif., which resulted in one death, a pipeline rupture in Inbridge, Mich., which caused a catastrophic petroleum leak, and the Sissonville incident.
“What we see is a lack of recognition the pipeline leaked,” Hersman said. “In two of these events it’s been outside sources calling in and saying, ‘You have a rupture. You have a leak.’”
Hersman says the Sissonville explosion had the potential to be incredibly tragic and could have gone on for hours if it hadn’t happened at a time when four field technicians from Columbia Gas were on site at the Lanham pump station to shut off the valves to the line. She said because of the aging technology it was impossible for operators at the Columbia control room to know which of the three lines in the Sissonville area was ruptured and forced the shutdown of all three.
A subsequent NTSB investigation revealed the pipeline which ruptured and exploded was installed in the 1960s and the walls of the pipe had deteriorated to a dangerously thin level. She says in addition to improved leak detection, the system needs automatic shutoff valves which can be operated remotely or automatically in the event of a pressure drop.
“The future is really to improve the technology and to understand what is going on — whether it’s the controllers getting better information or having these automatic valves,” ” Hersman said. “We know people have trouble shutting these valves down.”
Controllers needed 90-minutes to close off the ruptured line in California which resulted in a loss of life. Gas company workers were stuck in traffic trying to get to the valve location. The Michigan petroleum leak went on for 17 hours with crude oil spilling onto the ground and three shifts of controllers came and went before detection was made.
“In an area like West Virginia, this situation could have been very different if it had been in the middle of the night, during rush hour, or if there were people on I-77,” Hersman testified. “You happened to have four people in the compressor station at Lanham. They actually could shut the valves down. It took them an hour to do it, but they could actually shut the valves down, they didn’t have to come from somewhere else to do it.”
NiSource Executive Vice President Jimmy Staton told the panel the improvement process is underway.
“It is our plan as we learn more and finalize our analysis of bringing the line SM80 back in service, we will consider putting automatic and remote control valves in place,” he said.
Staton also testified NiSource is presently involved in a $5 billion system-wide upgrade of its transmission system. The plan also includes system wide installation of modern control valves.