US pipeline inspections reveal many trouble spots

Jun 16, 2004 02:00 AM

The US's 160,000 miles of aging pipelines that carry gasoline and other hazardous liquids may be in worse condition than expected, a Senate committee was told.
With just 16 % of those pipelines examined so far under a new inspection program, more than 20,000 potential problems -- 1,200 of which required immediate repair -- already have been uncovered, the US Department of Transportation's inspector general reported.

Critics of the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, which has long been depicted as inadequate and ineffective in policing the nation's pipelines, told the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that the agency has been shaping up under a 2002 law, including increasing the number of civil penalties it has imposed against the industry for violations.
But that was overshadowed by the revelations that the agency's job may be much bigger than anyone envisioned. The potential for problems was illustrated less than a year ago, when Kinder Morgan's pipeline from Tucson to Phoenix burst, spewing gasoline on Tucson homes and disrupting the main supply of gas to Phoenix.

"The one element of testimony here that's extremely disturbing, or should be a red flag, is the number of inspections that reveal a number of serious failings, or possible failings, of pipelines in the relatively small number that have been inspected," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., committee chairman.
"The good news is (the inspection program is) working. The bad news is we're finding out we had more problems than we thought we had," McCain said.
"The technology is showing that there are significant repairs needed," agreed Samuel Bonasso, deputy administrator of the Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration, which includes the Office of Pipeline Safety.

The 2002 law, spurred in part by the death of two boys and an 18-year-old man after a 1999 pipeline explosion and rupture in Bellingham, Washington, required the pipeline safety agency, state inspectors, and members of the pipeline industry to regularly examine most pipelines for problems and correct them. Pipeline operators are required to develop policies and procedures, known as integrity-management plans, to identify which pipeline segments could affect populated or environmentally sensitive areas in the event of a failure.
"The pipeline rupture that occurred in Arizona in July 2003 is indicative of the aging US infrastructure and is the reason federal and state governments need to conduct coordinated, aggressive inspections to reduce the risk of another pipeline rupture and attendant environmental and economic damage," Arizona Corporation Commissioner Marc Spitzer said in testimony to the committee.

The new program will not be fully implemented for another eight years, and most pipelines still need to be inspected. Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the Transportation Department, told the committee that the inspections that have been completed so far have identified potential problems for the operators of the gasoline and other hazardous-liquid pipelines, "and there was clearly a need for such inspections."
As of April 30, inspections had been completed on about 25,000 miles of the 160,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines run by big operators. In all, more than 20,000 problems were identified. More than 1,200 of those required immediate repair, some showing signs of imminent rupture or breaks; 760 required repairs within 60 days; and 2,400 required repairs within 180 days. About 16,300 of the needed repairs were deemed not time-sensitive.

One of the most serious threats discovered was a case of corrosion in which more than 80 % of the pipeline's wall thickness had been lost. That has since been repaired.
"These threats may not have been discovered during the operators' routine inspections," according to the report Mead gave to McCain's committee.
Details of where the pipelines are located were not made available. However, the Office of Pipeline Safety required the earliest inspections to occur in areas in or near residential communities and business districts, where the highest risk of fatalities, injuries and property damage could occur from a pipeline incident.

About 135,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines remain to be inspected, along with more than 326,000 miles of natural-gas pipelines. Mead said he was concerned about the exemption from key parts of the 2002 law that Congress has given to another 1.8 mm miles of distribution lines that take gas from pipelines and move the fuel to homes and businesses.
Mead said one reason given for why natural-gas pipelines, which represent 85 % of all the pipelines in the United States, were exempted from integrity-management program requirements was that they cannot be examined using a mechanical device called a "smart pig." He said he considered the exemption a "safety gap."

Source: Republic Washington Bureau
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