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.
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. Between 2004 and 2013, the natural gas industry spent 56 billion on new oil and gas pipelines nationwide, according to the Department of Energy.
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 Murrysville, where Dominion Transmission wants to put a 30-inch diameter natural gas pipeline through his property, along an existing right-of-way, about 200 feet from his back door. When Brown, a radiologist, first heard about the pipeline, he thought about moving, but thought against it. “Its’ not that easy to move and resettle,” he says.
News of the explosion jolted him. He says he keeps thinking about James Baker, the man injured in the Salem Township explosion.
“I feel terrible for (him), I think his life is going to be very painful,” he says. Brown said he’d seen burn victims from his time in medical school and knows how serious the injuries can be. “It’s the kind of thing that will stay with me the rest of my life.”
He says the explosion 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 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. Given that the area is “pretty heavily populated,” Mack says using an existing right-of-way would have the least impact on the environment and surrounding communities.
Earlier this year, the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety proposed new rules that add more protections for areas like Brown’s Murrysville 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.
PHMSA did not respond to interview requests for this story. But Stacey Gerard, the former safety chief at the agency, says the rate at which the regulators can tighten safety rules for pipelines is slow. She says any new rule must pass a cost-benefit analysis. If the projected costs of imposing the rule outweigh the benefits, the government can’t pass it—even if those benefits include avoiding property damage, injuries and deaths.
For example, a rule that saves a human life must yield a benefit of $9.4 million—an amount determined by a federal government metric known as the “value of a statistical life.” Gerard says that hampers the ability of the agency to impose safety regulations.
“The societal benefit of people being able to sleep at night is hard to quantify,” Gerard says. “We’re not going to get all the improvements we’d like. There are actions the agency would like to make that, if they can’t come out with a positive [cost-benefit] analysis, it won’t make it into the rule.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that most pipelines were built in places that once were rural but are now seeing increased development. Today, more than 12,000 schools in the U.S. are within 1,000 feet of a major natural gas transmission line.
Gerard says decisions about where to site pipelines are often made at the local level, which makes the job of federal safety officers even harder.
“You have the challenge of getting the energy to the people who need it. And for the foreseeable future, we’re a fossil fuel-oriented economy,” she says. “For at least the next 20 years, we have to figure out how to do this safely.”