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How Safe? Officials Concerned About Potential Danger of Aging Pipelines

By Geraldine Sealey

Aug. 21  As federal investigators probe the charred aftermath of a massive and deadly natural gas explosion in New Mexico, attention turns once again to the precarious safety of the nations aging pipelines.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Hammerschmidt said a probe into what caused the 30-inch diameter pipe to explode would likely take months. Well be looking for any areas of human error that might have occurred or even organizational error, he said. Saturdays pre-dawn pipeline blast on the Pecos River scorched the riverbanks, burning tents where two families were camping. Eleven people were killed, including five children. Officials said the natural gas pipeline burst and showered burning fuel on the victims. The heat of the explosion was so intense that sand melted into glass and concrete turned to powder, a federal investigator said.

The pipeline belonged to El Paso Natural Gas Company, which pumps gas from New Mexico and surrounding states to markets throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico. Company officials said foul play did not appear to be a cause of the explosion. Accidents on the Rise The pipeline involved in Saturdays blast was installed around 1950 and was last checked Aug. 2, officials said. The explosion is just the latest tragedy involving the nations 1.7 million miles of aging underground pipelines carrying natural gas and hazardous liquid materials. The Saturday morning explosion of the 30-inch pipeline was visible about 20 miles to the north in Carlsbad, N.M. ( Magellan Geographix) Fifty-year old pipelines are not uncommon, and some even date back to the turn of the 20th century, making them more vulnerable to corrosion. According to a recent General Accounting Office report, an average of 22 people died annually from 1988 to 1998 in pipeline accidents. The overall number of pipeline accidents involving natural gas and other hazardous materials increased 4 percent per year during that time, the agency reported.

The GAO report also said the federal agency responsible for enforcing pipeline safety was falling behind in its duties. The Office of Pipeline Safety has not enforced 22 of 49 safety regulations passed by Congress since 1988, including periodic pipeline inspections, the GAO reported. Further, the federal government was imposing fewer fines on the pipeline industry, relying instead on letters of concern as an enforcement tool. The NTSB has been a vocal supporter of stiffer pipeline regulations. After a natural gas explosion six years ago in Edison, N.J., which killed no one but destroyed eight apartment buildings and drove 1,500 people from their homes, many called for pipeline reforms. After a similar blast in Bellingham, Wash., killed three last year, NTSB Chairman James Hall bemoaned the lack of reform. We think improvements can be made in pipeline safety in general, Hammerschmidt said.

Congress Considers Reforms The leading cause of pipeline explosions is excavation damage, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. While many underground pipelines are marked, they can be ruptured during construction projects such as utility pole installations. Damage may not be immediately apparent, and it may take years before a ruptured pipeline explodes. Corrosion is also a common problem, Holloway said, as well as the infrequency of pipeline inspections.

Congress is now considering NTSB-backed reforms. The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act would require more frequent inspections and give states more control over their own pipeline regulations. The bipartisan-backed bill requires pipeline companies to train workers to operate their facilities properly and periodically check their pipes for defects. It also increases fines for violators from $25,000 to $500,000 and allows the federal transportation secretary to suspend the operation of any pipeline company found operating below safety standards.

Industry officials have argued new regulations would increase industry fees and create a web of costly, confusing rules.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 21, 2000

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