Even as natural gas service will be restored by the end of the month to the thousands affected by September’s gas explosions in Massachusetts, safeguards to prevent similar explosions nationwide won’t be coming as quickly.
At a Nov. 26 Congressional field hearing near the Sept. 13 disaster, witnesses called for changes to federal laws, while the federal agency responsible for pipeline safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), said the accident was not caused by lack of regulations but by inadequate quality control on behalf of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, which had hired a contractor to install a new plastic distribution main.
“Pipeline operators are only as good as their worst contractor,” said Paul Roberti, chief counsel of PHMSA, in his written testimony. Roberti added the explosion might have been prevented if Columbia Gas had not abandoned a safety measure requiring a field technician to be on site during depressurization of main lines. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board, the accident occurred when an old cast-iron main was disconnected and pressure dropped in the section with the regulator-sensing lines, causing the regulator to widen and overpressurize the system. A subsequent explosion resulted in the death of one man and injuries to several others.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who called the hearing, however, said responsibility for the safety failure goes beyond Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource. “Federal regulations set by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are alarmingly deficient,” he said, calling for a complete overhaul of the administration.
It’s not the first time that PHMSA has been criticized for its lack of action. A 2016 report by the Dept. of Transportation’s Inspector General found PHMSA has failed to implement 20 of the 81 directives required by Congress, including eight pipeline safety regulations, that were put in place after the 2010 San Bruno, Calif., pipeline explosion. NTSB officials, among others, have voiced concern over the lack of progress as the number of deaths from oil and gas pipeline incidents reached 20 in 2017.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety, told Bloomberg that the oil and gas industry has worked to slow the regulations. Bloomberg found that NiSource was one of the companies that has such rules.
Experts testifying at the hearing recommended tightening safety regulations to prevent similar natural gas pipeline disasters. Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, summarized his agency’s Nov. 15 recommendations: revise the engineering and constructibility review process and require a professional engineer’s approval before construction; ensure that all natural gas system records are complete; incorporate risk assessments into project development; and actively monitor gas systems while modifications are being made.
Sumwalt said the board plans to launch a long-term investigation to study organizational culture and prior practices of Columbia Gas, including how senior management operates and communicates with the front line.
Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, at the hearing recommended adding prescriptive requirements for management-of-change regulation to include clear wording in federal pipeline minimum safety regulation, made Nov. 15.
Kuprewicz also recommended Congress to require computerized leak-mapping to help evaluate the risk of leaks on gas distribution systems.
Chuck Hookham, Arbor Consultants president and a representative of the American Society of Civil Engineers, reviewed the recommendations and said they would have a positive impact on gas distribution safety and operation overall. However, he indicated that most utility owners already use a management of change process and sharing and using best practices would be far more beneficial than prescriptive minimums.
Meanwhile, with 95% of the 8,000 gas meters relit as of Dec. 5, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts appears to be on track to meet its self-imposed deadline to restore natural gas service to the areas impacted by the explosions.
By Pam Radtke Russell and Johanna Knapschaefer with Justin Rice