Gas pipeline oversight draws criticism

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Springs Utilities workers Brad Stiles (left) and Paul Newkirk replace a gas line in the Woodmen Valley neighborhood. New plastic pipelines are used to stave off corrosion. There are 2,366 miles of gas lines beneath the streets of Colorado Springs.

Springs Utilities workers Brad Stiles (left) and Paul Newkirk replace a gas line in the Woodmen Valley neighborhood. New plastic pipelines are used to stave off corrosion. There are 2,366 miles of gas lines beneath the streets of Colorado Springs.

The state Public Utilities Commission, responsible for regulating the type of gas pipeline that exploded in California last month, has received 126 reports of probable pipeline safety violations in the past decade.

In response, it has initiated 63 “compliance actions,” only one of which has resulted in fines against a pipeline operator, according to a review by the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

The amount of the fine: $5,000.

Critics think regulatory bodies like the PUC have done a poor job of overseeing the industry.

Underground pipelines are characterized as the safest and most economical way to transport natural gas and petroleum liquids. But these critics say weak oversight of pipelines in Colorado and elsewhere has contributed to hundreds of episodes that have killed more than 60 people in the last five years alone.

Corrosion, operator errors and malfunctioning equipment are all to blame for many of these episodes.

PUC spokeswoman Barbara Fernandez declined to comment. “We’ll let the data speak for itself.”

Colorado isn’t alone in rarely issuing fines. Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, New Jersey and Missouri have similar records, according to published reports.

Testifying last week before Congress, Rick Kessler of the Pipeline Safety Trust called for stricter regulation and more industry transparency.

“The question isn’t whether pipelines are a safe mode of transportation compared to other ways to move fuel,” Kessler said. “The real question is whether they are as safe as they could and should be and the secondary question is whether they are being regulated in the most efficient, effective and protective manner they could or should be.

“Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no.”

Still under investigation, the Sept. 9 pipeline explosion that killed seven people in a residential area of San Bruno, Calif., was an example of what can happen. But it has raised questions about the age and safety of the 2 million miles of pipeline across the country.

Many experts agree that the life expectancy of steel pipe is approximately 50 years. Of the 296,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines in service nationally, 109,000 miles were installed before 1959. Another 71,000 miles of steel pipeline was installed between 1959 and 1969.

One of the pipelines under the Colorado PUC’s jurisdiction is a 30-inch transmission line that carries natural gas at a pressure of 375 pounds per square inch and runs along the eastern boundary of Colorado Springs. The pipeline — which is the same size as the pipeline that exploded in California — is operated by El Paso Natural Gas, which is based in Colorado Springs, and supplies gas to Colorado Springs Utilities.

CSU, in turn, delivers the gas to its customers via 2,366 miles of distribution lines buried beneath city streets.

The PUC regulates these distribution lines. A federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, regulates and oversees transmission lines.

The PHMSA, however, does little more than issue guidelines to operators, relying upon state agencies such as the PUC to enforce rules and detect violations. While the PHMSA says it is satisfied with the job states are doing, its approach has drawn fire from the General Accounting Office, which has suggested pipeline safety enforcement “needs further strengthening.” The Obama administration is trying to do just that.

Critics say the age of pipelines may affect their safety, but neither the PUC nor the PHMSA have developed replacement timelines.

Instead, state regulators and pipeline operators claim that age should not be a factor in evaluating pipeline safety.

“Our staff does not review or approve (pipeline) replacement programs,” Fernandez said. “That’s the business of the utility or the pipeline operator.”

“There is no defined lifespan of pipe,” said El Paso Natural Gas spokesman Richard Wheatley.

He declined to reveal the age of the pipeline that serves Colorado Springs.

“Age is not a factor (in replacing pipe),” he said. “It’s based on the technical quality of pipe. We’ve never had any accident at El Paso where age was the defining factor. Safety is a core value at El Paso.”

That may be, but one of the worst pipeline accidents in recent history occurred in one of their lines that was 50 years old.

In August of 2000, a 30-inch line operated by El Paso ruptured at the point where the line crossed the Pecos River near Carlsbad, N.M. The gas ignited. Twelve people camping nearby were killed in the ensuing firestorm, which burned for nearly an hour. An investigation into the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that internal corrosion had led to the line’s catastrophic failure.

In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board cited both El Paso’s failure to “detect, prevent or control” corrosion in the line and “ineffective federal pre-accident inspections.” The pipeline had been installed in 1950.

More recently, the Department of Transportation levied a $2.3 million fine against El Paso in connection with a 2006 fatal pipeline explosion in Wyoming. It was the largest civil penalty ever assessed against a pipeline company.

The exact location of El Paso’s Colorado Springs transmission line is not available. That’s because the federal government, seeking to protect the nation from terrorist attacks after 9/11, required pipeline companies to remove such information from public documents. The approximate location, however, can be found on the PHMSA website.

Colorado Springs Utilities draws gas from the El Paso line at five different locations and feeds it into the distribution system at substantially lower pressure.

“The distribution lines run at no more than 150 psi,” said CSU gas operations supervisor Steve Romero, “and it’s stepped down even more by the time it gets to your meter.”

Lower pressures mean that catastrophic failures are rare, said John Erickson of the American Public Gas Association.

“You’ll usually get pinhole leaks, not ruptures,” he said. “The big danger is from third-party tear-ups, when someone with a backhoe punctures the line.”

While CSU’s distribution lines do not pose the same risks as transmission lines, the system nevertheless requires constant attention, maintenance and upgrades. Corroded or defective pipe must be identified and replaced, leaks detected rapidly, and the integrity of tens of thousands of residential and commercial customer connections verified.

Romero noted that there has not been a serious accident or fire attributable to system defects or poor maintenance practices for more than 20 years.

He also said it doesn’t make sense to replace “perfectly good pipe” regardless of age.

All of CSU’s cast-iron pipe has been replaced, though some steel pipe remains that dates to the late 1800s. Most aging pipe is downtown and on the Westside.