CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Workers at NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage had to manually shut off the flow of gas to the pipeline that ruptured, exploded and launched a wall of fire Tuesday over the Sissonville area, investigators from the National Transportation Board have found.
Safety advocates have long argued for mandated installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves on such pipelines, but that requirement is still not on the books - and remains years away under a much-touted new law signed by President Obama in January.
During a U.S. Senate committee hearing in October 2011, former congressional staffer Rick Kessler, testifying on behalf of the Pipeline Safety Trust, recalled lawmakers debating - and then not acting on -- an automatic shutoff device requirement nearly two decades earlier.
"How is it that we shut off our televisions, close our garage doors, and lock our cars by remote control, but somehow we still find it acceptable to shut off a large pipeline spewing fire into a populated neighborhood by finding someone with a key to a locked valve and have that person drive to the valve to shut it off manually?" Kessler told a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
So far this week, NiSource officials have refused to answer questions about the shutoff equipment on the pipeline, or about their response to the explosion.
In a website update posted Wednesday, the company said that "working in close coordination with local emergency responders," company teams "had isolated the damaged portion of the line, secured the site and began assessing damages."
Several hours after Tuesday's explosion, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin praised NiSource's safety systems and the company's quick response in shutting down the gas-flow to the fire.
"The safety measures that are in place, the cutoffs, they worked fine, so immediately after, the pipes, the shutoffs, went into closed mode and the gas shut off," Tomblin told reporters early Tuesday evening.
But later Tuesday night, NTSB investigators said that it took company officials more than an hour to isolate the section of transmission pipeline where the blast occurred, and begin to stem the flow of fuel to the huge fire that erupted over I-77 and nearby homes.
The flow was manually shut off on the west at the Lanham compressor station and at another location east of the explosion site, said C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County's deputy emergency manager and fire coordinator.
"There were no remote-controlled valves or automatic shutoff valves for this line," Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said Thursday.
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the explosion occurred at 12:41 p.m., and that isolation valves upstream and downstream from the ruptured section of pipeline were activated manually at about 1:45 p.m.
"Part of our investigation will be looking to see if this pipeline was shut down in a reasonable and prudent fashion," Sumwalt said.
Following a September 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif., the NTSB harshly criticized the emergency response efforts of the pipeline operator, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.