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GAO: Pipeline response reforms needed

Read the report: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/watchdog/ CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The nation's pipeline operators and the regulators who police them could take steps to improve emergency response to incidents like the explosion last month of a NiSource natural gas transmission in Kanawha County, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said Wednesday.

GAO reviewers said that the U.S. Department of Transportation should improve the quality of data it collects about emergency incidents so it can better evaluate current response actions.

The GAO also found that the department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, needs to do more to share guidance to help pipeline operators make decisions about key emergency response technology.

"We have miles and miles of pipeline beneath our feet, and we in West Virginia were reminded last month that serious accidents can and do happen," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "Responding to an accident quickly and efficiently is absolutely essential to keeping the public safe. I'm eager to review all of the GAO's findings in the days ahead."

The GAO report, mandated by legislation modeled after a Rockefeller pipeline safety bill, comes on the heels of last month's huge explosion of a NiSource natural gas transmission line in Sissonville and just before a Monday Senate pipeline safety field hearing in Charleston.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said the Dec. 11 NiSource blast occurred on a 20-inch-diameter natural gas transmission line. Several people received minor injuries, several homes were destroyed and the ensuing fire engulfed and damaged a large section of Interstate 77 north of Charleston.

Emergency response has become an issue in the NTSB probe, because the pipeline that blew up was not equipped with automatic or remote shutoff valves, and it took NiSource nearly an hour to shut off the flow of gas that was fueling the fire.

In its 50-page report, the GAO acknowledged that automatic or remote shutoff valves allow operators to "respond quickly to isolate the affected pipeline segment and reduce the amount of product released."

But the GAO, after interviewing industry officials, also questioned whether automatic or remote shutoff equipment is always such a good idea.

"Automated valves can have disadvantages, including the potential for accidental closures-which can lead to loss of service to customers or even cause a rupture-and monetary costs," the GAO said. "Because the advantages and disadvantages of installing an automated valve are closely related to the specifics of the valve's location, it is appropriate to decide whether to install automated valves on a case-by-case basis."

Current federal regulations give pipeline operators discretion to decide if automatic or remote shutoff valves are needed, but the NTSB has warned companies have "little incentive to perform an objective risk analysis" on the issue.

Following a September 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif., the NTSB noted that the lack of automatic or remote shutoff valves increased "the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders."

NTSB officials recommended that PHMSA begin requiring automatic shutoff valves on pipelines located in "high consequence areas" where people, property or the environment could be seriously damaged by accidents.

Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said his agency stands by its recommendation.

In its report, the GAO also criticized the transportation department for telling pipeline operators to respond to emergencies in a "prompt and effective" manner, but not defining exactly what that means.

The GAO also said that PHMSA also needs to begin requiring pipeline operators to report more complete information on emergency response, such as the time an incident is discovered and the time company officials arrive on site to investigate.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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