CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was the biggest fire Kanawha County Fire Coordinator C.W. Sigman had ever seen. That Dec. 11 fire, which destroyed three Sissonville homes, damaged others and closed I-77 for about 18 hours for roadway-surface repairs, was triggered by a natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion.
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, immediately launched a team to investigate the rupture to learn what happened so we can make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.
Sissonville marks the 125th pipeline investigation since the NTSB was established in 1967. Since 2000, we completed 15 investigations into ruptures, leaks, line breaks, and explosions that claimed 29 lives, injured dozens more, destroyed and damaged scores of homes, and caused more than $1 billion in damages.
Pipeline safety is serious business, especially when you consider how pervasive the network of pipelines in this country -- some 2.5 million miles of pipelines. That's enough to circle the earth 100 times.
While our investigation into the cause of the Sissonville rupture is still underway, what especially concerns us in our investigations is that we see the same safety issues over and over again. These include corroded pipe, problems with pipeline operators' risk management programs, inadequate recognition of control system problems and slow emergency response by operators. We also see weaknesses in safety oversight when federal and state officials are stretched thin. Further, they need regulations with teeth and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a rupture, explosion or spill, not just after.
This is why the NTSB placed "Enhance Pipeline Safety" on its 2013 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements and it is why we welcome Sen. Jay Rockefeller's hearing in Charleston on Jan. 28 to examine the state of the nation's pipeline infrastructure in the wake of the Sissonville explosion. This examination is timely and necessary.
Hersman is chairwoman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.