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Sissonville Fire reviews bumps in pipeline explosion response

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State and federal pipeline and emergency officials repeatedly said there was something fortunate in a recent West Virginia pipeline explosion – it's a good thing it happened in Sissonville.

Members of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, emergency officials and others have nothing against Sissonville. Quite the opposite, officials said factors in place in Sissonville and Kanawha County allowed for a quick, smooth response to the incident.

The Dec. 11 incident in Sissonville produced no fatalities or injuries, but the explosion destroyed a large section of highway and several residential homes. Revelations regarding the condition of the pipe has led many in the area to question the safety of the state's aging pipeline infrastructure and to wonder if another explosion is in the state's future.

In a presentation to the state and federal pipeline officials, Thomas Miller, a training officer at the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, described what worked and what didn't work following the explosion.

"We did not have a formal response plan to address every type of pipeline explosion," Miller said. "I don't think there's any fire department out there that does."

Even so, Miller continued, coordination with other groups post-explosion went very smoothly. From traffic and scene control to resource management, Miller said, everything went very well.

Another thing local emergency officials said that aided their response was that it was NiSource that owned the pipeline. Had it been another pipeline company, "we could have had different outcomes," Miller said.

"I'm going to very honest with you – we have other pipeline operators in our area that we have no communication with," Miller said. "We reached out to them and we don't get anything back."

Tim Butters, deputy administrator of PHMSA, said companies should be communicating with local emergency officials and his agency could help in getting companies communicating.

"If there are operators that keep you up at night because you're not sure what's going to happen if a pipeline explodes in their system," Butters said, "we need to do something about that."

Miller said responders initially thought the pipeline did belong to one of those operators and they were concerned that they had little or no prior communication with that company.

"Any one of us could have been stuck dealing with an incident with no technical support, no logistical support and cleaning up a community," Miller said. "We just can't allow that to happen."

He said both Cabot Oil and Gas and NiSource, the two main pipeline operators in the region are actively communicating with emergency responders.

"NiSource has been very open with us … there's never been anything we asked for that we have not gotten from NiSource," Miller said. "That's not been a problem. Even before this incident, NiSource was helping with training."

Most of the issues reviewed in the meeting, Miller said, "did not significantly impact response, but could have done better."

For example, he said proper documentation of the event was initially slow, despite resources being available to document the emergency in a timely fashion. He said much of this was due to responders being preoccupied with the actual response to the incident.

Miller said there was also some initial disconnect between state and local resources that was resolved early. Cellular and land line communication was knocked out, and some traffic communication and dissemination of inaccurate information to the public were other problems encountered.

Another problem, he said, was a lack of a system for identifying those who needed to be at the scene and who didn't. Without a standardized form of identification, he said, some people were able to enter the scene by claiming to be with agencies they were not affiliated with.

Due to its proximity to Charleston, many of the local and state officials were familiar with one another, which was also a factor in smooth response.

"I hate to say this, but we're not strangers to large-scale events," Miller said.

The department has responded to three national disaster-declared floods since 1998, June's derecho storm event, another pipeline explosion in 2002 and the loss of its main fire station in October 2010.

With natural gas development expanding in the Marcellus region, more pipelines are coming as well. A large network of aging pipelines are also still in use.