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GAO: Room for improvement in pipeline incident response

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A new report out from the Government Accountability Office finds that the government can possibly do better on responding to pipeline incidents, such as the December Sissonville explosion, but needs better data.

The report's two recommendations are for the Department of Transportation to improve its incident response data and then to use that data to implement frameworks for timely response to pipeline emergencies and to share guidance and information with pipeline operators.

"The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials  Safety Administration (PHMSA) has an opportunity to improve the ability of pipeline operators to respond to incidents by developing a performance-based  approach for incident response times," the report states. "The ability of transmission pipeline operators to respond to incidents — such as leaks and ruptures — is affected by numerous variables, some of which are under operators' control."

More than 2.5 million miles of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines are in the U.S., including more than 400,000 miles of transmission pipelines.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is hosting a pipeline safety hearing in Charleston next week. He said he is eager to review the contents of the report.

"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," Rockefeller said. "Responding to an accident quickly and efficiently is absolutely essential to keeping the public safe."

Transmission lines are generally considered the safest mode of transporting natural gas and hazardous liquids. An average of 14 deaths were reported annually from pipeline incidents between 2007 to 2011. In 2010, nearly 3,700 fatalities resulted from incidents involving large trucks; another 730 fatalities were linked to railroad incidents.

It took NiSource, the company that owned the pipeline that exploded Dec. 11 in Sissonville, more than an hour to shut off its 20-inch line following the blast. The company said the pipeline lacked automatic shut-off valves and had to be shut down manually.

Installing such safety measures is one of the technologies the GAO report recommends for operators to better respond to incidents. The GAO said operators must first improve the data it collects on response times before the Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration can move forward on evaluating response time and developing performance measures and targets for operators.

Automatic shut-off valves, however, also can create new problems. Aside from accidental closures that can disrupt service to pipeline customers, the valves can malfunction and rupture the pipeline.

"Because 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," the report states. "Several operators we spoke with have developed approaches to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of installing automated valves."

The cost of installing automatic valves, the GAO reported, ranged from $35,000 to $500,000

While operators are developing strategies for where to place automated valves, the GAO said PHMSA is not formally collecting this data and sharing it with other operators. Where guidance is available from PHMSA, the GAO report found that many operators were unaware of it.

"These data are not reliable both because operators are not required to fill out certain time-related fields in the reporting form and because operators told us they interpret these data fields in different ways," the report states.

Another factor in pipeline incident response highlighted by the GAO was a company's relationship with local emergency responders. In a recent meeting, the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department praised the relationship between first responders and NiSource, even adding that things could have been much worse under another operator.

Had it been another pipeline company, "we could have had different outcomes," said Tom Miller, training coordinator with Sissonville's fire department, in a meeting earlier this month.

One uncontrollable factor — listed alongside weather, type of rupture and other issues — was other companies owning adjacent lines. According to Miller, this was a problem for responders in the Sissonville incident because initially it wasn't clear who owned the pipeline. The pipeline that explodes was located near lines owned by other companies.

Incident response times catalogued by the GAO ranged from 1 minute to seven days.

The GAO conducted the study as a requirement of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011. The Department of Transportation agreed with the GAO's recommendations.