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NTSB chairwoman: 'Work to do' on pipeline safety

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Increasing the safety of the nation's vast network of pipelines will be the focus at a hearing in Charleston today following the nearby explosion of a gas line in Sissonville.

The meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is being brought to Charleston by its chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.  Prior to the hearing, the State Journal spoke with Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board after arrival in Charleston Sunday night.

Hersman is one of several witness invited to testify about pipeline safety before the committee.

She said she will be providing the committee with updates on NTSB's investigation of the Sissonville incident as well as larger efforts to promote pipeline safety. The explosion in Sissonville did not produce any injuries or fatalities, but destroyed homes near the line as flames tore through a large swath of land near the initial explosion.

The NTSB has already made public some of their findings, including the conclusion that much of what corrosion of the underground pipeline in Sissonville had thinned the walls to dangerous levels. The pipeline, and many like it in the state, was built prior to 1970's pipeline safety legislation, and is exempt from many modern regulations.

"Much of the information will be similar to what was released on scene and the on-scene media briefings and also recently in the last couple weeks, the preliminary report that was published," Hersman said. "We're not expecting a lot of new information released, but we probably will be flushing out some of the timelines."

While much of the responsibility of the pipeline will likely fall on the company, many have questioned regulators as to their role in preventing such incidents.  Hersman said Sissonville is a reminder of the importance of pipeline safety, an issue that is frequently out of sight – and therefore out of mind.

Hersman said that incidents like Sissonville are reminders that "it is important we begin to case a wider net when looking at safety." The corrosion that went undetected in the Sissonvile line might have been caught if it had been the type of line that accepts devices for in-line inspection.

"By and large, pipelines are very safe, but what Sissonville demonstrates for us is there is still more work to do," Hersman said.

Also speaking at today's hearing: Cynthia Quarterman, administrator, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; Susan Fleming, director, physical infrastructure issues,United States Government Accountability Office; Jimmy Staton, executive vice president and group CEO, NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage; Rick Kessler, president of the board, The Pipeline Safety Trust and Sue Bonham, a resident of Sissonville whose home was damaged in the Sissonville blast.

The State Journal will continue with more coverage of the hearing this afternoon.