PHMSA Pressured to Turn on Pipeline Valves Rulemaking

By Stephen Barlas | March 2013, Vol. 240, No. 3

A Columbia Gas & Transmission Corp. pipeline leak in West Virginia in December has reignited the debate over installation of automatic shutoff valves (ASVs) and remote control valves (RCVs) as a means of quickly limiting the potentially disastrous effects of a pipeline explosion and subsequent fire. The fire in Sissonville destroyed three homes and closed a section of a major highway for 14 hours.

Columbia was slow to pick up on the gas leak. The controller on duty at the time received 16 pressure drop alerts having to do with three separate intertwined pipelines monitored by the company Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. But no critical alarms sounded. The control room only found out about the leak after receiving notification from another pipeline company, Cabot, which called to say one of its field technicians was seeing a "huge boom and flames shooting over the interstate." Columbia finally closed two manual shut-off valves at two separate compression stations 58 minutes after the explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not issued a report on the cause of the accident. The 20-inch pipeline that cracked was installed in 1967 and pressure tested twice that year. Line SM-80 has never been pigged. But Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB, told a Senate committee hearing in Charleston, WV Jan. 28 that Columbia's delayed realization of a leak echoed similar delayed reactions of other pipeline companies in past disastrous leaks in Michigan, California and elsewhere.

Her comments took on extra potential significance because she has been mentioned as the leading candidate to be nominated by President Obama as the next Secretary of Transportation. The department is home to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which issues and enforces federal pipeline safety rules.

At the hearings, Rick Kessler, president of the board, The Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group, severely criticized successive administrations prior to Presidents Obama and Bush for neglecting PHMSA. "It is not as effective a regulatory agency as it should be," he stated.

A case in point, he said, is the agency's failure to require pipelines to install ASVs or RCVs on new pipelines, and some existing pipelines, where, in the latter case, that makes sense. Kessler said industry concerns about installing valves on existing pipelines were "starting to ring a bit hollow." He added that the U.S. is able to conduct a war against terrorism using remotely controlled drones. "But we can't operate pipeline shut-off valves by remote control?" he asked rhetorically.

PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman told the hearing the agency was considering new rules on both gas transmission pipeline leak detection and ASV and RCV installation. In fact, PHMSA issued separate advance notices of proposed rulemakings (ANPRs) in 2010 and 2011 for hazardous liquid and gas transmission use of ASVs and RCVs. The agency has not yet moved forward in either case. The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 includes a requirement that PHMSA issue regulations requiring the use of automatic or remote-control shut-off valves on new transmission pipelines, if feasible.