PHMSA Pressured to Turn on Pipeline Valves Rulemaking

March 2013, Vol. 240, No. 3

Stephen Barlas

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.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asked Quarterman if he should be worried about the “if feasible” qualification in the 2012 law. By that he meant whether PHMSA might decide valves are infeasible. Quarterman answered, “Industry is committed to this going forward.” But she quickly added, “New pipelines are the easy part. Existing pipelines are much more difficult.”

PHMSA commissioned a study on the utility and costs of ASVs-RCVs from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That 344-page study was transmitted to Congress Dec. 27, 2012. Quarterman said PHMSA anticipates progressing with a rulemaking related to ASV and RCV installation and use on hazardous liquid and gas transmission pipelines in 2013.

“Automatic shut-off valves are often recommended to minimize valve shut-off times after a leak is detected. However, they may lead to unintended valve closures because of an inaccurate leak determination,” she said.

The 2011 Pipeline Safety Act only required PHMSA to submit a report to Congress on leak detection systems used by operators of hazardous liquid pipeline facilities and transportation-related flow lines. That study was completed and sent to Congress. Quarterman said a rulemaking is also under consideration in this area.

Kessler said the PHMSA leak detection report shows that for all leaks on natural gas transmission pipelines less than 16% are initially identified by current leak detection systems. Even for the larger major releases that should be more easily identified with such systems less than 50% of these failures are initially identified by current systems.

He explained, “What this means is that someone other than the pipeline controller, such as local residents or emergency response personnel, or field employees with the pipeline company, are the ones that initially identify the pipeline failure, and precious time is lost as this failure identification is then relayed to the control room.”

Hersman noted that SCADA systems are chiefly responsible for moving gas around within a pipeline system. They are not leak detection sensitive. She compared current SCADA systems, which she described as 50-year-old technology, as the equivalent of using a map when one is driving as opposed to using a GPS off a cellphone.

PHMSA Posts Record Enforcement Numbers In 2012

In its push to ensure the nation’s pipeline companies continue to enhance the safety of their systems by investing in necessary improvements, PHMSA announced another record year in the number of enforcement actions it has taken against pipeline operators. 

PHMSA said it issued 116 enforcement orders to pipeline operators in 2012, its second-highest year, for problems with integrity management programs, qualified personnel, corrosion control, and a number of other possible regulatory violations identified during routine inspections and failure investigations.

“When President Obama signed the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act into law, it strengthened the Department’s ability to help promote a safer, more reliable, and capable pipeline transportation network,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Through education, preparation, and enforcement, we can all help prevent pipeline accidents.”

PHMSA issues enforcement orders to ensure pipeline operators address safety-related issues involving their systems or components, in addition to pinpointing violations of federal pipeline safety regulations.  As a result of its enforcement efforts, PHMSA issued a record $8,748,200 in proposed fines in 2012, including its highest ever civil penalty case in response to a crude oil pipeline failure in Marshall, MI.

“These enforcement numbers are a direct result of improved internal tracking procedures and rigorous investigations and inspections of pipeline facilities by PHMSA field personnel,” said PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman. 

PHMSA’s number of enforcement orders issued in 2012 is four shy of its record in 2011 of 120. Since 2008, PHMSA proposed more than $32 million in civil penalties and issued 509 enforcement orders to pipeline operators, constituting more than 52% of all orders issued by the agency since 2002. 

The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 doubled the maximum civil penalty amount PHMSA can issue to pipeline operators for violating pipeline safety regulations from $100,000 to $200,000 for each violation, and from $1 million to $2 million for a related series of violations. The Act also authorizes PHMSA to increase its federal pipeline inspector workforce.

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